Ian Terry / The Herald Yellowing western larch trees glisten as sunlight reflects off their skinny branches near Washington Pass on the North Cascades Highway.

Crazy about western larches in the fall? It’s time for a Sunday drive

Remember Sunday drives on beautiful autumn days?

Consider driving through the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, North Cascades National Park and just over into the Okanogan-Wenatchee forest. Roll down your car window. Stop here and there. Stretch your legs with a short hike. Be home for supper.

If you have a sunny weekend anytime in the next few weeks, consider the two-hour-plus drive up to see the beautiful golden-needled western larch trees.

Larches are one of the Northwest’s most intriguing deciduous trees. Yep, you read that right. When they drop their needles, larches prove that not all conifers are evergreen.

Commonly called tamaracks in the east, our larches are fast-growing, skinny, straight, tall, long-lived and somewhat fire resistant. The needles come back green in the spring, of course, and they are pretty then, too.

But there’s really nothing like the fall when these yellow trees shine against the rocks high on the mountain sides, often above the Douglas firs, western red cedars and ponderosa pines. Wild blueberry and huckleberry turn the meadow areas red and the contrast is beautiful.

One great place to see larches is at the Washington Pass overlook on the eastern slopes of the North Cascades.

Our suggestions for a Sunday drive to the north and east:

Pack a lunch and lots of water. You’re ultimately heading into territory with few food options, though Darrington, Rockport, Marblemount and Newhalem offer some good eateries. And don’t forget your Northwest Forest Pass for parking.

Drive east on Highway 530 through Arlington and Darrington. This pretty stretch of road features many spots where big leaf maples are brightly yellow and the vine maples are strikingly red. Whitehorse Mountain lords over the upper Stillaguamish valley.

North from Darrington, enjoy the sweet rotting smell of old leaves and blackberries in the forest along the highway. The Sauk River is visible at numerous points. The cottonwoods are turning yellow as well and the mountain ash trees have produced red berries that stand out against all the fall foliage.

At Rockport, turn east on Highway 20 along the Skagit River. The rivers are low right now, but be on the lookout for a bit of whitewater.

On the west edge of Newhalem, be sure to stop by the national park’s visitor information center. Learn more about the park, the wildlife and the hiking options. It’s entertaining and great for kids.

Farther up the road, stop to gaze at the views of Diablo and Ross lakes in the park, but save a visit to those lakes for another day.

At Rainy Pass, you may run into some Pacific Crest Trail hikers. Enjoy their stories, savor the alpine air and consider a short, easy 4-mile round-trip hike to Lake Ann.

On the trail, with its minimal elevation gain of about 200 feet, you will see fall foliage along with fearless and shamelessly begging Clark’s nutcracker birds. When you get to the lake in its rocky basin, look up to see the golden larches on the hillsides.

A similar hike to Blue Lake is a bit longer, has an elevation gain of about 800 feet, but it features an even more beautiful lake and more larches to look at.

At Washington Pass, pull over to eat lunch and enjoy the view of Liberty Bell Mountain and the Early Winter Spires. The Clark’s nutcrackers will be after you, but relax and enjoy.

Take the quick walk out to the overlook. The highway’s hairpin turn there is just below the Kangaroo Ridge, which should be ablaze in larches.

Your passenger might doze on the way home, but it’s sure to be a satisfying drive. Happy autumn.

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