It seems that every autumn, I comment on the lack of fall color in the Pacific Northwest and the need to know where to look for it (for example, see this post from last year, or this one from 2014). Last month I spent a long weekend in northeastern Washington looking for autumn colors, and I came away very impressed with how beautiful fall is there. Northeastern Washington does not get a lot of attention from nature photographers in the state. With Mount Rainier, the Olympics, the Pacific coast, the Columbia Gorge, and the Palouse, who has time for northeastern Washington? Well, if you want some great autumn scenery, make time. And as a bonus, you won’t have to fight for a spot for your tripod; in the 2 1/2 days I spent photographing there, I didn’t see anyone else with a camera.
I booked a room for a Friday night in Colville, Washington. Despite an early start from home, the drive (in the rain the whole way, except for at the top of Snoqualmie Pass, where it was snowing) took most the day. Though I only made a few stops on the way for photos, I got to the Colville region with less than an hour’s daylight left, which didn’t leave much time for scouting photo locations. So I headed to the one spot I knew I could get a good shot – Crystal Falls. This pretty little waterfall is 14 miles east of Colville on the Little Pend Oreille River. Though there wasn’t a lot of color at the waterfall, it made a pleasant stop before heading to town for the night.
The next day, I decided to explore the region between Colville and the Pend Oreille River, an area recommended by my photographer friend, Greg Vaughn, in his book Photographing Washington. I headed back east on Highway 20, continuing past Crystal Falls, to a series of small lakes along the upper reaches of the Little Pend Oreille River (the featured photo above is at one of these small lakes, Frater Lake). The previous day’s rain was gone, leaving a wonderful blue sky with scattered clouds and a dusting of snow on the ground in places. The forest around the lakes are thick with western larch, which made the forest a patchwork of bright yellow and dark green. Larch, one of the few deciduous conifers, turn bright yellow in fall and are fairly rare elsewhere in the state, but plentiful here. They are best photographed with back or side lighting.
Continuing past the lakes, the highway goes by Tiger Meadow, which has several aspen groves along its edges. I spent several hours there roaming the meadow, photographing the aspens and larch, and enjoying the crisp air and solitude (the image in my previous post is from Tiger Meadow). From there, I drove along the Pend Oreille River for a while where I found some colorful cottonwoods. Then I headed back to Colville via South Fork Mill Creek Road, with some beautiful aspen groves along it as well as larch on the hillsides.
I needed to get to the town of Republic where I planned on spending the night. This took me over Sherman Pass in the late afternoon. The larch are thick along Sherman Pass, and the late afternoon sun lit up the forests.
The following morning, I spent a short while photographing cottonwoods along the highway south of Republic (again recommended by Greg Vaughn), but the went off on my own without advice from Greg’s book. I headed west, then north, looking for the ghost town of Bodie, Washington. Along the way, I found more aspens and larch begging to be photographed. At Bodie, the aspens had already nearly lost all their leaves, but it was still fun to photograph the old buildings. From there, I decided to explore another ghost town, Molson, which is up near the Canadian border. The route took plenty of back roads, past some secluded scenery. Unlike Bodie, which is just falling apart with age, the Molson ghost town is actually an outdoors museum, with buildings and equipment moved to the current site and maintained by a historical society. There was plenty to explore there, and I could have easily spent more time doing so. However, I had promised my son, who lives in Yakima, I’d visit him and his girlfriend for dinner, so I put away the camera and headed south.
I’m happy with the shots I brought home with me, and the area is on my list as a place to visit again in the future when October colors come again to Washington.
Washington, being the Evergreen State, doesn’t have a lot to show when it comes to fall colors. Roughly speaking, evergreen trees cover more than half the state; sagebrush covers the rest. Further, many of the deciduous trees that do grow in the state don’t have particularly colorful leaves in the fall (such as alders). However, there are some good spots for autumn color if you know where to look. Most are high in the mountains, such as Heather Meadows up by Mount Baker (which I blogged about last year). Unfortunately for color seekers this year, it snowed in the high country a couple of weeks ago. While some spots are still accessible (often with snowshoes), others are probably snowed in until next spring. With sunny weather forecast for this week, we may get a second chance, but I wouldn’t bet on it. To make matters worse, the US government shutdown has closed the national parks, making access to fall color even worse.
With the high country covered in snow, the options are few for good fall color. However, I did find a hidden autumn jewel last Friday – a small desert canyon full of beautiful aspen trees starting to turn yellow. Black Canyon, located in eastern Washington, is about midway between Ellensburg and Naches (west of Yakima). At first glance, this seems like an odd area to find fall color. The hills between Ellensburg and Yakima are mostly treeless. Even in the Yakima River canyon, which runs through the area, there aren’t that many trees. But if you drive some of the back roads through the region, you will find hidden groves of trees in valleys and canyons and along some of the water courses. Even more surprising is that some of these trees are aspens – not exactly the tree I think of when I think of the Evergreen State.
Black Canyon is one grove, hidden in the mostly barren eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains. It is hidden in several aspects. First, it is not a well known spot. I had never heard of it before about two weeks ago (and I know about a great many places in Washington). Second, from the start of the trail into the canyon, it doesn’t look like much. The mouth of the canyon (actually more of a valley than a canyon), where the trail starts, is rather plan and dry. But as you hike up the valley, the underbrush in the canyon bottom gets thicker and more colorful, until about a half mile from the start, you start seeing aspens. While the aspens are confined to the center of the valley, near a tiny stream, the grove gets thicker and taller as you continue up the valley. At about one mile from the trail head, there is an old wooden cabin nestled in the aspen grove. The trail continues another couple of miles, and the aspens eventually give way to pine trees as the trail climbs to the top of the ridge (reportedly with views of Mount Rainier). More about the hike can be found here.
When Tanya, Carson and I made the hike last week, the color was truly amazing, particularly in stark contrast to dry, sagebrush covered valley walls above. Besides the aspens, much of the underbrush was also various shades of yellow, orange and red. This is the perfect time of year to go.
What is nice about Black Canyon, besides its obvious beauty, it is on accessible public land. A Washington State Discovery Pass is required to park at the trail head (or anywhere along the road to the trail head). The trail head (46°51’1.07″N, 120°42’5.05″W) is at the end of 1.2 miles of very rough unpaved road. We were glad to in 4-wheel drive; I doubt our passenger car could have made it. Other hikers (we saw two other couples) parked at the start of the road, and had an couple miles (roundtrip) to hike. If you go, also be aware that the area is shared by hunters this time of year (though we did not see or hear any).
Black Canyon is definitely a jewel worth visiting. When we were there, the aspens were not yet at their peak, so you may still have time to visit for the color. Do you know any other hidden jewels of autumn color? If so, please feel free to share yours by leaving a comment.