Best larch forest hikes in Alberta’s mountains



In Canada, the west is definitely not known for exciting fall foilage. This is generally observed in the East, where there is an abundance of maple trees which produce a dramatic fall atmosphere. In Alberta (and much of BC) we don’t have exciting leafy trees that change colour, the mountains harbour a harsh climate meaning that leaf change is very brief. But we do have larch trees. 

It’s that time of year – larch trees are turning yellow! It’s a brief, and exciting time of year in the mountains, as this beautiful, high-altitude tree sheds it’s needles for the winter. When it does, these soft, green needles, which are actually as soft as leaves, turn a bright yellow colour and create a bright forest atmospbhere amid the snowy and rocky mountain landscape.

When this coniferous tree turns it brightens up the forest, creating a stunning contrast between snow, ice and rock. 

What are larch trees?

Larch trees are coniferous trees that grow in higher sub-alpine and alpine areas in the mountains. They generally grow 10 to 25 m tall, and will be shorter at higher elevations. The larches have soft needles that grow in the spring and turn a vibrant yellow in late September. The yellow needles are shed after they turn, but remain yellow for about a two week period, creating a vibrant, bright forest atmosphere.

Larch trees are mountain trees, and they love higher altitudes and are perfectly suited to cooler temperatures and long winters typical of our mountains. These trees are generally not found below 1500m. Though people have planted them in lower altitudes such as Calgary, at 1000m, where I have seen them thrive, and certain places in Canmore, at 1300m, where they do quite well.

The main type of tree in our area is the subalpine or simply alpine larch, which grows at an elevation of 1,800 to 2,400 m. 

Hiking in Larch season

This time of year the days are a lot shorter, it’s colder, and there snow where these trees grow. So when you head out hiking this time of year be sure to be prepared for cold weather and dress accordingly. It’s easy to get cold in the mountains, so bringing along extra warm layers is advisable. Read how to layer in winter and what safety items you should take in your backpack in the backcountry

There are many areas to see larches, in hikes that are very short (Rae Lakes) to very long (Gibbon Pass), with a variety of ranges in between. So you’ll be able to get a good look whether you have all day or only half a day to hike. Dress warm, as the days are cool this time of year in the mountains. Read our article how to dress for a hike in the fall. 

Three areas listed in this guide are all in the area accessible from Calgary in Banff Park, Kootenay Park, and Kananaskis. There are many other areas like Jasper National Park and Waterton

Banff National Park

Wenkchemna Pass

Duration 5-6 hours

Elevation gain 725 to the pass, 405 to Eiffel lake

Round trip distance 19.4 to pass (11.2 to lake) 

Eiffel Lakes -  Banff National Park

Looking up Wenkchemna Pass from Eiffel Lakes/ Photo Credit: hikingwithbarry.com

 

This is located in the valley of the Ten Peaks which is the most popular area for viewing larches. Wenkchemna pass is lesser known than Larch Valley or Sentinel pass, but just as nice for larch tree viewing. It’s a more contouring trail instead of an uphill grunt until you start the section past the lake up to Wenkchemna pass.

It starts on Moraine Lake Road, the trailhead is in the same spot as the hike to Paradise valley and Sentinel pass. This is a great spot to view larches without the crowds. The best larches are enroute to Eiffel lake, after which you can begin an ascent to the pass over a cool desolate moraine. 

Gibbon Pass

Duration 22 km via Arnica lakes, 16.8 via Twin Lakes

Elevation gain 1350 m gain from Arnica, 720 m from Twin

Round trip distance 8 hours from Arnica Lakes, 6-7 hours from Twin Lakes

gibbon pass larch hike banff national park life outdoors

Larch trees are along the entire hike to, and on the high point of Gibbon pass.

You can get over Gibbon’s pass several ways, either through Twin lake or Arnica lakes. Gibbon’s pass is a beautiful, scenic pass with a mellow grade to the 2300 m high point. The problem with this one is the distance if done from Arnica Lakes, which is the nicer of the two hikes. The hike starts on the high point highway 93 South, starting with Vista Lake. You won’t find crowds and you’ll find tons of larches! 

Boulder Pass (enroute to Skoki)

Duration 6-7 hours 

Elevation gain 640 m

Round trip distance 17.4 km

Located near the Lake Louise ski resort, this trail is fairly easy and has a moderate grade. You’ll slowly gain altitude until Boulder pass, which has great views. Side trips to Redoubt lake or Hidden lake are recommended, both stunning lakes in dramatic mountain cirques. The first few kilometers are a slog, since you follow a road that takes you to the backside of the ski area, at Temple lodge. 

Sunshine and Healy Pass

Duration 6-7 hours

Elevation gain 655 m

Round trip distance 19 km

Start this moderately strenuous hike at the Sunshine ski resort parking lot, starting at Healy Creek. You can also start this hike at the Sunshine village area if you take the gondola there, and hike to Healy pass from Simpson pass instead. It’s a bit shorter and the elevation gain is only about half. The hike up Healy creek which is fairly flat and devoid of any views until the last third of the hike. The meadows, full of larches are stunning, with great views of Pharoah peak and Assiniboine on a clear day. 

Helen Lake 

Duration 4.5 hours

Elevation gain 550 m

Round trip distance 14 km to ridge above the lake

Located north of Lake Louise on highway 93 North, the Icefields Parkway never disappoints with dramatic views. The hiking trail to Helen Lake is one of the most popular in the area, starting at at elevation of almost 2000 meters. The trail to the lake takes you through larch forest, and you can hike above the lake to a ridge for great views of the lake as well. Take highway 93N for 33 km and the parking area is on the east side of the highway.

Molar Pass

Duration 6 hours

Elevation gain 550 m

Round trip distance 20.5 km

Also located on highway 93 North, this trail has a moderate grade and is located before the trailhead to Helen Lake, so it starts at a lower altitude. In two hours you’ll get to Molar Meadows. The trailhead  Plenty of scenery and next to Mosquito creek. Drive 24 km up the Icefields Parkway and park at the Mosquito creek parking lot. The hike begins on the other side of the road, on the east side.

Paradise Valley and Sentinel Pass

Duration 4-5 hours

Elevation gain 730 m 

Round trip distance 11.6 km 

This one we include for popularity. This one is stunning, but overcrowded due to it’s popularity. Paradise valley is stunning. The trailhead begins at Moraine Lake Road in Lake Louise. Start early in the morning to avoid the crowds. The trail starts getting very busy at around noon, so plan early and finish early. 

Other notable hikes for larch trees in Banff Park include Rockbound Lake, Taylor Lake, Mount St Piran, Fairview and Bow Peak.

For trail conditions go to Banff National Park website

Kootenay National Park

Kootenay national park is located south of Banff national park, and is accessed on highway 93 south. This quieter national park has some great trails to explore.

Floe Lake 

Duration 7-8 hours

Elevation 725 m

Distance 21 km

floe lake rockwall larches wildflowers lifeoutdoors

Still green larch trees and wildflowers at Floe Lake on the Rockwall trail.

This is long for a day hike, so it’s recommended as an overnight trip with a trip up to Numa Pass. There is a really nice campground at Floe lake. The Numa pass trail goes through larch forest for 5 km all the way from Floe lake, so it’s an extra 10 km round trip. The trail to Floe is rolling and gradual until the final climb up the headwall in the last few kilometers. It’s usually busy here, as it’s a very popular trail and part of the Rockwall backpacking circuit. Floe lake is stunning and the cliffs of the Rockwall tower 1000 m above the lake. It’s named for the ice floes that usually float on this lake. 

Hawk Creek / Ball Pass

Duration 6 hours

Elevation 900 m 

Distance 19.5 km

ball pass larch hike kootenay national park life outdoors

Hiking down from Ball pass in the bright larch forest.

I really like this one because you get a lot of view and it’s never busy here. The trail to the pass is long, but it’s worth it, with larch forest and great views of glaciated Ball peak enroute, Shadow lake over the pass, and a moderate grade. 

Another notable hike for larch trees in Kootenay Park includes the Stanley Glacier trail.  

For trail conditions go to Kootenay National Park website

Kananaskis

Kananaskis Country is often overlooked in favour of the much more popular Banff Park area, however, it’s an area which should not be missed for the tremendous opportunity for outdoor recreation, never mind the beautiful larch forests in fall. There are also no parks entry fees, and no line ups to the Parks gate (unless you have an annual pass) or busy Lake Louise. 

There are many hikes here that are great for larch viewing, so we only managed to include a few favourites. 

Sparrowhawk Tarns

Duration 5-6 hours

Elevation 700 m

Distance 11 km

sparrowhawk tarns larches kananaskis life outdoors

Larches at Sparrowhawk tarns in Kananaskis

This is a great moderate grade hike that takes you to some nice alpine tarns. During the fall larch season however, the tarns are low on water and not as impressive as they are in summer. The larches are just below the highpoint of the trail.  You can wander along the old moraines a ways to check out some of the other tans. There are several. 

Chester Lake 

Duration 3 hours

Elevation 315 m  

Distance 9 km

Chester lake is an easy hike you can do with little kids. It’s a short hike, and if you want more hiking, hike up to the third lake, which will make it a 14 km round trip (555m elevation gain). 

Buller Passes

Duration 4-5 hours

Elevation 900 m  

Distance 15 km

larches buller pass kananaskis

Hiking the Buller Pass trail in a snowstorm, the bright larch needles contrast nicely with snow.

It’s possible to do two passes on this trip, which really gets you a nice view from the alpine. From Spray Lakes road, park at the Buller Mountain day use area, located along the gravel Spray Lakes road about 31.4 km south from the Canmore Nordic Centre.  You can see across the valley to Guinn’s pass and Ribbon Lake. An overnight trip here is worthwhile, you can hike down to Ribbon lake and camp, and the next day hike up Guinn’s pass to Lillian and Galatea lakes. You will need two cars for that trip.  

Tent Ridge

Duration 5 hours

Elevation 800 m 

Distance 11 km

This trip is a little challenging due to some easy scrambling and moderate route-finding to get up onto the ridge, but is otherwise straightforward. It gives a great view of extensive larch forests in the cirque, not to mention other valleys such as Tryst lake, also filled with larch. You’l 

The trailhead is located at Mt Shark and Engadine turnoff, about 35 km from the Canmore Nordic Centre on the Spray Lakes road. Take the turnoff to Engadine Lodge and drive 1.8 km on the road to a parking area on the right side of the road. The trail begins on the opposite side of the road, there is a grassy logging road to your right (west).  It’s a loop trail, and it’s recommended to loop the tent ridge basin clockwise. 

Elbow and Rae Lakes

Duration 5-6 hours

Elevation 450 m 

Distance 17 km

Plenty of larches await you at Highwood Pass. Highwood pass is the highest paved roan in Canada, topping out at over 2200 meters (7240 feet). This hike starts off at Little Highwood pass area, at around 2000 m, so you’ll see larch trees almost right away. Hike to Rae lakes over an easy, flat trail, or if you really want to make it short, just hike to Elbow lakes, which is only 30 minutes away.  This area, on Rae Glacier is also really popular for early season backcountry skiing. In the fall, when there is a bit of fresh snow on the glacier you may see some keeners heading up the trail with skis on their backpacks. 

Other notable hikes for larch trees in Kananaskis Country include Pocaterra Ridge (Highwood pass) Galatea lake and Guinn’s pass, Burstall Pass and Little Goat glacier. 

 

Do you hike to see the larch trees turning every fall season? What is your favourite hike to view larch tress?

Alicja

Alicja

Alicja is an economist, enjoys climbing, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, cycling and gets out into the backcountry as much as possible. See all of Alicja's Blog Posts
Alicja
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