Cascadia Obscura

The stories behind some of my favorite photos and trips...

Larches

If you’re not familiar with larches, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about them. But what you really need to know is that larches have this perfect recipe to make seeing them so special.

First, larches only grow above a certain latitude fairly far North and only at higher altitudes. So you can’t just hop in the car with a coffee and drive up to the mountains and pull over and snap a couple shots for Instagram, you gotta hike UP UP UP to get to the promised land.

But here’s what makes larches so cool… Throughout the year they’re green, not much different looking than pretty much every other alpine conifer. But every fall, they execute a strange magic trick that you really need to see with your own eyes to truly appreciate. Unlike other conifers, larches drop their needles every winter much like a deciduous tree. So while you associate the changing of colors and the falling leaves of fall with typical trees like oak or maple and assume that pine trees just sit back and watch the show, if you’re at altitude and you’re a larch, you’re the star of the show. Because for a brief few weeks every fall, larch needles turn from green to the brightest yellow you’ve ever seen and then just as quickly and unexpectedly as they showed up, they’re gone and the bright yellow needles turn from yellow to brown and become part of the soil. Like by the time you see trip reports coming back and people indicating that the larches are turning, you’ve got maybe 2 weeks before they’re all gone.

So, when it’s a Tuesday and you hear that the larches are turning and the following day is supposed to be the perfect fall day up in the mountains, you call your employer and you tell them that you won’t be in tomorrow because this…

This is what the Heather / Maple Pass hike looked like once you get out of the forest and reach the exposed parts of the mountain. But best of all, we timed the hike so that we’d be on the mountain later in the day as the golden hour light would turn on the larches like neon yellow signs for as far as you could see. In some of the pictures like the one below, as the sun was getting low enough to cast shadows across the peaks, the larches seem electric and lit up by the golden hour sun even more than usual as when you look in the distance you’d see shaded parts of the mountain with these bright yellow larches sticking up and impossible to miss, soaking up the golden sun and radiating it for the world to see.

Sony a7r2 + Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 | 21mm @ f/13, 1/250 ISO 100

I’m not revealing any secret spot here or anywhere that’s not already in the top 3 places to see the larches in the state, but if you’re interested in seeing this show with your own eyes, you owe it to yourself to drive up to the Heather Maple Pass Loop in North Cascades National Park and hike the 7.5 miles and 2000-feet up into the mountains to see one of the greatest displays on one of the finest hiking trails in the entire Northwest. But when you hear they’re turning color, you better get your ass in gear because the window to see these magic yellow conifers is very small and by the time you hear about it the show is already onto the second or third act…