Color My Fall

Vine Maples and Thimbleberries
Vine maples and thimbleberries near Leavenworth, Washington

We’re in that glorious transition time, the period between summer’s greens and winter’s soft palette of browns and grays. As the days grow shorter and fog blankets the ground on many mornings, a lot of us like to get out and celebrate the turning of the leaves. Fall color is all around us now in varying degrees. Where do you like to go to enjoy the show?

While New England and Appalachia can rightly claim the best fall color on the continent, we Pacific Northwesterners can enjoy brilliant autumn hues without making the long journey across the continent.

Locally, look for fall color anywhere maples, cottonwoods, or willows grow. Up in the mountains some of the best color comes from low-growing shrubs like Cascade Blueberries that in many places carpet the hillsides. But what if you don’t know your plants and just want to know where to go for a colorful foliage display? Here are some of my favorite places that don’t require a lot of hiking.

Heather Meadows and Artist Point

Mt. Shuksan from Picture Lake
Fall color around Picture Lake at Heather Meadows frames Mt. Shuksan

I group these together and list them first because you really can’t go wrong by driving up Mt. Baker Highway to the end of the road. The show-stopper here is Cascade blueberries (Vaccinium deliciosum), which also happens to produce delicious berries. Stop at Picture Lake and enjoy the wheelchair-accessible trail around the lake and the iconic view of Mt. Shuksan reflected in the lake. Up at Artist Point those same blueberries frame views of both Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan. Ramble out the Artist Ridge trail from the parking lot to Huntoon Point for the best views and some of the best color. You’ll also find great color on the Chain Lakes trail, whether you hike the whole loop or just meander out to the Ptarmigan Ridge junction.

Whatcom Falls Park

Autumn at Whatcom Falls
Autumn at Whatcom Falls

This ever-popular Bellingham city park is a joy any time of year. Both vine and bigleaf maples color up nicely along the creek every fall. Many people just visit the iconic stone bridge below the falls, but some of the best color is along the creek downstream of the falls.

Big Rock Garden Park

Enjoy the sculpture collection among the colorful Japanese and vine maples in this somewhat out-of-the-way Bellingham park, a quiet and peaceful place to visit in the Silver Beach neighborhood.

Chuckanut Drive

Chuckanut Drive, autumn
Autumn on Chuckanut Drive

Remember when families would go for a leisurely Sunday drive? The point wasn’t to get anywhere, and that’s the best way to appreciate Chuckanut. Take your time and watch out for cyclists. Pull over at one of several wide spots and enjoy the views over the water and the color from turning maples.

Frenchman Coulee, Vantage

Rubber Rabbitbrush near Vantage, Washington
Rubber rabbitbrush blooming near Vantage, Washington

This one’s in eastern Washington, fall color is more subtle, and it’s one of my favorites for a last blast of warm sunshine. The area around Vantage (where I-90 crosses the Columbia River) has several smaller roads you can explore to enjoy the soft golden hues of grasses like bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), the brilliant yellow of rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) flowers, and the soft pinkish-white of snow buckwheat (Eriogonum niveum). Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) also blooms late in the season, but the flowers are tiny and you might miss them. You have to know the names of the plants, but like other old friends I think it’s nice to remember them by name each time we visit.

Paradise at Mount Rainier

I wish there were a way to get from Bellingham to Mount Rainier National Park without going through Seattle’s traffic, but if you get down that way the fall color at Paradise is spectacular. Like Heather Meadows, it’s mostly the blueberries putting on the show. One of these years I’ll actually get to Mt. Rainier for the fall color show. For now, I have to rely on friends who live closer to share their photos.

There are many other places you can enjoy the changing season besides these. What are some of your favorites?

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