5 Best Places To See Autumn Colors & Fall Leaves In The PNW

Let’s face it, the Pacific Northwest is not quite Vermont when it comes to fall leaves and autumn colors. Even deathly dry states such as Utah exhibit fall colors more vibrant than we get in Washington state.

While fall in the PNW is nothing to sneeze at, there are just too many pine trees for true glory.

How, then, do we make the best of our plight?

Well, with the ocean and mountains as a backdrop there is no doubt that Washington does its best to put on a display. While those in other states might argue, I would say that the non-changing color of the evergreens actually adds to our fall colors and provides a much-needed contrast to the sea of red and orange.

So, if you’re after leafy verandas, here are the 5 best places to experience fall in the PNW.

1. North Cascades Highway

Once you see fall colors making an appearance in Washington it’s a reminder that you better get out and enjoy the trails before they get covered in snow. However, even if you’re not able to get out and hike you can still see the fall colors from the comfort of your car.

One of the most scenic fall drives is the North Cascades Highway. The highway connects Winthrop Washington with the cities on the west side of the mountain. The drive (which is impassable in the winter) exposes you to the best the Cascades have to offer in terms of leaves and views.

The incredible scenery of the North Cascades National Park is often depicted on postcards and in calendars but the fall beauty is often so brief that it is well represented. If you’re looking for an autumn experience, drive this route in late September or early October before the highway is closed for winter.

2. Mt. Baker Highway

Nooksack River Valley

The Mt. Baker highway is one of the most beautiful areas in Washington and fall does nothing but improve upon it.

The trees changing to orange, gold, and bright red gives this entire area an ethereal feel that is hard to describe.

For the best experience, take highway 542 from Bellingham and make the 116-mile roundtrip to Artist Point which sits at over 5100 feet. Even with current gas prices, the winding road through forests and farmlands is worth it.

View from Artist Point

If it’s still warm enough, some of the most gorgeous and memorable scenery is located past the Mt. Baker ski area. The area is (obviously) too snowy for hikes and drives in the fall, winter, and spring but if you catch it in early autumn it will be memorable.

If you’re interested in getting out of your car and stretching your legs for a big on the way to Artist Point, make a stop at Heather Meadows. You won’t regret it.

3. Columbia River Gorge

The Columbia River Gorge is one of my favorite drives, not matter the season.

When we lived in Utah we would make a point to drive up through Oregon on our way to the Washington Coast so that we could experience the Columbia River Gorge.

If you’re in the area, the Gorge is a great place to enjoy the fall colors. October is the best time of the year (depending on how cold and dry it’s been). The Washington side of the river is typically the prettier of the two (sorry Oregon) but it’s all worth seeing.

Crown Point, Columbia River Gorge

If you’re looking for more than a drive there are several state parks along this route that will give you the chance to get out and stretch your legs. One of our favorite spots is Beacon Rock State Park. The giant monolith which Lewis and Clark named Beacon Rock is not part of a state park that reaches from the banks of the river to several miles north of Highway 14.

There are tons of trails along Washington State Highway 14 that range from easy to technical but all of them provide great views!

4. Point Defiance Park

Point Defiance Park

If you’re from Tacoma, you’re lucky to have Point Defiance Park close by which provides some truly stunning fall colors.

If you’re not from Tacoma, make the trip and enjoy five mile drive and all the spectacular beauty that it offers in the fall.

5. Washington Park Arboretum

Washington Park Arboretum

Even if you’re stuck in Seattle there are a few ways you can experience a bit of the fall season.

Two of the best ways are Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island and the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle.

The Arboretum is a 230-acre plot filled with a huge variety of plants and trees that is free to enter.

The park has several walking paths that meander through the trees and many locals have come to view the Arboretum as their means of viewing all of the fall colors in a single place without ever leaving the city.

Conclusion

While the PNW might not have the sheer number of trees that change color every year like some states, the backdrop that the trees here have made fall an incredible and unforgettable time.

Every year as the temperature drops we start looking for the aspens and cottonwoods to change to red and gold.

While the best time to see the leaves varies every year, be sure to be in Washington at some point from August to November and you’re sure to enjoy the spectacular beauty regardless.