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 trees—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.
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 but routes are crowded. Arrive early and share the trail.
Two very popular larch destinations, the Enchantments and Lake Ingalls, don't allow pets on the trail. And yes, you could very well get an expensive citation if you disregard the rules. 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.
If the last time you went hiking was back when the Kraken were a pipe dream, note that now it's almost winter in the mountains—and snow is likely. 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. Popular Yellow Aster Butte near Mount Baker is famous for its shades of autumn, as are the mountains around Ross Lake.