Fall Hikes for Families
By Joan Burton
Author of Best Hikes with Kids: Western Washington & the Cascades (Mountaineers Books)
Fall hikes call to us because of ripening berries and accompanying gorgeous fall colors. The days are shorter, but those pests - the mosquitoes and flies that bothered kids during summer - are gone. Be aware that hunting season will be starting and plan around it. If the sound of distant guns bothers you or your kids, consider hiking in national parks and on beaches and shorelines during the season.
Remember too, that weather is changeable. Bring layers of clothing, rain gear and treats to keep the kids warm and fed. Consider bringing a thermos full of hot chocolate or soup for chilly days.
I've offered ten hikes below that provide excellent opportunities for exploration and discovery, berries and fall views. Make a plan now to get out with your kids this September and October - and you may find that autumn becomes your favorite season for hiking in Washington.
Mount Baker Highway
Two lovely alpine lakes lie in the Heather Meadows recreation area at Mt. Baker. The first is a man-made reservoir, the second lies in a deep cirque under Table Mountain. When the trail is open and the snow is gone, it is easy walking for children, with a dam to walk across, two lakes to throw rocks into, berries to pick, ice cold water to put toes into, and a year round snow slope to play on. Fall color can turn entire hillsides scarlet and crimson.
Look for the Herman Saddle-Bagley Lakes trailhead opposite the ski lift. The trail descends sharply for 60 feet, crosses the dam, and with some ups and downs, traverses the first lake to the second. You can stop at a small beach there to enjoy water games. Even in fall you can expect wet sections. To return, you can connect to the various loops, which saves backtracking.
Sauk Mountain in the North Cascades is unique for several reasons. Families start hiking in alpine meadows, and even the views from the trailhead parking lot are sweeping vistas of the meandering Sauk, Skagit, and Cascade Rivers, alongside major peaks. The whole trail is a steep alpine meadow. Twenty-eight switchbacks lead you up through grasses, blueberries, fireweed, paintbrush, heather and a few clumps of trees. This trail is not for toddlers because it gains 1600 feet in 2½ miles, but it was worth it to my kids when they were 6, 7 and 8. They liked it so well, they later went back and took friends there to see it.
We saw many marmots up close, guarding their territory from rocks. Some looked like tiny bears and seemed to stand on two legs to size us up. We saw birds circling the berry bushes, obviously planning to pick the berries before we did. Clouds swirled below us, but even on an overcast day, this is a gorgeous hike. At the top the kids can see ridge beyond ridge of the North Cascades and Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan, and Whitehorse Mountain. You can see why there once was a lookout posted on this high and lovely spot.
I took my kids and grandkids to Iceberg Point on Lopez Island this year. They were thrilled with the rocky reefs, sweeping overlooks of the south end of the island, and glimpses of seals and spouting orcas. The trail is short, though it passes through an easement on private land. Yellow grasses and rose hips are fall accompaniments here.
After only half a mile or so, we came out of the trees to a long reef of glacially carved rock, windswept trees, and at the highest point, a stone monument dated 1906. Even on a windy day, this is an exciting place. Kids can walk trails at water level as well as high above it. Why is it called Iceberg Point, they will ask. Perhaps because it was formed by the ice of the retreating glacier. Views are of Vancouver Island, the Olympics, and Cattle Point on San Juan Island.
Tonga Ridge is one of the best trails for dazzling fall color and ripe berries in the fall. Don’t expect to be alone, however, and don’t expect to be the only berry picker. Half a mile in, enter the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and after another half mile, find yourselves in the midst of huckleberries and heather meadows. Carry water, as the trail is dry. Continue on gentle switchbacks as far as Mount Sawyer or as far as your kids wish, watching for deer and gorgeous views into the Cascades.
If your family is feeling ambitious - wanting more berries and views - climb up the obvious but unsigned trail to Mount Sawyer. Each step upward reveals more of the surrounding mountains to the north. Kids will delight in seeing Mount Rainier slowing unveiling itself on a clear day, and might even forget that the trail is quite steep.
Tronsen Ridge is the easiest place that I know to see larch trees while they are golden. Is this something your kids would enjoy? You are the best judge of that. But our deciduous conifers have a mythical quality that some hikers are addicted to, for the brief period in mid-October before their needles drop. Whole hillsides are covered with golden trees during that time, and some folks plan a “Larch March” just to see them.
A bonus is the chance for kids to continue their explorations in the nearby nineteenth-century mining town of Liberty, where old artifacts and mine tailings are on display. Look for a reconstructed arrastra, a water-powered device to separate rock from valuable ore.
Begin in ponderosa pine forest, following Naneum Creek on an old jeep road for about a mile. Kids can create their own fantasy worlds from the strangely shaped basalt rock outcroppings and tree snags. At one mile look for the first view west to Mount Stuart and Glacier Peak. Golden larches begin to appear all around you from this point on. You may choose to continue your wandering through rock outcrops and shimmering trees for as many miles as you have time for.
Note that wildfires in September 2012 might have an impact on this trail. Please check with the Forest Service before going.
Olympic National Park
Rather than requiring young kids to climb to gain elevation, the trail to Hurricane Hill in Olympic National Park begins in alpine meadows and only gains a few hundred feet. Marmots and deer are likely to share the meadows and berries with you.
The paved trail for the first mile and a half means that very little kids can enjoy this scenic place. Below are Port Angeles and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Beyond is Vancouver Island, and to the east are the San Juan Islands and Mount Baker. To the south is the heart of the Olympics, wrapped in green forests and fall colors of flaming red and orange. The kids won’t care about the views if there are deer and marmots grazing on berry bushes around them. Alternative trails toward the Elwha River and Obstruction Point will enable you to get away from crowds. Don’t expect weather to be dependably consistent; storms can come in quickly here, so be aware that the Visitor Center is available for families.
This is a secluded “wilderness ocean” beach which offers a wide sand beach along a crescent shaped shore and tree-studded offshore islands. Even in mid-winter this hike is enjoyable. Try it during a storm when your children can watch the big waves. The mostly level 1½ mile trail to Third Beach travels through old forest and then abruptly plunges off the plateau in a series of switchbacks before arriving at the long, curving beach of Strawberry Bay. Campsites in the creek ravine at the trail end are protected from the wind unless it comes from the west (which it usually does.)
Walk the beach ½ mile south for a closer view of the waterfall plummeting down the sea cliffs of Taylor Point into the surf. Backpackers take the trail over Taylor Point to begin a 20-mile wilderness beach walk to the mouth of the Hoh River. This beach offers wonderful play possibilities: exploring tide pools, climbing giant driftwood logs, running in the surf. Gray whales are often observed and throughout the year, eagles perch on snags. Camping near the ocean can be memorable on a windless night—or a stormy one.
Superb Summit Lake is set on a ridge just outside Mount Rainier National Park with a knockout view of the mountain’s north side. Kids will enjoy the gradual trail, after an eroded beginning section, into old growth trees of the Clearwater Wilderness. At one mile it crosses a bridge over the outlet of little Twin Lake, which seems to have lost its twin. Both blueberries and huckleberries occur along the way and at the lake. The view of Mount Rainier flanked by foothills flaming with color is stunning.
Lead the kids around the lakeshore on the right and up to a high ridge for the best views south. Or stay at the shoreline for water play and fishing.
Mount St. Helens National Monument
Norway Pass in the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is spectacular in the fall. Berries are ripening, and their leaves and those of vine maples and mountain ash are bright red and orange. They are just the backdrop for this spectacular viewpoint of the disaster area. You and the kids can look across Spirit Lake to the crater and steaming dome, clothed by now in the first snowfall. One third of the lake is still covered by a log raft of trees blown in by the 1980 eruption and washed into the lake in the following tidal wave.
Your kids will want to know if the volcano is growing and whether it will erupt again. Tell them the volcano is at rest now, but it could resume at any time. Not only is the crater dome growing, you can say, but also the glacier wrapping around the dome is the newest, fastest growing glacier in the Northwest. This is a 4.5-mile round trip hike, so be sure to carry water.
Kettle Crest South
Near Republic - North Central Washington
A long way east from Puget Sound is Sherman Pass and the Kettle Crest Trail South. If you will be in Eastern Washington, this high trail offers families views into the Colville National Forest, gentle switchbacks, and bright color on crisp fall days. The trail heads south from Sherman Pass, winding around the east side of Sherman Peak. When we hiked this trail last September, we found rock cairns, built by members of the Colville Confederated Tribe, which considers this a spiritual site, and a hand-carved horse watering trough. Camping is available at the Pass and along the way, but you will need to carry water.