The Northwest is known for its trees. Big trees. The largest, oldest and tallest members of many tree species can be found here, especially conifers. But there’s one uncommon conifer hidden in high alpine basins known for its unusual color displays rather than its size. Each October like clockwork, this unusual conifer’s needles change from green to glowing yellow-gold before falling on winter’s first dusting of snow.
The Alpine Larch tree, aka Lyall’s larch (Larix Lyallii), is a deciduous conifer which drops its needles every Fall, just like other trees drop their leaves. One of only two deciduous conifers found in North America, the Alpine Larch grows in sparse pockets near treeline on cold, north-facing slopes. The Alpine larches short, soft needles begin changing colors in late September and usually reach peak color in early October. The autumn larch season is usually short and often unpredictable. Late autumn storms can strip the trees of their needles overnight and Fall storms can dump feet of snow on the trails, making access a challenge.
Finding Lyall’s Larch
Several places in Washington State are great for larch viewing, but Headlight Basin is one of the prettiest and easiest to access. The basin sits below the massive South face of Mount Stuart, Washington’s tallest non-volcanic peak, and is graced with stunning Lake Ingalls and a generous spattering of Lyall’s larch trees. Headlight Basin is part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and boasts the southern-most stands of alpine larches in the cascades. Lake Ingalls is a popular hiking destination in and of itself, but in the Fall, the basin becomes a magnet for larch enthusiasts.
My trip to see the larches came together on very short notice after waiting a week for a weather break. Waking up Monday morning to a good week-long forecast, I finished up some work, hastily packed, and then drove over 4 hours to the end of North Fork of Teenaway Road to arrive at the 4,243 ft trailhead just after dark. A cool and remarkably bright 2.5 hour night hike under a brilliant first quarter moon brought me to the 6,500 ft Ingalls Pass. A short descent brought me into snow-filled Headlight Basin, where I pitched the tent, hung the food bag and was in bed by 11 PM.
The following day and a half was spent photographing and admiring the larch trees, with a day hike for sunset photography at Lake Ingalls. While many of the larches were past peak color, the display was nonetheless phenomenal and extremely photogenic, especially as it was my first time seeing larch trees in fall color. The clear, dry weather was a great blessing, along with the light winds preserving the needles on the trees. It was a joy to spend a few days in the high mountains on the cusp of winter in the company of such beautiful trees – I can’t wait to see them again next year.