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Oh, joy, it’s the season for a LARCH MARCH

By on September 23, 2019 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments
Molly’s hiking companion Erin Davidson captures the magic of Septober near Blue Lake.

Suggestions on where to find bright golden larches — without too much hard hiking

Story and photos

By Molly Steere

While growing up, as the air developed the telltale crispness around the days’ edges indicating fall had arrived, my dad would routinely step out onto the deck, inhale deeply, and announce, “I love this time of year.” 

Having heard this refrain approximately 743 times in our formative years, my brother and I would roll our eyes and give the “our old man’s at it again” look to each other.

I see a similar look on my son’s face when I stand on our deck, eagerly sniff the air, and declare my love for “Septober” each fall morning. And evening. And every time I see the afternoon sun filtered through the amber leaves of the cherry trees.

The rebel conifer’s bright orange needles will drop when winter arrives.

I think September and October (Septober) are the area’s finest months when the valley is awash with color and the afternoon sun still warms my back as I hike or work in the yard. 

And it is in Septober when I am often afflicted with a severe case of Larch Fever — a common side effect of which is an obsession to log as many Larch Marches (hikes that are teeming with bright gold larches) as possible. 

Larches are rebellious coniferous trees. Instead of evergreen needles, the larch needles turn neon yellow as fall approaches and transition to golden orange in October. In winter, the needles fall, leaving the often towering, ruler-straight trees bare.

In the greater Pacific Northwest, we have two native species of larch: western larch (Larix occidentalis) found below about 5,500 feet of elevation, and alpine larch (Larix lyallii) found above 5,500 feet.

 “Larch March” is sometimes mispronounced as “Death March” in my household. I graciously pretend not to notice the mispronunciation, assuming it’s due to the Enchantment Traverse being my former holy grail of Larch Marches. However, that hike is over 20 miles, getting crowded, and the area is suffering from overuse (and quite frankly, so am I).

Clara Lake reflects the surrounding talus slopes and larch glades.

So, to make things fun and easy while still getting my larch fix, I’ve been exploring some of the bountiful shorter, family-friendly hikes in our area. The following made the short list: 

Clara Lake (Mission Ridge)

The drive up to the Clara Lake trailhead is worth the trip alone. As you’re winding your way up the road toward Mission Ridge, you’ll get a sneak peek at the larches beckoning you from among the evergreens. 

This 2.8-mile (roundtrip) jaunt is 20 minutes from town and perfect for an afternoon when you’re short on time but need to get your fall color fix. The trail is wooded and well-traveled for the majority of the hike until it breaks out into an alpine lake basin surrounded by larch glades. 

Marion Lake is less than half a mile up the rocky path from Clara Lake and surrounded by talus slopes of basalt. Although the official trail ends here, the surrounding slopes and hills have potential for adventurous exploring. 

Mission Ridge’s rocky summit is about 1,000 feet above, adding four miles of roundtrip travel to the outing. 

But the terrain beyond Marion Lake can be confusing and involves cross-country travel. You must be competent at orienteering with a map and compass to plot a cross-country route. 

On the Swauk Discovery Trail, a canopy of larches and evergreens against a bright blue sky reminds hikers that the view above can be as stunning as the surrounding vistas.

Swauk Discovery Trail (Blewett Pass)

The Swauk Discovery Trail is a casual three-mile round trip hike near the summit of Blewett Pass. 

More popular in the summer, this trail offers relative solitude in the fall if you time it right. The hike passes by 25 interpretive signs providing information about the history of the area as well as local flora and fauna. 

From the high point of the trail, you can see the summits of Mount Adams and Mount Rainier. 

Large portions of the trail meanders under canopies of evergreens and larches, exemplifying the larches’ proud posture and brilliant coloring. Each year I fill my phone with pictures from similar locations looking straight up at the orange and green needles against the sky’s bright blue backdrop. 

Blue Lake (North Cascades Highway)

There are several Blue Lakes in the Cascades and surrounding area — this 4.4-mile roundtrip hike is off of Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway) and is an absolute gem. You’ll be hard-pressed to get a parking spot on the weekend, especially in the summer. But if you sneak up there on a weekday in the fall, you won’t regret it (that is, unless you get fired). 

With forests, meadows, and a stunning alpine lake surrounded by the contrasting bright gold larch against grey granite peaks, this short hike is a classic and should be on your must-hike list. With only 1,050 feet of elevation gain, the trail is doable for almost everyone.

Twin Lakes (Lake Wenatchee)

Bonus round! This “Non-larch March” is certainly worth a mention. 

It is beautiful in the fall and a particularly interesting hike for all tree lovers. The trail starts among Douglas firs and hemlocks. About 1.5 miles in, the trail passes through a small grove of giant cedars. Indeed, they are not named “giant” in vain. These trees are delightfully ginormous. 

At about 2,600 feet of elevation, the trail ascends a slope near Twin Lakes Creek and is surrounded by a mix of cedars, hemlocks, western white pine and Douglas fir. 

In Septober, the fiery broadleaf maples, vine maples, alders, balsam poplars, and osier dogwoods are all camera-ready for your quintessential fall photos.

This short list of hikes is incomplete, but it’s a start for anyone wondering what our collective backyard has to offer in the fall. A few other Septober adventures to consider: Icicle Loop Trail, Scottish Lakes High Camp (and the aptly named Larch Lake and Hanging Gardens) and the Chiwaukum Traverse. 

The shoulder season, when the afternoons are still warm and the snow hasn’t arrived, is the perfect time to experience the rich color our area has to offer. Embrace it with open arms (maybe even some expansive inhalations and mutterings about loving this time of year).

Visit WTA.org or WenatcheeOutdoors.org for more information, including maps, directions to get to the trailhead, trip instructions and more.

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