Thursday, September 06, 2018

Our Favourite Autumn Hikes for Golden Larch Trees

A larch tree looks like a normal evergreen tree until mid September when the needles turn bright golden yellow and begin to slowly fall off for the winter. New needles come back the following spring, making this a very unusual "evergreen tree" since it's definitely not green year round. In winter, you'd just see a bare trunk and branches (like any deciduous tree.)

Hiking through golden larch trees, Kananaskis

When and Where to See Golden Larch Trees in the Canadian Rockies 

The peak time to see larch trees in all their autumn splendor is from mid to late September here in the Canadian Rockies. (And in my experience, they're absolutely magical around the third weekend of the month, which for this year would be around the 22nd.)

Golden larch trees in Banff National Park 

Want to do a fall hike and see golden larch trees? The trails I've featured below are the most popular trails (for very good reason.) They are also the busiest so if you can go mid-week, do it!! If you have to go on Saturday or Sunday, start crazy early!! (Think 8am at the latest for Moraine Lake.) 

If you want to hike in the Moraine Lake area of Banff, consider taking the shuttle bus to Moraine Lake from the Lake Louise overflow campground. 

Larch Valley, Moraine Lake, Banff National Park 

Top Day Hikes to see Larch Trees across the Canadian Rockies 

Larch Valley, Moraine Lake (Lake Louise area of Banff National Park)

It's a 7 km return hike to reach the most magical valley at Lake Louise. Larch Valley is also referred to as "Valley of the Ten Peaks," and you'll quickly see why when you reach the first meadow. It is 11.6 km return if you go all the way to Sentinel Pass (which you should if your kids have the stamina for the 700 metres of height gain. From the top of the pass, it's larch trees as far as the eyes can see in every direction.

Hiking through golden larch trees in Larch Valley

Saddleback Pass and Mount Fairview, Lake Louise (Banff National Park)

Not as popular as Larch Valley, this can be a great option on a busy weekend. It is 3.7 km to the pass from where you have two options. 

Option one: scramble an extra 100 metres up to the summit of Saddle Mountain (to your left) for a total of roughly 700 metres of height gain. 

Saddle Mountain Summit looking down on Saddleback Pass

Option two: hike to the summit of Fairview Mountain in a total height gain of 1000 metres. It takes a big push at the end (and lots of candy) but the views are worth it!! And don't worry about not seeing enough larch trees because that's all you'll see in every direction from either summit.

Recommended Reading: First Summits - Mount Fairview and Saddle Mountain 

Mount Fairview Summit, Lake Louise

Lake Agnes Tea House, Lake Louise (Banff National Park)

While maybe not "as incredible" as Larch Valley or Saddleback Pass, this hike is much easier and better with young children. The hike is 6.8 km round trip to a beautiful tea house, small lake, and gorgeous little larch forest en route to the Big Beehive viewpoint above the lake. 

It is an extra 3.2 km round trip to reach the Big Beehive viewpoint above Lake Agnes with an extra 100 metres of height gain. (520 metres total)

Follow this link for information on all hiking trails at Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. 

- and note that there is usually a restriction for all trails at Moraine Lake requiring you to hike in a tight group of 4 people. See trail reports here.

No filter, no editing required. This is why people hike at Lake Louise in September

Mount St. Piran, Lake Louise (Banff National Park)

This summit is reached via the trail to the Lake Agnes Tea House. The hike requires gaining 900 metres of elevation spread out over 12+km round trip (if you do the full loop off the back side as we did.)

Hiking up the slopes of Mount St. Piran with larch trees around us
The hike can be dangerous if there is too much snow on the slopes, but the larch trees along the way are magical. (Check in at the Visitor Centre for conditions before starting this hike.)

Read about our adventures on this hike here:  First Summits - Mount St. Piran, Lake Louise

Mount St. Piran Summit in Late September

Sunshine Meadows, Banff (Sunshine Village Resort)

This is easily one of the most beautiful places to hike in Banff, and in autumn it is one of the best places to see golden larch trees without a whole lot of effort.

Visit Sunshine Meadows Ski Resort and enjoy bus shuttle service up to the village until the end of the season (September 23rd.) The sightseeing gondola only runs during the summer.

Rock Isle Lake, Sunshine Meadows
Hike a gorgeous loop including Rock Isle Lake, Sunshine Meadows, Grizzly Lake, and Larynx Lake in roughly 8 km in distance from the Village. You can also cut off some height and distance by riding the Standish Chairlift from the village (open through September 23rd.)

You can read about our most recent day trip to Sunshine Village with gondola and chairlift rides here. 

You have to hug at least one larch tree this fall!

Ptarmigan Cirque, Kananaskis

Located at Highwood Pass in Kananaskis, this is a 4.5 km loop hike with a gorgeous alpine basin and a small larch forest. It sees less traffic than the Banff/Lake Louise hikes, and hence is great for weekend hiking.

Read more about the hike on the Alberta Parks website

Autumn at Highwood Pass: Ptarmigan Cirque

Pocaterra Cirque, Kananaskis 

A lesser known alternative to Ptarmigan Cirque, this hike starts from the same parking lot. It is a favourite for us with more larch trees than Pocaterra Cirque, a gorgeous pond, and very few crowds.

Trail directions for this unofficial trail: Start from the same parking lot as for Ptarmigan Cirque at Highwood Pass on Highway 40. Head down the trail towards the Highwood Meadows interpretive trail (and don't cross the highway as you would for Ptarmigan Cirque.) Follow the interpretive trail until you reach a sign that mentions staying on the official trail and respecting the environment. There is a smaller dirt trail heading left here off of the interpretive trail. That is your trail. (And yes, you are allowed to hike it.)

Pocaterra Cirque, Highwood Pass

Follow the unofficial trail into the cirque, heading for the pond shown in the photo below. The trail is relatively easy to follow for those who have good route finding skills. If you are inexperienced with hiking, please choose the well marked Ptarmigan Cirque trail instead.

The trail is roughly 7 km return to the pond and the cirque.

Larch trees on the Pocaterra Cirque hike

Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis

This is an extension from the Pocaterra Cirque hike above. Total hiking distance from Highwood Pass to Little Highwood Pass along the ridge is approximately 10 km long. You'll also be gaining roughly 900 metres of height (and losing 600 metres.)

Larch trees on Pocaterra Ridge, Kananaskis

If you're interested in hiking to Pocaterra Cirque or along Pocaterra Ridge, I highly recommend picking up the following guide book: Kananaskis Country Trail Guide, Volume 1, by Gillean Daffern. (Amazon affiliate link)

You can also read about our adventure hiking this trail here: Pocaterra Ridge, Family Hiking in Kananaskis 

Spectacular hiking on Pocaterra Ridge

Traveling further afield to see Larch Trees

I highly recommend visiting Panorama Mountain Resort just outside Invermere, BC. They have a Colourful Summit Ridge Series every September for two weekends where you can take a guided hike high up in the alpine to see golden larch trees surrounding the Goldie Plateau and Lake Area. You can even hike to the top of Mount Goldie.

And best of all, you get to ride three chairlifts to access the meadows of larch trees rather than tackling a massive hike with 1000+ metres of height gain. 

The guided hikes also include a gourmet packed lunch, snacks, and a drink after. To make the weekend even more special, book accommodations to stay right at the resort and you can relax in the slopeside hot pools at the end of your hike.

There are three options for hikes to see the larch trees at Panorama Mountain Resort and they are all family friendly.

Magical Panorama Mountain Resort in September

Overnight Trips to see Larch Trees in the Canadian Rockies

Check out the following stories to read about a couple of amazing backcountry trips we've taken in late September.

Magical Autumn Hiking on the Bow Valley Highline Trail (Shadow Lake to Gibbon Pass)

Family Backpacking in Banff (no tent required) - Shadow Lake Lodge

Copper Mountain above Shadow Lake (larch trees in every direction below us)

Backcountry Banff with Kids - Egypt Lake (Sunshine Village to Egypt Lake)

Healy Pass on our Egypt Lake backpacking trip

And there's little point mentioning the magical Lake O'Hara area in Yoho National Park (since you need incredible luck to get spots at either the backcountry cabin or in the backcountry campground here,) but if you want to add this trip to your list of "places I'd like to see in my lifetime," you can find more information on the Yoho National Park website

You can also try to reserve spots on the bus to visit Lake O'Hara as a day trip but they fill up within two seconds of the reservation service going live each spring.

Opabin Basin, Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park 

More Suggestions for Larch Hikes in the Canadian Rockies

Check out these guides for more hiking suggestions:

Golden Larch Hikes - Parks Canada

8 Larch Hikes in the Canadian Rockies - Crowfoot Media

Best Larch Hikes in Kananaskis - Kananaskis Trails

Autumn hiking at Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park

Save this story for future reference because I will add to it annually as my family discovers new favourite hikes each autumn.

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