Sunday, October 17, 2010

Catching the height of the western larch color

Catching the golden aspen just right on Swan Lake

Near the Essex goat lick
For nearly 30 years I used the weekend around Oct. 15 to view one of the great scenic treasures of western Montana --- the height of the western larch color.
The past four years I’ve foregone this pleasure because I’ve been attending state teachers conferences with my wife, mainly in the southern part of the state that doesn’t have this magnificent show.
We’ve substituted an annual trip to Yellowstone Park instead.
This year the calendar fell just right and we were able to take in the larch show because the teachers convention is next weekend.
We hit the color just right in the Middle Fork of the Flathead country near Essex. It was a tad early up the Swan valley.
At the Goat Lick near Essex.
Me at Lake McDonald in Glacier
The western larch, or tamarack, is a pine-like tree whose needles turn a golden-orange then drop to the ground. It lights up entire western Montana mountain valleys.
Our driving tour of some 430 miles was a giant circle around the Bob Marshall complex.
We headed west from Great Falls along Highway 200 through Rogers Pass that took us into the Lincoln and Blackfoot country.  We found better color in the cottonwoods along the Sun River on the east side than we did along the Blackfoot on the west side.
But, by the time we reached the Swan Valley, starting with Salmon Lake south of Seeley Lake, we started to see a grand show in the mountains.
We happened on a Tamarack Festival of artists in Seeley Lake where artists gathered and there was some food. The key to the festival is the artists workshops opened along the Swan Valley.
It was then on to Holland Lake Lodge to see what the colors were like in that gateway to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. It wasn’t that great.
However, the drive up the Swan Valley is always lovely and the weather cleared nicely from the early morning fog.
We stopped for lunch at a great little restaurant, the Echo Lake Café, which has a surprisingly broad menu that accommodates even hardcore vegetarians like my wife and myself.
 The colors weren’t great until we hit Glacier Park, where we stopped at Lake McDonald and walked along the shoreline.  There, the cottonwoods blazed with more color than the larch.
The show really began when we hit the Essex area of the Middle Fork of the Flathead.  Entire hillsides were on fire with colorful larch.  The color was the best in the goat lick area.
Then, it was up and over the divide at Marias Pass, where we found beautiful east-side color and much clearer vistas.  The air was a much sharper on the east side, too.
Fall weather definitely set in this weekend, finally ending an extended summer.
I think the larch will be even better in the Swan Valley next weekend, and should be pretty good along the Middle Fork and in the west side of Glacier Park.

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