White blankets of September snow welcomed the first wave of larch-worshipping explorers on the hunt for the golden-needle trees throughout the Rocky Mountains.
It didn’t deter the annual pilgrimage into the west, as Parks Canada once again reported two-hour waits for shuttles into Lake Louise, home of the otherworldly Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass. Moraine Lake parking lot was full by 8:30 a.m., and an estimated 1,200 hikers used the trail Saturday. The short season will wrap up soon, but there is plenty of time to noodle about through the needles.
Although ground zero for larch viewing in Banff National park is overrun, several other equally beautiful hikes saw much less traffic. But if you venture out in search of the trees, prepare to go high.
“There is one hiccup in seeing the alpine larch. They only flourish between 1,800 and 2,400 metres, so they are only found in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, British Columbia, Montana and Idaho,” said Richard Campbell, founder of the website 10hikes.com.
The website ranks Sentinel Pass as the top larch hike in the Canadian Rockies. Views are spectacular on the 13.6 kilometre trail, with 924 metres of elevation gain, which begins at Moraine Lake. Expect weekend hikes to include a single file march up the switchbacks; however, if you can squeeze in a midweek trek, solitude will be your reward in the alpine.
Thankfully, there are plenty of alternatives for those interested in finding larch. The website 10hikes.com has detailed descriptions of several of these hikes, while Tony and Gillian Daffern have their own take on Kananaskis trail hikes on their website www.kananaskistrails.com. The website www.theminimule.com is also a quick resource.
Each hike is in bear country, so don’t forget to carry bear spray, travel in groups and make noise on the trail. Check Banff National Park and Alberta Parks websites for trail conditions before heading out. Also, enjoy yourself.
Healy Pass, Banff National Park (19km, 689m elevation gain):
Wildfires kept the area closed for much of the summer, however the views are unaffected. The bus and gondola have shut down for the season, but the hiking route from the Sunshine parking lot is still open. It’s a long day, but the colours are plentiful in the alpine meadows, which is a must see for anyone in the park.
Chester Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (9.3 km, 320m):
Chester Lake is the family friendly larch hike in Kananaskis. Located on the dusty Smith-Dorrien road, 41 km past the Canmore Nordic Centre, there is plenty of parking, but the crowds can be overwhelming. This year, the trees are a little late. If you’ve done Chester Lake to death, cross the road to find the Burstall Pass trailhead, another spectacular hike, or cut your drive short and hike Rummel Lake, across from Mount Shark Road.
“Chester Lake is the hike to do if you have a family and can’t stomach the long hikes and big elevation gains of most other hikes. You’ll quickly ascend to see the stunning larches on this 9.3-km hike that only gains 320 m. The views of Chester Lake fringed with larches are spectacular,” Campbell said.
Taylor Lake, Banff National Park (13 km, 585m elevation gain)
The glacial fed lake is a gem, and the subalpine meadows are often pushed by Parks Canada as top Larch Valley alternatives. O’Brien Lake rests another 2.1-km beyond Taylor Lake for those interested in making a day of it. The trailhead is located off the Trans-Canada Highway, eight km beyond Castle Junction.
Pocaterra Ridge, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. (11 km, 500 m-plus elevation gain)
This one is not an official trail and should be left to those confident in their abilities hiking in the high alpine. There is no signage to point you in the right direction.
If your friends have shared a spectacular larch-rimmed ridge walk photo on social media of late, it’s likely from Pocaterra Ridge. The Highwood area is legendary for its scenery, and the ridge supplies ample views of Kananaskis Lakes and beyond. If the ridge is too much, Pocaterra Cirque still falls within the larch zone. Use the Highwood Pass trailhead, and do your research beforehand to ensure you are on the correct (unofficial) route.
A grizzly and cubs in the area forced nearby Ptarmagin Cirque to close on Sept. 28, so extra precautions are recommended hiking in this region.
Tent Ridge, Spray Lakes Provincial Park. (10.8 km, 780 m elevation gain)
Sixty cars were counted at the unofficial Tent Ridge parking lot a month ago. There were another 30 during the last weekend of September. The unofficial route has exploded in popularity, which is surprising for an area with so much deadfall on the approach, and a vigorous ascent through the trees.
However, once the ridge is gained, the pain subsides, and the views are first rate. Again, this is an unofficial trail, so expect rough conditions and no signage. The trailhead is on Mount Shark Road, about 1.8-km past Mount Engadine Lodge, on the right.