Branching Out

Larch Season Is Finally Here

And it's already almost over. The Cascade color show is as spectacular as it is ephemeral, so the gold rush is on.

By Allison Williams

They were all yellow.

Image: Grant Roush

Forget decorative gourds. In the Pacific Northwest, it's mother-effing larch season.

The western larch (otherwise known as the Larix occidentalis) and the alpine larch (Larix lyallii) kinda look like a pine tree—lots of needles bundled along thin branches. But they're no evergreens; each autumn the needles turn bright yellow, then orange, before falling off. The color, set against sub-alpine landscapes, is sensational. Leaf peeping, New England? Lame. Here we go on larch marches.

Photos of the trees are Instagram gold, but it's not easy to catch them at their prime. Here's tips for how to larch it up from Seattle:

Take All Day

Larches are located east of the Cascade crest; the western larch grows at elevations up to 6,000 feet. That means it takes a little work to see them. Expect to drive a couple hours to the central or north Cascades, then hike a couple more. Few larches can be seen from the road; they're on trails as short as 1.9 miles to Cutthroat Lake or as long as an 18-mile thru-hike of the Enchantments.

Image: Grant Roush

Time for Prime

Generally the needles are at their yellowy peak for the first two weeks of October, then get orange-y the closer it gets to Halloween. Consider it the season that bridges pumpkin spice lattes and trick-or-treating.

Expect a Crowd

Larches are exciting! But everyone thinks the same thing. Pack your patience on popular beginner trails like Cutthroat and Blue Lake, where parking is limited and routes are crowded. Arrive early and share the trail.

Match Your Fitness 

Some of the most isolated larch spots are in Eastern Washington's sub-mountain ranges—the Sawtooths, the Entiats, the Pasayten. The trees are so hardy, anchored in places prone to forest fires and bitter winds, that even as the delicate needles fly off in confetti clouds, the trees themselves will make it through winter. For all that beauty, these remote spots require a long hike. For those who haven't spent the summer prepping for long treks, try Blewett Pass's short Swauk Forest Discovery Trail or the not-too-steep Tronson Ridge, both south of Leavenworth.

Consider Ditching Fido

Two very popular larch destinations, the Enchantments and Lake Ingalls, don't allow pets on the trail. Rule breakers could very well get an expensive citation, not to mention disturb fragile landscape. But there are still spots where dogs are welcome in larch country, like Heather-Maple Pass Loop; it veers close to North Cascade National Park (where dogs are prohibited) but the route stays just outside. 

Image: Grant Roush

Bundle Up

If the last time you went hiking was back when the Kraken was a pipe dream, note that now it's almost winter in the mountains—and snow is possible. Pack multiple layers of warm clothing, traction devices like micro spikes, and all the 10 Essentials recommended for outdoor activity. Read up on trails to prepare for hazards and conditions; the excellent nonprofit Washington Trails Association (we've linked to their trail reports) has oodles of updated info.

Share the Love

Remember that what makes larch needles pretty is, well, their death. A stiff breeze or a human hand easily knocks them from branches. When capturing the perfect 'gram, fight the temptation to hug a tree.

Widen the Scope

While the yellow and orange larches draw crowds, there's plenty of fall color from plant life around the Cascades—oranges and deep reds and even tawny browns. Great photos come from all kinds of trails. Popular Yellow Aster Butte near Mount Baker is famous for its autumn shades, as are the mountains around Ross Lake.

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