For outdoorsy people who love exploring the Northwest, you just can’t beat the summer months. Right?
Let’s ask someone who has marched miles and miles all over the region in all four seasons: guidebook author Tami Asars.
“I’ve become as passionate about the mountains in the fall as I am in the summer wildflower season,” said Asars, author of multiple Northwest hiking guides, whose latest title is “Fall Color Hikes: Washington.”
“Once I was visiting Upper Eagle Lake [near Twisp] in the morning, and the sun was coming through the larch trees at a low angle because of the time of year, and the sun’s rays were bursting through the branches and lighting up all those golden needles,” the author recalled.
Asars said autumn moments like that one in the Methow Valley confirmed her conviction that fall in the Northwest — different from the multihued, high-canopy color exhibitions famously displayed in dense deciduous forests of the Northeast — can deliver dazzling visual spectacles that often remain underappreciated outside the region.
“It was so photogenic, one of those incredible times when you can create some spectacular images with your camera,” she said. “The lighting, the ground cover, the colors and the lake setting all blended together and created one of those amazing, surreal outdoor moments” when “Nature had her party dress on.”
Asars, a North Bend resident, is a fan of traditional fall foliage displays in the East — she’s spending five-plus months this year walking the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail south from Maine to Georgia, aiming to claim the third jewel of hiking’s Triple Crown after the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail — but the Northwest, she believes, gives fall colors an unconventional twist that is fantastic to behold.
“In the Northwest we do have vine maples and big leaf maple that change colors, but our fall is a composite of angled light, brilliant red and orange shrubbery that hugs the ground, and larch trees, a color-changing conifer, which to many people seems so unusual,” Asars said.
“When you mix that in with deep green, conically shaped conifers and a blue sky, it’s like staring at rainbows. Sometimes it can look like the landscape is on fire. It’s a version of fall that’s unique to the Northwest.”
Her book offers details on 45 hikes (all day hikes, a handful of which she ranks as hard) and eight scenic drives.
It contains many familiar fall destinations: Chain Lakes Loop and Yellow Aster Butte near Mount Baker; Cutthroat Pass and the much-traveled Maple Pass-Lake Ann loop along the North Cascades Highway; Shriner Peak and the endlessly popular Naches Peak loop at Mount Rainier; and some Interstate 90 standbys (Granite Mountain and Rachel Lake).
“I’ve been hiking in the places in this book for years,” Asars said. “It’s a compilation of my favorite places for fall color, and I’m happy to share it.”
She lists the type of colorful foliage hikers can expect to see on each trip, from Geyer’s sedge to blue wildrye and rosy spirea. She describes deciduous larches as “the Einsteins of the forest” for their ability to draw nutrients from their needles and store them in their trunks, causing the needles to turn gold as they expire.
She includes just one hike in Olympic National Park (the Staircase Rapids loop), a region of the Evergreen State she finds is steadfastly evergreen.
And the scenic drives provide opportunities for fall-color fans who are either short on time or face physical restrictions. She’s a big fan of the White Pass Byway loop. “You pass Dog Lake and waterfalls and larches,” she said. Prime larch-peeping, she notes, is found in the state’s northern reaches.
When to go?
“It’s different every year,” she said. “Watch online trail reports and hope you have some good weather when colors are near their peak.”
Fall hiking has advantages over summer trips: fewer bugs, potentially fewer people — “Recently you can find busy trailheads even on weekdays,” Asars said. “Have a Plan B when you go.” — seemingly fresher air and a new color scheme that can transform the look of a trail. The downside: shorter days, chilly mornings and evenings, wildlife that could be more easily agitated during its winter preparations and sometimes fast-changing weather.
Adjust your typical trip prep for the season, Asars recommends.
“I encourage people to watch the forecast before they go, and watch the amount of daylight they have left so they can turn around to hike out in the light,” she said. “Learn about the Ten Essentials and know how to equip yourself to stay safe and warm out there. Hiking in the fall involves more than dropping on a pair of shoes and just walking.”
The extra effort to hike in the fall, Asars said, is worth it.
“Nature undergoes a metamorphosis in the fall,” she said. “Plants and animals are shutting down as they move into a new season. There’s a little bit of snap in the air, and you’re very aware of impending changes.”
The views of fall rival summer’s relatively better weather.
“Being on a trail while watching nature change, having a front-row seat to that show, lets you see proof that change is beautiful,” Asars said. “It’s cool to be out there to witness that.”