On Fall's Trail in Washington
Take the Grand Tour: The Cascade Loop
The 400-mile Cascade Loop is Washington's classic driving tour—famous from the early days of the automobile. Take it in one long, non-stop, hell-bent-for-leather day, or as a leisurely weekend jaunt, which is what we recommend. You'll cross the Cascade Range twice, view substantial rivers and picturesque lakes both east and west of the mountains, then swoop down to sea level and swing into the San Juan Islands, with numerous opportunities to stop in small towns along the way, for sandwiches or nightcrawlers. You'll find remarkable fall color, especially around the 10th of October, just east of Stevens Pass (aspen), and farther east in Tumwater Canyon (mixed trees and bushes). The Methow Valley section of the route is known for its extensive stands of golden aspen; and the North Cascades Highway, which runs through Washington and Rainy passes, offers a palette of color from maple, fir, huckleberry, and Oregon grape, with larch and aspen on the dry eastern side of the mountains.
Route: From Interstate 5, near Everett, Take US 2, eastward over 4000-ft. Stevens Pass and alongside Tumwater Canyon's churning whitewater, to the Bavarian-inspired village of Leavenworth, which offers diverse mountain-oriented outdoor activities. Continue to Wenatchee (a jumping-off place for paddling and whitewater rafting), then turn north of US Highway 97, along the Columbia River. (For lake and mountain getaways, Lake Chelan makes an excellent side-trip.) Follow 97 north to SR 153 up the pastoral Methow Valley. Join SR 20 here and follow it through the Old-West town of Winthrop. It becomes the famed North Cascades Highway, and proceeds up to 5477-ft. Washington Pass. Continue into North Cascades National Park (hiking, biking, boating, camping). After Ross Dam, the road follows the Skagit River toward Puget Sound, through Douglas fir and cedar to the broad delta of the Skagit. From there, you can head west to Fidalgo Island and the breathtaking Deception Pass Bridge and State Park (boating, hiking, fishing). Highway 20 meanders to the southern end of Whidbey Island (SR 20 becomes SR 525), where the Clinton Ferry returns you to the mainland near I-90 and US Highway 2, where you began.
Peak color: around October 10th
More about North Cascades Highway
Kayak the Columbia Estuary
Near Skamokawa in southwest Washington, the Columbia River's estuary is dotted with protected islands, rimmed with marshes, sliced by sloughs, and guarded by 600-year-old Sitka spruce trees. The Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge attracts migrating warblers and songbirds in large numbers and shelters the rare Columbian white-tailed deer. In the early morning mist or on a moonlit fall evening, you can catch the local wildlife unaware—elk, deer, river otters, osprey, great blue heron, and bald eagles.
Access: Access the Columbia from put-ins along State Route 4. The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society each offer naturalist-guided trips. Contact the Lower Columbia Economic Development Council, (800) 248-3230.
Peak color: late October to early November
View the Larches on Blewett Pass
Deciduous alpine larch is the fall-color attraction here, an unconventional conifer that turns a glowing gold in the fall, then drops its needles. Winding through the Wenatchee mountains, and then down to the Swauk Prairie and the lovely Kittitas Valley, Rt. 97 takes you through one of the most beautiful mountain passes in the state. This 48-mile scenic drive route makes a great side trip or shortcut, from Leavenworth to Ellensburg, or you can make it an all-day trip from Seattle. You'll find great hiking and biking opportunities—the Mineral Springs Recreation Area and Wenatchee National Forest both are close at hand.
Access: From Seattle, drive north on Interstate 5 to Everett, where you'll pick up US Route 2, the Stevens Pass Highway, at Exit 194. Take Rt. 2 through Stevens Pass in the North Cascades to Leavenworth. Just east of Leavenworth, pick up US 97. Take Rt. 97 south to Ellensburg. To return to Seattle, take Interstate 5 west from Ellensburg.
Peak color: mid-October
More about Wenatchee National Forest
Drive the Okanogan Highlands
The Okanogan Valley is the heart of Washington's apple-growing industry. Above the valley, in the mountains to the east of Tonasket, Oroville, and US 97, you'll find Washington's largest expanse of aspens glowing golden on the hillsides. This backroad loop will take you to within a few miles of the Canadian border. The historic mining town of Molson makes an interesting side trip.
Route: From Omak, drive north on Rt. 97 to Tonasket, then turn onto the backroads to drive northeast, through Havillah to Chesaw. Turn west at Chesaw, taking another country road to Oroville, where you can catch up again with Rt. 97 and drive south along the Okanogan River.
Peak color: mid-October
More about Okanogan National Forest
Hike the Mt. Baker area
Hiking trails off the Mt. Baker Highway range from easy to strenuous, and offer superb color and great views. The Table Mountain trail is a short but steep climb to a great view of Mts. Shuksan and Baker, and of the Border Peaks on the margin of Canada. Take the rigorous nine-mile loop around the Chain Lakes. From Austin Pass to Lake Ann is eight miles—a day hike or an overnighter—through some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in the state. The Bagley Lakes and Picture Lake trails also provide great fall hikes here.
Route: Take the Mt. Baker Highway (SR 542) east from Interstate 5 near Bellingham. Your car will meander through big-leaf maple country before climbing to the higher slopes and trailheads, all off SR 542.
Peak color: early October
More about Mt. Baker- Snoqualmie National Forest
Take a spin down Chuckanut Drive
Best in November for fall color, this 21-mile, 1920s-vintage scenic drive starts south of Bellingham, skirts the edge of the cliffs along Chuckanut and Samish Bays, then crosses the Sagit River delta to join Interstate 5. Along the way, it provides stunning views of Lummi, Orcas, Guemes, and other San Juan islands. You'll find opportunities for hiking and fossil-viewing in Larrabee State Park, and some very nice restaurants by the road. This is a popular (though hilly) tour-biking route as well.
Route: From Interstate 5 at Burlington, take Chuckanut Drive (State Rt 11) and follow it to its end in Bellingham, returning to Interstate 5.
Peak color: early to mid-November
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication