Every fall, ‘larch madness’ sweeps through Alberta, transforming the alpine valleys in the Rocky Mountains with a rich tapestry of golden and sunshine-yellow leaves.
The spellbinding season is a quick one, lasting just a few weeks from September to early October when coniferous larches shed their needles, turning from green to gold before the needles drop. Witnessing the seasonal spectacle by doing one of the larch hikes is one of the best things to do during fall in Alberta, and a pastime that lures people from around the world.
The Larch Valley hike
One of the most popular trails is the Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass hike near Lake Louise. It has incredible views of the famous Valley of the Ten Peaks, which is so beautiful a photo of it has actually made it onto Canada’s $20 bill.
Starting at the gem-toned Moraine Lake, it takes about two hours to hike to Larch Valley and Minnestimma Lake, which is a steady ascent over four kilometres. From there, you can continue another 2.5 kilometres up the steep switchbacks to the top of windy Sentinel Pass, which overlooks Paradise Valley and the Larch Valley.
Since Larch Valley/Sentinel Pass gets busy during fall, the Moraine Lake parking lot is usually full as early as 6:30 am. Visitors may have to park in an overflow lot instead, and take a free shuttle bus to the trailhead. Another option is to park in Banff, and ride Roam Public Transit to Moraine Lake.
Distance: 11.6 km
Elevation gain: 725 m
Other places to see golden larch trees in fall
While the Larch Valley trail is the best known and most popular route, there are plenty of other spots to see the golden trees that transform the Bow Valley around Banff and Canmore. Some of the best include:
- Taylor Lake: The trailhead for this hike starts near Lake Louise, and is treed in a good portion of the way until you get to the stunning lookout point over Taylor Lake, which is framed by Mount Bell and Panorama Peak. Budget a full day since it’s more than six kilometres each way, and keep in mind the extra effort is worth it since there will be less people on the trail.Distance: 12.6 km
Elevation gain: 585 m
- Big Beehive: With big views looking down on turquoise Lake Louise, this is another popular larch hike in Banff National Park. The Big Beehive trailhead starts along the shoreline northwest of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, and passes by Lake Agnes and the Lake Agnes Teahouse before reaching the panoramic Big Beehive Lookout. It takes about four to five hours roundtrip, and there are also options to branch off to the Devil’s Thumb or Little Beehive trails.Distance: 10.3 km
Elevation gain: 646 m
- Healey Pass: The Sunshine Village ski resort transforms into a wildflower-filled valley in the summer months, and it’s equally glorious during autumn. Starting from the hill’s overflow lot, it’s a steady but moderate climb up to Healy Creek, where the trail eventually opens up into an alpine meadow complete with a lake, alpine ridge and plenty of golden larch trees.Distance: 17.5 km
Elevation gain: 655 m
Larch Valley tours
A few companies near Banff offer guided larch hikes, like Alpine Air Adventures which hosts customized guided hikes throughout the Bow Valley for all skill levels. You can also book through Discover Banff Tours or White Mountain Adventures, which have excursions to spots like Moraine Lake, Plain of Six Glaciers, Stanley Glacier and Larch Valley that includes a guide and picnic lunch for about $100 per person.
Even if you don’t consider yourself much of a hiker, you can still see the larches by heading to Sunshine Village, where there’s a gondola and chairlift that takes guests right to the top of Sunshine Meadows which has stunning views (note: the chairlift is closed for the 2020 season).
For the ultimate sightseeing experience, book a helicopter tour to see the larches from above. Alpine Helicopters and Rockies Heli Canada both have heli-tours starting as low as $150 to $200 dollars per person.
Tips for seeing the larches
- The best time to see larches is usually around mid-September.
- Larch season is the busiest time of year on certain trails hiking trails in Banff, so time your visit for a weekday instead of the weekend to avoid crowds.
- Larch valley hikes are less busy if you visit early in the morning or late in the day, and the soft light is better for photography.
- Bears can be quite active during autumn, so pack bear spray and head out with a small group of people.
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