Forget Larch Valley! This is the best larch hike in Banff National Park

Forget Larch Valley! This is where you want to see the larches without the crowds.

There’s so much to love about September. Any excuse to cozy up, wear plaid and throw back heated bevies is A-OK in my books. One thing I realized this summer is that I’m really not that into hiking – when it’s hot. I sweat like a pig and the bugs are all over me. Ugh! But with fall’s cooler climes, I’m into it. Plus, September heralds the changing colour of the larches and I just found a killer larch hike near Banff.

An awesome larch hike

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.

I just found the best larch hike in Banff National park

Just as spectacular as red maple leaves, no?

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. One of the highlights of visiting Banff or Jasper National Park in autumn is seeing them ablaze – ideally from your feet not your seat. It’s way more gratifying to walk amongst the larches rather than drive through them.

Fall colours in banff national park

Mid to end of September the trees of Sunshine Meadows will be all ablaze.

Banff hikes

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 8 a.m. in order to snag a spot. But there’s plenty of other hikes in Banff 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 it’s so rad for families). 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.

best larch hike near calgary

Summer hiking seems so vanilla when you compare it to the views in autumn.

So off we went last weekend – The Huz, Eve and a friend to Sunshine Meadows to view the larches. Except… they weren’t out yet. To be fair, I didn’t expect them to be. But the weather changes so quickly in Banff, and it’s definitely fall in the air. By the time you read this post, you’ll only have a two week window in which to view the larches before they’ve lost their needles. This is something you need to schedule now if you want to catch them. Plus, Sunshine Village closes up their fall operations by September 23.

Banff National Park hiking

Hiking at Sunshine Meadows begins with a gondola ride if you visit Friday to Mondays. That in itself is super fun. If you’re visiting Tuesday to Thursday, they have a shuttle bus that transports you through an alpine forest 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.

Standish Express chairlift

I told everyone to “look natural”

Included in your gondola and/or shuttle ticket is a ride on the Standish Express Chairlift. Even if you’re not into hiking, you’ll want to take it. It’s only a three minute walk from the top of the chairlift to the Standish Viewing Deck. This deck delivers crazy amazing views of the Continental Divide.

continental divide

If this is all you do, it’s enough in my books. P.S. What a great hair day I’m having!

Pretty beautiful, huh! This is one of the best Instagram spots in Banff National Park. And you’re right on the Continental Divide!

laryx lake

In case you’d like to see Rock Isle and Laryx Lake without my backside in the shot.

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, and each have tons of larch action. 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 Grizzly/Laryx Lake Loop. Dear reader, never take responsibility for map reading.

man hiking larches

Uh oh! Somebody isn’t happy we went the wrong way!

What makes the Sunshine Meadows hike so rad

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.

hiking picnic

I may have gotten us on the wrong trail to start, but at least I remembered the hot chocolate!

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 people besides me will eat, it was an excellent energy booster.

camping mugs

Finally! Our newly acquired camping mugs get used.

All too soon we hit Rock Isle Lake, which is a signal you’re almost done. From there, 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.

Sunshine meadows trail

There’s still a ton of wildflowers blooming at Sunshine Meadows.

Where’s your favourite spot for fall hiking?

Sunshine village hiking banff

Here’s some other awesome fall hikes you may enjoy:

What you need to know before hiking Larch Valley

An easy hike with kids in Lake Louise