Sunny Walter's
Washington Nature Weekends

Fall Color Viewing Locations

(All photos on this site are © Sunny Walter unless otherwise noted - click on images to see enlargements)

Brilliant fall color starts with enough moisture during the summer; sunny, but cool, days in September and early October; and chilly-but-not-freezing nights.  These conditions boost the formation of anthocyanin that adds more intense colors.  During optimum conditions, many aspen turn orange instead of yellow.  Drought, early hard frosts, or storms can spoil the color.

Color is often good in late September, but normally reaches its peak during the first 2 weeks of October.  Color near the Columbia River and on the Olympic Peninsula peaks in late October or even into the first week in November.  Check with the nearest National Forest or National Park ranger station.

[Note of caution: after mid-October, be careful where you walk in the national forests or other hunting areas and remember to wear red or orange (except in national parks).  Regular deer hunting season starts in mid-October; early deer and elk muzzleloader start a week earlier]

North Cascades and West

Kettle River Range to Selkirk Mountains

Fall Color Hikes
Central Cascades
South Cascades

Blue Mountains
.. ..

Mount Baker

Heather Meadows Recreation Area is 56 miles east of Bellingham on State Route 542 – in the rugged North Cascades. The area clings to a ridgeline between Mounts Shuksan and Baker and offers marvelous views of Shuksan glaciers.

From late August through September, the alpine meadows are loaded with huckleberry bushes (deep red, with blue berries) and mountain ash (muted yellow to flame orange leaves and red berries). The trails around Picture Lake are a lovely place to wander for Mount Shuksan reflections and color in late September or early October.
For fall color hikes through October, go to Hikes.

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North Cascades Highway / Methow Valley

The North Cascades Highway has spectacular places to enjoy the blazing yellow of cottonwoods and aspens and, at higher elevations, the gold of the subalpine larch.  Start at Marblemount in Western Washington and drive north and east on State Route 20 (hikers can take a side trip up the Cascade Pass trail where vine maples begin to turn red in late September).

Continue north on SR 20, stopping at the North Cascades Visitor Center, just before Newhalem, to ask the rangers about fall color locations.

Stop at the Rainy Pass picnic area for a paved, barrier-free trail to Rainy Lake. The one mile forest trail ends at an alpine lake ringed by steep peaks.  The same trailhead takes you to Lake Ann (four miles r.t.) or Maple Pass (eight miles r.t., 1800 gain) -- a favorite fall color hike.

Don’t miss the Washington Pass Overlook five miles east. The quarter mile loop trail takes you to views of rugged Liberty Bell and Early Winters spires. Enjoy the award-winning restroom building. As you start down the east side of Washington Pass you start to see a few small groups of subalpine larches that turn golden in October. These larches, along with the taller western larches, are a spectacular feature of eastern Washington mountains.

The highway continues east down into the Methow Valley, running between hillsides covered with rust and yellow. Stop at the visitor center at milepost 192 for fall color updates. Mountain biking is a great way to see the fall foliage in the Methow. The rolling foothills are covered with trails, and the Methow Valley Trail System is open to bicycles off-season. The Mountain Bike Festival is held on the first weekend in October; we enjoyed the leisurely and scenic lunch bike trip up Rendezvous Pass.

For more larches, head east out of Twisp and stay on SR 20 instead of turning south on SR 153 to Brewster. Deer are often seen when driving over Loup Loup Pass.  To take a larch side trip up Starvation Mountain, turn north on Forest Road 42 near milepost 215 (Loup Loup Ski Area). Stay on FR 42, and then FR 4235 (all one lane gravel roads, some steep and winding, but well graded) and follow the Starvation Mountain signs.  Miles six to nine are the best for color. Look out across the valley at gorgeous hillsides of golden larch (mid-October).  New larches are coming up in a burned area at 8.5 miles.  We also saw tiny black squirrels scampering up the trees.  At 15.7 miles is the top of the mountain, a large turn around, but limited views through the trees.

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Fall Color Locations from Washington Nature Weekends Book
Harts Pass

Spectacular golden larches at dawn from Slate Peak

(see chapter 41)

Boulder Creek

Golden larches from Boulder Creek Road

Blue Mountains
Red barn and fall foliage from Coppei Creek Road
(see chapter 45,
Walla Walla Festival of Fall Foliage and Feathers)

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Pend Oreille River / Selkirk Mountains
Drive east on State Route 20 until you reach the Pend Oreille River, then turn north on SR 31. Stop at the town of Ione to take the festive Lion’s Excursion Train that runs between Ione and Metaline Falls.  Three fall color weekends are scheduled; the first weekend in October is often the best.
South of Ione, cross the Pend Oreille River and drive the Sullivan Lake loop for beautiful fall color along the lake and the road. You will end up back on SR 31 just north of Metaline Falls -- and 12 miles from the Canadian border.

Take the side trips below to enjoy fall color and views in the Selkirk Mountains:

  • Drive east on Sullivan Lake Road (Forest Road 22), then north on FR 242 to Sullivan Mountain Lookout.  Walk the last half mile to the lookout.  Views and color everywhere.
  • Continue east on FR 22, then FR 2200, up Sullivan Creek and then Deemer Creek.  Turn left on FR 270? to Salmo Mountain Lookout in the Salmo Priest Wilderness, only a few miles from the Idaho border.  Watch for snow in October.
From Metaline Falls to Tiger, the drive south along the Pend Oreille River has aspen everywhere.  The yellow foliage across the river makes lovely reflections in the water.  Stop at the eagle-viewing pullout at milepost 10 -- the cottonwoods across the river are a brilliant yellow, with the huge dark eagle nest a nice contrast.  Box Canyon Dam is a half mile south of milepost 8 and the Box Canyon Viewpoint road is another half mile south.  This is an excellent place to watch the fall color excursion train on its return trip to Ione. All along this route the hillsides are covered with muted colors – gold, rust, orange – and the aspen are in small groups all along the way from the Metaline Falls Bridge to Ione near milepost 4.

In the town of Ione and to the west are beautiful stands of aspen, and huge round maple trees thick with yellow leaves grace the main part of town. As an added note, we saw 3 white-tailed deer in Ione Park – just east of town center on the river. At the junction of SR 31 and SR 20, the Tiger Store Historical Site is being rebuilt into a rest area.

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Stevens/Swauk/Snoqualmie Pass Loop

From Everett or Monroe, take U.S. Highway 2 east across Stevens Pass.  Just east of the summit, hikers can take the three mile r.t. hike up to Lake Vahalla, a favorite Audubon birding trip in late September; fall color in early October. You will hike through beautiful alpine woods and meadows to a picturesque mountain lake. See red-tailed hawks, hairy woodpeckers, gray jays, common ravens, golden-crowned sparrows, ruby and golden-crowned kinglets.

The fall color between Coles Corner (SR 207/Lake Wenatchee turnoff) and Leavenworth is often spectacular.  Take US 2 or explore the back roads (north on SR 207, then east on SR 209 and back south through Plain). The annual Washington State Autumn Leaf Festival is held in late September/early October in Leavenworth.
To finish your loop, drive south on US 97 through more Wenatchee National Forest fall color, then take the Cle Elum turnoff to reach Interstate 90.  For a birding break, take a side trip up to one of the hawk watching sites off US 97 (Red Top Mountain or Lion Rock).

Follow I-90 west across Snoqualmie Pass, passing hillsides of red huckleberry bushes, yellow aspen and cottonwoods.  Several miles west of Easton, take I-90 exit 62 and drive north on Kachess Lake Road until you reach the lake. Take a left up Gale Creek Road # 4948 and enjoy the rare brilliant reds of Douglas maple in the clear-cuts.  Good fall mushroom hunting in the old-growth timber.

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U.S. Highway 12 / Skate Creek / Mount Rainier Loop

The section of US 12 that crosses the Cascade Mountains between Naches and Packwood (north of Mount Adams) is quite colorful in early October. Begin your trip just west of Naches by turning left on US 12 to White Pass. Drive up into the Oak Creek Wildlife Area on the 1st road past headquarters area to see subtle fall color. Then continue west on US 12 up the Tieton River drainage towards Rimrock Lake -- golden stands of western larches, aspen and cottonwoods in full autumn color.

To see mountain goats on the rocky slopes of Timberwolf Mountain; turn right (north) near milepost 168 and take Bethel Ridge Road to the top. To see if the kokanee salmon are running, turn left (south) west of Rimrock Lake to the Tieton River bridge. To continue your fall color drive, head west on US 12 over White Pass to a scenic overlook at Clear Creek Falls near milepost 154.

Stay on US 12 to the ranger station in Packwood, then turn right (north) on Skate Creek Road. This scenic road, with its soft fall colors, winds along Skate Creek up to Ashford, just west of Mount Rainier.

Turn right on State Route 706 and enter Mount Rainier National Park at the Nisqually entrance.  At the very top is Paradise – red splashes of low bush huckleberries create a riot of color along the easy walking paths as September turns into October.

Continue east down Stevens Canyon and stop at Reflection Lake for more color and gorgeous reflections of Mount Rainier (best at dawn). A few miles further is the trailhead for the 2.5 miles r.t. hike to Bench and Snow Lakes. Here, you can enjoy a small silver forest accented by the red of mountain ash and huckleberries -- and sometimes a spectacular display of bear grass. The rest of the drive down Stevens Canyon is filled with color on the slopes below. The Grove of the Patriarchs is at the east park entrance — an easy walk through giant trees.

To complete your loop, turn left (north) at the park entrance, then right (east) on SR 410. Stop at Lake Tipsoo for more reflections of Mount Rainier -- spectacular at dawn. The five mile Naches Peak loop is best hiked clockwise for gorgeous views of Mount Rainier and flaming red blueberry leaves (fall). In late September, listen for the bugling elk as evening approaches. Finish your loop at the intersection of SR 410 and US 12 – lots of larches along the way.

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Links checked and updated on:  September 4, 2003
Text and photos are copyright © 2000, 2001 Sunny Walter (unless otherwise noted)
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