There’s so much to love about autumn in Canada. Any excuse to cozy up, wear plaid and throw back heated bevies is A-OK in my books. Early fall heralds the changing colour of the larches and I just found a killer larch hike (not Larch Valley!) away from the crowds in Banff National Park.
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If you want to do a larch hike in Banff National Park, you’re spoiled for choice. But let’s back up a little. For those of you unfamiliar with my neck of the woods, larch trees are a big deal.
In much of Western Canada and certainly where I live in Alberta, we don’t have a lot red foliage. There’s precious few maple trees around, so we make the most of what we’ve got. If you’re going on an autumn hike (especially in Banff National Park), you’ll want to pick a trail that affords brilliant fall foliage.
Banff in Autumn
One of the highlights of visiting Banff or Jasper National Park in autumn is seeing the larches all ablaze – ideally from your feet not your seat. It’s way more gratifying to walk amongst the larches rather than drive through them.
Larches are particularly intriguing because they’re both coniferous and deciduous. Meaning: They have cones and look like evergreens, but lose their needles in the autumn. Before they do, larches morph from emerald to lime green to a fantastic shade of yellow.
Why You May Not Want to Hike Larch Valley
Most Calgary folks who are into larches head to Larch Valley near Lake Louise. That hike, while stunning, is super crowded. You need to be at the Lake Moraine parking lot by 6 a.m. (for real) in order to snag a spot. But there’s plenty of other Banff hikes where you get equally amazing fall foliage – larches included.
Ever since I went snowshoeing at Sunshine Village, I knew I needed to hike there in the fall. I hike Sunshine Meadows every summer and it’s one of my faves (click here to read my post on why hiking here is great for families with young kids).
But the winter snowshoeing guide (who doesn’t work for Sunshine Village) told me this was her favourite spot in all of Banff National Park to view the larches when they turn. When you get a tip like that from a local, you take it.
Note: Due to COVID-19, Sunshine Village is closed for summer and fall hiking during the 2020 season.
Larches at Sunshine Meadows
So off we went – The Huz, Eve and a friend to view the larches at Sunshine Meadows. Now timing this as tricky. It’s not like the needles change colour at the same time each year, plus weather changes so quickly in Banff National Park.
Typically though, the larches begin to change colour in early September (sometimes later). Once they begin to morph, you’ll only have a two week window in which to view the larches before they’ve lost their needles. If you work 9-5, you’ll want to keep a few September weekends open so you can get out to view them.
Hiking Sunshine Meadows
In summer, hiking at Sunshine Meadows (in Banff National Park) begins with a gondola ride. (It’s a different story in autumn, which I’ll get into below). That in itself is super fun, as you’ll be whisked overtop an alpine forest on your way up to Sunshine Village.
After arriving at the Village, some people just stay there to wander around without hiking. That’s fine, you can totally do that as there’s a few restaurants open for lunch, an early dinner or patio beers.
If you’re doing the Sunshine Meadows hike in summer, the gondola and Standish Express Chairlift are running. Some years (like in 2019) they didn’t run in autumn, so it’s an extra 5 km hike up the ski out run.
That extra effort will all be worth it once you stand on the Standish Viewing deck. You’ll have earned your view, trust me. This deck delivers crazy amazing views of the Continental Divide. See pics below.
Pretty beautiful, huh! This is one of the best Instagram spots in Banff National Park. And you’re right on the Continental Divide!
If you’re like me and have no idea what the Continental Divide is, it’s basically a drainage basin that divides North America. Any kind of precipitation, like melting snow that falls on the west side, drains into the Pacific Ocean.
If it falls on the east, it flows into Saskatchewan and onto the Atlantic Ocean. The geography lesson is now officially over. Aren’t we all glad?
There are six hikes you can take around Sunshine Meadows, and each have tons of larch action. Laryx and Rock Isle Lake loops are the most popular. We began on the Twin Cairns to Monarch Viewpoint Trail, which I realized after 10-minutes was not at all the loop I wanted to be on.
After consulting the map and perhaps a heated conversation with The Huz, we skulked back and hit the Laryx Lake Loop. Dear reader, never take responsibility for map reading. Anyway, the Grizzly and Laryx Lake Loop is a good hike, possibly my favourite one at Sunshine Meadows.
Why This Is a Great Hike for Families
Hiking around Sunshine Meadows is easily done with kids – toddlers even. I’m always attuned to if people are actually having fun while hiking (or just pretending to) and none of the kids we came across seemed to be whining.
More tellingly, none of the parents seemed on the edge of losing it. If that isn’t an endorsement for an approachable family hike, I don’t know what is.
I suppose I like hiking around here so much because there’s not a lot of up and down. Yeah, I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a slacker. I love how it’s mainly flat, but you still get these incredible views. Around each of the lakes are benches and scenic spots so you can ‘gram and capture the larches to your heart’s content.
Lucky me, I was packing up some summer items before we set off, so I had the foresight to bring a picnic blanket and mugs. Hot chocolate is always a good idea when you’re hiking in autumn (or anytime, really) as the wind can get chilly. Since I forgot to bring snacks (that people besides me would eat), it was an excellent energy booster.
Rock Isle Lake
All too soon we hit Rock Isle Lake, which is a signal you’re almost done. From Rock Isle Lake, it’s a quick 1.8 km walk back to the Village with a slight incline for all of 10-15 minutes. I would’ve loved to stop for a glass of wine afterwards, but as usual, we were in a rush.
Down the gondola and away we went, but not before a pitstop for some baked goods at Cliffside Lodge. Despite not lingering, I feel pretty virtuous I got this hike in before the end of season. And if I’m being honest, I feel somewhat magnanimous I’m sharing this secret larch location with y’all.
But that’s what friends are for, right? For another epic hike, check out the Crypt Lake hike in Waterton National Park.
Where’s your favourite spot for fall hiking?