Location: Skagit Bay, Stanwood
Land Agency: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Roundtrip: 3.6 miles
Elevation Gain: None
Access: From Exit 212 on I-5 head west on SR 532 for five miles to the town of Stanwood. Turn right onto the Pioneer Highway and proceed for 2.6 miles to the junction with the Old Pacific Highway. Turn left crossing railroad tracks and immediately come to a junction with a gravel road veering right. Follow the heavily-pot-holed road for 0.6 mile to large parking area and trailhead.
Notes: Discover Pass required; dogs must be leashed; area is open to hunting from October through January.
Contact: Skagit Wildlife Area
Hike along an old channel built decades ago to keep reclaimed croplands on the Skagit River Delta from being inundated by tidewaters. Forming a demarcation line between productive farmlands and wildlife-rich tidal flats, the Big Ditch is “entrenched” with scenic beauty and birdlife. The Big Ditch lies within the 13,000-acre Skagit Bay Estuary Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area and is open to the public. It is one of the best places in Snohomish and Skagit Counties for bird watching. Its level terrain makes it kid-friendly and inviting to hikers of all abilities. Unfortunately maintenance has been lacking and the way may be a little overgrown in spots–so wear adequate clothing,
Start your hike off by setting out north on a dike separating tilled flats from tide flats. The expansive saturated mudflats to your left and north are protected within the Skagit Wildlife Area. During the winter months, thousands of snow geese and trumpeter and tundra swans seek refuge here. Their white downy bodies resemble patches of snow against the stark winter landscape of brown reeds and grasses. Snowy owls frequently winter here too.
Continue hiking north along the elevated walkway admiring a landscape that could be right out of the Deep South. In one mile pass a row of shanty hunting cabins perched on pilings along a river channel that appear to be straight out of a Louisiana bayou. But lift your eyes upwards to snowy Mount Baker hovering in the distance above the flats to confirm that this is indeed the Pacific Northwest.
The trail continues beyond the hunter hovels to hug the South Fork of the Skagit. About 1.8 miles from the trailhead reach the Snohomish-Skagit County Line and the turning around point for this hike. Beyond, the dike is privately owned and not open to public use. Retrace your steps back to the parking area. Don’t forget to have your binoculars and a good field guide at hand. However, you shouldn’t have any difficulties identifying the swans and geese gathering on the surrounding grounds.
For information on lodging and other attractions near Big Ditch visit www.snohomish.org.For more information on other great hikes within the Skagit Valley, including at nearby Fir Island, consult my soon to be released Urban Trails Bellingham (Mountaineers Books). You can preorder a copy right now for a great discount!