Fall Colors In Washington State: Five Great Day Trips
An Introduction to Washington State
“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is
to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone
with the heavens, nature and God.
Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and
that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple
beauty of nature. I firmly believe that nature brings solace
in all troubles.”
Washington is really two states, and they are divided by the Cascade Mountains, which run north and south through the entire width of the state. In western Washington the weather is affected predominantly by the Pacific Ocean, the result of which is a west coast marine climate, and that means a rather mild climate. Although there are a number of deciduous trees native to western Washington, and they do provide fall colors, the colors are not as vibrant as you would see in other parts of the country.
Eastern Washington has a semi-arid steppe climate, and although it has cooler fall temperatures, the native population of deciduous trees is sparse and does not lend itself to an abundance of fall leaf attractions.
For those who love fall colors, the only place to find an abundance of them is in the Cascade foothills. There you have cooler nighttime temperatures and the colors are vibrant in October and early November. With that in mind, the drives we are recommending are all in the Cascade foothills. Any one of these drives will provide viewers (leaf peepers) with great vistas and unforgettable scenery.
North Cascades Highway
One of the prettiest drives in America, no matter the season, is the North Cascades Highway, but for leaf peepers this is a must. Cottonwood, aspens and larch provide the colorful show on this drive. The color begins in Marblemount in Western Washington along State Route 20. You can stop at the North Cascades Visitor Center just before Newhalem and ask the rangers about prime color locations.
This section follows the Skagit River and if you are lucky you will be rewarded with an eagle sighting to add to the enjoyment. Always have your camera ready along this portion of the trip.
Other stopovers are the Rainy Pass picnic area and the Washington Pass Overlook. Once you have crossed Washington Pass you will begin the slow descent into the Methow Valley. You can stop at the visitor center at milepost 192 and check for fall color updates, and if you are into mountain biking you will have an abundance of trails that will take you to other must-see locations.
The Methow Valley is filled with larches and maples, and by mid-October the viewing is at its peak. Stop in Winthrop for lunch and continue on to Twisp to finish the journey. Plan on six hours for a one-way road trip that will leave you breathless and give you more than enough time to take some great pictures.
Mt. Rainier Loop
Brilliant fall colors and unforgettable views of Mt. Rainier highlight this five or six hour journey. Begin in the town of Naches in Western Washington and turn left on US 12 to White Pass. As you go through the Tieton River drainage you will be treated to wonderful autumn color from western larches, aspen and cottonwoods.
Head over White Pass and stop at the scenic overlook at Clear Creek Falls near milespost 154. Continue to the town of Packwood and turn right on Skate Creek Road. You will enjoy great color along this stretch and then will enter the town of Ashford. Turn right on SR 706 and enter Mount Rainier National Park. Go east on the Stevens Canyon Road. Stop at Reflection Lake for some great color and reflections of Mt. Rainier, and enjoy the red of mountain ash and huckleberries,
To complete the loop turn left at the park entrance, then right on SR 410. Lake Tipsoo will give you more reflective views of Mt. Rainier, and some spectacular blueberry leaves will add more color. Finish up at the intersection of SR 410 and US 12.
My goodness, if it is fall then Leavenworth must be seen! Located 153 miles east of Seattle on the eastern slopes of the Cascades, Leavenworth is the number one destination for those seeking prime fall color.
The town of Leavenworth is on Highway 2 just west of Wenatchee. It is a Bavarian-style town and is surrounded by brilliant colors during the fall. The annual Washington State Autumn Leaf Festival is held the last weekend in September. Bring your mountain bike and hiking boots and head off on the trails for some spectacular scenery.
When you are all done with the exercise portion of your trip, walk the town of Leavenworth and enjoy first-class food and entertainment.
Chinook Pass Scenic Byway
Begin in the town of Enumclaw in Western Washington and follow SR 410 along the White River into the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Here you will be treated to brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges as you head uphill to Chinook Pass Summit.
Heading down from the pass, going eastward, you will parallel the American River and then the Little Naches River. These river valleys are perfect for October as the colors never disappoint an avid leaf peeper.
The trip ends in the town of Naches where you can relax over a meal after your two hour drive.
Mt. Baker Highway
A one-way drive of 57 miles, the Mt. Baker Highway has everything you could ask for during a leisurely fall drive. Breathtaking mountain vistas and wonderful splashes of color are all along the roadway.
Begin in Bellingham in northwestern Washington and follow the Nooksack River Valley for most of the drive; the towering trees hover over the roadway, giving one a sense of driving through a natural tunnel.
For hikers there are seemingly endless opportunities to get off the beaten path and find less-visited groves of autumn color, and there are many turnouts along the highway that will afford great photo opportunities.
The trip ends at Artist Point and a spectacular view of Mt. Baker. This is a great two-hour drive that should stretch into five or six to properly enjoy all that Mt. Baker has to offer.
More sites to see
- Washington State Tourism: Five Must See Sights
Five sites that are an absolute must if you visit Washington State.
So Much More
Make no mistake about it, fall colors can be seen along practically any road in western Washington and along many roads in the Cascades. Pack up the car and head down any country road and you will find out what most residents of Washington have known for years: Washington truly is nature’s paradise, no matter what season you choose to visit.
2012 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)