Fall- Meet Winter

First snowfall on Vine Maple leaves - Quartz Creek Trail, Mount-Baker-Snoqualmie National ForestFall is here! So is winter??

My little road trip to photograph fall color coincided with the first real storms we in the Pacific Northwest have encountered in over two months. Those storms came with the first snow for the mountains, too. Our plan was to head over to Leavenworth for their famous fall color and make a side trip or two on the we(s)t side of the pass. Our first stop was to check out the upper North Fork Skykomish River valley via Jack Pass. Fall color conditions up the Highway 2 corridor (as well as up the Beckler River valley) still have some room to improve this week but our lack of recent precipitation have done a number on our trees as well. Many vine maples crumpled and dropped their leaves before transforming into the oranges and reds they’re known for.

Saturday’s weather was supposed to be gray and stormy so perfect conditions for photographing the fall color. We expected to encounter snow going over Stevens Pass (at 4,000 feet) and based on the forecasts, I figured we’d get close to the snow level going over Jack Pass but be just underneath the snow level (Jack Pass tops out at 2,500 feet). As we approached the pass via the Beckler River Road, the trees were flocked with snow. So much for avoiding the snow until Stevens Pass! The snow remained more of a visual attraction and hadn’t really accumulated on the road. The snow disappeared fairly quickly as we descended the north side of Jack Pass.

First snowfall on Vine Maple leaves - Quartz Creek Trail, Mount-Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
First snowfall along the Quartz Creek Trail, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
First snowfall along the Quartz Creek Trail, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National ForestCrossing the North Skykomish River, we could see that the north slopes of Bear Mountain were flocked with snow fairly close to the bottom of the valley (about 1,600 feet). We turned onto Forest Service Road 63 and drove the remaining four miles to its end. After crossing the bridge over Goblin Creek, the snow flocked trees returned. The fall color I had anticipated (hoped) for near the end of the road was largely done but there were sporadic examples of vine maple color with snow. Bonus!

The road ends at a large parking area for three different trailheads- Quartz Creek, West Cady Ridge, and North Fork Skykomish River Trail. There was a mobile home (!) parked in one part of the parking lot but we otherwise had the area to ourselves. We decided to check out the area around the Quartz Creek trailhead and found a gold mine of possibilities. We spent about an hour at different spots before getting on with our day. Before leaving the North Fork Skykomish, we stopped at a great talus field at the base of Excelsior Mountain’s north slopes.

North Fork Skykomish River and early Snowfall near Excelsior Mountain, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
Early snowfall and fall color along Forest Service Road 63, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
Early snowfall on Vine Maple leaves along Forest Service Road 63, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National ForestA few years ago, I timed things right and the whole talus field was filled with orange color. This year, however, the color was largely over. Lucky for me, the cloudy conditions and snow flocked trees still presented some opportunities to take advantage of. In the back of my mind I kept thinking of the snow falling on Jack Pass so I didn’t want to spend a ton of time here. Traversing back over Jack Pass was uneventful. At the last minute, we made a quick stop were Johnson Creek flows into the Beckler River. The opposite bank (west bank) usually has a real nice grouping of vine maple and this year was no exception (though colors were just a wee bit beyond peak).

The day was quickly passing so it was time to head up and over the Stevens Pass. Conditions up there were snowy and windy but not really affecting travel. I had to pull over in the vicinity of the Stevens Pass Nordic Center because the upper slopes of Nason Ridge were a beautiful mix of snow, fall color, and green forest. After a few quick photos, the wind and snow from the pass caught up with us! The cloud of snow crept in and sucked the contrast out of the scene in front of me. That was enough so back in the truck and down the hill towards the blue sky and sunshine of the east slopes!

Beckler River fall color near Johnson Creek, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
Confluence of Johnson Creek and the Beckler River, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
Fall to winter transition on Nason Ridge, Wenatchee National ForestThe stretch of Highway 2 in the vicinity of Nason Creek and the community of Merritt was awash in fall color. It was really quite amazing and the only regret from the day was that we did not stop to look for photo opportunities in this area. The day was getting shorter and our plans included Tumwater Canyon and Icicle Creek Canyon. The color in Tumwater Canyon wasn’t bad but the lighting sure was. The sun was directly above the ridges, creating lots of harsh transitions from sun to shade. I couldn’t find anything compelling to shoot so we continued on to Icicle Creek Canyon.

My friend has spent a lot of time climbing up and down the valley but this was my first visit. The road travels some 18 miles up valley through spectacular scenery. The valley is deeply incised; relief between valley floor and adjoining ridges can range between 3-5,000 vertical feet! Displays of fall color are fairly constant throughout the valley although it is spaced out. At the upper end of the valley where the road turns back west, the southern valley slopes are littered with larch. In fact, some larch can be found in the vicinity of the Rock Island Campground along the road.

Fall to winter transition on Nason Ridge, Wenatchee National Forest
Icicle Creek downstream of Eight Mile CreekI was a bit overwhelmed by it all and found it hard to find anything to photograph. The same lighting issues from Tumwater Canyon carried over to Icicle Creek Canyon. The end result was a lot of looking but not much photographing. Time was also a factor because I still wanted to travel back over Stevens Pass while it was still light. That didn’t leave a whole lot of time. Hopefully I’ll be a little better prepared for future visits in the area. While my trip to the Leavenworth area didn’t yield much, my trip to the upper North Fork Skykomish River valley on a whim was something special. It ended up being the highlight of the day for both of us. I don’t know if the colors will last into next weekend so if you’re going to go check them out, it’s better to go sooner than later!

Larch fall color, upper Icicle Creek Canyon
Larch fall color, upper Icicle Creek Canyon

Blue Lake and Golden Larches

Fall is coming to a close and without much fanfare. The only good fall color this year has been up high and and on the east side of the Cascades. I’ve wanted to check out the larch fall colors since my premature visit two years ago to Maple Pass. I got a bit more excited when I learned that weather forecasts were calling for the first low snow levels of the season. I hoped I could combine the yellow larches, the blue of Blue Lake, and the white of fresh snow.

Off I went to the Blue Lake trailhead near Washington Pass. Skies were clearing and the air was quite crisp. I had hoped that there might be 1-2” of fresh snow but what greeted me was nothing more than a barely a trace at the trailhead. Up higher, the amount was still little more than a trace but more widespread. Most larches still had needles but were past prime color and even starting to shed needles.

Larches along the trail to Blue Lake - North Cascades Highway
There’s a small creek near the turnoff for the climbers path up to Liberty Bell & Early Winter Spires and luckily it had some small drops & ice formations to take advantage of:

Small creek and Early Winters Spires - North Cascades Highway
After my brief stop, I hiked the remaining half mile or so to Blue Lake. This stretch of trail is now somewhat sketchy since the water on the trail has frozen and probably won’t thaw out before winter finally arrives. It’s a short stretch so in little time I arrived at Blue Lake. After crossing the outlet, way trails scatter in every direction. I followed the shoreline for a while before deciding to gain the crest of a small cliff for a higher vantage.

Blue Lake Panorama
Small tarn near Blue Lake - North Cascades Highway
Snag and fall color around Blue Lake - North Cascades Highway
Snag near Blue Lake - North Cascades Highway
The wind kicked up a bit and clouds began to drift over the surrounding ridges. Tucked away just west of Blue Lake are a couple small tarns. Scenic in their own right but I had difficulty getting some nice compositions. Before I ended my day at the lake I made my way down to the shoreline to do some exploring:

Larches growing in talus slopes along Blue Lake - North Cascades Highway
Early Winters Spires - North Cascades Highway
Blue Lake snow reflections - North Cascades Highway
I didn’t see a single person until I started my hike out which was pretty nice, especially for a popular location such as this. As I drove home, I did quickly stop off at one location along the North Cascades Highway which had a nice display of fall color. This was somewhat of an oddity since most of the fall color I observed were solitary trees scattered throughout the forest.

Fall color along Granite Creek - North Cascades Highway

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