Written October 1, 2021
Seattle may be the home of Starbucks, but Pumpkin Spice Lattes aren’t the only thing brewin’ in the Pacific Northwest in autumn! In the PNW, there is a magical part of fall that does not seem to have an equivalent anywhere else in the world. Here, the all-too-brief season of the larches attracts people to march and prance around the Cascade Mountains.
Every year, there is a small window of possibility to see the larch trees’ bright, yellow needles contrast the alpine landscapes in the PNW. These deciduous conifers are an evergreen tree that sheds its needles every year! This means they pretty much disprove what I understood to be true from science class in elementary school… a tree doesn’t have to be a deciduous tree OR a conifer, it can be BOTH! I guess the world can never truly be black or white. I love the gray area between… and this is where the larch exists.
In late September to October, the a larch’s green needles turn to bright yellow before they drop! Having lived in Washington state for four years, I was an annual participant in the #larchmadness larch march. The goal was to capture them at their peak color, before the needles dropped. You may have seen a larch tree in other parts of the world, but Washington state is home to two of these beauties.
There’s really no wrong way to embrace larch madness… unless, of course, you don’t prepare, check current conditions, or practice Leave No Trace of course! Let’s do the larch march!
Get your earth science textbook out
One of the best ways to embrace the larch march is to… learn about the larches! When I first discovered these magical trees in the PNW, I didn’t understand them. Why do they turn bright yellow?! Why are they so fuzzy? Why do I want to hug them so badly? Why don’t they last forever?
The larch tree is a deciduous conifer, which is pretty rare as there are about 20 species that span BOTH categories of trees. A deciduous tree has leaves that fall early, while coniferous trees (aka evergreens!) have cones with needles or scales that never fall off! Fun fact – not all evergreens are conifers, such as some tropical trees and shrubs. But that’s for another science class.
A larch tree has yellow-green needles in the spring and summer month, then the chilly weather turns the needles to a bright yellow/gold for a few weeks, then to orange, and then they DROP around Halloween. In Washington, these larches typically turn their magical golden color in late September, reach peak awesomeness/brightness in mid-October, and fall off by November.
Washington State is home to the subalpine larch (Larix lyallii) and western larch (Larix occidentalis). The western larch grows to around 170 feet tall and is found on north-facing slopes between 2,000 and 5,500 feet in elevation. In contrast, the subalpine larch is shorter, reaching about 70 feet in height at a higher elevation (5,500 to 7,500 feet). The subalpine larch grows on rocks and has twisty, curvy branches and trunks! They’re the ones you can find in the Enchantments of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
Speaking of the Enchantments…
Explore the Enchantments
The Enchantments in Washington State’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness is pure magic, but requires a lot of effort & planning to explore. While photos may draw many people to Colchuck Lake, please consider conditions before traveling to the Enchantments. Given the high elevations, ice and snow is not uncommon. When I did my through-hike of the Enchantments, we had microspikes and multiple layers. Even though we hiked in October, we experienced the first snow of the season… and therefore had our first snowball fight!
There’s two ways to enjoy the Enchantments – via backpacking or day hiking/through-hiking.
BACKPACKING: Many people (including myself) dream of backpacking in this area. Yet, it requires careful planning and applying for a permit via lottery. Overnight permits are required from May 15 through October 31 in the Enchantments. The lottery application system typically opens in February and ends in March. There is also a possibility of getting a walk-up permit, but it’s definitely not guaranteed. (FYI, I applied 3x to get a permit and never got one… *sad face.*) Keep in mind the Enchantments are broken into different zones, which allow for access to areas of the wilderness. You can find all the juicy details of how to plan your trip from the Forest Service website, linked below:
- Important Changes
- Overnight Permit Season
- Enchantment Lottery Timeframes
- How to Apply for Enchantment Permit
- Recreation.gov Enchantment Permit Reservation Site
- Enchantment Permit Area Rules and Regulations
- Enchantment Permit Area Changes and Cancellations Policy
- Planning Your Trip
- Aasgard Pass Warning!
- Enchantment Condition Report
THROUGH HIKING: If you don’t get a lottery ticket, another option is to complete a through-hike of the Core Enchantment Zone. HOWEVER, this is a very intense, long, albeit incredible way to explore the Enchantments. With 4,500 feet of elevation gain and a total of 18+ miles to do a through hike, there’s a lot of consideration with this option. Firstly, you can choose to start at Stuart/Colchuck Lake or Snow Lake Trailheads. Either way, a shuttle needs to be set up so you can perform the through hike (THIS IS NOT A LOOP!). My crew opted to start at Stuart/Colchuck Lake trailhead because the ascent up Aasgard pass comes much earlier. The climb up Aasgard is NO joke, though! You ascend nearly 2,000 feet in just three-quarters of a mile. YES, you read that correctly. Once you get to to the top of Aasgard Pass, don’t forget to: (1) Catch your breath, (2) Look to the West at Dragontail Peak, and (3) Look behind you the basin with Isolation Lake. After Aasgard, you can enjoy the core of the Enchantments, then struggle through the gradual, long decline out of the Enchantments to Snow Lake.
LEAVE NO TRACE REMINDER: There was a time I arrived at Colchuck Lake’s trailhead to attempt a day hike to the lake, but the parking lot was overfilled. My friends and I noticed Park Rangers standing at the trailhead entrance and we inquired why. They reported over 700 people were accessing the trail that day, with an estimation of 300 vehicles parked at the trailhead. We were MIND-BLOW. The rangers shared they were stationed at the trailhead to educate people on the Leave No Trace Principles, as there was a variety of trash being found on the trail. While the Enchantments deserve a feature in this post, I encourage you to consider the impact high traffic has on our trails. Please, please, please at a MINIMUM follow all LNT Principles and be mindful of overcrowding.
BAIL PLAN: If it’s way too busy in the Enchantments and the trailheads are packed, wave hellogoodbye to the larches and head to Leavenworth for Oktoberfest!!! The Bavarian town of Leavenworth is only ~30 minutes from the Colchuck/Stuart Lake trailhead and the bratwurst is well worth the trip. Usually, Oktoberfest is for two weekends in October, but you can wear a lederhosen/dirndl any time of the year there!
Scenic drive on Highway 20
Simply driving through the North Cascades via Highway 20 lends itself to magnificent views. From Liberty Bell to Cutthroat Pass, there’s views on every bend and turn. Don’t forget to stop at Diablo Lake Overlook and Washington Pass Overlook to soak in all of the cascade glory. As you drive, you can look at the rocky slopes for larches, which look like yellow sparkles on the mountainside.
Personally, I could drive this highway back and forth for the rest of my life and be very satisfied. Outside the pavement, though, there’s a lot to explore…
Hike in North Cascades National Park
Highway 20 has AMAZING hiking. I used to hike to Blue Lake once or twice a year for early larch season, then later for the peak, yellow needles.
There are SO MANY hike options. Some of my favorites over the years:
- Cutthroat Lake (easy; 3.8 miles round trip/400 feet of elevation gain)
- Blue Lake (moderate; 4.4 miles round trip/1,050 feet of elevation gain)
- Heather-Maple Pass Loop (moderate/difficult; 7.2 miles roundtrip/2,000 feet of elevation gain)
- Cutthroat Pass (difficult; 11.4 miles round trip/2,300 feet of elevation).
As usual, be prepared, as larch season typically contains snow. Be sure to check the Washington Trails Association (WTA) website for reported trail conditions (each hike’s page linked above) and follow Leave No Trace guidelines any time you step foot in the wilderness. It’s also recommended to get there very early, because parking lots usually fill up by 9am and there can be QUITE the backup on Highway 20.
Go on Instagram
Just kidding. Please Opt Outside! #larchmadness
Hug a larch tree
If you’re blessed to get up close and personal with a larch tree, gently hug it to thank it for its beauty. That’s me in the Enchantments, happy as can be walking 18+ miles in a snowy, larch-infested wilderness.
I’m kind of kidding, but actually not. Go hug a tree.
Drive the highest road in Washington
Alright, alright this is ACTUAL number five. Hart’s Pass (FS road 5400) is the highest road you can drive in Washington State! Fortunately, it also brings you closer to the Methow Valley, which is home to MANY activities, like rock climbing and mountain biking! Driving Hart’s Pass is an adventure alone – just make sure to keep your eyes on the road! Generally, the road is okay for 2WD vehicles.
The end of the road is actually past Hart’s Pass at the gate of Slate Peak Lookout, which is located at 7,488 feet of elevation! Hart’s Pass road accesses the Pacific Crest Trail and a network of other trails heading into the vast Pasayten Wilderness. Here, you may be able to find more larch madness.
After exploring Hart’s Pass, head into my favorite town ever – Winthrop, Washington! It’s a town with a western vibe. I 100% recommend staying at the North Cascades Mountain Hostel in town if you want to stick around for a few days. With views like these, how could you not anyways?! Just drive Highway 20 to Winthrop and back and you won’t be disappointed… PROMISE.
Thank you, Larches!
I love larches. A lot. I will forever love them. Perhaps I’ll find the east coast’s larch – the tamarack (Larix laricina)!