In my lifetime, I've seen Bruce Springsteen in concert something like 17 times but never in his purest, most unadulterated form. That is, some crummy...
In my lifetime, I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen in concert something like 17 times but never in his purest, most unadulterated form. That is, some crummy roadhouse down at the Jersey Shore where, on a whim, he jumps up on stage and belts out a few tunes with the house band.
Similarly, I’d seen the great golden displays of alpine larch in autumn, but most often through the windows of a car; I’d never experienced them where they’re at their finest: the Enchantments.
That changed last fall when fellow larch seeker Jim Robbins and I headed east toward Leavenworth for a hike up mega-steep Aasgard Pass. It’s the gateway to the Enchantments, that Alpine Lakes Wilderness wonderland of high-mountain lakes that shimmer, jewel-like, against jagged granite spires and, for a few weeks each fall, blazing alpine larch. During our mid-October hike, we found what we were looking for: gold in them thar hills.
Larch are unusual in that, though they are conifers, they have deciduous tendencies. That is, their needles act like leaves. In autumn, usually sometime in October, the needles change from green to yellow before falling to the ground, usually blown down by late October’s stormy gusts. It’s an autumn display that’s out of this world, but one with a rapidly closing window of observation.
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“The larch always change on Oct. 10,” says Joyce Brown somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Brown works at the North Cascades National Park information desk in Sedro-Woolley. “We have a longtime hiker who comes in here who says he can set his calendar by it, without fail. The larch always turn yellow on Oct. 10.”
In general, the larch seem to turn at about the same time the first significant snows begin to fall in the mountains. Which is right around Oct. 10.
“Hiking during this time is more peaceful and introspective,” says Andrew Engelson, avid hiker and editor of Washington Trails magazine. “The weather is colder, there are fewer hikers, and the intense yellow glow of the larch is just so striking.”
But you need to head for the hills to see them, as well as put some time in behind the wheel. Almost all the color-changing larch live on the eastern slopes of the Cascades at 5,000 feet and above. That means places such as Highway 20 over Rainy Pass and Washington Pass near Liberty Bell, or Highway 97 near Blewett Pass.
But perhaps the best way to experience them is to hike among them. Certainly, there are easier larch hikes than the one that Jim and I chose. The Blue Lake Trail, for instance, about 30 miles west of Winthrop, is a little more than two miles (one-way) and climbs only a thousand feet and is a grand spot to capture the color of golden larch.
But to us, the allure of the Enchantments was too much. So what if our 13-mile day hike from the Colchuck Lake side required 4,500 feet of climbing, about half that on the ascent of Aasgard Pass, which climbs 2,200 feet in about a mile; we had the fever. Enchantment larch fever, and nothing was going to stop us. Not even icy boulders, big slippery icy boulders, the size of Mini Coopers. (More on those in a moment.)
Because the mid-October sun has a 6:15 p.m. bedtime, give or take, and Jim and I had a three-hour drive to get to the trailhead, we made an early start of it, leaving Bellingham at 5 a.m. By 8:30, we were hiking the Colchuck Lake-Lake Stuart Trail in the semidarkness of mega shadows cast by the rocky walls of Mountaineer Creek canyon.
In our packs, we carried ice axes and big, heavy mountaineering boots because we knew we weren’t hiking just to a place (the Enchantments), we were also hiking to a season: winter. Down in the valley, it was a crisp pleasant morning, but Aasgard Pass tops out at 7,800 feet. We were barely three weeks into autumn, but online trip reports I’d come across reported several feet of snow up on the pass.
At Colchuck Lake, mirror calm this windless morning, we found ourselves in larch land. (Woohoo!) But most of the ones on this side of the lake hadn’t yet turned yellow. (Boo hoo.) No matter. The other side of the lake at the foot of Aasgard Pass had plenty of gold, and that’s right where we were headed. The pass itself was tri-colored: gray rocks overlain with the white of new snow, all of it streaked with gold. Our larch fever at its peak, we rushed to get around the lake and up the pass.
We almost didn’t make it.
“It’s awfully icy up there,” we started hearing again and again from backpackers we came across who’d just made their way down Aasgard from the Enchantments.
“It took us two-and-a-half hours to get down,” one of them told us.
Two-and-a-half hours to get down? How long would it take us to get up — four hours? It was already almost 11 a.m. This was not looking good.
Around the south end of the lake, the trail enters a boulder field, which further added to our discouragement. And not just because clambering up and over minicar sized rocks is always slow going either. These, this morning — chillier the higher we climbed — were covered by an oh-so-thin, invisible-to-the-eye sheen of ice. We might as well have been hiking on Vaseline.
At least we were smack dab in larchville. Golden splendor was all around us. Some trees appeared to glow fluorescent neon. Others looked aflame when the autumn-angled sun hit them.
“Awesome,” said Jim, speaking for both of us.
Turns out, our slow-going worked in our favor. As the sun rose higher, the icy sheen melted and climbing rock- and boulder-choked Aasgard Pass went much faster than we could’ve hoped. The only thing slowing us down were the 360-degree pirouettes we’d do from time to time to take in our surroundings. We were now in snow, and, as we passed through stand upon stand of larch, we couldn’t help but be dazzled. Far below, the massive shadow of the Enchantment Peaks receded across the surface of Colchuck Lake like an eclipse.
Two hours after heading up, we reached the top of Aasgard Pass and, for all intents and purposes, midwinter. Two feet of snow covered the ground and before Jim and I downed a quick lunch, we hunted down a sizable boulder to block the biting wind.
All around us was that classic Enchantments landscape that adorns dozens of coffee-table books. A wind-swept, rocky moonscape clad in snow and dotted with dozens of tarns, lakes and ponds — many of them frozen over and almost all of them fringed with gold. The larch.
Thing is, we had to get down. And quick.
It was almost 2 p.m. We figured a couple of hours to descend Aasgard, an hour around the lake, then two more back to the car. That’s 7 p.m. The sun will have gone night-night by then.
Lucky for us, our Aasgard descent took only 90 minutes. And, with the boulder-field ice melted, we made good time, getting back to the car before the sun turned out its light at 6:15.
Finally, I could cross Autumn Larch in the Enchantments off my ticklist.
Now, I just have to head to the Jersey Shore and hang around until the Boss shows up.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! Central Cascades” and “Day Hike! North Cascades” (Sasquatch Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog: mcqview.blogspot.com.