If you spend much time around serious Washington hikers, you are sure to hear stories of the mythical larch. You’ll see photos of glowing golden trees set against bluebird skies, brilliant red huckleberries, or the first fresh snow of the winter. For good measure, you’ll also see photos of otherworldly rock formations, and for the lucky ones, mountain goats. For many years I’d follow my colleagues’ trip reports with a tinge of envy, since for whatever reason, I was never able to make the trip to those fantasy locations during the right times.
Two years ago, I took a trip with another mom to Lake Ann and Heather/Maple Pass during prime larch season. (It is a frustratingly short window of opportunity before the trees are done.) We got those money shots on a gorgeous weekend, and it was perfect.
Well, except for the temps that had fallen into the teens at night. My kids oohed and ahhed over my photos that year, and asked me to take them the next year. But last year, you may remember, there was an early snowstorm, and I compounded that misfortune with deciding to try a shorter drive to a more difficult trail in hopes of seeing some with less effort.
We ran into too much snow and ran out of daylight, and the weather was turning on us, so that trip ended up being a bust, and that was the only chance I had that year to go.
So this year, I was determined we would go see the larches. Actually, my ankle was hurting, and I wasn’t sure it would happen this year, either, but at the last minute I decided that the weather was looking good enough, and we hastily made plans to take the trip up to the North Cascades to see some trees. The kids said they wanted to come, so after our trip to Big Four last week, we refilled our water bottles, packed our warm gear, put a bunch of food in the car, and prepared for a drive. Aaron thought a day at home with some peace and quiet sounded better than driving all day for a short hike to see some trees, so he stayed home.
We drove out of sunshine in Puget Sound into clouds and gloom in the foothills along Highway 20.
We only made stops for potty breaks and snacks, and yet it still took over 3 1/2 hours to drive up to the trailhead beyond Rainy Pass. I was worried about parking on a Saturday during peak larch season, and indeed there were no more spots at the lot, but as we were getting ready, I figured an early bird hiker might finish, and that is what happened, so we got lucky and got a spot to park legally.
It was cloudy but didn’t look like it would rain, and I thought maybe the clouds looked like they were thinning out a bit. Temps were in the 60s, warmer than I expected. We headed up the trail at a pretty good pace. It climbs up parallel to the highway for the first mile or so.
You do gradually get farther from the traffic noise, and the forest is that typical North Cascades subalpine mix of species with patches of meadows, occasional streams, boulder fields, and thick, dark patches with no undergrowth. We saw two fresh coyote scats in the middle of the trail on this lower section.
The path climbs gradually, never getting too difficult, but gaining elevation steadily. I was waiting for the meadow described in the guidebook to take our first major break, but the kids were whining too much, so we stopped just before. After our break, the trail opened up into a slide area, with gasp-inspiring views up into the lake basin, where larches were turning yellow against the backdrop of tawny rock spires and grey misty clouds.
The colors from the huckleberries in this area were fading, and it looked like it had been a tough summer for these plants. Several people were passing us going both up and down, including other families with children. Almost every one of them asked us if we were spending the night. I must admit I was feeling pretty snarky by this point, but I tried to keep it hidden and answer politely. I don’t know what it is about that question, it just really annoys me lately. [Just because YOU don't bother to even carry a backpack on a fall hike at treeline hours from civilization on a cloudy day with a chance of rain, why do you assume that we are staying overnight because we have full daypacks?! Sorry, I digress.]
We kept climbing up toward Blue Lake. After a section that travels through green forest, we came upon the first of the larches. Even in the muted light, they glowed above us. We stopped briefly to listen to the pikas in the talus, and even got to watch one for several minutes before other hikers came along and scared it back into its den.
Our pace was slowed in the upper section as we took photos and just tried to enjoy the beautiful scenery. The kids were getting demoralized, as it was the low point of their afternoon energy levels, and it seemed like we should be almost to the lake, but then we discovered another bend to get around, or another ridge of trees to get over. Finally, though, we crossed the outlet stream (we chose to cross on rocks instead of the sketchy broken log) and then we were there.
Blue Lake is talus-rimmed, clear and stark, reflecting the neighboring peaks and the muted foliage colors around the edges.
Other hikers were vacating the prominent rock outcropping, so we set our gear down there and prepared to relax and take in the view. A chilly breeze blew the clouds around the peaks, now hiding, now revealing them. We put on several layers and were grateful for our thermoses of hot cocoa that I had thrown in at the last minute.
Once again, I had brought about 3 days’ worth of too much food. I felt stupid, but we ate as much as we could. The camp robbers were bold and cheeky, and were entertaining, though we tried to scare them off for their own good.
Another family with a young boy arrived while we were resting, and he promptly began trying to catch little fish in the outlet stream. He was successful! It was really fun to see him enjoying the environment with such intensity. The weather worsened as the afternoon wore on, and our rain gear, wool hats and gloves came out as we scurried to pack up for the hike back down. I felt kind of bad for the newly arrived family of kids who were dressed in shorts and thin sweatshirts. They seemed to be OK, though, and settled down to rest as we left.
The best part of the hike was yet to come. Though we left mist at the lake, as we came around the spine of the ridge of trees, the sun started breaking through, and we got to experience the true glory of larch season – glowing golden needles with a background of a glorious blue sky.
We took a bunch of photos and I exclaimed to the kids, “This is what we came for!” They agreed it was worth it, and that it was a beautiful sight.
We warmed up again in the weak afternoon sun. We made pretty good time back to the car, making it down before the dusk settled in. The drive home was very long and exhausting for this mama, but I hope it will be a memory that the kids will cherish.
If You Go: The Blue Lake Trail is right on the North Cascades Highway, Highway 20, east of Rainy Pass. It’s 4.4 miles round trip, with an elevation gain of 1050 feet. It’s well graded, and fairly gentle, with a few rougher patches, but is friendly for kids. This trail gets pretty high, up to 6250 feet in elevation, and the snows have already come to this area this year. It’s a very long drive to get here from the Seattle area. You might consider camping at one of the campgrounds along Highway 20, either on the east or west side of the Crest. There is an outhouse at the trailhead. For driving directions, please see the WTA site. You’ll need a NWForest Pass to park here.