3 Best Hikes to See Larches in the North Cascades of Washington

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Every autumn, something magical happens in North Cascades in Washington—its larches, a unique type of coniferous alpine tree, turn vibrant shades of gold. Sounds like an autumn lover’s dream come true? It totally is!

If you want to see one of the most unique displays of fall foliage on the planet, here’s three incredible hikes to see larches in the North Cascades. 

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Larches along the Heather Maple Pass Loop trail in the North Cascades National Park in Washington
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Before we get too in the weeds (or, should I say, in the larches?), let’s back up a bit.

Frequently Asked Questions About Larches in the North Cascades

What are larches?

Larch trees, also called tanaracks, are needle-bearing conifers, like pine or spruce trees, but have a unique characteristic—they’re actually deciduous. They’re one of the few species in the world whose soft needles turn a dazzling shade of yellow before falling off for the wintertime.

They primarily are found at very specific elevations in cold and mountainous climates, including the Pacific Northwest, areas of Canada, and Siberia. Many of the best larch hikes in Washington are found in the beautiful North Cascades.

Woman walking between larches on the Heather Maple Pass Loop in North Cascades National Park in Washington

When do larches turn gold in the North Cascades?

The period when larches turn their brilliant color changes from year to year, based on a number of factors, but it’s usually somewhere around late September through the first couple of weeks of October. 

After mid-October, there’s a good chance that most of the high elevation trails (or even the roads you take to get to the trailheads) will get some heavy ice or snow and may even close down for the year!

The Best Hikes to See Larches in North Cascades

Please be sure to check for closures before heading to the trails- unfortunately, many of the trails in this area of the North Cascades have been impacted by wildfires, as of August 2023.

1. Heather Maple Pass Loop

Heather Maple Pass Loop is undoubtedly the most popular larch hike in the North Cascades—and it’s not hard to see why! 

Woman looking on larches while standing on a rocky outcropping along the Heather Maple Pass Trail in North Cascades in Washington

You’ll pass two jaw-droppingly beautiful alpine lakes, hike along the ridge of a mountain past a sea of endless Cascade Mountain peaks, and of course, walk through dozens and dozens of groves of larches, especially in the areas directly below Maple Pass. 

You have two options to hike this trail. 

If you go clockwise (following signs for the Rainy Lake Trail), there will generally be way less people going in that direction, but it has a steeper ascent through a wooded forest. 

Alternatively, you can go counter-clockwise, which is, by far, the more popular route—and thus, WAY more crowded. On the other hand, the elevation gain is a lot more gradual and you’ll have more stunning views, such as of the turquoise waters of Lake Ann, to distract you from your burning legs. 

Woman sitting on a rock, overlooking Rainy Lake, along the Heather Maple Pass Loop Trail in North Cascades National Park in Washington

My husband, Justin, and I have done this hike both ways and I personally prefer going clockwise—I hate constantly having to play leapfrog with tons of other hikers, I enjoyed having the spectacular views as we descended, and we prefer going downhill more gradually to reduce the risk of falling. But to each their own!

Heather Maple Pass Loop has definitely earned a reputation for being one the best hikes to see larches in the North Cascades—so expect to see LOTS and LOTS of crowds, especially on weekends. 

Fall foliage and larches along the Heather Maple Pass Loop trail in Washington

If you can swing it, I’d highly recommend visiting on a weekday and if not, come REALLY early (like, as-soon-as-the-sun-rises early) to have a glimmer of hope of snagging a parking spot anywhere near the trailhead and to enjoy the trail without hundreds of other hikers clogging it.

2. Cutthroat Pass Trail

  • Length: 11.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 2300 feet
  • Difficulty: Hard. Besides its lengthiness, I’d probably say it’s more on the moderate side.
  • Fee? $5 for day use or free with an America the Beautiful Pass
  • Trail map

If Maple Pass Loop is too crowded for your taste, head down the road to the Cutthroat Pass Trail, which typically receives just a fraction of the visitors than its more popular neighbor. 

Woman with larches behind her along the Cutthroat Pass area in the North Cascades in Washington

This trail starts through a dense forest, with plenty of brilliant fall foliage amidst the shrubs and wildflowers, lining its pathway. After approximately 1.9 miles, you’ll reach the marshy shores of beautiful Cutthroat Lake, where you’ll catch your first glimpses of the golden larches that festoon the slopes of the surrounding Cascades that tower above. 

If you’re looking for an easy hike to see the larches in the North Cascades, Cutthroat Lake may be one of the most accessible for beginner hikers to take in the views and, when you’ve had your fill, retrace your steps back to the trailhead.

Cutthroat Lake along the Cutthroat Pass Trail in the North Cascades of Washington

Otherwise, you’ll continue up the trail through a series of switchbacks in a wooded forest, with occasional peekaboo views of the nearby mountains.

As you climb up further, you’ll start encountering more and more larches, with the densest population as you approach Cutthroat Pass. Beyond just the larches, the slopes of the mountain will be covered with wildflowers and shrubs in stunning autumnal colors, like paintbrush, huckleberries, and blueberries.

At the top of the pass, the treeline will thin out, allowing you to see the breathtaking vistas of the North Cascades to the south. There are only a handful of hikes that have literally brought me to tears, because they’re so beautiful, and, between the larches, the stunning foliage, and the dramatic North Cascades, this is one of them! 

Couple standing along Cutthroat Pass Trail in North Cascades National Park in Washington

3. Blue Lake Trail

If you’re short on time or are looking for a more moderate hike, the Blue Lake Trail is an excellent way to see larches in the North Cascades. 

Larches along a slope on the Blue Lake Trail in the North Cascades of Washington

The first mile or so of the hike climbs through a dense pine tree forest, along a rocky and dusty trail. After 1.5 miles, though, the trees will open up a bit, with larches lining the pathway and views of Cutthroat Peak and Whistler Mountain towering overhead. Be sure to look upward—many of the slopes surrounding the trail are absolutely littered with golden larches.

A little over two miles in, you’ll reach the banks of the aptly-named Blue Lake, which sits in the shadow of a craggy mountain, with snow patches that remain throughout the hiking season. Countless golden larches are perched on its shores, which perfectly contrasts the lake’s turquoise waters. There’s a rocky outcropping on the western side of the lake that’s an excellent place to have a snack and take in the jaw-dropping views.

Like Heather Maple Loop Pass, this is a popular trail, so if you prefer to hike in relative solitude, I’d suggest coming on a weekday or arriving early.

Sun eclipsing a mountain and larches along the Blue Lake Trail in North Cascades in Washington
Pssst.... want even more stunning fall foliage in the North Cascades? While it doesn't have larches, the wildflowers and shrubs around the Yellow Aster Butte trail burst into stunning shades of scarlet, burnt orange and gold, come autumn.

How to Get to the North Cascades

North Cascades National Park is MASSIVE, spanning 788 square miles across northern Washington (and that’s not even counting the surrounding national forests). Luckily, though, all three of the hikes listed above are all within a 15 minute drive of one another.

From Seattle, the trailheads are located about four hours (one-way) northeast of the city. For over an hour of the drive, you’ll be on the North Cascades Highway (SR 20), one of the most scenic drives on the planet, as you pass the electric blue waters of Diablo Lake, jagged mountain peaks, and gorgeous forests.

Couple holding hands in front of Diablo Lake in the North Cascades in Washington

While, in my opinion, cruising along the North Cascades Highway is worth the drive alone, I’d consider spending a night or two in the area so you’re not driving eight-hours roundtrip for a single hike. In fact, we’d recommend arriving in the area the evening before you plan to hike, so you can get to the trailhead bright and early. Plus you can squeeze in seeing more larches that way! 

Which leads me to…

Where to Stay in the North Cascades

The North Cascades are pretty remote—so if you plan on going on the larch hikes recommended above, there unfortunately aren’t any hotels RIGHT at the base of the mountains.

However, there is a quirky and charming town, called Winthrop, just 40 minutes east along the North Cascades Highway, with plenty of lodging, restaurants, and shopping options for you.

Cascade Pass in the North Cascades of Washington

What exactly makes it quirky? 

Well, Winthrop was originally an 1800s gold rush town, but, due to its mining operations closing, its population started to dwindle by the mid-20th century. 

However, Winthrop saw the success of another town in Washington’s Cascades, Leavenworth, which saved its rapidly shrinking population by turning its downtown area into a Bavarian village, straight out of the Alps, and thus, became one of the state’s most popular attractions (seriously, if you’ve never been to Christmas in Leavenworth, it’s a popular destination for travelers from around the world and you should PUT IT ON YOUR BUCKET LIST!). 

Winthrop followed in Leavenworth’s footsteps in 1972 and agreed to refurbish its downtown area to its former Wild Western glory. Today, you’ll still enjoy wooden boardwalks, adorable Western facades, and lots of ol’ time-y vibes. 

Wooden boardwalks in Winthrop, Washington
Photo by pierdelune of Deposit Photos

If that sounds up your alley (hi, can we be friends?!), consider staying in the following Winthrop hotels:

  • Sun Mountain Lodge: This luxurious lodge is the perfect respite after a long day on the trails—between the heated pools and hot tub, overlooking the Cascades and the onsite spa, it might be hard to leave your room to go see the larches!
  • Hotel Rio Vista: This charming hotel definitely leans into the rustic Western vibes, but still is plenty cozy, with in-room balconies, all of which have river views; a hot tub; and comfy beds.
  • River’s Edge Resort: Want a bit more space? The River’s Edge Resort offers cottages and chalets, the latter of which comes with a full-size kitchen. The location is excellent—right on the river and walkable to Winthrop’s adorable downtown. 
Trees around the Methow River in Winthrop, Washington
Photo by gjohnstonphoto of Deposit Photo

Just note, these accommodations can book up fast, especially around autumn—they don’t call fall “larch madness” in Washington for nothing!

Tips for Seeing the Larches in the North Cascades 

  • Check for wildfires. The North Cascades is one of our favorite places to hike on the planet—we’ve seriously seen few other landscapes that can rival the rugged mountain peaks and the endless alpine lakes you’ll encounter there. But, unfortunately, its short hiking season just so happens to coincide with wildfire season in Washington—and it’s safe to say that these two don’t exactly go hand-in-hand together.

    Before you make the multiple hour drive to the North Cascades, I’d suggest checking the Air and Smoke Map around Winthrop, Washington to see if there’s any active fires in the area and how good the air quality is.

    Just because the air’s a little smoky doesn’t mean that making the drive won’t be worth it—but I would use it as a data point in deciding whether you should save these hikes for another day. 
Woman walking along the Blue Lake Trail in North Cascades in Washington
  • Leave No Trace. The North Cascades are a beautiful place—let’s keep it that way! This little slice of heaven sees a LOT of foot traffic, come fall, which, unfortunately, can lead to damaging the fragile ecosystems here.

    So please leave this place better than you found it—don’t step on fragile wildflower fields (it kills wildflowers for generations to come—and you don’t want to be a wildflower murderer, do you?!), heed any kind of fire restrictions, pick up your trash—just be, y’know, not jerks!

    We and the future generations of the world thank you! 
Man standing at Lewis Lake with fall foliage in the North Cascades in Washington
  • Be prepared for hot and cold weather. Because of their high elevation, the North Cascades can feel FREEZING in the early mornings and evenings, but can get a LOT of sun during the day. In fact, all of the hikes listed above have quite a bit of sun exposure.

    So remember to bring a few cozy warm layers with you (I love my Patagonia zip-up) and some sunscreen—so you’ll be prepared for whatever weather comes your way.

Have the best time seeing the larches in the North Cascades! Do you have any questions about the trails? Did we miss any trails that should be on this list? Let us know in the comments below!

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