Fall in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is a fleeting and wonderful time. Sandwiched between a short and intense summer and the looming onslaught of winter that can occur at any moment, the beauty of an alpine fall and its larch season is so quick that if you blink, you’ll miss it. While some of the best larch hikes in Banff, Alberta, require legwork to reach the best views and golden glow of this autumnal phenomenon, trust me, it is well worth the effort.
Why is larch season such a big deal? Well, it’s one of the most beautiful times of the year in the mountains and it doesn’t last long. Secondly, the changing larch trees and their golden needles are natural wonders. Conifers (evergreen trees) don’t lose their needles, and though the larch is a conifer, it does lose its soft needles like any deciduous (leafy) tree does in autumn. The larch needles change from a light green to a brilliant yellow before falling and decorating the forest floor in a carpet of gold.
How beautiful is that? You’ll just have to see it for yourself.
Best Larch Hikes in Banff, Alberta
Remember to always check weather and trail reports before heading out on a hike. Pack layers, water and bear spray.
The Big Beehive
Easily accessible from the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise or the Lake’s public parking lot, this hike begins first as the trail to the Lake Agnes Tea House, a well-known and easy ascent. The first vantage point is Mirror Lake, which affords some nice views before heading up to the Tea House and ‘Lake of Little Clouds’ as Lake Agnes is known to local First Nations.
Stop for tea and freshly baked treats before continuing along the Lake to the trailhead of the Big Beehive hike, where the steep switchbacks ascend quickly, revealing larches on route and then at the summit. This hike and summit provide outstanding views of Lake Louise, the Victoria glacier, and the stunning peaks ringing the lake like Mount Aberdeen and Lefroy. You can return via the Highline Trail back to Mirror Lake and down to Lake Louise.
The Big Beehive trail is rated as a moderate hike and is about 10 km/6 miles round trip. Trailhead location here.
The beauty of the Sunshine Village area – particularly during the winter ski season – is a well-known local fact. And its Sunshine Meadows are a great base from which to explore and enjoy larch viewing in fall.
If the gondola is running, ride it up from the parking lot. If not, add the 726m of elevation to your hike. The lakeside walk is a good choice for families visiting Banff, while others may enjoy heading up Healy Creek Trail Pass or Simpson Pass. Larches abound in this area, so soak up the golden views in every direction.
Trailhead location here.
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Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass
The name gives the game away a bit, doesn’t it? You will see a magnificent display of larches in the Valley, along with fellow hikers and enthusiasts. Starting at picture-perfect Moraine Lake, this is a busy spot at the best of times, so start early.
Begin at Moraine Lake and the head through an incredible valley and forest of larch trees, all set against the “Valley of the Ten Peaks” backdrop. The distance to Larch Valley is 4.3 km one way. Sentinel Pass is just shy of 6 km one way. For a roundtrip hike, estimate 3-4 hours for the Larch Valley and 4-6 hours for the Sentinel Pass hikes, the latter of the two being more difficult with higher elevation gain.
East of Banff and south of the mountain community of Canmore in Kananaskis country, the hike to Chester Lake is family-friendly trail with an uphill ascent as you approach the lake. It’s very popular so again, the early bird gets the parking and the morning views of the larches and the picturesque lake.
The Chester Lake hike is 9.8 km/6 miles roundtrip and is considered a moderate hiking trail.
Trailhead location here.
Located east of Lake Louise in the Castle Junction area of Banff National Park, this scenic lake is accessible via a moderately challenging and steady climb through the forest. The trek opens up to reveal a magnificent view of the lake, mountains and larches that surround it.
The hike is approximately 12.6 km/8 mile roundtrip and climbs nearly 600 meters (1,952 ft) in elevation. Estimated return hiking time is 4 to 5 hours. Trailhead location here.
Tip: Consider a side trip to O’Brien Lake to the south of Taylor Lake. It’s a 2 km one way hike with minimal elevation gain.
Arnica Lake is another challenging 12 km/7 mile, 5-6 hour roundtrip hike in the Castle Junction area east of Lake Louise. Rated on the difficult side, the views and landscape variety on this trail make this a great hiking alternative to Taylor Lake.
If you’re feeling strong and adventurous, continue past Arnica to reach the spectacular Twin Lakes. This additional section will ratchet up your hiking day into the 6-7 hour range, but as Parks Canada puts it, you’ll be ‘hiking under a canopy of larch trees while the continental divide guides you to… Twin Lakes.’ It doesn’t get much better than that.
Bonus Larch Hike Destination – Lake O’Hara, Yoho National Park
One of the most beautiful lakes and hikes in the Rockies, Lake O’Hara is technically in British Columbia in Yoho National Park, just west of Banff. This unparalleled gem has hanging valleys, beautiful alpine lakes, incredible vistas, and in fall, golden larches. Access is limited and reservations are mandatory. Lake O’Hara is accessible by hike in/out only. Parks Canada did not operate its shuttle in summer 2020; interested hikers should check back in early 2021.
Where to Stay in Banff, Alberta
Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
When in Banff, we love to stay in the ‘Castle,’ the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. This iconic hotel property built in the 19thcentury stands – just like a castle – for great quality, top drawer service and beautiful location.
The rooms are cosy and renovated, many with views of the Bow Valley and Bow Falls to the east. Hotel amenities include; Willowstream Spa, mineral pool and swimming pools, golf course, bowling alley, the Rundle Bar & Lounge, and a variety of restaurants, including; STOCK, the Vermillion Room, and the Waldhaus Pub.
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise may have burned down twice over its history, but the 21st century Chateau shines as a fantastic accommodation option with – let’s be honest – the most iconic views in Canada.
Situated on the shore of Lake Louise, the Chateau Lake Louise has The Spa, pool, fitness center, Boathouse, shopping, and various dining options, including; the Fairview Bar & Restaurant, the Lakeview Lounge, Walliser Stube and Poppy Brasserie. In winter, the Chateau is a great choice to quickly access ice skating and snowshoeing on the lake, as well as shuttle to nearby Lake Louise ski resort for some of the best dry powder skiing in the Canada.
Photo Credit: Claudia Laroye, Shutterstock
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