yellow trees | stiletto-copper loop
13 miles . 4500 ft gain . 7150 ft high
Have you ever heard of the Larch March or #larchmadness? It’s kind of this thing that gets hyped up in these parts of Washington and even in other regions like the Rockies both in the US and Canada. Now why is that? Well, I mean look at them! Larches are super interesting because they’re a coniferous tree but they’re not evergreen. They’re also deciduous because they loose their needles. And not only do they just loose their needles, they turn this wonderful yellow color before winter. This beautiful display of color is truly something to behold!
Personally, I think what also makes larches special is that you generally have to drive at least 2 hours to begin to see any larches and often to really be surrounded by them, you must hike in. So it’s not something everyone can necessarily experience, sad to say. But if you’re capable and able, it’s a wonderful experience! I suppose this is something to compare to standing on summits. There’s an appeal, but there’s always some sort of passage or barrier. It’s kind of like going for a joy ride around the city to see Christmas lights or fall colors, but with more effort to get there!
Last year, I finally got to see the larches start to turn colors in Washington for the first time, although having found them in Italy and Colorado before. Maybe it’s overhyped, but I will still love larches and the whole madness of hunting for them. Less of a hunt, since the locations are known. But definitely an expedition.
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This year is just the same: the sun sets earlier, the city trees start losing their leaves, and all I (and a million other Washingtonians) want to do is find the fall colors in the mountains. Looking to go somewhere less crowded, I decided that I wanted to explore the Twisp area and plotted a couple potential loops there. Using Kyle’s Triple Rainbow High Route as a guide, I figured out what I wanted out of this hike. Definitely needed to pass a lake and definitely needed to be surrounded by the larches. I debated amongst Rainbow Pass, McAlester Pass, Twisp Pass, and Copper Pass. Phew that’s a lot of passes! And another criteria was I wanted to be high. High above and not just connect lower trails together. Graphing these, most of the loops were some 20+ miles and >6000 ft gain. Which is fine, but Nastassia and I (mostly me though) wanted a slightly chill hike just to get outside. I think I can only have so many big weekends in a row (despite having just done nothing due to the smoke haha).
Looking at a topographic map, it seemed reasonable to travel off-trail from Stiletto Lookout to Copper Pass while checking off all my other criteria. And anything further to another peak or range would constitute a 18+ mile loop. And I vetoed those options for this time. We’d start at the same trailhead that Kyle used last year to get to his loop last year. But we’d loop east instead of west and south.
5 paragraphs later, let’s talk about the actual trip! As you can tell, any trip requires some planning that really is an adventure in and of itself too. I like to think that this is a fairly important part in talking about any trip. The mindset going in, the goals. Originally a 2-person trip, this turned into a 4-person plus dog trip, which was quite the experience!
The wonderful thing about many Washington trails is that there are often signs to point you in the right direction and this was no different. We crossed about 3 intersections after starting on the PCT and eventually found ourselves climbing up a heavily switchbacked trail till we started emerging from the forests. Blue had the most curious time figuring out if she should go under or over the fallen trees, making Isaac’s first big PNW hike even more of an adventure. And then of course the whole time I’d ask about the yellow trees. Where are these famed yellow trees I was promised to see? Clearly not this valley at this point, I kept thinking.
Up and up we’d walk though the forest and slowly we started getting to the altitude where wild blueberries were still ripening and the fresh snow from the days before covered the trail. But still, where were those yellow trees? I mean, I’m happy to see the red carpet cover these hillsides, but I wanted to see my yellow trees.
Just as soon as the snow started, the trail started to go in and out of view. Cairns lined the side and we could also follow some recent footprints. Makes the navigation a bit easier when you don’t have to think about where you’re going, as long as you trust the footprints! Soon enough, I’d see one yellow tree, then two, then more and more and more – and I’m smiling ear to ear cause I’m finally reunited with my yellow trees.
Our running joke was that this was like a kindergarten field trip. And that’s probably an accurate description. I’d ask about the yellow trees and Nastassia would ask about the peaks and Isaac would just revel in everything we saw. Then Kyle would calm us all down and teach us all about the mountains. In no time, we reached the Stiletto Lookout Site and found the two people whose footprints we were following. To be clear, there is no lookout, just remnants of one and a wind barrier created by a stacked rock wall. Looking East, we could see the true Stiletto summit, what I originally wanted to scramble. But seeing that the snow was sketchy and Blue was probably having enough of it, we skipped it. The views would have been even more incredible, but till next time.
After our break on the mountain top, we began our descent to Copper Pass and the most wonderful section of the trail. Walking between yellow trees! By then, my feet were already soaked with the snow, so it mattered little about where I stepped. Literally skipping and running through the meadows, my soul was as happy as could be. Even Miss Blue had her turn of fun through this terrain. And to tell you the truth, I really have no words to describe the euphoria of frolicking through these yellow trees and snow dustings. Hopefully the pictures speak for themselves as to how they made my soul sing!
I think that a light layer of snow always makes the scenery look more beautiful than it ever could. The contrast of white and color is just perfect! It’s what gets me excited to take pictures and capture everything I saw (700+ photos later, I’m drowning in editing, but a good kind of swimming!). We’d weave in and out of the trees and eventually climbed back up to the little Stiletto Lake. Most people probably would enter via the Twisp Pass route, but we didn’t see anyone other than the couple we were following from the lookout site. I assumed they may have descended by Twisp Pass since we didn’t see them on our way out to Copper and we had met up with them back at the trailhead. I apologize for being loud and obnoxious if they wanted peace and quite, but I couldn’t contain my excitement!
By the lake, we enjoyed another long break. Fully warming up in the sun, snacking, and soaking up the views. The next section was also off trail, although we did find some social trails to follow to try and protect the vegetation as much as we could. But the trickiest part was getting Blue to understand boulder traveling is not scary. The boulder field felt like it went on and on but in reality it was quite short. Never underestimate the difficulty of the terrain when going off trail!
But soon at last, we reached the end of the boulders and the start of the meadowy yellow tree forest. It was so nice to just enjoy the views going up and down the valley, spying yellow trees near and far. This last segment to get to Copper Pass was probably the most colorful of the day. We had all the colors of the rainbow as far as I was concerned. It was more of the take 5 steps, take a picture, take another 5 steps and another picture, and repeat until we finally got to the ridge. On paper, we could see an easy passage to saddle point by taking the ridge.
With the minimal scouting, we decided the ridge path would work. But first, yet another break. Interestingly, this was the only section that was windy! I’m still learning how the wind flows through mountains, but we simply found a wind-free spot on the other side of the ridge. But once we got going, I knew I was already dreading the end. Dreading to leave the most beautiful scenery and return back to the green forests. I feel like I must have been pirouetting trying to get the last glimpse of everything. Truly drunk on nature! How could you not be?
As we descended, I was met with more surprise than I had anticipated. The red carpet continued further all the way past the edge of the yellow tree forest and transition into the greener forest. In and out of forest and meadows we’d go, passing more people than we did the rest of the day. And eventually, the trail popped us out onto this yellow meadow, a lovely backdrop as the sun began to set over the horizon. I could only dream of what sunset might look like with the glorious yellow trees higher up!
We found the connector trail from Copper Pass back to the PCT after a good pointer by some friendly hikers. In no time, we made it back to the car, ready to peel off wet socks and fill our bellies after the long, leisurely day. Till next time, my lovely yellow trees!
- Start at the PCT parking, cross Hwy 20 and start heading down the PCT and watch for signs for Stiletto. Once you reach the lookout site (no lookout unfortunately), the rest of the way is however you wish to go. With snow you can take any path, but if there isn’t snow, try to stay on dirt trails if there are any.
- At Stiletto Lake, there’s many trails coming from different directions but there is a faint one that can take you all the way to Copper Pass.
Photos shot on Canon Rebel T6