Photos & Video by Nick Danielson
Written by Doug McKeever
On a crisp day one early October I hiked to Scatter Lake in the Entiat River drainage in Washington’s Cascades in order to climb Abernathy Peak the next day. As I ascended the trail, covered by a few inches of new snow, I came upon a stunning sight beginning at about 6500 feet…..the trees were all a brilliant gold, and under each tree’s drip zone was a mass of needles, their golden color in bold contrast with the pure white snow. I had a weird thought: it was as if the trees had a bad case of botanical dandruff!
These were subalpine larch trees (Larix lyallii), formerly known as Lyall’s larch. Although this was not the only time I had hiked or run in a larch grove, this was one of the more memorable, given the fresh snow, the brisk wind and cold air (+4° F the following morning, in early October!), and the pure gold all around me.
Eleven species of larch are recognized worldwide, and various types are found in Europe, Asia from Siberia to the Himalayas. In North America, in addition to the subalpine variety, there is the Eastern larch (Larix laricina, also called tamarack) and the Western larch (Larix occidentallis) that grows on the east slopes of the Cascades, in central Oregon’s Cascades and the Blue Mountains, north into Washington and into the Rockies of British Columbia and Alberta.
Although Western larch is renowned for high quality lumber and for often seeming like golden beacons among surrounding greenery in autumn , arguably the subalpine larch is more famous due to its ecological niche: this extremely cold-tolerant tree thrives with no trees other than possibly the whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) for company.
What’s the big deal, and why do people leave warm homes to venture out into the mountains just about when the seasonal storms start rolling in?
Color! Specifically, gold color! Larches are deciduous conifers, and similar to their distant cousins the deciduous broadleaf trees and shrubs, as air temperature falls and daylight decreases, the needles of mature larch trees sequester nutrients, mainly nitrogen, in the wood. As chlorophyll is removed from the needles, the other colors remain, but unlike many deciduous broadleaf plants where red or orange dominates, yellow (or gold, as I like to say) is primary in larch needles.
Subalpine larches often grow in extensive groves covering many acres, and it is a special thrill to be running along a needle-covered golden trail with sunlight illuminating gold in every direction above and around. Although Western larches seem to do well in fire-prone areas, the subalpine larch can be very long lived. Some specimens in Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia are among the oldest living larches, some being estimated to be over 1,900 years old.
Ability to store nutrients and lose needles makes larches well-suited to withstanding strong winds and heavy snow and ice loading in their subalpine environment. Their deciduous habit limits water stress in the winter and trees can colonize bare rock and talus that are too harsh for other conifers. They have “winged seeds” that are carried some distance by a strong breeze, helping spread the colony in a harsh environment. Although very cold-hardy, larches need full sunlight to thrive and they cannot tolerate extreme drought. Interestingly, seedlings develop special evergreen needles that stay on for a year or more, helping the young trees to survive, just the opposite from the mature trees being hardier by losing needles.
You generally have to work, or at least drive a long distance, to see subalpine larches, and where they are easily accessible, don’t expect to be oo-ing and aw-ing alone. Word is out, but “gold season” is brief. Although it varies with location, the show starts and ends at any one place in two to three weeks. Famous locations for the “gold season” include Maple and Heather Passes near Rainy Pass, Easy Pass, Cutthroat Pass, Blue Lake, and the Sawtooth Mountains north of Lake Chelan. Other places are harder to access, including higher mountains in the Pasayten Wilderness and the Chiwaukum Mountains (distance), and the Wenatchee Mountains near Leavenworth (permits). There are other locations as well. Almost any rocky area on east-side mountains between 6000 and 8000 feet north of Stevens Pass will “go gold” in early autumn.
If you want to receive a gift in the right season, there is indeed gold in the hills. Go get some!