We were trying to outrun the bruised, rain-plump clouds that had been tailgating us since the Canadian border when we finally hit Highway 20, which snakes through North Cascades National Park like an asphalt river. The forecast wasn’t particularly optimistic—clouds and forest fire smoke—but we didn’t care. In the North Cascades, fall ignites one last burst of tourism before winter closes in. Not for antique stores, cider stands, or coffee shops though—in these parts, leaf peeping is not an economic driver. In fact, there isn’t much at all for the one hundred miles between the park border and the historic town of Winthrop on the mountains' eastern slope. Just scenic lookouts, trailheads, and mountain goats.
I wasn't here for any of that though; I was here seeking out the famous golden larch.
Where I live in Whistler, BC, fall colors are fickle. I’d always envied the East Coast’s annual (and dependable) display of the nostalgic warmth of autumn. For me, fall is usually marked by the onset of an unshakable feeling; a tension that sits somewhere between anticipation for snow—and therefore skiing—and pining for a summer gone too soon. This year, true to form, I was reluctant to accept winter's arrival, so I headed down to Washington's North Cascades for one last weekend of hiking.
It was the Friday of Labour Day weekend, our road trip playlist was cranking at full blast, and I watched happily out the window as the Washington landscape slipped past. Signs of urban life had gradually given way to mountainscapes as we sped towards our home for the night, and we passed a herd of elk grazing in a field alongside the road while the sun began to set. The quaintness of the area mixed with growing excitement about the weekend ahead had cast a familiar spell over me. I was busy romanticizing the idyllic, rural mountain lifestyle when a large, star-spangled banner shouted "FUCK BIDEN!" from where it was draped over the entirety of someone’s front porch, snapping me out of my reverie. Not quite far enough from society for a politically neutral landscape yet.
Long after the sun had set, we parked the truck camper close to Cutthroat Pass and settled in for a camp dinner and some whiskey-fueled stargazing. We spent the next two days meandering along sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. Once we got walking, we realized it's not just the larch trees that deserve credit for the autumnal eruption of color. Seemingly every hue is given stage time; amber, saffron and leather tan bleed into cinnamon, ochre, and crimson. Huckleberry bushes adopt a shade not dissimilar to the maple leaf, giving the meadow floor the illusion of wearing a '90s-era blood-red shag carpet. Still, none are as striking and unique as the main event: the golden larches.
Larch trees, also known as tamarack, are both deciduous and coniferous. Larches have green needles like pine or spruce, but these needles don't stay on year round. In the fall, the trees sequester nutrients from their needles in a process that turns them golden-colored before they drop off entirely. This needle loss helps them become resilient to insect and fire damage as well as helping them survive powerful winds and cold temperatures in the winter.
This period of change—starting around mid-September for subalpine larch and mid-October for western larch—lasts for just two or three weeks. That limited timespan is what gives rise to a hoard of hikers flooding the larch region in the two or three weekends of peak color, a spectacle known as Larch Madness. To me, those signature needle clusters give the larches a Dr. Seuss-like appearance of having been recently electrocuted.
To avoid the crowds, we got up and began hiking by 6AM, and enjoyed the trails mostly to ourselves for the larger part of the morning. In the PNW, it's not unusual to see larches seared in half between their deep summer green and blazing autumn gold. Seeing the natural phenomenon first hand reminded me of witnessing bioluminescence for the first time. For most of the weekend I could barely walk more than ten meters before the urge to stop and take a photo struck.
By early afternoon when we returned to our vehicle, we found an impossible amount of cars crammed into every viable square foot of the car park and hundreds more stretching two kilometers on either side of the highway. I’d read this spot was popular, but not that popular. I could hardly believe it. Then again, seeing what I'd seen, I could, and I already can’t wait to go back.