Best Places to See Fall Gold Larches
An elusive and stunning wonder glows in the mountains before winter snow drapes our peaks in white. Hikers and road trippers alike climb steep forest roads and trails toward alpine lakes in search of larches, deciduous conifers that grow in precarious terrain and starkly stand out in a brilliant gold during early fall months.
But there are larch wonderlands closer to home. From local parks to scenic drives, nearly everyone in the Northwest has a chance to strike gold this fall.
Larches at Seattle Japanese Garden, Washington Park Arboretum. Photo by iStock.
Larches in the City
You don’t need an elevation change to see these gilded trees. Larches are in parks and arboretums across the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle has at least three larch locales within city limits. The best known is the Washington Park Arboretum, a 230-acre wonderland of world-class plant collections. With 46 larches (including 16 Japanese larches and two western larches) spread around the grounds, you’ll be wandering from golden tree to golden tree.
Seek out an even rarer deciduous conifer in the arboretum’s Rhododendron Glen: dawn redwoods. First found as fossils, these trees were thought to be extinct until one was discovered in China in the 1940s. Dawn redwood needles turn an intense coppery orange-red in the fall.
Seattle’s Ravenna Park and Woodland Park also have a few larches. These city parks make for a great stroll in the fall months if you want to enjoy golden larches standing starkly against color-changing maples and other local flora.
Bainbridge Island’s Bloedel Reserve has a smattering of larches, but that’s just one reason to visit in fall. Twenty-three landscaped areas each offer a different version of autumn. The Japanese garden is especially radiant in the fall, thanks to the dozens of plants turning a myriad of colors. Keep an eye out for another dawn redwood at Bloedel’s Rhododendron Glen.
Arboretums in Spokane and Yakima offer easily accessible larches in stunning colors.
Spokane’s 65-acre John A. Finch Arboretum near Interstate 90 has a few larches and dawn redwoods, as well as maples and more deciduous trees to make for colorful and memorable autumn explorations.
The Yakima Area Arboretum packs a lot of fall foliage into its 46 acres: a few larches and a dawn redwood, plus a maple collection spanning from large shade trees to shrubby accent trees. Drive the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway (state Route 821) for fall colors on the trees — but no larches — next to the river. This 25-mile highway has pullouts and stops for hikes and river access for true appreciation of this colorful canyon.
Larches on Blewett Pass. Photo by iStock.
Larches on the Road
Watch for western larches when driving Blewett Pass on U.S. Route 97 between Ellensburg and Leavenworth, turning off at Forest Service Road 9716. Learn about forest ecology on the easy-to-follow Swauk Discovery Trail before driving farther up the narrow and bumpy road, bringing you closer to larches without traffic. To find the areas with the greatest showing of larches off Blewett Pass, check with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Ranger District office in Cle Elum.
For the grandest setting of roadside larch viewing, hit the North Cascades Highway (state Route 20) with towering mountains all around and sweeping views down the valley. At the picturesque Washington Pass Overlook, golden larches stand tall among evergreens in all directions. This scenic highway also has many hikes to alpine lakes surrounded by larches, all of which can be learned about at the Methow Valley Ranger District office in Winthrop and the North Cascades Visitor Center in Newhalem.
In North Idaho, look for larches near Coeur d’Alene at the Blue Creek Bay Recreation Site and Trail or the easy hikes at Cougar Bay Preserve. For a drive, take Coeur d’Alene River Road from Interstate 90 in Kingston, continuing on National Forest Highway 9 to Thompson Pass and over the Montana border to Thompson Falls. Larches, deer, eagles and the occasional bear can be spotted along this scenic road. Keep in mind that this road has minimal pullouts until you get to the top of Thompson Pass.
For a longer trip, try driving east from St. Maries, Idaho, along the St. Joe River, where you’ll have a chance to see bear, deer, elk, moose, mountain goats, birds and the golden larches. The road has minimal pullouts and amenities as it meanders to St. Regis, Montana, but makes up for it with great river views and plenty of opportunities to camp, hike or drive forest roads to hillsides with larches for lasting memories of this seasonal Northwest stunner.
The Diana Japanese Larch Cultivar. Photo by Linda Chalker-Scott.
Larches at Home
You can grow a larch at home if you live in the right environment. Subalpine larches are not going to do well in lowland gardens, so don’t try to plant them unless you live in a subalpine region.
“If you are planting the western larch, you better have the space for it. They are large trees,” says Linda Chalker-Scott, extension urban horticulturist at Washington State University. “I recommend instead selecting a larch cultivar that was bred for smaller stature. It can be a focal point of a small garden.”
Like any other woody plant, larches should be planted without any barriers like potting media or clay around their roots. Getting the roots right into the native soil and mulching with arborist wood chips is the best way to ensure establishment and survival. Fall planting is best, particularly after needles have fallen.
Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.
What Makes Larches Special?
Larches are unusual among conifers in that they shed their needles in the fall. There are 10 larch species in North America, Asia and Europe. Only two are native to Washington and Idaho: the western larch and the subalpine larch.
The easiest ways to differentiate between the two are size, shape and elevation. Western larches are more triangular in shape and can grow to nearly 200 feet tall. They are typically found between 2,000 and 5,500 feet above sea level in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana and British Columbia.
Subalpine larches are less uniformly shaped and only grow up to 80 feet. They are found at elevations between 5,800 and 7,900 feet and most commonly seen around the Eastern Cascades of Washington, in the Bitterroot Mountains of North Idaho and the Rocky Mountains in Western Montana.
Larches are most often found on north-facing slopes and along draws with good access to water. They’re drought-tolerant and thrive in landscapes with plenty of natural disturbances — fires for western larch, avalanches for the subalpine species — and are less common in unmanaged preserves and dense forests.
Photo by Linda Lantzy, Alamy
When Will Larches Turn Gold?
Before you look forward to fall colors, you need to look back. How deep was the snowpack in the mountains at the beginning of the year, and how hot and dry was the summer? Larches drop their needles sooner when stressed by heat and lack of moisture.
Larches change to gold and lose their needles as early as August when an extremely hot and dry summer follows a winter with light precipitation in the mountains. Conversely, a year that starts with deep snowpack before a mild or cool summer tends to produce maximum growth in larches and brings peak colors later in the year.
It’s a bit of science and a bit of a guessing game. The easiest way to know when larches will turn gold is to call a local ranger station or the arboretum you plan to visit, check hiking reports online or search for new larch posts on social media.
–Written by Douglas Scott
This story originally appeared in the September/October 2020 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.
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