7 Great Fall Drives in Washington
Fall is here, and it is a great time of year to explore Washington’s natural beauty. Do not let the Evergreen State nickname mislead you; the state boasts many great places to view colorful fall foliage. We picked just seven great destinations where trees offer dramatic displays of vibrant crimson, orange and gold.
Fall is generally a transition time for weather and road conditions, and this fall there may be alerts, updates and closures related to wildfires and COVID-19. Call ahead and check the websites of visitor bureaus, parks and destinations before you go.
Photo courtesy of Icicle TV
When to go: Late September and October
Why visit: Nestled in the heart of the Cascade Mountains, about a two-hour drive from Seattle and three hours from Spokane (with plenty of scenic and scrumptious stops along the way), the Bavarian-themed village of Leavenworth offers a wide assortment of activities and serves as a perfect jumping-off point for leaf peeping along local trails.
Look for vine maples and cottonwoods with their stunning scarlet, orange and gold leaves. The drive west of Leavenworth on Highway 2 also is a feast for the eyes, with forests of dogwood, maple, and alder against a backdrop of dark green conifers.
Photo courtesy of Ian McRae
When to go: Mid-October to November
Why visit: For a different take on fall colors, head to Mount Rainier and watch low-lying shrubs become fields of fiery reds and oranges. Look for vine maple, high elevation huckleberry bushes and Larch (Tamarack), plus views of the mountain (on clear days) from the popular Skyline Trail Loop, a 5.5-mile round-trip jaunt from the Paradise parking lot.
Novice and experienced hikers will be rewarded with bursts of color on many other fall hikes around Mount Rainier National Park as well, including Reflection Lakes, Naches Peak Loop, Silver Falls Loop, and Grove of the Patriarchs. Mountain weather is notoriously temperamental, so be sure to keep an eye on the forecast for alerts and conditions.
Photo courtesy of Visit Bellingham
When to go: October
Why visit: Aside from a having a colorful name (anyone else envisioning crazed squirrels throwing acorns?), this scenic drive is awesome for its big views and bright fall foliage. Keep an eye out for Pacific madrone, or madrone trees that grow on the sides of the rocky Chuckanut cliffs and feature colorful peeling bark. Winding from Burlington to Bellingham along state Route 11, the road skirts Chuckanut Mountain and offers gorgeous panoramas of saltwater bays and the San Juan Islands.
In October, maples and alders arch over the roadway and create tunnels of scarlet and yellow leaves. The drive takes about two hours from Seattle (if you take Interstate 5 to Burlington) and features a number of scenic overlooks and tasty food stops, including the renowned Taylor Shellfish Samish Farm Store and the Oyster Bar, with fine dining and spectacular views.
Photo courtesy of Cascade Loop Association
When to go: End of September to mid-October
Why visit: In the fall, a Cascade Loop drive offers “a diverse display of wild and vibrant colors,” says Annette Pitts, the former executive director of the Cascade Loop Association. Pitts’ tip: Drive the route counterclockwise for the best views, leaving plenty of time for stops in towns, parks, highway pullouts and overlooks along the way. For example, heading east over state Route 2, the Stevens Pass Greenway becomes the Stevens Pass Gold Way, with trees along the Skykomish River flashing a brilliant orange color. The color trail continues in the Horan Natural Area, located within the 197-acre Wenatchee Confluence State Park, at Patterson Lake, near Winthrop, and at other Loop locations.
When to go: End of September through October
Why visit: Manito Park, a 90-acre public park with five gardens, ponds and a conservatory in Spokane’s South Hill neighborhood, and the 65-acre John A. Finch Arboretum, with more than 2,000 labeled trees, are both filled with deciduous trees that turn from green to luscious golds, reds and soft yellows in the fall.
Fall colors also can be found on the 37-mile Centennial Trail, especially in the section running from Gonzaga University through Riverfront Park. “If you’d rather drive, a trip to Mount Spokane, 30 miles north of downtown Spokane, will give you both fall color and incredible views,” says Visit Spokane’s Kate Hudson, “And for great photo-ops and activities, head to Green Bluff. The collection of family-owned farms is filled with pumpkin patches, fall color and corn mazes.”
Photo courtesy of Olympic Peninsula Visitor Bureau
When to go: Late-September to late October
Why visit: The Hoh Rain Forest (near Forks) and the Quinault Rain Forest (surrounding Lake Quinault) offer fall hikes that allow visitors to experience not only the fall golds, ambers, russets and ruby tones of changing leaves, “but also the sounds of silence and the fresh-washed forest air that relaxes and recharges,” says Marsha Massey, executive director of the Olympic Peninsula Visitor Bureau. There’s color galore by car on the popular road trip route that follows Highway 101 from Sequim to Port Angeles, out around Lake Crescent, on around to Forks and out to the Hoh Rain Forest. Go midweek if possible, because weekends on the Olympic Peninsula continue to be popular through the fall.
Photo coursty of University of Washington
Washington Park Arboretum
When to go: Mid-to-late October to late November
Why visit: Right along the western shore of Lake Washington (just south of the University of Washington’s main campus), the 230-acre Washington Park Arboretum offers a complete sensory experience in the fall. The sprawling green space boasts more deciduous tree species than any other setting in the Northwest, which means beautiful fall colors at every turn.
Start in the Woodland Garden. “This is the most concentrated area of consistently great fall color, which is especially visible with the backdrop of native conifers in the valley the garden lies in,” says Ray Larson, the arboretum’s Curator of Living Collections. The three-quarter-mile Azalea Way walk features larger maples, hickories, cherries, serviceberries, deciduous azaleas, dogwoods and magnolias that offer a variety of reds, oranges and yellows in a great variety of sizes and leaf shapes, says Larson, “While the arboretum’s Japanese Garden offers fall coloring maples and azaleas along with ginkgoes and views across the large pond.”
Interested in planning your next road trip with AAA Washington? Call your travel agent directly or your nearest AAA store to get pro tips, TripTik maps, and more. Find more Pacific Northwest scenic drives and road trips.