The air was brisk and the snow crunched under my hiking boots. As I stood in the Larch Valley in Banff National Park, I couldn’t help but be awed by the contrast of golden larch trees against snow-dusted mountain peaks. To be honest, I was a little disappointed when I’d woken to find snow on the ground. I was afraid the white stuff would ruin my larch hike and my pictures, but the exact opposite proved true. The early snow made the autumn colours pop. Hiking through this incredible scenery with my family was the perfect way to celebrate one of nature’s prettiest seasons.
You might not even notice larch trees in the summer, blending in as they do with the coniferous forest of the Alberta Rockies, but in fall they’re impossible to miss. Larches are conifers, but unlike pine trees, they’re deciduous, meaning they drop their needles every autumn. What happens before they drop their needles makes for a few weeks of the most breathtaking photo opportunities to be found in the mountain parks.
“It’s always inspiring to see the amazing photos taken and shared by everyone fortunate enough to explore Banff National Park this time of year,” says John Doherty, Communications & Media Coordinator for Banff Lake Louise Tourism. “The autumn colours and golden larches that reveal themselves in late September and early October are extremely special, and not to be missed.”
Larches start changing colour after the first frost, which varies from year to year. Typically the transition begins in late September and lasts for about three weeks. It’s a short season, but it’s one of the most beautiful times to experience the Alberta Rockies. Here are the best hikes to help you make the most of it.
Best larch hikes in Banff National Park
Larch Valley & Sentinel Pass
This is the granddaddy of larch hikes. It starts at Moraine Lake, one of the prettiest spots in the Canadian Rockies, and climbs through an impressive larch forest high above the lake. You can stop at the Larch Valley, the beautiful Minnestimma Lakes or follow the challenging trail that leads to the top of Sentinel Pass for high alpine views. Go very early if you want to park at Moraine Lake or just use the free Parks Canada shuttle from Lake Louise. Dazzling views of golden larches surrounded by The Valley of the Ten Peaks make it worth every bit of effort to get there. Hiking poles are helpful, especially if it’s snowy.
Distance: Larch Valley – 4.3 km one-way; Sentinel Pass – 5.8 km one-way
Time: 3.5-4 hours roundtrip for Larch Valley; 4.5-5.5 hours roundtrip for Sentinel Pass
Difficulty: Larch Valley-Moderate; Sentinel Pass-Difficult
Sunshine Meadows is famous for wildflowers in spring and larches in autumn. It’s one of the most scenic alpine hiking areas in Alberta and the best part is you don’t have to work hard to get there. Take a shuttle and a chairlift to get up to the meadows and you’ll knock 726 metres (2,382 feet) off the hike. From the top of the chairlift, you get outstanding views of the Sunshine Meadows and the surrounding larch forest. There are several hiking options that range from short, easy interpretive walks to moderate hikes that last four to five hours. You can also book guided hikes that include transportation from Banff, a packed lunch, shuttle and chairlift fees.
Distance and Time: Variable, depending on the hike you choose
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Off the beaten path
To avoid the crowds, consider the Boulder Pass, Twin Lakes and Arnica Lake hikes. You could also hike to Shadow Lake Lodge and stay overnight for easy access to backcountry larch hiking at Gibbon’s Pass and Twin Lakes.
Best larch hikes in Kananaskis Country
One of the most popular larch hikes in K-Country, this ridge hike offers breathtaking views. The larch forest is particularly thick between the second and third peaks and there are wonderful views of larches in the valley below. If you have two vehicles, you can park one at the trailhead (Highwood Pass parking lot) and one at the end (Little Highwood Pass parking lot) and save yourself a long walk back along the highway to reach the trailhead.
Distance: 11 km
Time: 7 hrs
Off the beaten path
Chester Lake in Spray Valley Provincial Park is a great choice if you’re looking for something a little less rigorous. There is only 400 metres of elevation gain and you’re rewarded with a view of larches reflecting off of a lake beneath Mt. Chester. Other hikes to consider are Ptarmigan Cirque, Burstall Pass and Buller Pass.
Debbie Olsen is an Alberta-based travel writer and the author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta: The Best Parks, Conservation Areas and Wild Places. Follow her adventures.