(Originally published in 2018) One of the most iconic local settings for a family photo is the tulip fields of Skagit County. And like any salmon-eating, coffee-sipping, true parent of the Pacific Northwest, I have coveted not only a visit to the tulips, but a glorious family photo to document the happy occasion.
When my oldest son was a baby some five years ago, I worked weekends to my husband’s regular work week. Family time, particularly family photo time, was hard to come by, especially when it needed to coincide with the tulips’ two-week bloom window. But last April, we loaded the kids into the car for the 70-minute drive up I-5 to Mount Vernon.
And what a sight! There are acres upon acres of tulips. The fields just begged to be photographed. The long, graphic rows of plants and bright colors guarantee a fabulous backdrop for pictures. While the Tulip Festival officially takes place in the month of April, the bloom can come earlier. Colder weather means a later tulip season. Rain, interestingly enough, has little to do with tulip-bloom timing.
A photographer-mom’s Tulip Festival photo tips
PHOTO: JIAYING GRYGIEL
1. If you can, visit on a weekday morning. Otherwise, the background of your photo will be crowded with other people. This is a very popular outing.
2. Your best bet weather-wise is a cloudy day. The sky acts like a giant soft box, throwing even light over everything. When we drove up, the forecast called for showers, which turned into a bright, sunny day. Great, right? But bright sunlight can create e harsh shadows. If it’s sunny, try having your subjects stand with their backs to the sun. You can get some pretty rim light that way, and your kids won’t be squinting in all the pictures.
3. Make sure your kids are rested and fed. Kids don’t have poker faces. They radiate joy when they’re happy, and are terrible photo subjects when they’re tired, hungry and cranky. Keep it fun!
4. Dress your kids in bright colors. The bright tulips need bright subjects. Bring a complete change of clothes for each kid. Jumping in mud puddles is lots of fun and makes for exciting pictures, but it can be messy and cold.
5. Visitors aren’t supposed to walk down the rows between the flowers. We kind of fudged that and stood at the ends of rows, so it looked like we were among the tulips. Keep in mind this is a working farm, and those tulips are someone’s crops.
6. Try to get a variety of pictures. A wide picture showing the layers of colors in the fields, a close-up of some beautiful flowers, and a great moment of your kids having fun.
7. Cellphone or camera? The biggest, fanciest camera in the world isn’t any good if it’s not with you. But most people are attached to their phones like a fifth appendage. You can’t fiddle as much with the settings, but iPhones (and all other modern smartphones) take photos with large file sizes. You can get really nice, high-quality colors at high resolution out of a device that fits in your pocket.
8. If you have a digital SLR, bring a long lens (like an 80-200mm) so you can compress those scenic layers of colors. I shot most of these pictures at f/2.8, ISO 200, and pushed the shutter speed up to 4000 as the sun came out. Did that sound like gibberish to you? Forget all that. Your camera phone is perfectly good for capturing happy kids with beautiful flowers. If you have great subjects, you’ll have a great picture.
9. Separation of church and state, or juice box and camera equipment. Bring along Sherpa spouse; don’t put in the same bag.
10. A photo release is required if you’re using your photographs commercially.
11. No picking flowers! The kids will want to pick flowers, so alert them ahead of time that at this special garden, there is absolutely no flower picking.
12. No pets and no drones!
Mount Vernon’s two main nurseries are RoozenGaarde and Tulip Town. We’d heard good things about both, but only RoozenGaarde allows picnicking. Pack a picnic or hit the concessions stand for some of their burgers, veggie burgers, hot dogs, popcorn, cookies and coffee drinks. Diners can eat at a tented area with tables. Our kids love to eat, so RoozenGaarde it was.
At the entrance, you walk straight into a five-acre display garden with more than a quarter-million bulbs. RoozenGaarde is a family-owned company, started by William Roozen, who emigrated from Holland in 1947. We loved looking at all the fancy varieties with frilled edges and layered petals. We picked up a free nursery catalog (one for each kid) as an easy souvenir. The biggest attraction, for us, was walking through the spectacular rainbow of tulips in the adjacent fields.
RoozenGaarde’s crowd control was impressive: Flaggers directed cars in the parking lot, a crossing guard mans the street, and another staff member points visitors to the least-muddy path in the fields.
Visiting the Skagit Valley tulip fields is so worth the drive — and far cheaper than going to Holland. This year, we’ll be back to try Tulip Town.
See also “Five Tips for Tulip Trips“
If you go, 2021: