Every fall a familiar cry echoes through the hiking community. Are the larches here yet? Where do I see the larches? Where are the larches closest to Seattle, I can’t drive more than an hour!
Unfortunately, larches have a unique biology that places them decidedly out of the “close to Seattle” margin. Larches are shade-intolerant and usually grow in open forests, often the result of a fire. The west side of the Cascade Range has dramatically different forests than that of the east side, leading to different trees. To see the golden larches, the answer is simple: saddle up and make the drive. Luckily, some of the best larch spots make for excellent fall road trips.
Today I wanted to highlight three of my favorite spots to see larches along with my favorite non-hiking things to do in an area. Make a full day of it and see some of the fall’s greatest treasures. Scroll all of the way to the bottom for some suggestions to use leave no trace principles to mitigate your impact during the busy larch season!
But what turns the green trees to a glowing yellow? In the land of the evergreen? Simply, the larches have needles that radiate from the wood, like most conifers. Most conifers hold onto their needles all winter and continue photosynthesis in the winter, which increases growth opportunities. However, larches drop their needles in the winter. They grow back as a neon green in the spring, and by fall have warmed to a golden hue before fully shedding. The golden hue is the base color of a larches needles, and chlorophyll during the summer turns it green. When the chlorophyll is absorbed into the tree in the fall, the golden hue is left unmasked.
Blue Lake & Highway 20
Blue Lake is a gorgeous lake on the North Cascades Highway–Highway 20. While the route to Blue Lake is short, the pay-off is incredible. Only 2.2 miles from the road and 1050’ elevation gain, this lake sits under the shadow of the Liberty Mountain Range and is surrounded by larches.
This route is highly accessible with mild mileage and elevation gain and doesn’t require any bumpy forest roads. Right off of Highway 20, this is easily the most bang-for-your-buck larch lake. Don’t expect solitude in this spot (or most spots with larch madness under swing), but if you are willing to share the sights, it is a larch lake not to be missed.
This spot is just outside the North Cascade National Park boundaries and is the only spot on this list that is dog-friendly.
After you get your fill of larches at the lake, cruise back on Highway 20 for to enjoy some of the features of Washington’s longest and oldest highway. Highway 20 was established in 1986 as a wagon route, fell into disrepair and was revitalized in 1972. With stunning views of the North Cascades, it is considered one of the most beautiful highways in the country.
For this trip, head 0.8 miles east and visit the Washington Pass Lookout. From here you can see the Liberty Mountain group from the other side. Also visible is the incredible winding Highway 20 as it disappears into green forest among red rock.
Head back to the west and stop at the Diablo Lake Lookout. This man-made reservoir was created in 1930 after Seattle City Light dammed the Skagit River. Diablo sports bright turquoise water, the product of glacier-ground rock silt from the mountains surrounding the area. Take some pictures of this spectacular lake and its glacial colors.
Lastly, stop at Marblemount Diner on your way out for some homemade pie! It is impossible to leave this diner hungry and nothing tastes better after a fall hike than hot apple pie.
Lake Colchuck & Leavenworth
Colchuck Lake at the gateway to the Enchantments is a little trickier to get to, but boasts some incredible larch viewing opportunities. This route climbs 8 miles through the forest and rocks, sharp peaks of the Enchantments sneaking in for views. Most of the trail is relatively moderate, though the final ascent to the lake can be steep and rough.
The climb feels worth it when you pop out of the trees and see Colchuck Lake in all of its glory. The subalpine firs that kept you company along the route become golden larches, dotting the rocky mountainside below Dragontail with yellow spots.
Stay at the outlet of the lake or continue wandering around to the base of Aasgard Pass to see the larches up close. In this basin, the trees come in all shapes and sizes.
After you have finished your route, Leavenworth lies just below, waiting for you with bratwurst and beer. Embrace your inner Oktoberfest at this bavarian village. After visiting the little shops, stop in Munchen Haus for some delicious sausages (including veggie sausages!) and tons of different mustard to put on top!
Lake Ingalls & Roslyn
Lake Ingalls in the Teanaways boasts amazing larch views. While the end-goal of this route is an incredible blue lake in a rocky basin, the journey during larch season may be the best part. The route starts in a forested valley before entering a wide-open basin. The rocky basin is filled with grassy meadows and streams, and layers upon layers of alpine larches.
After wandering through the open, larch-strewn woods, a small climb up a few rocks leads to Lake Ingalls situated in its glorious rocky basin. Mount Stuart looms in the background, providing a stunning backdrop to the blue lake
At 9 miles, and an elevation gain of 2500’ feet, it is a longer route, but the scenery is incredible the entire time. There is a section that climbs through a rocky bottleneck, in poor weather this section can be tricky and can also be a little difficult in crowds. Like the other two spots, this lake can be extremely crowded during fall months, so follow leave no trace principles and try to visit during less busy times to lessen your impact.
On your way home, take a detour to the little town of Roslyn. It is a neat little spot where the entire downtown is registered as a historic landmark. The town has also been a filming location for Northern Exposure and the Man in the High Castle. There are several great spots to visit, but don’t miss the Brick Tavern. Opened in 1889, it is the oldest continuously operating tavern in Washington state.
Leave No Trace Etiquette during larch season:
Larch season is spectacular for many reasons, it is some of the best displays of fall colors in Washington and the places where larches grow are stunningly beautiful. These are also highly sensitive areas that are extremely popular, and need to be treated with care to keep them available to all. Here are some things you can do to mitigate your impact:
- Be prepared for your route: Larch season is early fall, which can mean winter temperatures in the mountains. Be aware that it can easily snow during this time and weather can change very quickly. You are more likely to degrade backcountry resources in unexpected conditions, and a lack of preparedness can unduly stress search and rescue groups. If you are wondering how to prepare for a hike, read my post on trip-planning for some extra resources.
- Pick one route a year, rather than doing them all. High use can cause environmental degradation at a rate faster than the system can recover. Reduce your impact by reducing the number of times you visit. Consider picking one larch route a year, then giving it a break the following years to allow the system to recover and give other hikers a chance to experience it. When you are on a busy route, stick to durable surfaces and avoid places where impacts are just beginning to avoid contributing to erosion.
- Dispose of waste properly. When an area is heavily stressed during a seasonal event, trash can accumulate. Pack everything out that you bring in, and if you find trash, be a good steward and grab it on your way out. Any solid human waste needs to be in cathole dug 6-8 inches deep and please pack out the toilet paper. For liquid waste, check out the Kula Cloth as a toilet paper alternative, it is awesome!