The best time for fall colors in the Pacific Northwest states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington may vary from year to year depending on weather conditions, but you're always in for a vibrant view on your autumn trip to the region.
Warm, dry falls — which often occur in the Pacific Northwest — produce breathtaking hillside panoramas, but the occasional rainy autumn can cut the foliage season short. The United States Forest Service fall color information guide is your best resource to consult before planning your leaf peeping trip.
The types of trees and shrubs across the region that provide color include vine maples (and just about any other type of maple), larch, and aspen. The vine maple, which often lines Pacific Northwest hiking trails, turns to hues of yellow, orange, and red; the larch and aspen leaves transform to gorgeous shades of yellow and gold. Since these trees are often intermingled with evergreens, the fall foliage display is both rich and varied.
The Best Times to See Fall Foliage by State
Due to the ever-changing nature of the weather in the Pacific Northwest, the exact dates that leaves are expected to start changing colors and falling are hard to predict. However, you can generally expect to see bright yellows, reds, and oranges from mid-September through at least mid-October in all four states.
- Idaho: Best viewed while driving down scenic byways from late September through October. Consult the Intermountain Region Forest Service for more exact dates of fall foliage this year.
- Montana: Best viewed while driving through national parks and forests from late September through mid-October. The colors vary depending on elevation, and you'll need to have a car equipped with four-wheel drive to access some roads.
- Oregon: Best viewed while driving along scenic highways from mid-September through mid-October; however, color conditions vary daily based on humidity and fog density. You can call the free Oregon Fall Foliage Hotline for daily updates on the status of the foliage.
- Washington: Best viewed in the Columbia River Gorge and the Cascade Mountains from mid-September through mid-October. If it's been a rainy fall, expect to see a little less color in Western Washington, but the mountains and much of the Columbia River Gorge are generally less effected by rain.
Changing daily weather conditions can drastically affect the visibility of fall foliage and even how bright the leaves appear — especially closer to the Oregon and Washington coasts, where thick fog lingers well into the day for much of the season. As a result, some days are better for viewing fall foliage than others; you should check local weather reports for up-to-date information on visibility.
If you're looking for some specific scenic spots to check out, read on.
Instead of heading up to the Canadian border from Sandpoint on the Selkirk Loop, you can take a short detour down the Pend Oreille National Scenic Byway for some unique opportunities for leaf peeping. Also known as Idaho Highway 200, this byway runs along the northeastern shore of Lake Pend Oreille and ends at the Clark Fork Recreation area on the Idaho-Montana border.
If you want to get out to stretch your legs or enjoy a particularly warm autumn day, you'll find a variety of activities along the way including hiking, bird watching, swimming, and kayaking in Lake Pend Oreille and Clark Fork River, and even touring a local fish hatchery. Additionally, you can camp at several sites near Highway 200, including the Sam Owen Campground, but there is usually a small fee for staying overnight.
To experience one of the most peaceful drives in Idaho, you can take the Teton Scenic Byway through the tree-covered Teton Mountain Range in southeast Idaho. This 69-mile route takes about two-to-three hours to drive, and there's also a mountain bike trail that runs along the byway.
Starting at Swan Valley — a small town between Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Jackson, Montana — the Teton Scenic Byway runs north to the mountain towns of Victor, Tetonia, and Driggs before winding through the Targhee National Forest to Ashton. From here, you can continue onto the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, which either takes you southwest to Idaho Falls or northeast to the borders of Montana and Wyoming near Yellowstone National Park.
Selkirk Loop in Idaho
The International Selkirk Loop is an acclaimed 280-mile scenic byway that passes through British Columbia in Canada and Washington and Idaho in the United States, but the stretch that runs through northern Idaho offers some of the best views on the loop.
The Idaho portion of the Selkirk Loop includes both the Panhandle Historic Rivers Passage and the Wild Horse Trail scenic byways. The Panhandle byway starts at the Washington state line in Oldtown and follows the Pend Oreille River to Sandpoint, and the Wild Horse Trail starts on the northwestern shore of Pend Oreille Lake in Sandpoint and continues north through Bonners Ferry up to Porthill on the Canadian border.
To get an up-close view of fall foliage, stop along the way for a hike and wildlife viewing at The Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge. You can also explore a variety of historic attractions along the loop, including the museums in Sandpoint and the famous downtown area of Priest River.
Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana
Connecting the towns of West Glacier and St. Mary, the Going-to-the-Sun Road offers unparalleled views of Glacier National Park in Montana. With gold and yellow hues of late-season larch and aspen leaves dotting the scenery along this mountainous route, you're sure to enjoy all 50 miles of this unique road.
A free shuttle also provides two-way service along the road between the Apgar and St. Mary Visitor Centers; audio and video tours are also available for your journey. Portions of the Going-to-the-Sun Road may be closed during inclement weather, and snow usually shuts it down for the winter as early as mid-October each year.
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area in Oregon
Located along Interstate 84 in Oregon, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area includes over 80 miles of forests rich in bright fall colors from mid-September to mid-October each year. Also known as the Columbia River Highway, this stretch of I-84 was one of the first in the United States specifically designed for scenic tourism.
Plan your trip along the Columbia River Highway to include as many (or few) outdoor adventures and activities as you'd like. Along the way, you can check out spectacular views from the mountaintop Crown Point Vista House in Corbett or stop by the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum at the east end of the Gorge in a town called The Dalles. But even if you just drive and look for random scenic overlooks to stop and admire the view, you won't be disappointed.
Columbia River Gorge in Washington
The Columbia River Gorge divides Washington and Oregon, and you can't go wrong driving either side. Highway 14 is the drive on the Washington side, and you'll have access to some fantastic fall foliage vistas of the famous Columbia River Gorge.
Whether you're continuing your journey along the Historic Columbia River Highway from Oregon or you're coming from Trout Lake or Olympia, Washington, to the north, a drive through the Columbia River Gorge is a great way to take in some autumnal colors. Stops of note include Beacon Rock State Park (you'll need a Discover Pass), the town of Stevenson for a bite to eat, or stay at Skamania Lodge if you want an overview of the gorgeous Gorge.
Beartooth Highway in Montana
Considered one of America's best scenic drives, Beartooth Highway (United States Highway 212) is a 68-mile byway that passes through the Custer, Shoshone, and Gallatin national forests. Although most of Beartooth Highway is located in northern Wyoming, it connects the cities of Cooke City-Silver Gate and Red Lodge in southern Montana.
Keep in mind that about 50 miles of this scenic route will close for the winter season around mid-October. While you can still take U.S. 212 West from Cooke City, you'll need to turn off Beartooth Highway about 18 miles into your trip after the snow starts to fall, as most of the road will be inaccessible to vehicle traffic.
Instead, you'll take State Highway 296 south through the Shoshone National Forest to Wyoming Highway 120 West, which turns into Montana Highway 72 at the state border. Once you get to Belfry, you'll turn left onto State Highway 308, which takes you to Red Lodge. This detour will add about 40 miles (and an hour) to your trip, but you'll still have plenty of opportunities to see fall foliage along the way — even if snow has already blocked U.S. 212.
Fremont-Winema National Forest in Oregon
East of Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon, the Fremont-Winema National Forest offer miles of scenic drives and some of the most spectacular fall foliage displays in the state, especially in the lower, wetter areas of the woods. With snow-capped mountain peaks almost year-round and expansive sage basins, this 2.3-million-acre woods is one of the most popular destinations in the region to capture unique landscape photography.
Although there is a small day-use fee, entrance to the Fremont-Winema National Forests gets you access to numerous outdoor activities including fishing, boating, hunting, backpacking, hiking, and camping. With dozens of recreational sites spread throughout the forests, you're sure to find the perfect spot to spend a weekend in Oregon.
Seeley-Swan Scenic Drive in Montana
This 90-mile stretch of State Highway 83 connects the Seeley and Swan Valleys in Montana and offers scenic views of bright yellow larch leaves native to the region. The Seeley-Swan Scenic Drive starts and ends at the two large lakes from which it gets its name (Seeley and Swan Lake), and there are hundreds of smaller bodies of water dotting the countryside along the highway between them.
Along the way, you can stop off at any number of recreation areas to enjoy boating, hiking, fishing, swimming, horseback riding, mountain biking, and a variety of other outdoor activities in the early fall, but some roads may be inaccessible as the winter season approaches.
Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington
On the west side of the Cascades between the Canadian border and Mt. Rainier National Park, the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest makes for a great day trip from Bellingham, Washington.
Two major scenic byways run through the forest, the Mount Baker Byway (State Route 542) and the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20) — and both offer numerous scenic overlooks where you can get out of the car, stretch your legs, and snap a quick shot of the fall foliage.