by Lisette Wolter-McKinley and Allen Cox
Fall in the Northwest is hard to beat. The return of cool air disperses the hordes of summer travelers and transforms an already gorgeous region into a cornucopia of color. Since this colorful foliage is often intermingled with evergreens, the fall foliage of the Northwest is both rich and varied. Breathtaking hues of red, yellow and orange from maple, ash and aspen trees create a vibrant landscape. In addition, ground covers like witch hazel, red twig dogwood, Oregon grape and native berries enhance the understory with color. Whether on a drive or on a hike, it’s easy to find yourself surrounded by signs of fall in a stunning setting. Those who make the quest for fall foliage will find bursts of color highlighted by our typically gray skies or, if you are extra fortunate, set against a bluebird day.
From golden larches in the high country to big leaf maples in the lower elevations, here are a few fun spots to either drive or hike in the region. The best viewing time for Western Washington color is typically October. Early in the month you will see color at the higher elevations, and later in the month at the lower elevations. Just remember, color is also dependent on both weather and temperature.
White Pass Scenic Byway (aka Highway 12) in the shadows of Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams passes through the Gifford Pinchot and Wenatchee National Forests. The highway winds through coniferous forests and passes meadows, lakes, rivers and waterfalls. The surrounding landscape can be seen from the car, or at a variety of turnouts and overlooks. The trip begins 100 miles south of Seattle, off I-5 at Exit 68. Then, from Seattle, the byway is 240 miles roundtrip. Driving the byway is a wonderful experience in and of itself. However, not far off the byway you’ll find some of Washington’s most scenic volcanoes, lakes and waterfalls.
It is wonderful to experience the grandeur of Mount Rainier, but even better when you are not surrounded by its summer crowds. Aside from the temperate rainforest and impressive vistas, it is not just the wildflowers that will keep you coming back to the mountain, but the stunning fall foliage. In Mount Rainier National Park, the Snow Lake Trail is an easy-to-moderate, 2.5 mile out-and-back hike featuring gorgeous fall color from late August to the end of September. It is a nice short hike if you want to explore the area away from some of the most popular spots at Paradise and also makes for an easy add-on if you’ve already had a full day of driving.
To enjoy some end-of-season camping look no further than Ohanapecosh Campground in Mount Rainier National Park. With 188 campsites, this campground is the largest of three drive-in facilities. Located at 1,900 feet, Ohanapecosh typically opens earlier and closes later than the other camping areas in Mount Rainier National Park. Picnic tables, fire platforms, flush toilets and potable water are just some of the amenities available in this area. For a romantic getaway stay at one of Stormking’s luxury cabins in Ashford. Each Mount Rainier cabin has its own hot tub, individual design and quiet space on the property. — LWM
Fall in Oregon means the forest and river valleys will be bursting into a patchwork of reds, oranges, and golds. Red alder, Pacific dogwood, and vine maple bring red to Oregon, bigleaf maple and cascara provide yellow while Oregon white oak adds bronze. Aspen and cottonwood trees put on their own kind of spectacle. There are few things more magical than Oregon’s annual autumn transformation. The trees usually start to turn in late September, reaching peak color by mid to late October. In northeastern Oregon, fall colors can be seen in early and mid-November.
If you’re in northeast Oregon during peak time, one of the best places to see fall colors is along the Elkhorn Scenic Byway in Baker County. On this 106-mile loop, you will enjoy beautiful landscapes and interesting geology while traveling through an area rich in history. For fall color, follow Forest Road 73 along the North Powder River where you will find bright yellow cottonwood trees. Head up to Anthony Lakes and Elkhorn Summit to see the golden western larch trees. Here is one of the best places in Oregon to see the western larch—a rare deciduous conifer with needles that turn shades of yellow in Autumn. You can see the changing needles along the Elkhorn Scenic Byway, which leaves Baker City along routes 7 and 410 to Sumpter, winding through the mountain range before looping back to town.
Oregon hiking is in a league all its own. When you partner majestic mountains with stunning lakes and glorious fall colors you really cannot beat this scenic hike. Enjoy this 2.3-mile loop trail near Haines, Oregon. During early fall, Hoffer Lake is a short but stunning introduction to the impressive granite architecture of the Elkhorns. Hoffer Lakes Trail, a little over 2-mile trek with a mild elevation gain, makes for a perfect afternoon adventure where you pass by not one, but three pristine lakes.
For a bit of a splurge stay at the Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City. Each room of this historic hotel features a crystal chandelier and iconic architecture. Anthony Lakes Campground is the largest of the three campgrounds in the Anthony Lakes Recreation Area. Adjacent to Anthony Lakes, you’ll find spectacular views of Gunsight Peak and the Elkhorn Mountains. — LWM
Every Autumn, vibrant shades of yellow, orange, and red pass through the 96-mile-long Bitterroot Valley where they complement the snow-capped peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains and the blue waters of the Bitterroot River. Fall is one of the best times to visit with cooler daytime temperatures, crisp evenings and fewer travelers. Fall foliage season arrives in mid-September. You can view beautiful colors in northern parts of the state, in particular at higher elevations. In central Montana, peak fall colors can be seen from late September to early October. Aside from leaf-peeping, autumn in Montana is prime fly-fishing season too.
Located just south of Missoula, the Bitterroot Valley Scenic Drive (Highway 93) is flanked by the Bitterroot Mountains on the west and the Sapphire Mountains on the east and is a leaf peeper’s dream. Throughout the 96-mile-long valley, you will find small towns tucked between mountain ranges, filled with wide-open spaces and jaw-dropping wonders. Turn east on MT Highway 43 from US 93 at the Montana-Idaho border about 50 miles south of Hamilton. Some of the best places to see the valley’s fall foliage are Highway 93 from Missoula to Sula and the West Fork Road near Darby.
Head out on this 2.8-mile out-and-back Blodget Canyon Overlook Trail near Hamilton. The trail is wide, well maintained and a quick jaunt to see the fall colors decorating the slopes. Encounters with wildlife are frequent, so be prepared. In terms of the hiking effort-to-payoff ratio, you would be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying hike in the Bitterroots.
As you travel you may want to stop by the beautiful Medicine Creek Hot Springs; if so, stay the night at Warm Springs Campground. This first-come, first-serve campground has 14 sites with picnic tables, fire rings and vault toilets. Bitterroot River Ranch is an all-season bed and breakfast offering western hospitality and the true Montana lifestyle with mountain views and rustic elegance. — LWM
Boise is known as the “City of Trees.” What better place to discover nature’s display of fall foliage with all the creature comforts at hand? Green spaces and parks are scattered throughout the city, and a network of trails trace the contours of the surrounding hills and valleys. Oaks, maples, ash, cottonwoods and aspens paint the landscape with vibrant colors in the fall.
Idaho is just made for scenic drives as it’s home to 31 scenic byways. A pleasant three-hour loop drive beginning and ending in Boise covers three scenic byways with stretches that light up with color in the fall. Drive north from Boise on the Payette River Scenic Byway, head east on the 33-mile Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway and return to Boise on the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway. Besides the fall color display, dramatic canyon landscapes and the probability of spotting wildlife will be your rewards.
The 25-mile Boise Greenbelt path follows the Boise River through the city and offers up varied hues of reds, oranges and yellows. The Greenbelt links more than 850 acres of parks and natural areas and is considered one of the best urban green spaces in the country, inviting humans to connect with nature and wildlife. Explore it on foot or, to cover more miles, rent a bike to enjoy this colorful palette on two wheels.
With Idaho’s largest city as your fall-color basecamp, you have many choices of lodging. — AC
When You Go