Brilliant Autumn Beauty – five hikes to see larch trees in the Rockies
We are blessed with a short but brilliant autumn in the Canadian Rockies. Thanks to the alpine larch, officially known as Larix Lyallii, our mountains come alive for a few short weeks starting as early as mid-September each year. These stunning trees make the normally outstanding views in our national and provincial parks truly spectacular. Those who have seen our autumn colours once often make seeing the autumn larch colours a yearly pilgrimage.
There is one hiccup in seeing the colours though: alpine larch are only found between 1,800m and 2,400m. They are also only found in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, BC, Montana and Idaho. While many casual hikers have put away their hiking gear with the onset of chilly autumn weather, you’ll need to get them back out to see these high altitude beauties.
To make the best use of the short period of time we have to view the beautiful Larch, I've taken the difficulty out of finding the best autumn larches in the Canadian Rockies, and present my top five here.
#1. Healy Pass in Banff National Park
I love this hike, which is beautiful whatever time of the year you do it. Starting at the Sunshine Ski Resort parking lot, this 19km trail quickly leaves the ski hill and travels up over 700m to a pass covered in larch as far as the eye can see. Those with the legs can go over the pass and descend to the stunning Egypt Lake and stay at Parks Canada Egypt Lake Shelter, which is bookable through Parks Canada. Mere mortals return the way they came or can detour via Simpson Pass, spending a bit more time among the larch.
#2. Chester Lake in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
This is the hike to do if you have a family and can’t stomach the long hikes and big elevation gains of most other hikes. You quickly ascend to stunning larches on this 9.3km hike that only gains 320m. The views of Chester Lake fringed with larch is spectacular.
#3. Sentinel Pass in Banff National Park
Get to the parking lot at Moraine Lake very early and be prepared for crowds on this 13.5 km hike that gains over 900m. Known as Larch Valley, this hike provides some of my favourite views of the Valley of the 10 Peaks while also giving you a peak into Paradise Valley from the pass. For those who can’t fathom being at the parking lot at 8am, Parks Canada wisely provides shuttles every 15 minutes from the Lake Louise overflow parking lot.
#4. Burstall Pass in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Head to Burstall anytime of the year. It’s a great ski in winter and a fun hike in summer, with the possibility of ascending Snow Peak on a sunny day. However it is autumn when Burstall Pass becomes a true delight, with larches providing contrast to the evergreens. This 15km hike gains over 650m and culminates with spectacular views at the pass, including a view to Mount Assiniboine, the Matterhorn of the Rockies.
#5. Taylor Lake in Banff National Park
Taylor Lake is a pleasant 12.6 km hike that is often overshadowed by the world-class hiking at nearby Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. We prefer heading to Taylor Lake in autumn and winter, when other locations are closed by snow or crowds.
This is a great hike to see larch without the madness of the more popular trails nearby. It’s just under 600m up to Taylor Lake, unfortunately most of it through the trees. The 4km return to O’Brien Lake is highly recommended for the natural beauty.
And of course, there's always Lake O’Hara
Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to be able to gain access to Lake O’Hara this larch season if you don’t already have a reservation, which is why I did not add this to the list of my top five. Parks Canada wisely limits access to the Lake O’Hara region to those with overnight reservations and a few lucky day-trippers. There are three options to stay at Lake O’Hara, all requiring bookings well in advance. Parks Canada operates the pleasant backcountry campground, which opened for reservations on April 1 in 2016. The Alpine Club of Canada’s legendary Elizabeth Parker Hut is booked through an annual lottery. Finally — the exquisite Lake O’Hara Lodge takes reservations, though a stay is expensive and is often booked solid by repeat visitors.
For those who simply must see the larches, there are occasional last-minute mid-week cancellations at the backcountry campground. You can find these listed on the Yoho National Park website.
Full hike details for these hikes, as well as the best hikes around North America can be found at 10hikes.com.