A larch hike…on a gorgeous WEEKEND day in October…WITHOUT crowds? They do exist!
After our thru-hike of Cutthroat Pass to Cutthroat Lake, I wanted to see more larches. However, I had a hunch that any well-known larch hike on a sunny Saturday would be utter pandemic-spreading pandemonium (I was right). Luckily, months ago when researching hikes near the boyfriendo’s family in Winthrop, I stumbled across one where people mentioned larches that had hardly any reviews on WTA, and bookmarked it. Even with smoky skies, it fit the bill perfectly! Note: You might be sharing this area with hunters. Wearing bright colors is recommended if it is hunting season.
There are several factors that help limit the crowds. For starters, it is not an easy hike. It is very steep, and I was happy to have poles. It is also very exposed, very high up, and in a burn area, so bring sun protection. The boyfriendo got very badly burnt, and my shoulders were pink for quite some time. However, another factor keeping the crowds out is the road. WTA had me under the impression that we’d be close to town, but you need to go many miles (I think 16 total?) on a rough forest road. While a sedan could make it, even in a Crosstrek it was not a pleasant ride. However, it was the most stunning road I think I’ve ever been on in terms of fall color. I know everyone is abuzz about larches, but I might actually prefer a blazing yellow aspen, which this road was in high supply of.
After a very long drive on that road, we got a spot at the trailhead. There is a small lot (WTA says 5 cars) which we fit in, but there are other hikes and mountain bikes on trails in other directions from here, so upon our return we saw cars squeezed on the road. This is one of the higher trailheads in the state, and you start with an odd cattle fence I didn’t quite know how to handle–it collapsed when I lifted the latch! Luckily I hadn’t broken it, and after returning it to place we stepped into the burnt forest. This land was part of a huge forest fire in 2006, but the blowdowns in place made it feel like new damage. It was amazing to see the fire damage as far as the eye can see in places, especially after the year we’ve had and current smoke from California still present.
It was a dusty trail with varying bits of new growth and old decay. The fire damage looked so new, it’s hard to believe it can almost have a learner’s permit. Up close, the charred logs and snags almost resembled obsidian to me, gleaming in the sun. But there is new growth and life too. In this area, you can potentially see all sorts of large critters, including bear, elk, and, a rare moose. Throughout the hike we saw elk scat but little else larger than a chipmunk, but that’s because my huffing and puffing probably scared them all away. My four-solid months of being sedentary had added pounds and removed muscle, even with me hiking a ton this summer. I was feeling the burn, especially at 7,000 feet up.
At just under a mile, we got our first larches and our last bits of shade. The larches started as a smattering, but turned into a large thicket of them to our left. Despite us being a few days early at Cutthroat Pass, we were maybe a few days late here, with some of the larches having a brown tinge. Keep in mind the higher elevation here will make them turn earlier than the more popular larch hikes on Highway 20 when planning your larch march in 2021.
From this thicket, you leave the fire damage and enter the meadow section, which in June or July will be exploding with lupine and paintbrush. We reached a junction in a field. Go left for the summit of Tiffany Mountain. Here is where my head nearly ruined everything. I got so mad at myself for being slow, for holding my companions up, for how out of shape I was, that it just really soured my mood. The only thing that helped was looking back at where we’d come from and admiring the view.
When I finally rejoined them at the top, I was in no mood to enjoy the view. In hindsight I am now even madder at myself for letting this happen, because it really was an amazing view! At 8245 feet up, it’s not a surprise to learn the top used to have a fire lookout until 1953, and there are still some remnants, including a fire sight mounting post that now has a visitors log. With no smoke, we’d have been able to see near-360* mountain views of the North Cascades, Oakanongan Highlands, and even Canadian mountains. Instead, we were just high enough to see where the smoke layer ended above us.
However, looking down, we saw larches spilling all over the hillsides along with the ‘standing dead’ snags from the 2006 Tripod Fire.
Little Tiffany Lake and Tiffany Lake offered a glittering blue contrast to the yellow larches.
I explored all around the mountain top, hoping for a better view. There’s tons of room to find a great lunch spot, and we saw two other couples here. I’ll repeat again, it was a Saturday with good weather and we did a larch hike and saw four people total in the first 2.1 miles. There was one rock outcropping that I balanced on as long as my legs would let me, just admiring the fact I was over 8,000 feet up, feeling like if I just reached up, I could touch the blue skies.
You can turn around and head back the 2.1 miles you came, or to extend your trip and see some new sights head on a lollipop route down Whistler Pass before looping back and returning. This route is a bit rocky and hard to determine in places, so I would not recommend if with little children or if there is any snow. However, on that day it was great to see a few new angles we hadn’t from the mountain–and a few more larches, of course. There was a lot more switchbacks, and I was patting myself on the back for bringing my poles. Down the spine we made it before reaching a signed junction. Left here will take you to the North Summit trail, which I’ve been told connects with the Bernhardt Mine trail, but having done nearly 11 miles two days prior, we headed home.
From the junction you cut straight across the mountain face but do gain a bit more elevation (ugh) before rejoining the original trail at the first signed junction. Once we got to that junction, it was all downhill for real, news I was too tired to cheer for. How did the 3+ miles we had done tire me out so much?! I blame the altitude more than anything. And the sunburn I didn’t know I was building up. I tried to take in the return views as much as I could, knowing it was probably my last larches (and possibly last hike in the sun?) of 2020. The last bit of larches were remarkably colorful not just against the green and brown, but the charred black and white of the burn area. Our final count of this beautiful hike on this sunny Saturday: 8 people seen.
Distance: The out-and-back route is 4.2 miles, for the lollipop route that included Whitsler Pass, I tracked 4.9 miles on my Runkeeper.
Elevation: 1685 feet for Tiffany Mountain, slightly more for the lollipop route. Keep in mind you start at over 6500 feet!
Parking: WTA doesn’t mention a pass, but I’d guess a NW Forest Pass/America the Beautiful Pass is needed?
Bathrooms: None at the trailhead or along the trail–and it’s a long drive to get there, too.
Best Beer Bet: Old Schoolhouse Brewery and Methow Valley Ciderhouse right in town.