As pumpkin spice goods flood the stores and coffee shops all around the Puget Sound, there’s an autumn event that’s far more exciting to many Seattleites. With the days of summer fading away and temperatures starting to drop, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts venture high in the hills on the slopes of the eastern Cascades hoping to catch a glimpse of a fall tradition unlike any other: the wonderful, beautiful, and illusive larch.
Each and every fall over the past few years, Larch Madness has been buzzing through Seattle’s hiking communities. Starting in late September and lasting through half of October, the search for Larches hits an unrivaled level of excitement. A yellowish-green in the spring and summer months, the return of the cold weather turns the needles become a brilliant gold color for a few weeks, then transition to an orange color until the needles drop around Halloween. When the first hint of gold is spotted, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts become awash with a non-stop scroll of images, each enticing and inspiring us to get out and find our own golden wonderland.
What are larches?
Although they look like pine trees, larches are not evergreens like similar-looking conifers—they’re possibly the Evergreen State’s most sought-after deciduous trees. That means that unlike the normal trees you see retaining needles throughout the year, like the Douglas fir, the needles on Larches fall off in the autumn months, like the hand-sized leaves of broadleaf maples.
Washington State is home to two types of larches, the western and subalpine. Western larches can grow to around 170 feet tall and and are found on north-facing slopes between 2,000 and 5,500 feet in elevation. Subalpine larches are shorter, reaching around 70 feet in height due to a higher elevation: 5,500 to 7,500 feet.
Where can I find larch forests?
Larches most commonly grow on the eastern side of the Cascades because they need more sunlight to thrive in young forests recovering from fires. Western Washington is too gray, too wet, and not fire-prone enough for them to flourish. That’s why you have to go east to truly experience the majesty of these golden idols.
In the Snoqualmie area, there are three main hikes to see the larches, all starting from the same trailhead. The first is Esmerelda Basin, a two-hour drive from Seattle. This seven-mile-round-trip trek is a favorite from spring to fall, but with 1,700 feet in elevation gain, it can be a bit steep for new hikers. In this same area always classic Lake Ann trail, gaining 2,200 feet in 8.2 miles round trip. Those hoping to get further away from the crowds and the dogs should hike the 9 mile round trip trail to Lake Ingalls, which gains 2,500 feet of elevation. Any of these hikes will be great, just be aware that you’ll be sharing the parking area and trailhead with lots people, so Leave No Trace and carry an extra garbage bag to keep the trail immaculate for all.
Along Highway 20, there are four main trail options for to start your larch-viewing adventures.
To reach Cutthroat Lake and Cutthroat Pass, you’ll be driving from Seattle for roughly three hours before you reach the trailhead. It’s a long trip to take, but the rewards are worth the extra effort. Cutthroat Lake is the shorter hike, covering just 3.8 miles round trip and gaining an easy 400 feet of elevation. Those hoping for a harder hike, and more larches with fewer people, can head up to Cutthroat Pass. This trail is 11.4 miles round trip and gains 2,300 feet of elevation.
Blue Lake Trail is also in the general area. This trail is another classic larch hike, covering just 4.4 miles in total distance, but gaining more than 1,000 feet of elevation. The gain helps thin out some crowds to this stunning lake. Those hoping for an even less popular hike will enjoy the seven-mile, 2,800-foot gain to larches found along the Easy Pass Trail.
Along the North Cascades Highway, you’ll also find the Heather-Maple Pass Loop Trail. Not only will you find larches on this 7.2-mile-round-trip hike, you’ll also have jaw-dropping views of the always-scenic mountains after 2,000 feet in elevation gain.
Stevens and Blewett passes have a handful of good larch hikes, although they’re a long drive from downtown Seattle. About three hours from the city, Carne Mountain is a classic larch destination just north of Leavenworth. Here, you’ll find incredible forests of larches along the eight-mile-round-trip trek with a leg-burning 3,600 feet of elevation gain.
Off Blewett Pass, hiking Tronsen Ridge gives you fantastic views and great larches. This trail is also eight miles round trip, but only gains 1,000 feet of elevation, making it the “easier” of the two hikes.
Also along Highway 2, you’ll find short-and-sweet trail Clara and Marion Lakes. Right near Wenatchee, this trail is just 3.2 miles round trip and gaining 900 feet of elevation. This is a fun hike, especially if you’re already in the area.
We end with the cream of the crop for larch lovers: The Enchantments. While best seen as a permit-only backpacking trip, anyone hoping for serious hiking and incredible views of Cascades wildnerness should consider a trip here.
Hiking in the Enchantments is popular—parking can be rough to find, even on weekdays—but not for beginners. Those who do have the skills and patience will find a jaw-dropping display of larches awaiting them in this mountainous paradise.
These are by no means the only trails to see larches in their golden beauty, but should provide a start to planning your own larch marches. For more larch sighting pictures and information, consider becoming one of the many larch lurkers in the Washington Hikers and Climbers Facebook group. Remember that larches are the fall event in the Cascades, so parking areas will fill up and the roads and trails will be crowded. Pack your patience and practice trail etiquette to ensure that you and all around you have a great time in the alpine bliss.
Are there any larch locations closer to Seattle?
Not everyone can get out of town, drive for a few hours, and hike miles uphill to see the larches of the Pacific Northwest. Luckily, a handful of parks in and around the Emerald City have planted these trees for all to enjoy.
There are four local spots where you can see larches in all their glory without having to trek into the higher elevations of the Cascade Mountains. In the Seattle city limits, you can find larches at Washington Park Arboretum, Ravenna Park, and Woodland Park. Out on Bainbridge Island, the Bloedel Reserve sports a few of these deciduous beauties, giving you a fun reason to take the ferry across the Puget Sound.
This article has been corrected to note that larches are both conifers and deciduous.