Larch madness is here! We got to see larches two weeks ago at Blue Lake, and it reminded me of our trip to Lake Ingalls three years ago. It was our first fall hiking in the PNW and I had no idea what to expect. Lake Ingalls turned out to be one of the most beautiful (and busiest) hikes I had been on.
In addition to being stunningly beautiful, Lake Ingalls came with a few lessons as well. As we were brand new fall hikers, it did not even occur to me that it could snow on October 1st. Before I had figured out my system for choosing a hike in Washington (which includes checking the weather twice), I didn’t check the weather at the elevation or location we were going to. It looked sunny, so we would probably be fine! The only thing I did to prepare for fall weather was be friends with someone who always brings a thermos. Thank you Meg!
In the end, it was an incredible opportunity to see alpine larches at their peak and inspired an interest in their biology. It also taught me valuable lessons about hiking in shoulder seasons and how to prepare for winter weather for Fall hikes.
The trail started in a forested valley, climbing up switchbacks. We could see mist and smoke snaking through the peaks, as a fire crew was doing controlled burns along the road. While beautiful, this area was similar to the long drive on a bumpy road. Then, we crossed the Ingall’s Pass and the scene changed dramatically. Golden larches as far as the eye could see.
It became much rockier with expansive copper-colored rocks. Our first view of Mt. Stuart appeared, though the summit was hidden by clouds. Golden larches dotted the landscape. We continued down the trail and into the valley.
We crossed through stunning meadows with shallow alpine streams cutting through it. I grew up in Washington and thought I knew what Autumn looked like. Large maple leaves and chestnuts in the Washington Arboretum, every weekend raking the leaves of the large cedar in my parent’s backyard. Cider and pumpkins. Fall in the alpine is a completely different beast.
To see larches, most of the time it means heading to the East side of the Cascades. Larches are considered deciduous conifers, aka cone trees that drop their needles. Technically, Washington has two native larch species, the western larch (Larix occidentalis) and subalpine larch (Larix lyalli). As you might expect, the subalpine larch occurs at higher elevations and they are shaped differently. The western larch has a more triangular shape and greater height, while the subalpine tend to have branches in all directions and a shorter height.
If you live in Seattle and want to see larches, it usually requires a 3-hour drive. Every year, social media is alive with questions about how to find larches within an hour of Seattle, and every year the answer is to saddle up and make the drive. 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. While a long drive can put you in the land of the golden larches, there are other spectacular fall colors to see on the west side as well.
WTA claims that there are some larches in Washington Park Arboretum, Ravenna Park and Woodland Park in Seattle, so it is possible to see individual trees out of their native habitat. Nothing quite compares to the craggy peaks of the North Cascades, or glowing warm rocks of Salmon La Sac covered in the golden trees.
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.
As we continued weaving through larches, the skies began to darken, resulting in dramatic views before us. At this point, I started to slightly worry about what we had signed up for. The clouds did not look terribly friendly and I knew we weren’t terribly prepared for rain.
After a number of meadows and flat traverses, the trail began to climb again to reach the lake. The camera was stored away at this point, as the trail became rockier and more of a scramble. Eventually, we rounded the corner to reveal Lake Ingalls. The view of the lake was phenomenal. The water was a deep blue, and the warm rocky cirque provided the most brilliant contrast. Mt. Stuart hovers at the end of the lake but was obscured by clouds.
Joyful to have made it to the lake, we relaxed with some hot tea and snacks. As we sat, the mist began to crawl over the lake and a light rain began. No problem! We have rain jackets! Hikers prepared for a hike in Washington.
With the rain coming down harder, we decided to pack up and hit the trail. At this moment we realized only half of the people have rain jackets. This was also the day that I realized my rain jacket was no longer waterproof. We were all missing rain paints, and were barely equipped for rain, least of all snow.
The lake basin had been very busy and it turned into a long, slow line to leave the lake and get on the trail. With the snow and rain, everyone had to move very slowly for the scramble section and had to descend one at a time. Hikers began wandering off trail and it was difficult to see with snow blowing into our eyes. This was the first moment I had that sinking feeling that you are in over your head and the type II fun begins.
I have now been on many hikes seen all over social media for a time. Prior to this hike, when they come across my Facebook feed over and over, I falsely assumed that it must be relatively harmless, as so many people were completing them. I am grateful I got to learn the lesson to prepare for hikes regardless of social media early in my hiking career with no long-term negative consequences. Now, when I see hikers on trails that are clearly new and under prepared, I have compassion remembering my ignorance on this day. It also compels me to try and educate people before they are on the trail, so it is not such a miserable learning experience.
We trudged back the way we came in the snow as it began to stick. After we crossed Ingalls Pass, the snow turned back to rain and we took soggy steps back to the car. When we got back to the car we took off our wet clothes and bundled in warm blankets. There was a full thermos of tea and before too long we were warm and cozy.
I highly recommend visiting Lake Ingalls for beautiful larch views, just make sure to check the forecast first and be ready for winter conditions!