New England in autumn has "leaf peeping." Western Washington in spring has, uh, flower flirting.
We have a love affair with tulips, farmed by the hundreds of thousands in the Skagit River Valley between Mount Vernon and La Conner. When fields bloom, usually from late March to late April, zephyr-rippled seas of red, yellow and pink draw throngs of camera-toting tourists. Their migration spawned the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, running the entire month of April.
But this broad valley created by one of the West's great rivers is also a prime destination for cyclists and other fresh-air devotees. My recommendation: Play hooky, find a sunny spring weekday when tourist traffic is low, throw bikes on your rack or boots in the trunk and go get your fill of flowers.
Other Skagit spring scenery ranges from magnificent raptors to splendid views of snow-smothered Mount Baker. Some suggestions for your day:
Half-day bike ride
For a fun cycling trip along flat, two-lane roads, start from La Conner and loop through the valley past at least half a dozen tulip fields. Most are farmed by family-owned Washington Bulb Co. (aka RoozenGaarde), the nation's largest tulip-bulb grower, which also ships more than 70 million cut flowers across the United States each year.
La Conner has a public parking lot at South Third and Moore streets, behind Town Hall. Go early and try the Calico Cupboard Cafe for a hearty breakfast, or carbo-load on cinnamon rolls (traditional, apple, raspberry, caramel nut, or -- cue the Pavlovian saliva -- maple bacon). It's at 720 First St., calicocupboardcafe.com.
To plan your route, pick up a Skagit Valley Tulip Festival brochure (with map) at La Conner's Visitor Information Center, 511 Morris St., or download it online at tulipfestival.org/brochure. Tip: Quietest roads on the flower routes are Calhoun, Beaver Marsh, Bradshaw and Young roads. To find fields with color, check the bloom map at tulips.com/bloommap.
Suggestion: Head out of town eastward to Chilberg Road. Follow as it jigs and jogs to connect with Calhoun Road. Continue to Beaver Marsh Road, go north (left), and, if you like, stop at RoozenGaarde demonstration garden (look for the windmill at 15867 Beaver Marsh Road; open year-round, $7 admission during spring bloom).
Continue north to McLean Road and go west (left) to the next major crossroads, Bradshaw Road, then north to another demonstration garden, Tulip Town, 15002 Bradshaw Road (open March 31 through tulip season, also $7).
At peak season, you can see plenty of field flowers without paying to visit the gardens, though the gardens assure some blooms and Tulip Town offers a "trolley" ride into a tulip field ($1-$2), whereas venturing into fields is mostly prohibited elsewhere.
Return to La Conner by a route of your choice — consult the bloom map — for a round trip in the range of 14-15 miles.
A longer ride
Extend your two-wheel adventure with a little up-and-down exercise along the way: Continue north to the tiny yesteryear burg of Edison, home of galleries, fringe-culture dining, and what's, for my money, North America's best bakery, Breadfarm.
From La Conner-Whitney Road, cross Highway 20 to Bayview Edison Road and just keep going until you intersect with (and continue a short distance farther north on) Farm to Market Road, which has North America's best road name and is also a good return route.
Along the way watch for bald eagles in treetops (you might need three hands to count them) and, in wet farm fields, great blue herons stalking voles. Also a possibility: late-lingering trumpeter swans and snow geese, which winter in the valley.
Plan on about 30 miles round-trip, plus tulip detours. Avoid disappointment: Note that Breadfarm and some other Edison businesses accept cash or checks only.
Whether by bike or car, if you've seen the tulips and still need to stretch your legs, consider these pleasant walks:
Kukutali Preserve, an out-of-the-way bit of delight jointly managed by the Swinomish Tribe and Washington State Parks. It includes Kiket Island, connected to mainland (Fidalgo Island, actually) by a strip of land just wide enough for a gravel drive, limited to hikers these days. You'll find old-growth trees, plus driftwood-strewn beaches with up-close views of Hope and Skagit islands, Similk Bay and, from the far point (2.2 miles round-trip), the inland side of Deception Pass Bridge.
From Highway 20 on the way to Anacortes, turn south at the signal for Reservation Road. In 1.5 miles, bear right on Snee Oosh Road (a runner-up for good road names). At 3 miles, watch for the small parking lot on the right; Discover Pass required.
Padilla Bay Shore Trail is a 2 1/4 -mile dike-top path for pedestrians and cyclists that explores what is considered the most diverse, least-disturbed and most biologically productive of all major estuaries feeding the Puget Sound basin -- despite the proximity of Anacortes oil refineries. Padilla and nearby Samish Bay support one of the largest known wintering populations of peregrine falcons in North America.
From Highway 20, go north on Bayview Edison Road 0.8-mile to a trailhead. (Another trailhead is at 11404 Bayview Edison Road.)
Follow your explorations with a stop at the nearby Breazeale Interpretive Center of the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, whose research spotlights the shallow bay's 8,000+-acre eelgrass meadow, the second largest on North America's Pacific Coast. It's treasured as a nursery for juvenile salmon, crab and herring (10441 Bayview Edison Road; free).
Raise a glass
End up back in La Conner, where there are plenty of choices for lunch or an après-tulip snack, with a chance to raise a glass to the floriculture gods.
La Conner Brewing Co. (117 S. First St., laconnerbrewery.com), is one of my favorite spots (ahh, the garlic rosemary potato wedges), with its own tonsil-pleasing brews. Or head for La Conner Pub & Eatery (formerly La Conner Tavern, which fit it better) if you prefer to look out at boats passing on Swinomish Channel (702 First St., laconnertavern.com).
And, of course, toast your obsession, your awe, your once-a-year love affair with flower farming.