Search narrow high-mountain tracks for this colorful deciduous conifer.
When people think about scenic drives to see fall colors, it’s often the East Coast that comes to mind. But here in the Pacific Northwest we have something special to brag about: the Western larch.
It’s an oddity, as one of the few cone-bearing trees that sheds its needles in winter.
For a short time in the fall — usually around mid-October — larches turn brilliant yellow, dotting the high mountains with intense bursts of color that seem to glow in the sun.
Hunting for these trees at the height of their turn is an annual rite for many in our region — a tradition known as the Larch March.
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What’s so addictive is the thrill of the hunt.
Larches are usually found in small pockets above 5,000 feet east of the Cascade crest. They will change at different rates at different elevations, and early winter storms can erase whole groves of color in a single day.
As a Larch March devotee, I’m always on the hunt for new territory, and whenever I’ve driven over Blewett Pass in October I’ve been impressed with the countless bright yellow trees.
So on a recent weekend I took the top off the Jeep Wrangler and loaded up the family for an early-season scouting trip near the summit.
First glimpses of color
At the top of 4,124-foot Blewett Pass, Forest Service roads diverge and snake into the cracks and crevices of the central Cascades. It’s great territory for larches.
After turning onto F.S. Road 9716, the Swauk Forest Discovery Trail is a good place to stretch your legs. Nearly three miles of easy walking is like a seminar in forest ecology.
Twenty-six detailed signs convey information on native trees, and how the Forest Service uses thinning methods to imitate natural disturbances such as forest fire. It’s also a great hike for bird-watching.
After our hike, we continued on the bumpy, unpaved road and soon found ourselves walled in by impressive groves of larch. We were a bit early for their turn, with only a branch or two showing signs of golden yellow.
But the location had all kinds of potential. By the time you read this, whole corridors of trees will likely be ablaze with color, creating a spectacular drive.
Trust me, this is one of the best places in the state to see these magnificent trees because it’sjust a few minutes off the highway.
We continued uphill, deeper into the mountains, hoping for more color at higher elevation. And this is where things turned into a typical Larch March adventure.
Usually you start off looking for one thing and find yourself wowed by other natural wonders you weren’t expecting. Part of Larch Madness is the fun you have ambling around new places.
We took F.S. Road 9712 where it climbed into a former fire zone. The 2012 fire scorched miles of prime viewing territory, and while many consider forest fires a tragedy they are a natural part of the ecosystem.
We passed through miles of blackened trees, but here the understory really showed off. Early reclaiming plants such as fireweed glowed in the low-angled autumn sun with an Impressionist palette of yellows and oranges.
Suddenly we emerged onto a broad basin where our Jeep clung to a single-track road cut into a mountainside. We crossed a vast boulder field rounding an opening with a panoramic view of far-reaching mountaintops.
We were crawling at eye level with Cascade peaks. There were no guardrails. Cruising this section of spectacular road was worth the whole trip.
About 30 minutes later, we arrived at expansive Haney Meadow, the perfect spot for a picnic, so we threw down a blanket.
The golden hue in the grasses hinted at an early winter, but this day we basked in warm Central Washington sun. And it would have been a great place to spend a lazy afternoon had it not been for the gaggle of kids from a nearby campground gunning down squirrels with their BB guns.
Exploring new roads
Returning to Highway 97 we crossed the pavement and tried a new dirt track. F.S. Road 7324 quickly plunged downhill toward Leavenworth.
If you’re in a hurry to get somewhere, there’s no reason to travel this road. It’s narrow and bumpy, with thick brush and frequent washouts that made us glad for our four-wheel drive.
But if you’re out exploring new country as we were, it’s the perfect sort of road to look for color.
After 30 minutes of scaring up deer and grouse, we began to see signs of human life. The canyon narrowed and we noticed posted signs of mining claims alongside Scotty Creek. Soon, we encountered groups of campers squatting in the river.
The Bedrock Prospectors Club owns the mining rights along much of the creek, and its members were spending their weekend knee deep in the freezing water pulling tiny flecks of gold from its waters. I didn’t even know that gold panning was a thing in the Cascades, much less that there were active groups such as this one.
Eventually our dirt road linked up with Old Blewett Highway, the main route through the mountains 40 years ago, over the original Blewett Pass. (What’s now called Blewett Pass was originally known as Swauk Pass.) The narrow old highway is now a 13-mile Forest Service road (numbered 9715 and 7320, buried by snow in winter) and another slow-moving route surrounded by unspoiled foliage.
We followed it for several winding miles in search of more color, but really it was just an excuse to roam more tiny lines on our map.
On future trips I’ll use it as an alternative to the main highway, especially during larch season. Because when it comes to fall colors, wandering narrow mountains roads truly is the joy of the journey.
If you go
Join the Larch March
Besides the Blewett Pass area, along Highway 97 between Cle Elum and W enatchee, look for larches along Highway 20, in the North Cascades near Washington Pass, and on Sherman Pass, east of Republic, Ferry County.
Hiking for larches
Washington Trails Association has good suggestions for autumn larch hikes. Go to wta.org and search for “larch.”
A Northwest Forest Pass is required for parking at U.S. Forest Service day-use areas such as the Swauk Forest Discovery Trail, where passes may be purchased at the trailhead.