Larches, oh larches! Early October is often known as larch madness in Washington. If you’re someone who likes to hike and who likes aesthetics and staying with the trends, you’ve probably have heard of the famous larches, trees that turn this gorgeous golden yellow in the fall. Now, maybe like me, you’ve googled where to find larches, but you see the same 5 or so hikes on the internet.
But did you know that there are more places to find larches than they say? I’m no expert, but I’ve had my share of experiences. So in this guide, we’ll go through what larches are and I’ll share generically how to find them without going to super busy locations!
What are larches?
Larches are coniferous trees that are not evergreen. Weird right? But also beautiful! So if they’re not evergreen, what happens to them? Larches still have needles and cones, but they lose them every winter just like other deciduous trees. But the big craze about them is that they turn yellow before their leaves fall off, revealing a wonderful display of color in the mountains. But why do they turn yellow – don’t other trees just lose their needles when they’re green? A quick little research says that larches have developed the need to store nutrients for the winter, which doesn’t allow them to photosynthesize anymore. Aka they can’t create chlorophyll that makes the needles green. So they turn yellow!
Where do larches grow?
In different areas, larches might be called tamarack. And there’s several varieties of them too. You might find them on mountain slopes, on benches (flatter regions) or even lower in valleys. Generally speaking, larches are found in the upper Rockies and Cascades parts of the Pacific Northwest. In Washington, the western larch can be found between 2000 and 5500 ft in elevation in cooler but moist climates. On the other hand, the subalpine larch is found around 6000-10000 ft in elevation over rocky and shallow soils. More specifically, larches are found in the eastern side of the Cascades from central Cascades to the north Cascades. But definitely there are seemingly random pockets of larches elsewhere too, where the climate works well and the rain shadow allows for the growth of larches. And from experience, if the soil is dry and dusty and you see more pine trees than hemlock and fir, you’re probably in the right area where larches grow. And personally, I’ve seen them grow anywhere from the Cle Elum-Leavenworth side of the mountains to Mazama in the North Cascades in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, usually starting around the 6000 ft elevation mark. But do note that you can also find them in northeast Washington like the Colville National Forest and into Idaho, Montana, and even across the borders into both British Columbia and Alberta. I will just be focusing on the Cascade Range, which is most accessible to the majority of the population in Washington/for those traveling into Seattle.
If you’re lucky, you might get a chance to see larches around the world too! They exist in the Himalayas, Siberia, and the Alps (and more pockets of places too). My favorite was seeing them in the Dolomites in Italy!
It can vary a bit year by year depending on the weather, but in general, you can start seeing them turn yellow in late September and into early-mid October. They also tend to start turning yellow the higher in elevation and further north, so in theory, you can enjoy a longer season of yellow larches by starting up north and working your way down. Or if you have a limited schedule to go out, you can decide where to go based on which area is popping the most!
Since the general timeframe for larches turning yellow is early October, that also coincides with snowfall in the Cascades. It varies year to year, and sometimes it’ll all melt after the first snowfall, but be prepared that you might be walking on a thin layer of snow and mud. Personally, I think a light dusting of snow adds to the beauty of all the fall colors.
What trails should I go on to find larches?
The big money question! Well, this guide is a guide, not just an easy answer to solve everyone’s dying question. First, let’s get the popular ones out of the way. Although I haven’t hiked all of them, I have most and can vouch for the beauty of the trails. But they are mighty crowded! You’ll be passing people every minute, especially on a good weather weekend.
Heather-Maple Pass Loop
So how do you search for more “secret” spots? One way is to sift through trip reports on sites like WTA or AllTrails for the word “larch”. Honestly you’ll probably see the same trails listed above, so you have to search with a keen eye. But let me save you some work and tell you what regions would have larches. Use this Caltopo map to see all the potential hikes and feel free to explore anything beyond these trails! I have them organized by difficult from 1 being very easy and 6 being strenuous due to length and elevation gain, generally using the scheme described here. And you’ll truly find that larches grow in so many areas around here Washington! I’ve linked some trip reports to some of those trails with pictures to see what they’re like, but note that some of the trips have extensions. Use WTA, AllTrails, Gaia, or other methods to download an offline map of the trails.
Generally anything east of Easy Pass along Highway 20. The Pasayten Wilderness is great for early season larches. For example,
This map shows zones for where larches are known to grown. This is largely created by my own experiences and the knowledge that larches tend to grow above 6000 ft in elevation and above general forests. The Pasayten in general has lots of larches, so that zone is very rough. Places like Crater Mountain and Ruby Mountain are exceptional locations that are further west than most other larches but these are added in there from my own experiences! Hikes are listed from short and easy (1) to long and arduous (6). For example, Rattlesnake Ledge would be rated as 1, Mt Si as 3 and Mailbox as 4. For more details on how I rank them relatively, see this page. Remember if you see a longer hike, you can always backpack it.
So as you can see, there really are a plethora of options for where to find larches and have some quality time in the wilderness. Check out these hikes, and I hope you can find some on your own too. Happy trails!
All pictures are mine, taken on Canon DSLR of various setups.