In larch season in Alberta seemingly sane people do insane things. Take myself for example. I rose at 3:15 AM and was in the car driving towards Lake Louise by 3:30 AM. I had been closely monitoring the weather forecasts across three stations and was keen on picking a clear day in the mountains. Even though the forecast wasn’t ideal, the weather looked to be worsening over the week so I went. (It turned out to be a way better day than forecast!) My goal was to do the Larch Valley hike plus Sentinel Pass in peak larch season. And I needed a parking spot but more on that later.
I’ve done the Larch Valley hike before but it was many years ago in the summer. It was a delight then, but for sheer in-your-face beauty I think the prime time to go is actually larch season, which is typically the last couple of weeks in September. I nailed the timing for the Larch Valley hike – getting it at the peak for larch colours. And you can still make it – but the window is narrow. By the beginning of October, most larch trees have shed their needles.
Larch Valley hike summary
The Larch Valley hike which starts from the Moraine Lake trailhead, is considered to be one of the premiere larch hikes in the Rockies.
The best time to do this hike – if you want to see larches – is from mid-September to early October.
Summer is still a wonderful time to do the Larch Valley hike.
The hike from the trailhead to the start of the Larch Valley is about 3.5 km. It’s another 2.9 km to reach Sentinel Pass – which I recommend you do.
The difficulty of the Larch Valley hike is on the easy side of moderate.
Allow 3.5 – 5 hours to do the hike, depending on how many stops you make for photographs.
It can be very cold here in September so pack a down jacket, a hat, mitts and other warm weather gear.
The Larch Valley hike is a worthwhile hike in summer too with beautiful mountain scenery and some wildflower displays.
Getting to the Larch Valley trailhead in 2023
The Moraine Lake Road will be open from June 1 until mid-October. You need to get to the end of the road to get to the Larch Valley hike trailhead.
As of 2023, Parks Canada has decided that personal cars are no longer welcome on the Moraine Lake Road. Instead, you’ll need to book a Parks Canada shuttle, or hop on public transportation like ROAM from Banff. The Moraine Lake Road will be open from June 1 until mid-October.
Parks Canada shuttle option
Starting June 1st at 6:30 AM, there will be a shuttle every 20 minutes with the last one leaving at 6:00 PM from the Ski Louise parking lot. Departures from Moraine Lake will then go to the Ski Louise parking lot at 20 minute intervals with the last one leaving at 7:30 PM.
Reservations are required and will open on March 13, 2023. You can make a reservation up to 2 hours before the scheduled departure time.
You can also go from Banff High School Transit Hub to Moraine Lake via ROAM’s Lake Louise Express Route 8X bus. You will need to transfer to the Moraine Lake Shuttle connector at Lake Louise Lakeshore. Summer reservationswill open in May.
Three Sister’s Taxi
Check with Three Sister’s Taxi about what options they can offer. You might have flexibility with a price.
It will be interesting to see how this all unfolds!
What about bears on the hike to Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass?
Normally you have to form a group of four to do the Paradise Valley or Larch Valley hike as the trail traverses prime grizzly bear habitat. If the sign below had been ticked off as mandatory – and I went anyway, I could incur quite a nasty fine, at least if I got caught.
Though I would never do that, and I was quite prepared to form a group of four with strangers (most people are accommodating), I was surprised but happy that I could hike alone. Perhaps the parks people appreciate that this is one busy hike right now.
I actually like meeting people and chatting but I also like hiking at my own pace, particularly on a day when I know I’m going to be taking a lot of photos. And after all the hiking I’d done this summer – much of it in lonely, truly wild places, I really wasn’t concerned about bears because of the sheer number of hikers on the trail.
Interestingly, very few people I saw carried bear spray. And even some of the ones that did had it on the back of their pack – which in a surprise situation, is not the best idea. Once on the trail, I didn’t so much as see old bear scat – and never for a second did I feel afraid while alone.
The hike begins just past Moraine Lake Lodge. The first few kilometres take you steeply up a series of switchbacks through the forest so it’s really not that interesting. Climb 360 m in 2.4 km to reach the turnoff to Eiffel Lake. The saving grace is the odd peek-a-boo view to Moraine Lake.
When you reach the signed junction, continue right on a less steep trail to reach the more open meadows of Larch Valley at the 3.5 km mark. In mid to late September, this area is a riot of yellow with all the larch trees changing colour. As you enter the meadow, look around. The views over to the Valley of the Ten Peaks are truly gorgeous.
Many people go no further than the meadows – which is fine – but do yourself a favour and at least go to one of the small Minnestimma Lakes to enjoy the views up to Sentinel Pass. Wander around. Sit on a boulder and just enjoy the landscape. The beauty of this part of Banff National Park is worth savouring.
The hike to Sentinel Pass
The facts: 11.6 km (7.2 miles) return with an elevation gain of 726 m (2382 feet). Allow 4 – 5 hours, more in the fall during larch season for photography.
Continue north on the well-trodden trail through the meadow to continue to Sentinel Pass. In less than 15 minutes you’ll come to the Minnestimma Lakes. The trail slips between the lakes and the craggy, austere environment that makes up Sentinel Pass can be seen ahead.
After a brief respite at the lakes climb 175 m (574 feet) up a talus field on another series of switchbacks to top out at the pass. At 2,611 m (8,566 feet) it’s the highest point reached by a maintained trail in the Rockies. At Sentinel Pass, you can’t help but be awestruck at the views – in every direction you look.
Mount Temple is on your right as you approach the pass, Pinnacle Mountain on your left. Paradise Valley unfolds on the other side of the pass while the Valley of the Ten Peaks fills your line of vision if you look back from where you’ve come. And all around the pass are pinnacles of rock, some like the Grand Sentinel, a favourite of rock climbers.
Retrace your steps to return. If you still have some energy at the bottom of the trail, it’s well worth continuing on the flat trail to the far end of Moraine Lake to get an altogether different perspective of the Valley of the Ten Peaks.
Except for the steep section in the trees, be prepared to be wowed every foot of the way. It’s a hike that will put a giant smile on your face.
Hiking options from the Larch Valley
Continue from Sentinel Pass into Paradise Valley but arrange a car shuttle ahead of time as the Paradise Creek and Moraine Lake parking lots are approximately 9.7 km apart. As you’ll see at the top of Sentinel Pass, it’s initially a rocky, steep descent but very doable.
There is also the option to hike to Eiffel Lake. It can be done on its own, or possibly on the way down from the Larch Valley hike. At the signed junction turn right (if you’re descending) and continue west for 3.2 kilometres. Far fewer people do this hike. There isn’t a lot more elevation gain and it is lovely, especially in summer when wildflowers are blooming.
Larch Valley hike trailhead location
Start at the Moraine Lake Trailhead, accessed via Lake Louise and Moraine Lake Roads. Take Lake Louise Road to the intersection with Moraine Lake Road. Turn left and follow it for 12.5 km until you reach a massive parking lot.
At the south end of the parking lot near Moraine Lake Lodge and the lake itself, look for a trail just a short ways along the lake. There is lots of signage.
Did you know that in 1969 and again in 1979, the back side of Canada’s twenty dollar bill sported a picture of the Valley of the Ten Peaks?
Interested in a guided hike?
While the Larch Valley hike is very easy to do without a guide, access isn’t easy because of the crowds – and I find I always learn something with a guide. White Mountain Adventures is offering daily guided hikes in Banff National Park in the fall.