Grand Larchery

A quest for autumnal art

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

As September unfurls its autumnal colors, my thoughts turn to the realm of the magnificent larch forests, high on the eastern slopes of the North Cascades. Actually, forest is too strong a word. Larches gather in “stands,” not forests. The high country they inhabit cannot support forests. These scattered stands are made even more beautiful by their aesthetic placement, each tree a work of standalone autumn art.

The larch—Larix lyallii—is unique among the trees that inhabit these mountains. It’s a conifer, but it’s not evergreen. In fall, its needles turn a brilliant golden color before falling off and creating a soft, colorful carpet in the alpine landscapes.

The larches grow in very select conditions—at high elevation and generally on the drier eastern slopes of the North Cascades. The peak of the larch season varies, but not by much. The last week of September and first week of October are generally the height of the “grand larchery.”

The supreme destination for larch connoisseurs is, of course, the Enchantment Lakes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. It is a holy place. Managed (thankfully) by a strict permit system, a visit here requires advance planning and luck in the permit lottery. Maybe next year. Following are other prime places that will afford you compelling opportunities to commune with the radiance.

The Maple Pass Loop has become a de rigueur larch pilgrimage site. After a short, moderate climb through the forest, the seven-mile loop hike offers nonstop spectacles: the tiny blue-green Lake Ann cradled in its basin; the lush pleasures of Heather Pass; the supreme ridge-walk around Maple Pass and then the wild spiraling descent to Rainy Lake in its waterfall-laced cirque.

On a clear day, the views are extraordinary: the fangs of Washington Pass, the Cutthroat Pass area, Glacier Peak and the mind-blowing convolutions of Dome Peak. The dark summits of Corteo and Black Peak loom overhead like the mountains of Mordor. And the larches gather in luminous clusters along the upper edge of the trees—twisted by the elements into surreal tree sculptures. Trailhead: Rainy Pass, North Cascades Highway (SR20) near milepost 158.

Located just up the North Cascades highway from the Maple Pass Loop, the two-mile Blue Lake Trail is another favorite among larch aficionados. It’s an easy hike up through the woods to the sublime shores of the brilliantly-colored lake. If the air is still, the surface of the lake reflects both radiant larches and the early winter spires. Trailhead: North Cascades Highway (SR20), 42 miles east of Newhalem (just west of Washington Pass).

Unlike Maple Pass or Blue Lake, the 23-mile Golden Lakes Loop demands a commitment. This is a backpacking trip best done in three or more days. And it’s a nonstop larch extravaganza. Camp at Upper Eagle Lake then climb over Horsehead Pass to Boiling Lake (another choice campsite). From there, ascend the Golden Staircase to the summit of Sawtooth Ridge at 8,000 feet before dropping precipitously to Cooney Lake and more spectacular places to pitch a tent. You’ll be among the incandescent golden trees for much of the loop, and each lake is a gem. Trailhead: Eagle Creek, Road 300 near Twisp.

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