BY AARON THEISEN
The leaf peepers of the Northeast and the aspen chasers of the Tetons may scoff, but the Northwest offers a quietly impressive fall-color display. Rather than one or two signature hues, our region boasts a remarkable diversity of fall drama, from the vivid orange of vine maples to the soft gold of larch and the ruddy color of huckleberry. Here, five road trips highlight the best that fall in the Northwest offers—because, come autumn, the region renowned for evergreens shows its true colors.
Methow Valley – North Cascades Scenic Byway, North-Central Washington
Its Bavarian neighbor to the south, Leavenworth, tends to grab all the fall-color laurels. But the Methow Valley offers autumn attractions of its own, particularly on the sixty-mile out-and-back drive from Winthrop to Washington Pass, where alpine larch accent the sky-grabbing granite of the North Cascades.
From the Old West-themed town of Winthrop (winthropwashington.com), head west on the North Cascades Scenic Byway (SR-20). Cottonwoods shower the Methow River with red-leaf confetti; keep an eye out for mule deer in the fallow fields flanking the highway. But take time to scan the mountains, too. Here, North America’s only deciduous conifer, larch, takes its alpine form, its thick, twisted limbs standing defiant where snow cows its high-elevation kin. The soft, golden needles of the larch shed every autumn, just like leaf-bearing trees. High, hairpin turns climb out of the valley toward Washington Pass Overlook, 30 miles from Winthrop. Mountain heather and miniature alpine shrubs carpet a parkland of dwarf trees, all framing a view of the North Cascades. In October, just before the highway closes for the winter, visitors are likely to see a smudge of autumn’s first snows on the granite battlements of Liberty Bell Mountain.
|North-Central Washington Lodging
Set among towering pines just west of the small mountain community of Mazama, the Freestone Inn (freestoneinn.com) offers rough-timbered rustic luxury on the banks of a private lake. Enjoy a post-drive soak in front of your suite’s stone fireplace before wandering over to Jack’s Hut Pizza and Brews for après-autumn-color refreshments.
McKenzie Pass – Santiam Pass Scenic Byway, Central Oregon
The 82-mile McKenzie Pass – Santiam Pass Scenic Byway traverses park-like ponderosa forests on the east side of the Cascade crest and cedar and maple on the wetter west side, with the moonscapes of McKenzie and Santiam passes in the middle. With stunning scenery, little traffic and plenty of side trips to waterfalls and hot springs, this is Central Oregon’s premier autumn drive.
Oregon Route 242 connects Sisters (sisterscountry.com) to the McKenzie River west of the crest, where the slow-speed road keeps through traffic to a minimum. The two-lane road is open only during the summer and fall, as snow levels permit. Climb through fragrant pine forest to McKenzie Pass, where, from the lava-rock walls of circular Dee Wright Observatory, the view stretches along the volcanic spine of the Cascades and east toward Smith Rock in Central Oregon; Mt. Washington hovers over a spectral landscape of snags and pumice. Come October, autumn’s first snows soften the black volcanic rock. Descend amid a verdant forest of cedar and hemlock, a lush counterpoint to the airy and arid pine forests east of the pass, to the McKenzie River Highway (OR-126), which contours its namesake river north to US-20. From here, follow US-20 over Santiam Pass back toward Sisters. Along the way, vine maples shade the creeks and lakes in a bower of bright reds.
|Central Oregon Lodging
Take autumn’s chill off with a glass of wine back in the Jacuzzi tubs at Five Pine Lodge in Sisters (fivepinelodge.com). Three Creeks Brewing (threecreeksbrewing.com) on the Five Pine Campus crafts Northwest takes on classic brews; try the hoppy-but-balanced Hoodoo Voodoo IPA.
Priest Lake, North Idaho
North Idaho is known for its timber, but come autumn one tree is the star of the show: western larch. Like its alpine relative, western larch loses its needles every year in a fiery finale. Unlike alpine larch, which survives in small copses high in the mountains, western larch occupy large swaths of mid-elevation mountains in the Inland Northwest, their majesty best appreciated en masse.
Sitting in the crook of the Selkirk Mountains, the quiet and mostly undeveloped western shore of Priest Lake (priestlake.org) reflects a particularly striking autumn scene: The Selkirk Crest capping a wall of golden western larch. It’s the highlight of a 75-mile roundtrip drive along ID-57 from Priest River to Coolin, which passes through bottomland forests of birch and cedar and moose-friendly meadows as it follows Priest River north to its source. From the small community of Coolin, make the side trip along Reeder Bay Road, where a string of U.S. Forest Service campgrounds and picnic areas offer the best shoreline access. Here, a cottonwood and cedar canopy frames views of the granite spires of Gunsight Peak to the east. Compared to, say, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it blaze of fall color in aspen-centric locales, larch offer a slow-burn display that lasts most of October.
|Priest Lake Lodging
From the expansive shoreline rooms of Hill’s Resort (hillsresort.com), listen to elk and moose bugle and watch osprey claw mackinaw from the cobbles of the lake’s inlets and bays. In the restaurant, local lakeshore homeowners and larch-loving tourists alike enjoy the last fruits of the huckleberry harvest of late summer on a platter of the resort’s signature barbecue ribs.
Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier National Park
The 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road is perhaps the single most well-known activity in Glacier National Park (nps.gov/glac), its hairpin turns and high-mountain vistas wowing—and occasionally terrifying—millions of visitors each year. But autumn offers its own rewards, as the road showcases the marked fall-color contrasts between the west and east sides of the park. Beginning at West Glacier, drivers enjoy wet, fog-enshrouded forests, where larch garland Lake McDonald. As the road climbs out of the McDonald Creek drainage toward Logan Pass, the road’s high point, cool birch forests transition to the ruddy colors of fall on the avalanche slopes high on Going-to-the-Sun Road. East of Logan Pass, aspen begin to take over as the road passes Saint Mary Lake and Two Dog Flats, a broad, aspen-framed prairie. These vistas are typical of the Rocky Mountain Front, where the escarpments of the Continental Divide sweep into Great Plains prairie. In addition to the color, fall on the Going-to-the-Sun Highway is a more relaxed affair than during peak season; vehicle traffic is lighter and the bighorn sheep a bit bolder. The alpine portion of the road stays open until the third weekend of October at the latest; before then, be prepared for the unpredictable but inevitable snow-caused closure and have a back-up itinerary for the day just in case.
|Glacier National Park Lodging
Most accommodations in and immediately outside the park wind down before fall colors perk up. That may change as more tourists discover the charms of Glacier’s off season, but for now a visitor’s best bet is to camp or find lodging in the gateway communities of Columbia Falls, Kalispell and Whitefish. The newly opened Firebrand Hotel, one block away from the boutiques and bars of downtown Whitefish (firebrandhotel.com), puts an urban spin on the bricks-and-beams aesthetic of Western Montana.
Nelson, British Columbia
The fjord-like lakes and fog-enshrouded peaks comprising the Kootenay region of British Columbia have been shaped by ancient but restive geological forces: some of the continent’s oldest rock; deep, glacier- and flood-gouged lakes; vast veins of ore; hidden geothermal hot springs. The landscapes awe year-round, but autumn boasts particular delights, with the golden glow of western larch providing one of the Northwest’s best fall flora shows.
The 280-mile International Selkirk Loop circumnavigates the Kootenays, but road trippers looking for a shorter itinerary can sample the Silvery Slocan portion of the drive on a 110-mile loop beginning in Nelson. From Slocan Junction west of Nelson, follow winding Highway 6 along the slow-meandering Slocan River, shaded with cottonwoods and surrounded by small farms. Pass through the funky artists’ enclave of Winlaw and climb above Slocan Lake on the eastern edge of Valhalla Provincial Park’s lofty peaks. Descend to Sandon and New Denver, with their rich mining history and small-town charm on the shores of Slocan Lake. From here, head east through the narrow gorge of Highway 31A to the community of Kaslo, on the broad, sandy beaches of Kootenay Lake. On the way back to Nelson, on a slow-speed road curling between Kootenay Lake and the forested slope of the Slocan Range of the Selkirk Mountains, stop at Kokanee Creek Provincial Park for fall colors of a different sort. An important spawning spot for its namesake salmon, Kokanee Creek is flush with the red-backed fish in late summer and early autumn.
Back in Nelson, head to Gyro Park, where a rock outcropping reveals a Rockwellian scene of maple-lined streets sloping down to the shores of Kootenay Lake. There’s an open-air mysticism in Nelson (nelsonkootenaylake.com)—a mix of hardcore mountain living and hippie culture—that’s represented in events from Renaissance faires to rave-music festivals; travelers should check an event calendar to really experience the local color.
Nelson has a lively nightlife scene and dining to accommodate every appetite, from vegan to carnivore. Garlic-heads will find much to love at Outer Clove (outerclove.com), although the casual-upscale menu rewards milder palates, too. British expats operate the Cloudside Hotel (cloudside.ca); the bed & breakfast offers a bit of European charm in this bohemian enclave. Those preferring a larger hotel should check out Hume Hotel & Spa (humehotel.com), a Victorian-era landmark downtown.