Autumn in the Canadian Rockies is a magical time of year. Jaded locals will tell you the season doesn’t exist — the warm, cloudless days of August quickly turn to a bone-chilling cold the mountains are known for. But within that short transition, for around three weeks beginning in mid-September, mountain valleys emit brilliant flashes of gold as its larch trees change with the temperatures.
Larch trees are unique. They are a deciduous conifer, meaning the needled tree changes colour each autumn before dropping its golden boughs to the forest floor. Larches thrive in the aftermath of forest fires and are found in select valleys and passes throughout the Canadian Rockies. We have gathered seven of the best backpacking and day hiking trails for you to catch a golden glimpse in the coming weeks.
As the name suggests, Larch Valley is an obvious first pick. The popular hiking trail is far from a little-known destination — make sure to drive in early before the parking lot reaches capacity. Beginning at Moraine Lake, the out-and-back trail follows steep switchbacks to an expansive alpine meadow and views of the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Although the Larch Valley trail ends at this plateau, many hikers opt to continue on towards Sentinel Pass. Travel along the flat path for another 2.5 km and endure a short and steep finale before being rewarded with views of Paradise Valley and the Grand Sentinel rock spire. Most groups will require four hours to comfortably hike the Larch Valley trail, adding another 1-2 hours if linking Sentinel Pass.
Ptarmigan Cirque is a classic smash and grab hike. The relatively short 4.5 km loop provides quick access to panoramic lookouts and sweeping valleys of larches. Begin at the Highwood Meadows day use area and pass waterfalls and alpine meadows enroute. Located in the heart of Kananaskis Country, its proximity to Calgary makes this trail a popular place on weekends. Drive down to see what the fuss is all about! Like all hiking trails in the Canadian Rockies, seeing bears in the Ptarmigan Cirque is a real possibility. Remember to carry bear spray and travel in groups when out in the mountains.
Pocaterra Ridge is a quintessential larch hike in the Rockies. As expected, golden forests abound, yet it is significantly less well-known than nearby trails — a welcome reprieve while hiking in the mountains. Although this 10 km point-to-point trail requires two vehicles to return to the Little Highwood Pass parking lot at the end of the day, the added effort pays dividends while providing distinctive alpine views. Over six hours, climb up 985 m of elevation to enjoy airy ridge walking in a lush setting. Pocaterra has an added adventure element by way of poorly marked trails. Avoid an unwanted epic by following the most well-worn of several trails criss-crossing each other throughout the day. Keep your eyes peeled for trees taped with red and yellow flagging at creek crossings.
Taylor Lake is an excellent choice for those wanting flexibility in their day. Don’t worry about finishing your loop before dark, or turning back before the views really get spectacular, Taylor Lake is an out-and-back hike with options. Begin at the Taylor Creek day use area just west of Castle Junction and hike through forest for 6.3 km and 585 m of elevation gain to a subalpine meadow. From Taylor Lake, signage will point left to O’Brien Lake 2 km away and is well worth the added effort. Alternatively, experienced scramblers looking for a tough adventure should consider heading up Taylor Pass (behind Taylor Lake) and check out Consolation Valley.
Twin Lakes is a lesser known hike with all the qualities of a major attraction. While Larch Valley and trails close to Calgary see plenty of traffic during September, Twin Lakes provides an often elusive feeling of solitude during larch season. This hike begins at the Arnica/Vista Lake trailhead and steadily climbs for 8 km until reaching the namesake lake. For those wanting to enjoy the view of Storm Mountain’s immense east face, and the golden larches surrounding it, the Twin Lakes backcountry campsite is a great option to take in your hard earned views. This hike is good for morale on the way to Twin Lakes as you immediately drop down 100 m of elevation from the trailhead. However this tests your legs on the way back — nothing like a steep climb right below the car!
Burstall Pass is a 14.8 km out-and-back trail in Kananaskis Country that has been touted as one of the best larch hikes in the entire area. The initial 3 km of the hike is uneventful hiking through dense forests, however Alberta Parks allows bicycles to speed up the process. Bring a pair of sandals or a second pair of socks for this trail as water levels frequently flood the creek crossings. Red markers on wooden sign posts pop up at frequent intervals to show you the way. For those with energy to spare, continue into Banff National Park from Burstall Pass to reward yourself with a striking view of Leman Lake. You won’t be disappointed.
Sunshine Village to Mount Shark
A list of great larch hikes would not be complete without Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. The park is found west of Banff along the Alberta-British Columbia border and plays host to the “Matterhorn of the Rockies”. While you can visit the park to day hike by hiring one of the helicopters flying into Assiniboine Lodge, the area is almost certainly best explored by foot. The Sunshine Village to Mount Shark trail is a stunning and intensive multi-day trip that showcases golden valleys and alpine panoramas in equal amounts. Over 55 km and almost 2000 m of elevation gain, you will see a significant portion of the park, including a commanding view of its namesake peak. It should be noted that this is a point-to-point hike requiring two cars or hiring a shuttle from White Mountain Adventures to return to Sunshine Village.