Road Trip: North Cascades, Hwy 20

Fall is a time for reflection. It’s time to take stock and prepare for the winter, time to set priorities and hunker down and get things done. It’s a time to bring back tradition and most importantly, it’s time to go look at the larch. Yes, that’s right, larch. In most places around the country it’s time to look at the leaves, but the Evergreen State doesn’t turn orange and red as much as it just gets a little less green. But the larch are an exception to this. So we don our puffy jackets, hats, and mittens and drive high into alpine country to seek out these unique golden symbols of fall.

The trail meanders through the larch at Easy Pass.

Larch are coniferous which means they have needles and cones like our other NW trees: Douglas fir, hemlock, spruce, etc. But unlike those trees which stay green all year, larch are also deciduous meaning their needles turn yellow and drop off in autumn. This is unusual for a conifer, but it is actually a great advantage for a tree that lives in a harsh winter environment. Trees lose their leaves because they begin storing extra nutrients instead of using them to make leaves. This gives them a nutrient boost that helps them survive the winter. Some other advantages are that the snow will not pile up on their branches causing them to break and they recover faster from forest fires since they have the ability to regrow needles.

Lingering fuzzy pasque flower among the flames of fall.

So where to find the magical larch? Well, one of my favorite places is the North Cascades. Larch tend to grow on the eastern slopes of the Cascades so I like to find them near Rainy Pass on Highway 20. The key is getting up high into the nearby passes: Easy Pass, Cutthroat Pass, Granite Pass, Maple Pass. These are all spectacular places to see larch and incredible views.

Rounded the corner to this view…near Granite Pass.

There is something special about seeking out the larch in the fall. There is something to be said about the importance of tradition, but more than that, there is a sense of calm and peace that comes with autumn in the mountains. You notice things more. The cool air on your nose, the crunch of the leaves, the frost clinging to the shadows. The sky is a deeper shade of blue as the sun hovers closer to the horizon and the dense air dampens sound.

Larch needles transitioning to yellow.

The old trail follows the creek

past ancient trees

and the sound of water.


The sky clears, light fades,

varied thrushes sing their two-note song

deep within the forest.


Once again, like visiting friends,

I walk into familiar mountains.


-Once Again by Saul Weisberg, Headwaters

I love the contrast of the yellow on the deep blue sky.

This year I didn’t get out to see the larch turning. I was traveling throughout most of October including a trip to the east coast to visit family and revisit an old childhood tradition of mine, driving into the mountains to look at the leaves with my dad (more about that trip later). But as I flew over the Cascades I looked down to see the jagged mountains topped with yellow and my heart filled with joy.

Nali likes hiking in the cooler temps of fall.

I don’t always like to return to my favorite trails. That’s why I love the tradition of looking at the larch. I could spend a lifetime visiting all the trails with larch, and each experience would be unique. There is a sense of returning to a familiar place but without the expectations of repeating the same experience on a beloved trail. Sometimes the memories of our favorite places are enough and these places are better left not revisited. Kind of like your favorite childhood books, they are never as good as you remember them.

A leaf in the grip of approaching winter.

Now as the snow begins to fall in the Cascades, I revisit the larch through my memories and old photos. Normally I would be disappointed with this, but I’m giving myself a break. Besides, it is much warmer here as I snuggle in a blanket and sip tea, remembering the way I felt on those hikes and my feet don’t hurt. Sometimes just thinking about my favorite places makes me just as happy as visiting them. I especially like to use this technique while at the dentist or getting a flu shot.

Views from Easy Pass.

Bonus Camp Read!


Headwaters, Poems and Field Notes by Saul Weisberg
As I read this collection of poems I got the same feeling I get when I think of my favorite hikes. The poems are short and succinct and evoke a sense of place with every word. This is the type of poetry I’ve been looking for, the type that I can understand and doesn’t try to be anything more than it is. Saul writes about the North Cascades and is the executive director of the North Cascades Institute. He has worked in the Northwest as a climbing ranger, field biologist, fisherman and fire lookout and lives in Bellingham, WA.

Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack?  Backpack
Take this with you to read and meditate on while looking at the larch in the North Cascades.

Hikes featured in this Post:
Cutthroat Pass
Easy Pass

2 Replies to “Road Trip: North Cascades, Hwy 20”

  1. Another evocative, informative post with gorgeous photos! I loved the poem by Saul Weisberg. Coincidentally, I bumped in to Saul sitting above the shoreline of Blue Lake in October when I was up there to see the brilliant larch display (blog post about a month ago). One time some years ago I gave him a ride from the Environmental Learning Center back down to Mt. Vernon, nice and cool man. Hope to make it back out on the trail with you some time, but nursing a tweaky knee. Sigh, age happens, but it’s better than the alternative. 🙂 Happy trails.

    1. Thanks, Jill. I really loved Saul’s poems- that’s very cool that you ran into him and that you gace him a ride. 🙂 I am thinking about taking some classes at the learning center this year – it seems like a really great resource for us outdoor lovers! I’d love to hike again with you too, hope the knee gets better soon!

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