Anne of Green Gables paints the scene: “October was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths.” Shortly, Anne remarks, “‘I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.’”
Though the setting may differ, my sentiments regarding the change of season are much the same. I continue to be enamored by the radiant kaleidoscope of October foliage. With leaves my preferred media, my activity of preference is hiking, and my setting is the Central and North Cascades. If you find yourself much like me, continually searching for another autumn performance, trying to satiate a growing thirst for color and a love of indescribable settings, read on for 10 of my favorite October destinations!
Disclaimer: In no way do I intend this list to be a “Top 10” or anything comprehensive, but rather, 10 autumn destinations I have reached in the past few years that continue to stick with me. There are numerous other excellent hike options, many not far from these listed below. My “to-hike” list grows routinely, as I seem to add two or three more every time I check one off. My list is greatly lacking in hikes featuring larches, and I hope to add more in coming seasons.
#1 Thorp Mountain Lookout
My most recent seasonal discovery, and easily one of my new favorite hikes in the state, the route to Thorp Mountain Lookout via Thorp Creek takes you through a diverse setting of forest and meadows, complete with scarlet leaves of mountain huckleberry, brilliant orange of mountain ash, dusty gold of bracken fern and a full palette of vine maple as you climb almost 2,500 feet over about 4 miles to the summit. A side trip to Thorp Lake brings a stunning display no matter the time of year, and the lookout and ridge show off some of the most spectacular views of the Enchantment peaks and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, not to mention Mount Rainier dominating to the south. This August saw a brief outbreak of wildfire after an overnight lightning storm, but hot shot crews kept the spread to a minimum and away from the trail.
#2 Hope & Mig Lakes
If wading through a sea of autumn foliage suits your fancy, take the Tunnel Creek Trail off Highway 2 up to where the Pacific Crest Trail bypasses two picturesque alpine lakes surrounded by an explosion of color. With a roundtrip of just 5 miles, the PCT will invite you to wander farther north or south to admire the forest and occasional mountain views as the waves of color roll on.
#3 Park Butte Lookout
No matter the season, Park Butte near Baker Lake will always remain high on my list of favorite hiking destinations. With a steady climb along a bit more than 3 miles, plus several options for side trips to extend your mileage, the route to the lookout provides unbelievable proximity to and views of Mount Baker, along with surrounding peaks. Meadow features rotate from heather and lupine in summer to radiant huckleberry in autumn. Once at the lookout, the wow factor really hits, with one of the best views of a Washington volcano you can achieve.
#4 Josephine Lake
Though the destination is beautiful and peaceful on its own, the true star of the show on this 10-mile jaunt along the Pacific Crest Trail is the middle part of the hike, as you approach and crest the ridge at the top of the Stevens Pass ski area.
Colors build as your elevation increases along the ski runs, with a striking eruption as you start the descent down the backside, where huckleberry and mountain ash perform an autumn tango, with supporting roles from pearly everlasting and other late-season wildflowers. Early in the season, the area just before the ridge provides an excellent berry picking location.
#5 Blanca Lake
While this popular destination is currently inaccessible due to the Bolt Creek Wildfire, it still deserves a mention on my list. Deciduous color does vary a bit more on this hike than some, with larger portions of coniferous forest, but the typical reds, oranges and yellows do make an appearance in places. The major draw, no matter the season, is the glacial turquoise of the water basking at the foot of several rocky peaks. Tinges of color on the slopes above, or a wisp of fog add to the cozy feeling of October. Though the mileage might seem routine, this hike will make you pay for the views, with a gain of nearly 3000’ feet in under 3 miles.
#6 Margaret Lake
For a lower-traffic option where the display of color starts back in September, take the gentle 3-mile trail to Margaret Lake, just east of Snoqualmie Pass. The main showstopper here is mountain ash, with an eye-catching contrast between sunny gold leaves and fire engine red berries, against a backdrop of rich maroon, with the deep green of the lake adding extra interest.
#7 Yellow Aster Butte
Even though this hike is one of the most popular along the Mount Baker Highway, it absolutely earns its place as one of the most remarkable locations to encounter a wildfire of fall foliage, as the slopes along the middle third of the trail are bathed in color. The views from the top are jaw-dropping, with Mounts Baker and Shuksan standing proudly to the south, with a dominating landscape of peaks extending north into Canada. Steep sections bookend this hike, with a slow slog to the peak in the final half mile or so. I should note the road to the trailhead is also notoriously rough. Being well-known, this trail sees significant traffic on summer and fall weekends and holidays, so cash in one of those mental health days during the week.
#8 Tumwater Pipeline
Short and sweet does not always have to mean a hike is lacking in interest. Just outside Leavenworth, find a simple walk that is beautiful any time of year. Autumn brings a vivid display of foliage flanking the river, with the trail providing far better up close views than the highway can offer. At 2.4 miles round trip with negligible elevation change, this hike is an excellent one for little legs or simply to stretch a bit after the long drive over Stevens Pass.
#9 Heather-Maple Pass Loop
Perhaps the most-posted fall hike I see on social media, this stunning 7.2-mile loop high up the North Cascades Highway draws overwhelming crowds from hours away during October. A recent Facebook posting from 10 a.m. on a Saturday showed about 335 vehicles lining both sides of the highway by the parking lot entrance; further, the lot holds another 50-70 vehicles. Another post mentioned cars stretched more than 2 miles from the trailhead this recent weekend. Despite the popularity, it remains one of the top hikes I have ever done, and is worth a trip if you can squeeze a weekday away from work. The looping traverse (I prefer counterclockwise) features a variety of terrain, with a twinkling alpine lake and its scarf of fall color, followed by a steady climb up to a ridge on the perimeter of North Cascades National Park. Autumn foliage bursts out of the ridge, and the view back down to the lake is mesmerizing, flanked by sunny larch and fiery deciduous varieties. Views into the National Park include rocky peaks and deep valleys. As you continue the loop and begin to descend, the view of the lake and rocky surround only gets better. In late October, you may even be graced with a flurry of early season snowflakes landing on your nose. If you can avoid the crowds, I guarantee every October will have you dreaming of this loop.
#10 Artist Point Area
An incredible destination any time of year (read: any time the road is actually open), the final stretch of the Mount Baker Highway from Heather Meadows to Artist Point serves up multiple hiking options, each with different mileage/elevation, terrain and vegetative features, and striking views. I have hiked nearly every trail in this section, and find you can’t go wrong with your choice, especially in October. Even just the drive up the highway and the footpaths around the parking lot provide a show of color and in-your-face views of Mount Shuksan. This area also draws large numbers of visitors, both hikers and those out for a Sunday drive, so prepare for potentially several hundred other vehicles and hikers if you go on a weekend or holiday.
Regardless of your trail of choice, October is typically a wonderful time to hike, with cooler days, moody clouds, and diverse foliage. Now lace up those hiking boots and get outside!
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