In summer, the towering, ramrod-straight conifers known as larches resemble every other evergreen in the Northwest forests. But as autumn closes in, the larch shows its true colors. The green bleeds out of the needles shortly after the first hard freeze, leaving a towering spire of gold.
While these shimmering evergreens are found throughout Washington's Cascade Mountains and other Pacific Northwest alpine ranges, my favorite place to witness the annual transformation is Wenatchee National Forest's Enchantment Basin. The granite basin sports a number of sparkling blue lakes-it
is, after all, the heart and soul of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness-and draws mountain-loving backpackers all summer long. But come fall, the lustrous golden larch, set against a backdrop of vibrant blue water and sweeping gray granite, turns this remarkable basin into an enchanted world.
To enter this magical realm, hike 10 miles up the winding Snow Lake Trail. From the cool forest of Icicle Creek, the trail traverses a captivating valley, passes Nada and Snow Lakes, and then enters the lower Enchantment Basin. Push onward and upward, and you'll enter the upper basin and a spectacle of water, rock, and not-quite-evergreens that shine like gold.
From Leavenworth (about 100 miles east of Seattle on US 2), drive 4 miles northwest on Icicle River Road to the Snow Lake trailhead. Or drive a few miles further to the Colchuck Lake/Aasgard Pass trailhead, a shorter but steeper route to Enchantment Basin.
Mid-September to mid-October.
100 Hikes in Washington's Alpine Lakes, by Vicky Spring, Ira Spring, and Harvey Manning (The Mountaineers Books, 800-553-4453; $14.95).
Leavenworth Ranger District, Wenatchee National Forest, (509) 548-6977; www.fs.fed.us/r6/