It’s hard to visit the Bozeman, Big Sky or Yellowstone regions of Montana during the summer without encountering a huckleberry product. These small blueberry-like fruits are commonly consumed as ingredients in treats like jam, syrup and ice cream. Of course, there isn’t anything wrong with a Wilcoxson’s huckleberry milkshake or a short stack of huckleberry pancakes at a local cafe, but ask any Montanan and they’ll tell you that the best way to eat a huckleberry is in the wild; right off the bush that you just found. Foraging for huckleberries is an inexpensive, inclusive activity that the whole family can enjoy. Beyond a can of bear spray and hard-sided storage container, the only thing you’ll need for a successful berry picking day is a sweet tooth and a little bit of know-how.
The first step to successfully finding and harvesting huckleberries is learning how to identify them, and how to tell if they’re ripe for picking. The type of huckleberry most commonly found in Montana’s mountain ranges is known as the globe huckleberry, which is also the most sought after species of this regional delicacy, due to its size and exceptional sweetness.
In this region, most huckleberry bushes stand at about knee-height, but the most productive patches can contain bushes that are over four feet tall. Ripe globe huckleberries are dark purple in color, ranging from pea-to-marble in size. If you happen across a patch of small, red huckleberries, leave them be for a week or two, as they’ll still be too tough and tart for consumption.
When: Starting as early as June 1st, many local berry hunters are successful without even traveling into the alpine. Early fruit-producing plants in the Gallatin Valley can be found at elevations as low as 5,000 feet on sunny, south-facing hillsides. These are a literal example of low-hanging fruit, and early-season pickers typically experience boom-or-bust conditions, depending on seasonal conditions and how frequently-trafficked their berry beat is.
As the summer progresses, berry picking becomes more productive as the sun’s rays begin to penetrate dense forest canopies on aspects that are otherwise shaded during the rest of the year. As a result, huckleberry bushes begin bearing fruit at elevations as high 7,500’, creating widespread optimal berry picking conditions.
Where: With dozens of trailheads providing access to thousands of acres of huckleberry habitat, the Gallatin Canyon serves as an epicenter for huckleberry hounds. These trailheads start at elevations between 5,000’ and 6,000’, which means that during a good year, huckleberries can be found right in the parking lot. Huckleberry patches are plentiful on the Gallatin Canyon’s hillsides throughout the summer, but the most fruitful examples are typically found in areas that have exceptional light penetration. These landscapes include old burns, lodgepole pine forests, riverbeds, hiking trails and avalanche paths, which conveniently describes the Gallatin Canyon’s terrain in a nutshell. Try kicking off your huckleberry quest at the Storm Castle, Lava Lake or Portal Creek trail head, and keep your eyes peeled. Though frequently passed, huckleberry patches can easily go unnoticed to the untrained eye of the hikers who frequent these areas, leaving them ripe for your picking pleasure.