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 

If you want to hike in the Moraine Lake area of Banff, consider taking the shuttle bus to Moraine Lake from the Lake Louise Ski Resort. It is the only sane way you'll get near Moraine Lake! You can also take a bus to Lake Louise from the ski hill to save the hassle of trying to find parking. 

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


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 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.)

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: 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)


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!)


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. 

See the route on all trails here


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.)


Disclaimer 2022: Because of parking lot construction at Little Highwood Pass, the full traverse of Pocaterra Ridge is not accessible for this season. You can hike to the high point but you have to return the same way.

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!

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

Note that for the 2022 season you can not access Sunshine Village by shuttle bus or gondola so if you want to reach Egypt Lake, you'll have to hike the Healy Creek Trail from the Sunshine Village parking lot (rather than starting from the top of the gondola.)


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

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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