Okay, I’ll admit it: I am a basic, fall-loving gal. Give me football, pumpkin spice lattes, and some leaves changing colors. I love everything about fall–including fall hiking here in the PNW.
Most popular of the PNW fall colors is the golden larch (some call it a tamarack). These trees only grow at high elevations, which means if in Seattle, you have to head pretty far east to see them (other than the one at the Washington Park Arboretum!). For about two weeks, these trees turn from green to a golden blazing yellow before dropping their needles. Typically, this happens around late September to mid October. Once the larches turn, drop everything and hit those trails! Not only are you racing the clock of the larches turning brown, but some of these hikes can also have snow hit at this time, closing roads or causing unsavory conditions.
There are some very popular trails with larches, some hidden gems, and some challenging options. The “Big 4,” as I call them, are Heather-Maple Loop Pass, Blue Lake, Cutthroat Pass (which I made into a loop with the fourth), Cutthroat Lake. These hikes are all on Highway 20 outside the town of Winthrop. These are stunning hikes, but due to their relatively easy proximity (compared to some others) I would STRONGLY urge going on a weekday. Last year on a Sunday the trailhead parking for Cutthroat Pass/Heather-Maple stretched for miles down the highway in both directions.
However, there are tons more options beyond the Big 4. There are some smatterings of larches from Highway 2, including The Enchantments (with a hefty difficult hike price tag). Another hike on my wish list is Lake Ingalls along Highway 90. Blewett Pass has a couple short and easy larch options, including Tronson Ridge and Swauk Forest Discovery Trail. If dying to check out Winthrop, there’s many larch hikes there besides the Big 4, but you’ll have to drive a bit. On a stunning Saturday we could count on two hands the number of people we saw at Tiffany Mountain, and Jennie from Ordinary Adventures loves Grasshopper Pass.
While I will say Heather-Maple Loop and the Cutthroat Pass-Cutthroat Lake hikes are both in my top 10, confession time: I think I prefer Aspens over larches. While the PNW cannot compete with Colorado, we have some smatterings of aspens that can blaze just as brightly. My favorite aspen hike, Cedar Creek Falls, we stumbled upon by chance. Maybe the snow made the aspens glow more, but this hike was a stunner. Sadly, I am guessing tons of this hike is now a victim of the Cedar Creek Hike, so it will not be accessible this year–and might be permanently scarred. However Patterson Mountain right in Winthrop has some aspens, and my research has told me Untanum Creek near Ellensburg has some aspens. If you know of other aspen hikes, feel free to drop them in the comments!
Besides aspens and larches, don’t forget this state has a ton of vine maples that offer stunning colors in fall! The great thing is you can find these trees and color right at parks in town, like Seward Park, Kubota Garden, and others. As mentioned above, the Washington Park Arboretum is proud of their fall foliage. These are great options in any weather for people of varied ages and abilities.
Lastly are other blazes of color–red huckleberry and other bright ground covers, and other leaf shows. Sheep Lake near Mount Rainier is one such hike, and great for kids and older adults due to its gentle grade. I have yet to see myself, but I’ve been told Granite Mountain and Cowiche Canyon (perfect for some amazing fresh hop beers!) both offer some color shows, as does my wishlist hike of Yellow Aster Butte near Mt. Baker. The whole state has so much to offer beyond larches, so if you want to avoid the crowds but still feel you’ve earned your flannel and blankets after a hike, do some research and find your own favorite fall hike!
Fall weather can be unpredictable here, so don’t forget to pack extra layers with your Pumpkin Spice Clif bar. For higher-elevation larch hikes, bringing snow gear and microspikes is not a bad idea. Put that snowbrush in your car now, and chains if you have them. Lastly, don’t forget it is fresh hop season too, so check out the offerings when you plan your après-hike beer, too!