Autumn has a tendency to alight as quickly as it disappears—suddenly one morning the maple outside your window is afire in shades of red and just as quickly it cedes its leaves to winter.
Fall in the Pacific Northwest is especially sweet—thick mist plus dripping color is a winning combination. Of the endless number of backdrops for an autumn adventure, the Mountain Loop Highway through Washington's Cascades is a standout. Driving the entire loop straight through takes a mere 2 hours and 45 minutes, and it is packed with show-stopping views, fascinating history, and excellent pit stops.
Before the Mountain Loop Highway was established in the spring of 1936, only a rough, difficult-to-navigate dirt road connected the small towns of Granite Falls, Monte Cristo, and Darrington. Motivation to improve and soup up the road arose as mining operations in the area became better established.
The Mountain Loop Highway is the total weekend adventure package: The scenic beauty exceeds that of I-90, though the crowds are usually far fewer. For the casual hiker, the mountaineer, the car camper, and the birder, this is a must-see.
Granite Falls Fish Ladder – If your journey begins at Granite Falls, it’s imperative to make a quick pit stop at the fish ladder. Especially in the spring, the falls move with impressive force, and there’s a perfect spot for viewing.
Monte Cristo Ghost Town – This historical mining site is packed with excellent views and great, easy hikes. Check before you go—the town was closed in April 2015 and will remain closed until the Forest Service finishes cleaning up toxic mining waste.
Triple Creek Falls – Though the trail into these lovely-yet-humble falls is a bit overgrown, it’s well worth it to make the short walk in. It’s possible to scramble around along the falls to get a number of different perspectives.
Big Four Ice Caves – Because of unusually warm weather, two of the caves collapsed during the summer of 2015 and have since been closed indefinitely. Regardless, the short hike to the snowfield is beautiful and full of wildflowers.
Boulder River Trail – Through there are generally heavier crowds here than most anywhere else on the Mount Loop Highway, this is a great hike for people of most all ability levels. This is the most popular entry point to Boulder River Wilderness. Continue as long as you care to for waterfalls, old-growth forest, and some nice campsites right outside of the wilderness boundary.
Mount Pilchuck – This is by far the most popular adventure along the Mountain Loop Highway, though sacrificing a bit of solitude is well worth it for this relatively short hike to staggeringly beautiful views. The ultimate prize: a beautifully restored fire lookout precariously perched on the summit.
Lake Elan/Vesper Lake – Though the trail only measures in as a 7-mile out-and-back, scrambling over talus, ascending the steep trail, and making a river crossing ups the ante on this one. The payoff is grand, though it’s recommended to bring crampons and an ice axe in the winter.
Goat Lake Trail – This is an excellent early season backpacking trip and is awesome for anyone introducing friends to overnighting in the wilderness. Expect old-growth forest, high alpine lakes, and an abundance of wildflowers.
Hemple Creek Day Use Area – Sixteen picnic sites dot the south bank of the wild Stillaguamish River at this site. It’s an excellent place to stop over for lunch or to park to access the trailhead for Lake Twenty-Two. Additionally, if you’re looking for a place to cast some lines, this is great place to fish.
Esswine Group Campground – Like Hemple Creek, this is an excellent place to fish. There’s no potable water available, though there’s plenty of space, a vault toilet, picnic tables, and fire rings.
Boardman Creek Group Campground – This group site will offer more privacy than Esswine and has all of the same amenities. This site is choice for big groups. Don’t forget your fly rod!
Kelcema Lake – Though the trailhead can be a bit crowded at times due to the popular sledding hill just through the gate, Kelcema Lake is the perfect snowshoe or cross-country ski expedition even in the worst avalanche conditions.