A bald eagle rises from a tangle of bushes and blackberries. Controlled as a hovercraft, it inches upward. A smaller bird floats underneath. Then another. Soon, four eagles stack the sky like totem carvings as parents drill their fledglings on wing control.
Western Washington, which has one of the largest bald eagle concentrations in the contiguous U.S., and Skagit Valley, with its salmon-packed estuaries and streams, attracts the national bird in droves. From mid-December to late January, drivers often count 100 bald eagles just along Highway 20, although float trips on the Skagit River remain the favorite way to sneak a peek. The Skagit River Bald Eagle Awareness Team provides free talks and guided walks at Rockport’s Howard Miller Steelhead Park.
That’s just the start of the valley’s attractions, which include its tulip festival each April, when approximately 300 acres of flowers flood the county with Warhol-esque color. An hour north of Seattle and 40 minutes south of the Peace Arch crossing at the Canadian border, Skagit entices travelers year-round, and not just because they can ski and sea-kayak in the same day.
Behind the scarlet barns, strawberry fields and wintering trumpeter swans lies a sophisticated foodie scene. Swing by Samish Bay Cheese’s tasting room to sample nettle gouda, savor a crisp, local Samish Bay Pacific oyster or don an apron at Mount Vernon’s Forte Chocolates during a class. See how all the flavors pull together at the late-July Bite of Skagit festival, then walk off the calories in the waterfront village of La Conner, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Pose for pictures on the landmark Rainbow Bridge, a red swoosh over Swinomish Channel.
The real Skagit may not contain Captain Kendrick’s Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve, but with tulips underfoot, artisanal delicacies on the plate and eagles wheeling overhead, the valley needs no additional draw.