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

Golden fall hiking at Highwood Pass, 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. Aim for the 22nd - 27th.

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!!

Larch Valley, Moraine Lake, Banff National Park 

Access for Moraine Lake and Lake Louise

If you want to hike in the Moraine Lake area of Banff, you will have to take a shuttle bus to Moraine Lake from the Lake Louise Ski Resort. The road has been closed to public vehicles.

You can also take a bus to Lake Louise from the ski hill to save the hassle of trying to find parking (and avoid having to pay for parking at the lake.)

Shuttles must be booked ahead of time at the link above. 

Larch Hikes around Lake Louise and Moraine Lake

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 you 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.

You'll also see good routes on the popular All Trails app.

And to escape the crowds, consider hiking up the Eiffel Lakes valley from the same trailhead. (5.6 km one way with 370 metres of climbing.)

For a beautiful one-way traverse, check out this hike below:

Read: Hike Moraine Lake to Lake Louise (via Sentinel and Saddleback Pass)

Glorious golden colors in Larch Valley at Lake Louise

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 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: 

Read: Hike Moraine Lake to Lake Louise (via Sentinel and Saddleback Pass)

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)

Lake Agnes in late September

Follow this link for information on all hiking trails at Moraine Lake and Lake Louise on the Banff Lake Louise Tourism website.

- and note that there is sometimes a restriction for 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

And see the route on All Trails here

Mount St. Piran Summit in Late September

The Big Beehive and the Devil's Thumb, Lake Louise (Banff National Park)

We haven't done this hike in the fall yet, but we recently did it in the summer. The views are incredible as you look down on both Lake Agnes (above) and Lake Louise. 

First hike to Lake Agnes and then continue around the lake where you'll start to see larch trees. Climb up switchbacks to the Big Beehive lookout over Lake Louise. 

If you still have energy continue up another viewpoint, the Devil's Thumb where you'll be looking down on larch trees as far as you can see.

Devil's Thumb, Lake Louise (and most of those trees below are larch trees)

The entire hike is 12 km round trip with over 1000 metres of height gain.

For more information please read my previous story below.

Mirror Lake below the Big Beehive (you can hike to the very top!)

Other Larch Hikes in Banff National Park 

Arnica Lake, Banff 

You'll start from the Vista Lake trailhead off Highway 93 on the boundary of Banff and Kootenay National Parks. I like to call this the "Grand Lake Traverse" because you'll have the opportunity to visit Vista Lake, Arnica Lake, and then the Twin Lakes in a 17 km return hike.

Note this hike has a LOT of height gain in both directions. Fortunately you have several options for turnout points. The highest concentration of larch trees can be seen at Arnica Lake (and just above at the lookout) so make sure you get that far at least.

Arnica Lake late September

Also, this trail is VERY popular so arrive early to get parking in the small lot. And, honestly if you have to park on the highway it's kind of a sign that you were too late and you should have a backup plan. 

Rockbound Lake and Taylor Lake are both nearby in Banff and make for beautiful larch hikes if you need a plan B.

Frosted larch trees at Arnica Lake.

Trail information:

The trail to Arnica Lake begins by losing 137 metres of height as you descend to Vista Lake in 1.4 kilometres. You then climb 579 metres to reach Arnica Lake over 3.6 km.

Upon reaching Arnica Lake, you have another 138 metres to gain in less than a kilometre before you reach the high point above the Twin Lakes. Upon reaching the high point, I recommend following a faint trail to your right which will take you to a viewpoint over Arnica Lake. It's the only place where you can look down on the lake. It's a popular viewpoint in fall when you can see many golden larch trees above the lake.

Most day hikers turn around here. If you want to continue to the Twin Lakes, you'll descend 229 metres over 2.4 km to reach the first Twin Lake and a small backcountry campground. It's a short walk to the second lake.

Golden larch trees as far as you can see at the viewpoint above Arnica Lake

Gibbon Pass, Banff

Continue past the Twin Lakes above via the Arnica Lake trail to reach Gibbon Pass. Here you'll find hundreds of golden larch trees and the opportunity to climb to the summit of Little Copper if you still have energy.

Follow the directions to the Twin Lakes above. After reaching the two Twin Lakes, you begin to climb again to reach the top of Gibbon Pass. Fortunately, this is a very gradual section of trail and it's a breeze compared to the climb to Arnica Lake. And it's only 224 metres of very gradual climbing here spread out over 2.7 km.

Gibbon Pass, Banff National Park

Looking up at the snowy summit of Little Copper above Gibbon Pass

You'll know you're getting close to the pass when larch trees begin to surround you on all sides and the trail becomes simply golden late September.

If you still have energy, you can climb to the top of Little Copper which is another 300 - 400 metres above you.

Remember, what goes down on the way in, has to go UP on the way back out. So you'll still have two climbs ahead of you to reach the parking lot.

Look out over the Bow Valley from the summit of Little Copper

Look down over Gibbon Pass and Shadow Lake from Little Copper

Extend your Hike to Gibbon Pass with a stay at Shadow Lake Backcountry Lodge

From Gibbon Pass you can drop down the other side of the pass to reach another lake in only 3 additional kilometres (one way.)

Shadow Lake is my favourite backcountry lake in Banff and it's an easy extension from the pass if you don't have to climb back up! You'll lose 450 metres of height dropping down to the lake where you'll find a beautiful backcountry lodge waiting for you!

Gorgeous Shadow Lake in Backcountry Banff

Enjoy the luxury of going backpacking in the Canadian Rockies without a tent or sleeping bag, carrying nothing other than your regular day hiking gear, lunch for the first day, and basic overnight items.

Waiting for you at Shadow Lake is your own private cabin at the lodge, gourmet meals prepared by a culinary team on site, hot water + showers, and comfortable beds to sleep in!

Enjoy two nights at the lodge, explore around the area on your free day, and then head out for the return hike back over Gibbon Pass (with fresh energy and full bellies.)

And read about the Little Copper summit extension here (which makes a great day trip from the lodge.)

Private cabins at Shadow Lake Lodge in Banff

Larch Hikes in Kananaskis 

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, but is still exceptionally busy. Try to hike mid-week.

Larch trees on the Ptarmigan Cirque Trail

Read more about the hike on the Alberta Parks website. And I highly recommend checking the trail report because the trail is often closed for bears. 

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 Ptarmigan Cirque, a gorgeous pond, and fewer 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.) 

Pocaterra Cirque in late September with Pocaterra Ridge in the background

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.)

Follow the unofficial trail into the cirque, heading for the pond shown in the photo above. 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 in the upper Pocaterra Cirque 

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 11 km long. You'll also be gaining roughly 900 metres of height (and losing 600 metres.)

Glorious ridge walking on Pocaterra Ridge 

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

There are many larch trees along the Pocaterra Ridge hike

Arethusa Cirque, Kananaskis 

This is a quieter trail option than the Ptarmigan and Pocaterra Cirque trails. You'll still encounter a large number of hikers on a weekend though so get an early start.

The hike is 4.5 km in length (as a loop) with 378 metres of height gain. 

September snowball fight in Arethusa Cirque (it was an early winter!)

To add to your outing, consider hiking up to the summit of Little Arethusa.

Arethusa Cirque with Little Arethusa in the background

And read about our adventures here:

Little Arethusa Summit above Arethusa Cirque, Kananaskis

Chester Lake, Kananaskis

Chester Lake is a popular family day hike from Calgary and there is a beautiful larch forest if you hike above the lake to the Elephant Rocks. There are also larch trees beside the lake if that's as far as you get.

Chester Lake late fall 

We always hike above the lake to visit the Elephant rocks because they are super fun to scramble on. (why my son is wearing a helmet in the photos below!)

The hike is 9 km return with 400 metres of climbing. 

Views from the Elephant Rocks above Chester Lake

Bring helmets if you have crazy kids like mine!

Rummel Lake, Kananaskis

This is an easy hike in Kananaskis to a pretty lake. Late September you will also find larch trees in the forest around the lake.

The hike is 11km round trip with 400 metres of climbing.

Early season snow and larch trees at Rummel Lake

Rummel Lake with early season snow

Tent Ridge, Kananaskis

This is one of my favourite hikes in Kananaskis and you'll be treated to views of larch trees from the ridge. I like to do the full horseshoe loop (clockwise.) 

Note there is scrambling on this hike so read reviews carefully to determine if it's the right hike for your group. I also wouldn't recommend this hike if there's been fresh snow as it would be slippery on the steep trail.

And read about our family experience here: First Summits - Tent Ridge Horseshoe, Kananaskis

The distance is 10km as a loop with 800 metres of climbing.

Larch trees looking over the Spray Lakes Reservoir from Tent Ridge

Larch Hikes at Lake O'Hara in Yoho National Park 

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 you'll need to get spots in the spring or luck out with a cancelation later in the season.

If you did manage to get in to Lake O'Hara, read my guide below:

Read: The Best of Lake O'Hara in a Day 

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:

8 Larch Hikes in the Canadian Rockies - Crowfoot Media

Best Larch Hikes in Kananaskis - Kananaskis Trails

Larch Hikes in Kananaskis - Friends of Kananaskis

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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