School is back in session, and the temperature has started to drop, but that doesn’t mean road trip season is over. Fall is a great time of year to get outside and explore the Pacific Northwest. And despite our reputation as the Evergreen State, Washington boasts some great places to view colorful fall foliage.
For show-stopping displays of vibrant crimson, orange, and golden leaves, we’ve rounded up five must-see destinations within three hours of Seattle. So pack an extra fleece, grab your Pumpkin Spice Latte, and go explore!
1. Washington Park Arboretum
When to go: September through November, and especially mid-to-late October
Why visit: Right in our own backyard (just south of the University of Washington’s main campus), the 230-acre Arboretum offers a complete sensory experience in the fall. This sprawling green space boasts more deciduous tree species than any other setting in the Northwest, which means LOTS of beautiful fall colors. The Woodland Gardens are an absolute must-see; with one of North America’s largest collections of Japanese maples, this garden becomes a Technicolor wonderland of rich red, fiery orange, eye-grabbing yellow, deep purple, and dreamy magenta leaves. According to the UW Botanic Gardens’ blog, the gardens even feature a tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum, aka katsura) whose leaves smell like burnt sugar throughout autumn! So, bring your camera and breath deep. Just…don’t eat the leaves.
When to go: Late September and October
Why visit: Between the Autumn Leaves Festival and Oktoberfest, fall is really the perfect time to swing by everyone’s favorite local Bavarian village. Nestled in the heart of the Cascade Mountains just two hours from Seattle, Leavenworth offers a huge assortment of things to do and has plenty of local trails, like the Apple Capital Loop Trail. Look for vine maples and cottonwoods with their stunning scarlet, orange, and gold leaves. The drive west of Leavenworth on Highway 2 is also a feast for the eyes, as forests of dogwood, maple, and alder shine against a backdrop of dark green conifers. Check out our Leavenworth fall foliage write-up for a full list of great eats and local treats.
3. Mount Rainier
When to go: October
Why visit: For a different take on fall colors, head south to Mount Rainier and watch the low-lying shrubs become a field of fiery reds and oranges. The Skyline Trail Loop, a 5.5-mile round-trip jaunt from the Paradise parking lot, is considered a favorite among park-goers; huckleberry bushes and vine maples carpet the mountainside with vibrant reds, plush purples, and golden yellows, and (on a clear day) Mount Rainier looms majestically over it all. Colors will be best in mid-October, but since mountain weather is notoriously temperamental, be sure to keep an eye on the forecast and pack the 10 hiking essentials, just in case.
4. Chuckanut Drive
When to go: October
Why visit: Aside from a having a colorful name (anyone else envisioning crazed squirrels throwing acorns?), this scenic drive is awesome for its big views and bright fall foliage. Winding from Burlington to Bellingham along Highway 11, the road skirts Chuckanut Mountain and offers gorgeous panoramas of saltwater bays and the San Juan Islands. In October, maples and alders arch over the roadway and create tunnels of scarlet and yellow leaves. The drive takes about two hours from Seattle (if you take I-5 to Burlington) and features a number of scenic overlooks and tasty food stops, including the renowned Taylor Shellfish Samish Farm Store.
5. North Cascades Highway
When to go: September and October
Why visit: The North Cascades Highway (State Route 20) is considered one of the most beautiful mountain highways in Washington, and at 436 miles, it’s also the longest – which means even more miles of stunning fall foliage for you to enjoy. From mid-September through the end of October, this scenic drive blazes with red vine maples, scarlet dogwoods, and the glowing, golden leaves of alpine larch and quaking aspen, among others. Follow the highway to the historic town of Winthrop (known for its old-west theme), where you can either spend the night or head towards Wenatchee to complete the Cascade Loop (which continues to Stevens Pass and back to Seattle). Note: this scenic route works best as an overnight trip so you can enjoy the unique towns along the way. Be sure to check for weather-related road closures in advance.