How to pick Huckleberries in the Pacific Northwest

So if you want to go on a huckleberry adventure, I have written a basic guide for people wanting to pick berries in the Pacific Northwest. Here we go…

When and Where:

The berries are ripe somewhere between late August and late September based on the year. Ask your local gardener if this was a late year or an early year for all plants. That should give you a good indication of what is happening with the berries. You will need find your own patch. Click here for the Washington Trails Association’s hints to what to look for and a short list of hikes with huckleberries on them.

All good huckleberry patches are on clear cuts about 10 years old between 4000 and 6000 feet of elevation. Forest service roads are good ones to be on (since they were built to make clear cuts). Driving to these locations can be a little sketchy, since you are on dirt roads. Many times the road will have a washboard from water and be very difficult to drive on. I recommend a four wheel drive to get to the right elevation in this area.

Get Ready To Go Out:

There are no marked paths to the best patches. You are making your own way, sometimes around and over plants such as hemlock trees, bear grass and many other local plants. Most of the time, the brush is about chest level-  sometimes higher, sometimes lower. You can’t always see your footing, which can make for some hairy situations… like when you don’t know that you are actually standing on a stump and you take a step forward and drop 3 feet. DO NOT wear shorts and sandals. Your feet and legs will be thrashed. I also recommend wearing the most stable shoes that you have. If you have sturdy hiking shoes, wear those. If you just have tennis shoes, I recommend wearing some thick and high socks to protect your ankles. If there has been any rain whatsoever in the past day, expect to get soaked. The plants will still have water on them and that will be transferred to your clothing.

What to bring

  • A hands free container – See Below
  • A larger container to fill up as the smaller container gets full. A 5 gallon bucket a good standby.
  • Long pants – no matter how warm it is. You will need the protection from the brush.
  • Sturdy shoes and thick socks
  • Non-Deet bug spray. There is nothing like a fly that won’t leave you alone that can ruin sitting in a patch of huge huckleberries on a beautiful day. If you use deet, expect to eat it later in your berries.
  • Hat – sunglasses make seeing the berries harder, so a hat is a good way to keep the sun out of your eyes.
  • Sunscreen – last time I went, I brought it but didn’t use it. I now have a farmers burn/tan.
  • Water – by the gallon. You will want to wash off your hands when you are done and you will need a lot of water to get this done efficiently. It is also good for drinking.
  • Toilet paper, just in case…
  • Gallon freezer bags – to help store the berries after you are done. This will also help you estimate how much you have picked.
  • Multiple layers of tops – you never know if it is going to be sweltering hot in the sun or cold from the clouds and the breeze. It is also a good idea to bring something in case of rain.
  • Food – lunch and snacks for the way down.
  • And finally, a sense of adventure and a desire to get some yummy berries.

Mountain huckleberry. Notice the crown that looks like a blueberry.

Identifying the Berries:

There are actually over 5 berries commonly named Huckleberries.  It is also important to distinguish between Mountain Huckleberries and Red Huckleberries. Red Huckleberries are the type that you will see in low level forests and in backyards. These are an entirely different species of plant and taste very different.

So you get up to the mountain and you see a bunch of different looking berries and you ask, How do I know if it is a huckleberry??? How do I know it isn’t poisonous? Well, the easiest way to know for sure is to look for the little crown on the top that you see on a blueberry. That is unique to all vacciniums (the blueberry family) and means that it is edible.

From my experience, most Mountain Huckleberries in the Washington mountains fall into three basic categories: blue, black with a reddish hue to them and then just plain black.

Three Types of Huckleberries

Typically, my least favorite kind are the blue ones. They taste more like blueberries and are more bland. Having said that, I always suggest tasting the berries to see which ones you like. This year after passing up many patches of blue ones, I decided to taste one and it was fantastic. I stopped walking right past them.

Hands-Free Huckleberry Picking

Strategies: My mom and I have different berry picking styles. I am the explorer… I won’t stop at a patch unless it has amazing berries, which means I spend a lot of time wandering around passing up perfectly fine berries in search of the PERFECT berry patch. Sometimes this pays off. Because once you are in a patch of perfect berry bushes, you bucket gets full of huge beautiful yummy berries fast. My mom on the other hand has a hard time walking by a berry without picking it. This makes for much less wandering around and much more berry picking time. You never know who is going to win the “who got the most berries” contest at the end. This year, my method paid off. I got more berries and they were beautiful.

Also, I highly recommend creating a container that can be hands-free. Quart sized yogurt containers with a long string to go around your neck would work. Or buying a small bucket and attaching it to your belt loop with a carabiner would also work. Or you can harvest your own cedar bark and make a Native American cedar bark basket and weave your own cedar bark rope like my mom:

Cedar bark basket with huckleberries

Can you say “overachiever”?

Moving on. This will allow both hands to be free. This not only allows for dual picking abilities, but I mostly use the second hand to stabilize the huckleberry bush and maneuver it so that I can see all of the berries. It also makes easier to stand in one spot and just pull the berry bushes towards you.

Also, we do live in black bear country. They love to eat huckleberries, so it is entirely possible to run into a bear while picking berries. The best strategy to avoid this is to keep making noise. My mom and I will clap every once in a while to let each other know where we are and to make some noise for the bears. The bears want to see you about as much as you want to see them. If you do run into a black bear, make yourself look really big and yell at it to go away. They will generally run away.

Now you are fully prepared to go pick some huckleberries. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

 

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