The Best Places to See Fall Foliage in the Pacific Northwest

Oct 1, 2019

Washington State's nickname is enough to keep away many a fall foliage pilgrim. And sure, some of the most gorgeous swaths of the state—plus good chunks of Oregon, Montana and British Columbia and Idaho—are evergreen central. But the Pacific Northwest is so large and geographically diverse, plenty of shade shifters thrive here, too, as you'll find in these these seven kaleidoscopic spots, all worth the pilgrimage.

Oregon: Columbia River Gorge

The Columbia River begins in British Columbia, carves through eastern Washington and eventually forms a boundary between Washington and Oregon before gushing into the Pacific. You won't find a more stunning 1200-mile trip, but if you're short on time and focused on foliage, hit Oregon Highway 84 from Troutdale to just west of Umatilla. Take in the ambers, reds and yellows on horseback, on foot, from the water—or just at random pullouts along the way.

Washington: Bloedel Reserve

You’ll need to hop a ferry or traverse a few rural highways to get to here, but Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island is well worth the effort. The 150-acre forest garden—pronounced "one of this country's most original and ambitious" by the New York Times—was timber baron Prentice Bloedel's brainchild and labor of love (no, the irony isn't lost on us). Beyond the pops of color that await you as you stroll through the grounds and under the lush canopy, there are expert-led tours like the mid-October Super Squash Walks, when gourd enthusiasts will meet 500+ Bloedel-propagated specimens and get a culinary history lesson in the process.

Washington: Kubota Garden

Bloedel Reserve  gives you an excellent preview of gardener Fujitaro Kubota’s work (the reserve's award-winning Japanese Garden is his design). But nothing compares to the late Japanese immigrant’s pride and joy—his 20-acre home in Seattle. Kubota Garden is the ultimate urban oasis (though it's still considered off the beaten path by locals)—a trail- and flora-filled retreat in South Seattle complete with Koi ponds, bridges and the all-important Japanese maples, arguably the most dramatic contributors to the seasonal foliage here. Judge for yourself on a free Fall Color Tour (Oct. 19-20 and 26-27), or do the Self-Guided Tour anytime: Admission is always free (rarer than a street without Starbucks in Seattle). 

 British Columbia: Butchart Gardens

Victoria and the gardens are stunning year-round, but fall lets you binge-view all the beauty at this soon-to-be-century-old icon—minus the summer crowds (seriously, July and August come with trail congestion warnings during peak hours). However hushed, the Japanese puts on a raging autumn show (maple-mania), as do a number of the flowering plants elsewhere in the gardens: The rare Heptacodium miconioides flaunts rose-colored calyces; the Clerodendrum trichotomum sets intense blue berries against bright pink sepals; and the Fothergilla, Cotinus and Euonymus alatus (all shrubs that tend to get ignored the rest of the year) suddenly blaze with color. To see the area's best bonus foliage, walk (or rent a tandem bike and pedal) through to the 200-acre Beacon Hill Park in downtown Victoria.

Oregon: Washington Park

Grab a cup of coffee and take a long stroll (or hop on the free shuttle) to soak in the colors of Portland’s 400-acre Washington Park. The Hoyt Arboretum alone is home to more than 2,000 plant and tree varieties—among them, a Japanese Larch that goes golden before dropping its needles and Siberian Dogwoods that turn fire-engine red. The park’s Portland Japanese Garden is regarded as one of the nation's best, with 12 acres of blazing fall color, plus meandering streams, lovely walkways and—on a clear day—views of Mount Hood. And family travelers take note: The park also is home to the Oregon Zoo, Portland Children’s Museum and excellent playgrounds.

Idaho: Sawtooth Scenic Byway

The 116-mile Sawtooth Scenic Byway (Idaho Highway 75) through the Rocky Mountains is the perfect road trip for foliage fans (and Hemingway devotees—Papa's Papa's buried here). The entire stretch is gorgeous, but some of the showstoppers include the changing aspens and cottonwoods near Sun Valley Resort and the alpine meadows at the heart of the Sawtooth National Forest. On the other side of the forest in Boise (nicknamed the “City of Trees” for a reason), the oaks, maples and ash put on their own show. Plus, the 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt serves up more autumnal awesomeness.

Washington: Lake Crescent

Of all the leaf-viewing spots in spectacular Olympic National Park, Lake Crescent might be best, not only for the easy access just off Highway 101, but also for the varied vantage points. Consider a kayak trip around the tree-lined, glacier-carved lake—or a hike through the untouched old-growth hemlock, alder and cedar trees to Marymere Falls. Either way, head to the historic Lake Crescent Lodge when you're done: The bar and fireplace in the lobby make for the ultimate apres foliage combo.

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