Yes, you can watch changing leaves at their peak in Washington state. It just might require a hike.
When it comes to fall color, New England can keep its famous trees. We have something uniquely ours that stokes a passion in hikers, drawing them into the high country with their siren song of color.
When I visit, there’s a quarter-inch of early winter snow on the ground, but the hillside around me is on fire. At least, if I squint my eyes just right, it looks like it.
Where evergreen trees once stood, there are hundreds of bright yellow spears adding color to the alpine landscape.
This particular amphitheater would make your Pinterest friends jealous any time of year thanks to the Cascade hit parade of mountain scenery: a backdrop of jagged mountains, rugged cliffs, a deep blue lake and trees speckling the pristine shoreline.
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But for a few short weeks in the fall, the scene explodes with autumn hues that are exclusive to the Pacific Northwest.
It’s time once again for the annual larch march.
Hiding in plain sight
At a glance, larches may look like any other tree in an evergreen forest, with cones and long slender needles. But unlike the members of the pine family that stay green all winter, larches are a deciduous conifer — that means their needles (which are technically leaves) turn a brilliant gold color each fall before dropping to the ground.
This time of the year, they reveal a spectacular surprise. Almost overnight, pockets of trees hiding in the mountains become fiery blazes speckling hillsides and dotting mountain lakes.
Much of the fun of the larch march is the challenge. For a short window of time — usually just a few weeks — they reach their golden zenith.
Planning a trip requires you to understand where the trees live and think through factors like weather, routes and access, especially since treks often involve traveling at high elevation during a tricky time of the year.
But if nothing else, a larch march is a tradition that motivates me to get outside when I’m tempted to hunker down and stay indoors. That slightly nervous anticipation of the clock ticking down to winter makes the experience even more fun.
Finding groves of larches at their peak is something of a quest for fall hikers. For those captivated by the sight, Larch Lake, just above 6,000 feet in the central Cascades, is one of the area’s best offerings.
From my base at Alpine Lakes High Camp, the trail is a fast and steep climb up McCue Ridge, which bounces along the crest before dropping down to Chiwaukum Lake.
If Chiwaukum Lake were located in most states, it would draw throngs of visitors from hundreds of miles away. But in Washington, land of natural riches, it’s simply a good place to rest on your way to spectacular scenery.
Entering Ewing Basin, you’ll forget that you’re hiking uphill as the broad valley unfolds dramatically. It’s wild country (our group found wolf scat on the trail) with brilliant red underbrush pockmarking avalanche shoots on the valley walls, and a chattering stream drawing you upward to the final goal.
But don’t get distracted by the handful of bright yellow trees that greet you approaching Larch Lake, because soon you’ll be surrounded by thousands of them, creating a Day-Glo effect.
The lake itself is postcard-worthy, with flashes of color in the basin adding drama to its blues and greens. After getting my fill of the grand spectacle, I discovered small ponds dotting the exit stream; they were almost more enchanting. It’s a scene that brings to mind the best parts of The Enchantments, where the tiny waterfalls and miniature ponds rambling downhill simply beg to be explored.
And all the while, those glowing streaks of yellow add brilliance to the snow-dusted landscape.
Our region boasts two native species of larch ranging roughly from southern Oregon to British Columbia and even into parts of Montana.
The trees that thrive near the fringes of the tree line are the subalpine larch. They can be found in cold, snowy regions between 5,800 and 7,500 feet — rarefied air in our state. They can grow up to 70 feet tall.
You’re more likely to see Western larches, which live a little lower down between 2,000 and 5,500 feet. This taller species can grow up to 170 feet, with an even triangular shape.
Both species generally live east of the Cascade crest; they prefer sunny open areas. You can often find them repopulating fire-damaged regions in the mountains.
How to go on a larch hunt
There isn’t an exact date for peak larch season; variables include weather and location. But historically, the optimal time frame stretches from late September to mid-October and ends with the first significant snowfall in the mountains.
Since changing larches are temporary, word-of-mouth and trip reports are your best bets for current information. You can also contact the nearest ranger station and ask about the current state of golden larches.
Research local trips and read trip reports from Washington Trails Association (WTA, wta.org). Some of the most popular larch hikes include Lake Ingalls near Teanaway (wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/lake-ingalls), Blue Lake in the North Cascades (wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/blue-lake) and Sherman Peak Loop near Republic (wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/Sherman).
If you go
The 11-mile round-trip hike to Larch Lake (wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/larch-lake) described in this article requires that you to take private transportation to Alpine Lakes High Camp (alpinelakeshighcamp.com). Shuttles are currently only open to guests of the camp. If you’re not staying at High Camp, you can hike or bike on the gated access road, which adds another 8.5 miles one-way. Cross Highway 2 from the rest stop near Coles Corner and depart from the parking area. You can also reach Larch Lake from Highway 2 on an overnight backpacking trip using the Chiwaukum Creek trailhead (wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/chiwaukum-creek) for a total of 23 miles round-trip.
For those who aren’t able to hike but still want to see the annual larch transformation, try these drives for consistent color: the eastern side of Blewett Pass (Highway 97) starting from the summit and traveling toward Leavenworth, the North Cascade Highway (Highway 20) east of Rainy Pass and Highway 20 in Eastern Washington between Republic and Lake Roosevelt.