Here are five road trips for autumn color, with tips on food stops, roadside attractions and where to stop and walk.
On October weekends when the sky turns watery blue, nights get frosty and leaves suddenly blush like a 12-year-old in health class, nothing beats a road trip to see autumn colors.
Washington is so chock-full of scenery of all kinds, and meandering highways to see it from, there’s no shortage of choices.
But what suits your eye? Big-leaf maples and saltwater scenery? Splashy vine maples and soaring mountains? The flaming red of huckleberry, pale gold of larch or the stunning orange of aspen? Here are five routes where you can find each.
The big question: When’s color at its peak? That’s up to Mother Nature. But we offer help for each route: a tip on who to call for a color check before you hit the highway.
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Hood Canal loop
Autumn color to look for: Big-leaf maples along Highway 101.
Time and distance: Day trip. 124 miles, plus two cross-Sound ferry rides from Seattle’s Colman Dock.
The route: Bremerton to Bainbridge Island loop, via Belfair, Hoodsport, Brinnon and Quilcene
Food stops: For local color, try the Geoduck Restaurant and Lounge, Brinnon (watch for the Dosewallips elk herd, sometimes grazing out the back window), or, for the non-Harley crowd, the Timber House in Quilcene.
Roadside attractions: Hunter Farms, on Highway 106 south of Union. Farm market, pumpkin fields, tractor rides, hay and corn mazes (plus food vendors on weekends). This family farm was founded the year Washington became a state: 1889. Fresh-picked corn usually available through October. www.hunter-farms.com.
Also: Drive to the top of Mount Walker (2,804 feet) for a panoramic view clear to Seattle (28 miles away) on a clear day. The 4-mile gravel road, narrow and steep, leaves the east side of Highway 101 five miles south of Quilcene; watch for the brown sign. (The road may close before the end of October; call the Forest Service in Quilcene to check.)
Stop and walk: Theler Wetlands in Belfair for a nature walk and bird-watching. Boardwalk and gravel paths explore 135 acres of mossy Union River estuary at the tip of Hood Canal. Free. www.thelercenter.org.
Color check: Call Hood Canal Ranger District, Quilcene office: 360-765-2200.
North Cascades Highway
Autumn color to look for: Larches turning gold on mountainsides at Washington Pass and elsewhere.
Time and distance: Overnight getaway; 400 miles round-trip from Seattle to Winthrop.
The route: Seattle to Sedro-Woolley to Winthrop via Interstate 5 and Highway 20; alternate return via Blewett and Snoqualmie passes.
Food stop: The Eatery Drive-in at Clark’s Skagit River Cabins (aka Skagit River Resort), Highway 20 near Marblemount, for giant cinnamon rolls baked by 90-something Tootsie Clark from a brown sugar-raisin-walnut and butter-packed recipe passed down from her mother. www.northcascades.com.
Roadside attractions: Rockport State Park, Milepost 96.5, to gaze up at old-growth Douglas firs and wander through the “ghost campground,” closed by the state because one falling branch from the mammoth trees could crush a tent or RV; Diablo Lake viewpoints, to ooh and aah over the amazing turquoise water colored by glacial flour.
Stop and walk: Rainy Lake hike at Rainy Pass. The paved, flat one-mile path is accessible to all, winding through a forest pungent with alpine fir resin, ending at a pretty lake with a ribbon waterfall.
Color check: Call North Cascades National Park Visitor Center, 206-386-4495, Ext. 11; Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, 888-463-8469
Three Passes loop
Autumn color to look for: Vine maples on roadside and mountainsides
Time and distance: Day trip or overnight; 203-mile loop from Monroe to Leavenworth to Cle Elum to Issaquah.
The route: Stevens Pass/Blewett Pass/Snoqualmie Pass loop
Food stops: Zeke’s drive-in, just east of Gold Bar on Highway 2, for whopping burgers and Washington’s best onion rings; O’Grady’s Pantry at Sleeping Lady lodge, off Icicle Road in Leavenworth, for tasty deli sandwiches at outdoor tables (www.sleepinglady.com).
Roadside attractions: The Bavarian-style town of Leavenworth (www.leavenworth.org). Oompah. Or turn off Highway 97 south of Blewett Pass to the “ghost town” of Liberty, an old gold-mining community with some original miners’ shacks and abandoned equipment (plus some real-live residents, whose privacy deserves respect; don’t peer in windows).
Stop and walk: Deception Falls is a little scenic wonder that’s a perfect rest stop. Watch for the sign about 10 miles east of Skykomish along Highway 2.
Color check: Call Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce, 509-548-5807.
Autumn color to look for: Aspens. Spectacular fall hues in the wild north woods of Northeast Washington.
Time and distance: Four-day weekend; 822 miles round-trip from Seattle.
The route: Loop north from Spokane through Pend Oreille, Stevens and Ferry counties. Discover remote Metaline Falls and wild Sullivan Lake, cross westward over Sherman Pass, the state’s highest paved highway, to Republic, and end with a crossing of the Columbia River on the little Keller ferry, a free route operated by Washington State Ferries. Lonely Highway 21 through the Sanpoil River canyon south of Republic is a scenic gem. Suggested overnights: Spokane, Metaline Falls (in the historic Washington Hotel) and Republic.
Food stops: Huckleberry ice cream at The Ram drive-in on Highway 2 in Chattaroy, north of Spokane. Go east this weekend for fresh-pressed apple cider at the Marcus Cider Festival in Stevens County, on Saturday.
Roadside attractions: Fossil hunting in Republic. Stop at Stonerose Interpretive Center to learn about the local 50-million-year-old fossils, then get a permit and borrow some tools before you head up the road to hunt for your own. www.stonerosefossil.org.
Stop and walk: From Highway 20, cross to the east side of the Pend Oreille River at Usk and go north to find Manresa Grotto on the Kalispel Reservation. Climb the steep path among giant boulders to a cave that is a holy site to the tribal people, who have held religious services here since the mid-1800s.
Color check: Call Republic Chamber of Commerce, 509-775-2704.
Autumn color to look for: Crimson foliage of wild huckleberry. Gorgeous views of Mount Rainier.
Time and distance: Day trip or overnight; 242 miles round-trip from Seattle.
The route: Highway 410 from Seattle to Sumner to Enumclaw, into Mount Rainier National Park and eastward over Chinook Pass to Cliffdell; optional return via Yakima, Ellensburg and Snoqualmie Pass.
Food stops: Wally’s White River Drive-in, Highway 410 in Buckley, for the milkshake of the month (last month’s was raspberry scone, this month, expect pumpkin); Whistlin’ Jack Lodge, Cliffdell, for late lunch or an early dinner overlooking the Naches River (ask if they have any blueberry cinnamon rolls left). www.whistlinjacklodge.com
Roadside attractions: Eight-mile side trip on Bumping River Road to the settlement of Goose Prairie, where the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an environmental crusader for whom the surrounding wilderness is named, had a summer home.
Stop and walk: Mirror-like Tipsoo Lake, at the Chinook Pass summit, is a popular place to stretch legs and ogle the view of Rainier. Hike the 3-mile Naches Peak Loop trail for more views (clockwise is best).
Color check: Call Mount Rainier National Park headquarters, 360-569-2211, Ext. 3314.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or email@example.com