Mark your calendars. Larch viewing season in Alberta is here and you’re going to want to catch it. If you’ve seen the larches in their full autumn glory you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you’re missing one of the best displays Mother Nature offers us in Alberta. It’s akin to the magnificent fall foliage display people living in the east enjoy.
Unlike the Foliage Network in the United States and the day to day cherry blossom forecasts available in Japan, Alberta has no real-time larch hotline; but historically the peak time for viewing larches has been around the third and fourth week in September. This year has been a crazy year for weather and from Instagram photos, it looks like the larches are already starting to turn.
What is a larch?
Larches are coniferous trees that lose their needles every fall. Before the needles drop they turn from green to a spectacular golden yellow. In Alberta, the trees we see are alpine larches (Larix lyalli). Because they usually grow in stands at high elevations, the impact of their foliage display is nothing short of stunning.
Where are the best places to see larches in Alberta?
Banff National Park
Larch Valley (11.6 kms to Sentinel Pass/ 4-5 hours) near Lake Louise is the premiere destination for larch viewing. But it comes with crowds and traffic. Imagine Chinook Mall in Calgary at its busiest. You get the idea. If you’re still keen to see what all the fuss is about, arrive at the Moraine Lake parking lot no later than 9 AM. Weekdays are definitely preferable but still very busy. There’s also a high probability that you will have to form a hiking group of four to mitigate any issues with bears. That shouldn’t be a problem but if you’re a solo hiker you must be prepared to join a group. If you arrive after 9 AM take the free shuttle from the well-signed parking lot just off the Trans-Canada east of Lake Louise Village. Don’t go near Lake Louise Village. It will be an exercise in frustration. Police will direct you back to the free shuttle lot.
Near Lake Louise, there are a couple of standout hikes as well. If you hike to the Saddleback (7.4 kms/3-4 hours return) or the summit of Fairview Mountain (10.6 kms return/ 5-6 hours), you’ll pass through some beautiful stands of larch and the view from the top will be filled with golds and yellows. A less onerous hike would be to the top of Big Beehive (10 kms return/ 3-4 hours) via the Lake Agnes Tea House. Again the crowds will likely be extreme – but so will the scenery. Take the free shuttle unless you arrive at the Lake Louise parking lot early in the morning.
Taylor and O’Brien Lakes offer exceptional larch viewing without the crowds. Accessed via the Taylor Lake Trailhead on the Trans-Canada Highway west of Banff, the hike will take the better part of a day. Its 13 kms return to Taylor Lake with an elevation gain of 595 metres. Add an additional 3.6 kms to reach the equally lovely O’Brien Lake.
Rockbound Lake (16.8 kms/5 – 6 hours) accessed via the trailhead just east of Castle Village is another hike without people. Once you’ve dispatched with the section of trail on an old road, you’ll be rewarded with meadows dotted with larch trees. From here through to the lake they will offer bursts of colour.
Boulder Pass (17 kms/6-8 hours) is climbed en route to Skoki Lodge. Accessed via a trailhead just minutes from the Lake Louise Ski Resort, the length is such that you won’t have to share the trail with many people. The larches are best the higher you go on the trail.
Healey Pass (18.4 kms/6 – 7 hours) offers fantastic views no matter what the season. Take the shuttle from Sunshine Village and revel in the views – which include small lakes interspersed with massive stands of larches.
Count on a full day to take in both Twin Lakes (15.8 kms return/5 -7 hours) and Gibbon Pass (21.6 kms return/8 – 10 hours) unless you come in from Shadow Lake Lodge in which case it’s only 6.2 kms return to Gibbon Pass. Start at either the Vista Lakes Trailhead on Highway 93 or the Twin Lakes Trailhead just west of the Trans-Canada on Highway 93. There are great stands of larch in a magnificent mountain setting offering sumptuous views.
For fewer people you’d do well to visit Kananaskis Country. There are no permits or costs to incur to use any of the trails.
In speaking with locals, Pocaterra Ridge is the hike that comes up as their number one choice in Kananaskis Country. It’s best done as a car shuttle with a start at the Highwood Pass parking lot. Walk 11 kms along the ridge (over the better part of 6 – 7 hours) and enjoy some of the best views in Kananaskis Country. Finish at the Little Highwood Pass parking lot. Between Peaks 2 and 3 along the ridge there is an especially dense larch forest. As well, there are magnificent expansive views of larch trees in the valley below. The shorter Pocaterra Cirque (7 kms return/4 hours) hike is also a good larch hike.
Chester Lake is a multi-season destination that always shines. Located in Spray Valley Provincial Park, about 43 kilometres from Canmore via the Spray Lakes Road, this 9.8 km, four hour round-trip hike can get busy on a weekend. It’s one of the easier hikes with only 400 metres of elevation gain. The lake is the prize, surrounded by larches and the cliffs of Mt. Chester.
Buller Pass is a beautiful 14.6 km roundtrip hike with 670 metres of elevation gain. On a weekday last year towards the end of larch season we were the only people on the trail. Reach the larches beginning about 45 minutes into the hike. They’ll be with you until you reach tree line. The trailhead is directly across from the Buller Mountain day use area, about 31 kilometres from the Canmore Nordic Centre.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Update: September 2017 – Check with Waterton Lakes National Park on what hikes would be worthwhile in view of the Kenow wildfire.
While I’ve never been to Waterton during larch season it only makes sense that it too would offer fantastic trails for larch viewing. In speaking with the Communications Officer from the park, John, the following suggestions were made.
Until September 18th hike to the Rowe Lakes (8 kms round trip for the first lake, 13 kms for the upper lake/5 hours) or do the difficult all-day hike to Forum Peak – which is in BC but is accessed via a trail in Alberta through the park. With ongoing construction along the Akamina Parkway contact Waterton Outdoor Adventures for information on how to access any of the trailheads.
For a short but steep hike with larches do the Bear’s Hump (2.4 kms roundtrip/60 -90 minutes) near the Visitor Centre.
Less well-known for larches are a couple of trails that take off from the Blackiston Valley Trail. Start at the trailhead in the Red Rock Canyon parking area. Bike or hike up part of the trail along Bauerman Creek. At the first intersection you can head for Goat Lake (13.6 kms/5 hrs from the Red Rock trailhead). Alternatively continue to Twin Lakes, considered the best area for larches, especially around the Twin Lakes Campground. Both of these trails cut through bear country. Be prepared.
Tips for viewing larches
- Go early if you’re heading to the Lake Louise or Moraine Lake area. Be patient.
- Its bear season so go prepared. Carry bear spray that’s no more than two years old and make noise. Forget the bear bells. Voices are better.
- Check out photos on Instagram using #larch as a hashtag. You’ll see that the colours are changing already.
- Always carry warm clothes for the mountains and extra food and water. The weather, especially at this time of year can turn quickly.
Enjoy the mountains. This is my favourite month in Alberta. The beauty of the larches will keep you coming back year after year.
For 25 larch photos that will surely inspire you to get to the mountains check out this post.
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Thank you to Travel Alberta for sponsoring this post.