Northwest Hiking Trails

Mirror Lake, Oregon

Cool hikes for autumn colors

September and October are great times to be a hiker in the Northwest. The unpredictable weather thins the crowds, while it makes a blue sky seem that much more glorious. Snow has cleared (as much as it's going to) from the high country crags and meadows. The cold nights eliminate annoying flies and mosquitos. And the colors -- oh, man, the colors!

Toll-free Fall Color Hotline
Weekly updates.
Also see "Leaf Peeper Links" below.

A late September hike to Washington's Rampart Ridge at Snoqualmie Pass gives photographers some rare opportunities to capture blue tarns, gray granite and changing Larch trees (the trees that look like evergreens, but change to bright gold in the fall and drop their needles). Idaho's Sawtooth Lake and Mirror Lake in Oregon are beautiful fall destinations.

Are you an Oregon or Idaho hiker? We'd like to hear from you about local trails with rich fall colors.

To take in broad vistas and acres of red, orange and yellow, a high vantage point is best. There's nothing like looking down on the forested valleys below a fire lookout. Oregon's Lookout Mountain is just one of dozens of lookouts and former lookout sites in the Northwest that offer excellent views on a crisp fall day.

Once the snow starts to fly in the high elevations, hikers start looking for ways to stretch the hiking season. Low-elevation hikes, often avoided because of their lack of views and abundance of bugs, are very colorful routes by October. Most are trails that follow river valleys upstream into wilderness or parks. The Enchanted Valley and other valley trails in Olympic National Park are outstanding hikes for the fall season.

Caveats for fall hikers are related to the unpredictable weather and the presence of hunters in and around our National Forests. By all means, wear bright colors when hiking from Labor Day through Thanksgiving. Designated wilderness areas and National Parks are safer because they mostly forbid hunting. Our habit of enjoying nature's quiet is replaced with the need to make more noise on the trail, so an eager hunter doesn't take shots at the sound of our footsteps (you better believe it, they take "sound shots" when they can't see the target).

Weather can change completely in an hour. Even if you enjoyed warm sunshine at the trailhead, don't be surprised if you start seeing your breath, as your elevation increases. Once you stop walking, you'll feel the chill of fall in the air, and you might wish you'd brought a wool cap and some light gloves.

Rainfall increases in autumn, but there are ways to reduce your chances of hiking in rain gear. Washingtonians head for the east side of the Cascades, where the weather is generally dryer. Rain at higher elevations becomes snow. A little snow adds an interesting visual texture to the landscape, and convinces us that winter is coming. A lot of snow can make it hard to find the trail. Discretion is the greater part of valor, and turning back is sometimes a good idea.

As always, it's a good idea to call the ranger station before deciding on a trail. Don't rely on second-hand information about trail conditions in the autumn, when conditions can change so quickly. Rangers live and work in the area, and they know best what's going on. In each trip report, you'll find a "TRIP PLANNER" button that gives you the phone numbers you need.

Bring a camera, tell us all about your trip, and Cool Trails to You!

Note: This is backcountry wilderness travel. Any trail can become very dangerous in winter conditions. You are responsible for informing yourself of the hazards and taking the necessary precautions. Please read Terms of Use.

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