Falling For Larch Madness In Washington State
When the temperatures start to drop and the days become noticeably shorter in Washington, it can be tempting to grab a good book, a cup of coffee and resign yourself to a life of indoor confinement for the next 6 months. But wait! You don’t need to pack up your hiking boots and submit to a pumpkin spice-induced torpor just yet. There is one last natural phenomenon just starting to unfold on the eastern slops of the cascades.
Washington’s larches are about to turn a brilliant gold hue! That’s right, those gangly-looking pine trees that you thought were just run of the mill evergreens aren’t evergreens at all. They’re larches. And I’m here to make sure you don’t miss the show affectionately known as the “Larch March” or “Larch Madness” that is about to unfold in Washington State. Below you will find some of the best hiking trails in Washington to see golden larches!
What Are Larch Trees
They may look like pine trees, but larches are not evergreens like similar-looking conifers that you find through Washington. Instead, larches are actually a cleverly disguised deciduous tree. That means that, unlike the typical needled tree you see, the needles on larches actually change a brilliant gold color in the fall before finally falling off the tree in late October.
You can find two different kinds of larches in Washington State – the western and subalpine. Western larches can grow up to 170 feet tall and are located on north-facing slopes between 2,000 and 5,500 feet in elevation. Subalpine larches, on the other hand, are significantly shorter and grow at elevations above 5,500. Needless to say, that means that in Washington State, you are going to need to strap on your hiking boots to see the most of the more impressive larch displays!
Where Do Larch Trees Grow In Washington
With a few exceptions, Larches most often can be found on the eastern side of the Cascades. This is because they flourish off the abundant sunlight found in young forests recovering from wildfires. Western Washington is too wet and dark for larches to truly thrive. When Larch Madness hits each year, you’ll find that Washington’s outdoor enthusiasts start heading east.
How Long Does Golden Larch Hiking Season Last
Like most good things, larch season is fleeting. The usually lime green needles start to change color in late September and usually hit peak color during the first week of October before dropping their needles in late October. As with all things nature-related, this timeline is just an approximation, and the exact peak season for larches in Washington will vary year by year, and even from hike to hike. In fact, some years, when snow accumulates early in the season, it may not be possible to experience the golden larches at all.
The Best Golden Larch Hikes In Washington State
Washington is blessed with an abundance of hikes where you can experience golden larches. Here are some of my favorite larch hikes!
1. Healther Maple Pass Loop Trail
Distance: 7.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 2000
Difficulty: Moderately Difficult
Maple Pass Loop is probably the only hike in Washington that I do every single year. Sometimes more than once. The first half of October is arguably the best time to go because the Larches are likely to be at their golden peak. A sight you don’t want to miss!
You can hike the loop trail clockwise or counterclockwise. I’ve done both, and I’m not sure which way is better. Going clockwise, you get the steep part of the trail over with, and your knees can enjoy a more gradual descent on the home stretch. If you do the hike counterclockwise, the views slowly unfold as you climb, and of course, the climb is a little more gradual on the way up. You can’t really go wrong, though!
Located in the heart of the North Cascades Highway, just getting to the Maple Pass trailhead is a bit of an adventure, but the drive is beautiful, and it’s a great excuse to stop and take in the splendid North Cascade views at the Diablo Lake Overlook.
The Heather Maple Pass Loop is one of my Top 10 Favorite Hikes In Washington. Check out the rest here!
2. Cutthroat Pass
Distance: 11 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 2,000 ft.
There are two different ways to access Cutthroat Pass. You can hike it from the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), located across from the Rainy Pass Trailhead on Highway 20. Or you can access the Pass via Cutthroat Lake. I prefer to do it as a shuttle, starting on the PCT and ending at the Cutthroat Lake Trailhead. Of course, this requires that you have two cars, which won’t always be the case.
Starting on the PCT, the first couple miles of this hike are through lovely but dense forest, so don’t expect a lot of views in the beginning – or larches. Around the 3.5 mile mark, the trees start to thin, and you’ll encounter your first golden larches! From here up until the pass, you’ll be hiking in a golden wonderland. At 5 miles, you’ll reach Cutthroat Pass. From the pass, enjoy expansive views of the North Cascades, golden larches as far as the eye can see, and Cutthroat Lake below you. On a nice day, there are few places better suited for a mountain picnic.
From the pass, you can either continue along the PCT or head down toward Cutthroat Lake and your second car (if you are doing the shuttle). Otherwise, just turn around and continue back the way you came. Although this trail is long, the gradual grade makes it a relatively easy 11 miles. In fact, it’s a popular trail for trail running, and I even saw a couple mountain bikers peddling their way up to the pass from the lake.
Do this hike as a shuttle with one car parked at the Pacific Crest Trail parking lot across from the Rainy Pass Trailhead on Highway 20 and a second car parked at the Cutthroat Lake. If you have time, Blue Lake and Heather Maple Pass Loop are also located in this area. Stay in the nearby towns of Mazama or Winthrop and check them all off your list!
3. Blue Lake
Distance: 4.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1000 ft.
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
The North Cascades are home to some of the most spectacular alpine scenery in the Pacific Northwest. Not to mention some of the best larch hikes in Washington. If epic is what you’re looking for, then the Cascades have you covered. Finding a leisurely hike, on the other hand, is a little more complicated. In general, a lot of effort is required to achieve the expansive views that the North Cascades are famous for.
Blue Lake is a welcome exception to this rule. It’s one of the more challenging trails on this list of easy hikes in Washington. Still, it’s not every day that you can experience a shockingly blue alpine lake set against a dramatic mountain cirque in just under 5 miles round trip. The trailhead for Blue Lake is located directly off the North Cascades highway, making it a great way to break up the long drive over Cascade Pass.
Before you head home, drive a mile further east on Highway 20, walk a hundred yards or so from the parking area, and check out the Washington Pass Overlook for an absolutely stunning view – and more larches! In fact, this may be one of the few spots where you can witness larches in Washington without leaving your car.
Blue Lake made my list of Top Easy Hikes In Washington That Are Actually Worth It! For more easy hikes in Washington read the article.
4. Colchuck Lake
Distance: 8 miles
Elevation Gain: 2300 ft
Difficulty: Moderately Difficult
Colchuck Lake is the most popular hike in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. The Enchantment Lakes are legendary in Washington for a reason. The peaks and many lakes have names based on mythology and magic, and it’s not hard to understand why once you’re there. Colchuck Lake is the most accessible of these jewel-colored lakes, and I would argue that it’s also the most picturesque in many ways. The hike wanders its way through a cool forest, across a river, through a boulder field, and then back up through some more trees before finally opening up to Colchuck Lake.
At around 2.3 miles, you’ll reach a fork in the trail. Turn left to go to Colchuck. If you miss this turn, you’ll end up at Stuart Lake, which is lovely, but you won’t find any larches there. After the fork, the trail up to Colchuck Lake get’s a little more strenuous. Although the route to the lake is well marked and maintained, there are a lot of roots and rocks to navigate. As a result, you can never really get into a good groove, and you have to constantly pay attention to your footing. But it’s totally worth it!
If you have the time and you’re up for the challenge, the views looking down on Colchuck Lake from Aasgard Pass are worth the effort. That being said, don’t underestimate the amount of time this undertaking will likely require. Hiking 2000 feet in just three-quarters of a mile is no joke! If you’d like to spend more time exploring Colchuck Lake and its enchanted siblings, you can apply for backcountry permits on the recreation.gov website.
5. The Core Enchantments
Distance: Approximately 19 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 5,000 feet
Total Elevation Loss: 7,000 feet
Difficulty: Extremely Difficult
Growing up in Washington, hiking The Enchantments feels a bit like a rite of passage. Even more during larch season. And yet, somehow, the core zone of The Enchantments alluded me for years, mainly because this area requires permits for overnight trips.
I’ve never been one of the lucky few to win an overnight permit into the “Core Enchantments.” And I’ve always convinced myself that I wasn’t up for doing the thru-hike in one day. But that’s rubbish! Yes, it’s a strenuous hike. Yes, hiking 2oish miles in a single go makes for a very long day. But I honestly think that anyone in reasonably good shape can day hike The Enchantments. Like most long-distance endeavors, it’s more of a mental challenge than anything else. But when the views live up to their name, as they do in The Enchantments, even the mental challenge is easily surmountable.
Check out my guide on thru-hiking the Enchantments in one day for detailed information on how to check this bucket list hike off your list!
6. Lake Ingalls
Distance: 9 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 2,500 ft.
Lake Ingalls in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is one of the most most popular hikes for golden larches in Washington. The trail starts from the parking lot, following the North Fork of the Teanaway River for a short distance before branching off to Lake Ingalls. You’ll pass through several ecosystems on your way up to the lake, and while the trail is steep in places, the views are absolutely worth the effort.
At two miles up, another trail junction occurs. The left (straight) trail takes you upwards to Ingalls Pass and to Lake Ingalls. At the top of the pass, stop to enjoy views of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Stuart. The next mile will take you through Headlight Basin, where you’ll be able to get up close and personal with golden larches and fall colors galore.
From the pass, there are two paths up to Lake Ingalls. The more defined trail to the left is the lower trail. It will take you on a meandering down the pass towards the lake. The upper path to the right offers a more direct, albeit rough route to Lake Ingalls. Having a GPS map of the area downloaded on your phone can come in very handy for this section of the hike.
7. Carne Mountain
Distance: 8 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,600 ft.
Except for day hiking The Core Enchantments, this is the most strenuous trail on the list. Not only that, but if you are coming from the Seattle area, the drive is pretty horrendous. For those reasons, I thought we would find some solitude on the trail to Carne Mountain. Boy, was I wrong! I can honestly say that this was the busiest I have ever seen a hiking trail in Washington. To be fair, it was a Saturday during peak larch season. But it was also pretty crappy weather, so go figure.
I mention this not because I want to persuade you from hiking Carne Mountain. I don’t! It’s on my list of best larch hikes in Washington for a reason. But I also think that it’s essential to set realistic expectations. If you show up on the weekend during larch season, you will likely be sharing the trail up to Carne Mountain with hundreds of other hikers and their dogs. Fair warning.
Now for the good stuff! Start out on the Phelps Creek Trail 0.25 miles to the Carne Mountain Trail. Once you are on the Carne Mountain Trail, you are looking at approximately 3 miles of relentless switchbacks through dense forest before you finally break out into a basin filled with golden larches. It can be tempting to stop here, and I noticed that many people did just that. I encourage you to keep going! Trust me, the final push up to the summit is well worth it and nothing compared to what you have already completed. Turn left at the Old Gin Trail junction and head up to the saddle between Carne Mountains two summits. The higher of the two is to the left. From there, enjoy 360-degree views and larches as far as the eye can see!
Carne is pronounced “karn” as opposed to “kar-nay.”
What To Wear On Your Larch Hike In Washington
Larches grow at high elevation which means that you should be prepared for a wide range of conditions on your larch hike. The weather can change quickly and dramatically in Washington’s mountains, and it’s essential to be prepared for anything Mother Nature feels like throwing your way.
Day Pack: Ospreys Sirrus 36L Backpack is my favorite day pack. It’s not the lightest pack I own, but I find that with the support it offers—including padded waist straps—it’s much more comfortable than many ultralight packs. The Sirrus 24L Backpack, is also a great option. The Sirrus line has an integrated rain cover as well! I also like Patagonia’s 9 Trails Backpack.
Down Jacket: Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hooded Down Jacket is my go-to layer for warmth right now. It has an excellent warmth to weight ratio and packs down to nothing in my bag.
Rain Jacket: Rab Kinetic Plus Hooded Jacket is hands down the best waterproof jacket I’ve owned. It’s the perfect blend of comfort and function.
Breathable Base Layer: When you need temperature regulation and comfort over the long haul, Icebreaker base layers are a great, environmentally friendly option.
Hiking Boots: I always hesitate to recommend hiking shoes because I know that everyone has different preferences, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. That being said, I’m on my third pair of Keen Terridoras (in three years), and when my current pair falls apart, I’ll probably get another pair.
Good Hiking Socks: Merino fibers naturally resist odor during extended use while also providing superior breathability and softness. I own a few pairs of these Darn Tough socks and a couple Smartwool socks, and I honestly love them equally.
Ten Essentials: Whether you’re going on a short day hike or camping deep in the backcountry, you should always carry The TEN ESSENTIALS for outdoor adventure with you. They might just save your life!
Headlamp: Days are short during October in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s always a good idea to cary a light with you. There are fancier headlamps out there, but I like to keep it simple. The Petzl Actik Core Headlamp is easy to operate, very lightweight, and charging is a breeze with a micro-USB or AAA batteries.
Backcountry.com is also a great resource. Not only do they carry a large variety of widely respected outdoor brands, but their expert Gearheads are also always available to answer specific questions you might have about the right gear for you. Plus, you can get 15% off your entire order by using JESS15 at checkout.
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is built on seven core principles that outline the best available minimum impact guidance for enjoying the outdoors responsibly. The principles include:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces (aka stay on the trail)
- Dispose of Waste Properly (use the provided pit toilets)
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts (There are no campfires permitted in The Enchantments)
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
I encourage you to visit The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics for more detail regarding these priciples, as well as information on how you can protect the beautiful places we all love so much.
I hope that this post can help you experience the magic of Larch Madness in Washington State! There are so many beautiful golden larch hikes in Washington it was hard to narrow down the list. Do you have a favorite larch hike that I missed? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
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