Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fall Hikes & Foliage in the Olympic Mountains

This time of year, the Straits of Juan de Fuca are luminescent, a pale turquoise color that reflects the light. At times, it does not seem entirely real as though some landscape painter imagined the perfect pastel shade on canvas. The water's hue can be attributed to crisp, cool evenings that translate into crystal clear conditions with no fog or clouds on the horizon. A weather phenomenon which is actually the norm for September and October here in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. Today, they are forecasting a balmy 68-degrees. Perfect weather for a hike.

Now, most people don't necessarily think of Washington State when it comes to fall foliage. They make pilgrimages to places like Vermont, New Hampshire or the Blue Ridge Mountains. But there's more to the Olympic Mountains than Sitka Spruce, Douglas Fir and verdant rain forests. There is in fact a kaleidoscope of fall color.

You'll find Black Cottonwoods that turn a golden yellow, Douglas Maples that flame red-orange in the fall, and vibrant red Pacific Dogwoods. Even the leaves atop the 100-foot tall Red Alders rustle in hues of ochre and amber. Flourishing in the woodland forests and acidic soils created by towering evergreens, Vine Maples turn a brilliant burgundy about the time the first snows start dusting the 7000-ft. peaks of the Olympic Mountains in early October. There’s a record specimen Vine Maple recognized by the American Forestry Association as the largest in the country (height 62 feet with an amazing spread of 31 feet) on the South Fork Hoh River Trail.

You will also find the granddaddy of fall color—the Big-Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum)—with brilliant yellow leaves that contrast sharply with a bark often layered with mosses and lichens on the north side of these giants in the river canyons. These hardy trees often reach a height of 65-feet with a diameter of 30-inches. The Hall of Mosses Trail on the Hoh River has a well-developed stand of these Big-Leaf Maples—something most people are surprised to find in the heart of a temperate rain forest.

All these leaf-shedding species love old river terraces, so you'll find an abundance of fall color along many of the river trails: the Hoh, the Dungeness, the Dosewallips, the Quinault, the Bogachiel, the Skokomish and the Elwha.

While not as celebrated as fall foliage on the East Coast, it is perhaps the contrast of these deciduous stands amidst the evergreen groves of towering Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar and Mountain Hemlock that makes the change of seasons more striking. As though the artist took pains to sprinkle the color precisely on the green hillsides to catch the sunlight, however briefly, before the rains of winter return.

So pick a hike (or two), drive a winding country lane to a road-side pumpkin patch, sip some fresh-pressed apple cider and soak in the warmth of autumn on the Olympic Peninsula.

Your Travel Guide at
Lost Mountain Lodge