Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Larch Madness

It all began with a trip report I read on the Portland Hikers website.

Lovely Western Larch

During lunch breaks at work I like to read through hiking reports on this site.  You get good information on wildflower blooms, trail conditions, and most recently, where fall colors are peaking.  One day I came across a post that described an beautiful hike from Lookout Mountain to the Flag Point Lookout Tower.  It included some amazing photos of the Western larch trees in full fall color.  One photo in particular caught my attention.  It was a shot taken from the lookout's top perch, of a green forest, intermixed with golden yellow larch trees.  To top it off, Mt. Hood, white and regal, anchored the horizon.  

My trail for today

Okay, now I just had to go there!  I wanted to get that same shot for myself.  Checking the weather forecast for the upcoming weekend, I discovered our nice sunny dry month of October was due to turn cold and rainy by Friday afternoon.  That wouldn't bode well for views.  Knowing I had a couple extra vacation days yet to burn, I knew there was but one thing to do - take a weekday "mental health," work hooky, hiking day!

Mt. Hood peek-a-boo

For those that have never heard of the larch, it's the only cone-bearing conifer that loses it's leaves in the fall.  Or rather, loses its needles.  And before the needles drop, they turn a stunning yellow-gold.  Many different species of larch trees grow throughout the US, but only two are found in the Pacific Northwest.  Of the two, the Western larch is the only species native to Oregon.

Hood's grand view from Lookout Mtn

Closest to Portland, Western larches are found east of Mt. Hood, near the Badger Creek Wilderness.  This area, in the rain shadow of the Cascade range, has a drier climate, conducive to hemlock, Ponderosa Pine, and of course, the larch.

Eastern Oregon view from Lookout Mtn

So on a cold, but sunny Thursday morning, I packed my car and headed east for the long drive to the Lookout Mountain Trailhead.  It had been many years since I'd hiked this trail, so after meandering down a bumpy gravel Forest Service Road, I came to a meadow that I thought was the trailhead.  After parking my car in a nearby pullout and putting on my boots, I was ready for some larch hunting!

No flowers - just these puffy pods

But where exactly was the trail?  I thought it was somewhere close by.  I wandered through the meadow until I finally stumbled upon a path worn into the grass.  Following it up through a forest of hemlock and gnarly whitebark pines, I wasn't sure it was the right way until I spotted Mt. Hood peeping through a gap in the trees.

Trail junction

I climbed steadily up through the woods.  Although at the trailhead temps had been frosty, I was soon shedding layers.  As the forest began to thin, I was treated to some grand views of my favorite mountain.  Just over a mile later, I was trudging up the rocky slope of Lookout Mountain.

Still some fall colors on the forest floor

In the summer, Lookout Mountain's summit is overrun with a colorful riot of wildflowers.  But in the fall, it's just a bare rocky summit, the foundations of a long-ago fire lookout the only thing of interest.  But - oh - the views!  Mt. Hood is front and center, filling the western sky.  To the north, Mts Adams, Rainer, and St. Helens line the horizon.  And to the south, Mt. Jefferson juts up from the surrounding hills.  And to the east, I was pleased to see the dark green forests spotted with splashes of golden larch.

Mottled huckleberry leaves

Time to find some more larch trees!  From Lookout Mountain's summit, I followed the Divide Trail as it dove steeply downhill, through another area of dense woods.  Although there wasn't a lot of fall colors to see as I passed by, there was still some nice yellow huckleberry bushes on the forest floor.

Palisade Point

After descending quite a bit of elevation (that I realized I'd need to regain on my return) I began climbing again.  Topping out, I came upon the rocky ledges of Palisade Point. 

Flag Point lookout is barely visible

Standing on the cliff's edge, I could see for miles back towards Mt. Hood.  Looking to the south, I was pleased to see the adjacent hills had a high concentration of golden orange larch trees brightening up the green hills.  And way in the distance, barely visible on the next ridge, was the fire lookout tower at Flag Point (it's just to the left of center on the above photo).  My destination.

Larch sighting

Continuing on the Divide Trail, I began to enter larch-land.  First one, then two, and finally I spotted several trees sporting golden orange.  A lovely sight to behold! 

Extreme close-up

However, I noted that most of the trees were past their prime - at peak color the larch are more of a yellow-gold.  And the forest floor was already littered with needles that had dropped from the trees.  Good thing I didn't wait much longer, I would've missed the entire show.

Flag Point Lookout

The Divide Trail eventually intersected with an old road.  Following the road another 3/4 mile took me to my destination - Flag Point and it's fire lookout tower.

View east from the tower base

The place was deserted.  Although the tower is manned during the summer, by late October, the place gets closed up for the winter months.  The view eastward from the tower's base was pretty incredible.  I could see all the way to the brown plains of Central Oregon, and the wooded hills between.  Judging by the amount of orange interspersed with the green, those forests were definitely larch country.

Let's climb up!

But I longed to get my Mt. Hood shot.  Only one way to get it - climb up that tower!  Although the living quarters on the very top were locked tight, the ladder was still open all the way to the door.  Leaving my backpack by the tower's base, I stepped onto the first rung.

The coveted shot

Yeah, the tower was high.  And, yeah, the ladder was a tiny bit rickety.  But once I reached the highest point, all was forgotten.  I was rewarded with a magnificent view of Mt. Hood and the surrounding forest.  This was the shot I'd come to capture.

Jaw-dropping Hood view

And capture I did!  Although the larch trees were not as golden as in the photos I'd seen online, it was still a pretty darn nice scene.  And I'd picked the perfect day to come.  The weather was clear and sunny.  Mt. Hood was lit up perfectly against a brilliant blue sky.

And the bathroom was open!

After shooting a gazillion images, I finally tore myself away from the high perch and returned to earth.  After a quick lunch at the tower's base, I was getting ready to head back, when I spotted the nearby outhouse.  Although I don't mind hiding behind a tree to do my business, I'll always chose a sit-down potty first.  I was happy to find this one unlocked and - BONUS - it even had toilet paper!  The caretaker had thoughtfully protected the TP in a large ziplock bag.  I was so tickled I just had to take a photo (yes, I'm weird like that!)

Larch trees decorate the forest

Tummy full, and bladder empty, it was time to hit the trail.  I retraced my steps down the road, back to the Divide Trail.  Back through the larch forest, the afternoon light illuminated the trees a rich orange color.  And a break in the forest gave me a final parting glimpse towards the east.

Gnarled ghost trees

Back at the Palisades, some gnarled old trees caught my camera's attention.  For some reason, I missed them when I'd passed by earlier.  I took one final look towards Flag Point and the tiny lookout tower silhouetted against the sky.  It now seemed so far away - hard to believe I had just hiked there.

Golden needles

One little larch tree then caught my attention.  Unlike the others, this one lagged behind in the fall change.  It's needles were a splendid golden yellow.  A fitting end to my hunt, I happily shot a few images to memorialize the find. 

I'm glad I was able to get out on one of the last nice fall days, and see the grand larch trees before their fall color was completely gone.  This is one trip I'm putting on next year's calendar - but just a little bit earlier.

Stats for the day:  11.5 miles, 1600' elevation gain.

Sharing with:  Sweet Shot Tuesday.


  1. Loved your post! You find such incredible places to hike. I'd be climbing that tower, too.
    I'm glad you had such a wonderful outing!

  2. Such an incredible post dear Linda. I loved the view of Mt Hood and the golden color of the larch.. so beautiful and resplendent! Glad that you had a good hike and were in midst of such incredible natural beauty :)

  3. Awesome view from the watch tower and well woth the hike to get there

  4. Spectacular photos!!!!!
    And that bathroom, lol. :))

    The last one is very interesting, golden needles are quite a rare sight.

  5. What a brilliant rewarding day. Nature is truly awesome!

  6. The minute I saw the shot of Mt Hood, I thought, "wow, that one better go on the calendar!" (Which I plan to win again - I've TOTALLY loved that calendar). Didn't know about the larch trees. Love learning something new.

  7. Another beautiful hike. Thank you for sharing!

  8. I love hiking to fire lookouts! I have larches in my yard. They make a mess when they are shedding but I really like looking at them.

  9. Another fantastic hike. Kudos for going it alone.

    I loved the last pic of the little golden larch. Quite excellent.

  10. Those photos were well worth the climb up the watch tower.

  11. Gorgeous scenery. I love the angle of your photos, Linda!

  12. Oooh, the larch trees are so neat! I've never heard of them before. Fascinating. That last photo is so beautiful.

  13. Loved that fire tower and the (coveted) photos--amazing! Oh--and the larch close up--beautiful! LOVE it:)

  14. Beautiful scenery!
    The "bathroom-picture" made me smile... :)

  15. Beautiful pictures! I like larches (I'm living in Harz Mountain, Germany)

  16. Okay, so I have to mention the Monty Python skit about The Larch -- came to mind when reading this! I've never seen one and it's quite lovely Linda. xo

  17. The larch. The larch. (Sorry, that's a Monty Python reference). What an amazing hike that mountain photo from the tower is exquisite.

  18. I had never heard of Larch! A brand new term to me. And then I began reading your description, and it sounded just like our tamaracks.
    So I googled them, and turns out they are one in the same!
    As an old neighbor from the area I grew up says each year, "It's great to be alive when the tamaracks turn golden."

  19. I love it when the larches (we call them tamaracks here) have turned golden.

  20. I never heard of larch, but now I know what it is. LOVED the lookout tower and I totally would have climbed that in a heartbeat!

  21. Beautiful post filled with so many great images. The tower is so cool.

    Mersad Donko Photography

  22. Nice pics- plus I learned what some nearby trees are called- In summer they look like regular conifers and then they turn golden- larch

  23. Great photos. I do like the puffy things a lot and can't help but appreciate the bonus at the outhouse!


Don't be shy! Please leave a comment.