And just like that summer has melted into fall. Where I live in Alberta, we don’t get any of that dramatic orange and red foliage, but we do have larch trees and they are pretty spectacular. Larches love high altitude and one of the most famous spots in Canada for viewing them is Larch Valley near Lake Louise in Banff National Park. It’s one of the prettiest spots in the Rockies for an epic autumn hike.
Here’s a look at what to expect on this super popular trail, plus some relevant hiking tips to make your trek more pleasant. Tip: A less crowded spot near Banff to see the larches is at Sunshine Meadows at Sunshine Village Ski Resort and Heart Mountain near Canmore is another lovely hike.
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For many outdoorsy types, autumn is the very best time of year to hike – Larch Valley or anywhere else. The crowds have dispersed (errr, except on this hike), the temperature isn’t too hot and for photography buffs, the light is intoxicating.
For us regular joes, you’ll be wowed by the vibrant fall colours in Larch Valley. There’s a brief two week period when larch needles morph from the deepest green to lime to golden yellow, and that change goes on (weather depending) in mid to late September.
During this time of year a stillness descends over the forests and meadows. Nature has stopped producing and is taking a quiet moment of reflection before getting ready for winter’s deep sleep. It can be hard to tap into this quiet yet powerful energy, but it’s possible if you know how to become still enough.
Unfortunately, I don’t. Because I had such a transformative experience forest bathing last year, I knew I’d be better off connecting to nature on this hike if I did it with Ronna Schneberger, a certified guide and naturalist who runs Forest Fix out of Canmore.
When is the best time to the view the larches at Lake Louise?
As far as seasons go, we’re about two weeks ahead of where we typically are, so the larches are changing colour right now. They’ll be at their prime this coming weekend and early next week. It’s worth taking a day off work and hiking on a weekday because weekends are a mother.
Larch Valley Hike
The Saturday I did the Larch Valley hike, we arrived at the Moraine Lake parking lot at 8:45 a.m., and there were only five parking spaces left!
If you’re from Calgary, you’ll want to leave the city by 6:00 a.m. at the latest on weekends. Because this hike is so popular (up to 800 hikers a day!), complimentary shuttles operate from the main parking lot in Lake Louise village to Moraine Lake, which is where the trailhead begins for the Larch Valley hike.
Public transit to Moraine Lake
Roam Transit offers seasonal bus service to Moraine Lake from Banff. Starting September 23 until Thanksgiving weekend (end of day, October 14, 2019), hikers can take the bus from the Banff High School Transit Hub.
Banff departures begin at 6:30 a.m. and the last bus from Moraine Lake leaves at 5:30 p.m. It costs $20 for the return trip. Best is, this is an express route, not a milk run. More deets here.
Tips for Lake Louise hikes
On any of the Lake Louise hikes, you ought to know bears are on the prowl for a few billion calories before bedding down in their dens. We spotted several places right next to the trail where a grizzly had been digging for ground squirrels, one of their favourite little snacks.
If you don’t hike in groups of four you’ll be fined. For real. The signs are up and we spotted a Parks Canada dude issuing tickets. (The only wildlife we saw was a grouse foraging for berries.)
Starting from the Lake Moraine parking lot, you’ll scoot around the right side of the lake for a few minutes, before quickly ascending a series of switchbacks. The trick is to slow your pace down. It should be easy enough to carry on a conversation. If you’re hiking all the way up the Sentinel Pass, you’ll want to conserve your energy.
The switchbacks aren’t all bad. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to look down onto turquoise Moraine Lake. Scratch that. The lake is such an eerie shade of blue. Blue raspberry Kool-Aid is a more accurate description.
Side note: Once a tourist asked a staff member at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise how Lake Louise was such a brilliant blue. The employee said every night they drained the lake at 7 p.m. and then quickly painted the base before filling it up again.
Rumour has it a crowd descended upon the lakeshore at 7 p.m. that evening and was gutted this wasn’t the case. The employee was fired. Is this true? No idea, but it’s a funny story.
Fun fact: The reason the lakes in Banff National Park are so brilliantly blue (or green) is because of a silt-like rock flour that’s constantly being carried into the lake by melt-water from the surrounding glaciers.
After all the switchbacks, you’ll come upon meadows with stunning views of Valley of the Ten Peaks. This is where the larches start to appear. Go ahead and touch their needles. You’ll find they’re soft like feathers and not at all pokey.
Surprisingly, in autumn you’ll likely to find wildflowers still anchoring the trail. We saw loads of yellow arnica and even some purple fleabane on its last legs.
Because I went with Ronna of Forest Fix, we veered of the main trail and took a secret path through the larches. Bye bye packed trail, hello sense of quietude. Away from the crowds, we were able to tap into the magic of this place. At times I felt overwhelmed, I mean look at these views!
Except the pic below wasn’t taken in Larch Valley. (Close by though…) Still, you get my drift. Here are a few other awesome ways to experience autumn in the Canadian Rockies.
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Have you ever been hiking in Larch Valley or around Lake Louise? I’d love to know how your experience went.