Before coming to the Canadian Rockies this fall I had never heard of a larch. And suddenly the word was everywhere and people were talking about how lucky we were to be here during larch season since it doesn’t last very long and is different every year, then telling us about all the best larch hikes in Banff and Kananaskis that we had to do.
There were a lot of questions that came to mind and I set about finding the answers and becoming slightly more nerdy in the process. So. Some basic answers to some basic larch questions.
What is a larch?
Is it a larch or tamarack?
When I told people at home about larches they said ‘oh, like a tamarack?’. A valid question. But not quite the same. Apparently they are the same genus, the larix, but a different species. My dad looked that one up for me.
Where do larch trees grow?
Larches are in many areas of Northern Europe and Asia as well as, and this is the part that is important for me, in northern parts of North America. So obviously in Canada!
Larches tend to grow in cold climates and mountainous areas and need a lot of moisture so the Canadian Rockies are perfect for them. I also found out that they tend to grow where they have been forest fires.
Why do larches turn yellow?
Larches turn yellow in the fall because they are saving nutrients to use later. As winter comes closer and the weather gets colder and the days shorter the larch needles’ chemical machinery that lets them photosynthesize break down and the chemicals are stored elsewhere in the tree.
The other benefit of losing their needles is that during heavy snowfall larch branches are less likely to break.
What is larch season?
The larch season in the Canadian Rockies tends to start the second or third week of September. It all depends on weather. Once the needles start to change there is about a 2 week window before its all over and the ground is covered in a carpet of dark gold needles.
How do you know when the larches are changing?
The way that we monitored what stage the larches were in was through the reviews of hikes on the AllTrails app. Because the app is so popular in this area there are people posting reviews and pictures of the popular hikes almost every day.
The larches seem to change at slightly different times in different areas. Obviously the weather affects them, but it seems that even minor elevation changes also make a difference, with higher ones changing first.
Our other observation is that the older larches changed first and dropped their needles first while the younger larches had their needles later. We based the timing of our ‘Larch Hunt Hikes’ around the information we got off AllTrails.
What is the best way to plan larch season?
It is difficult to plan around larch season. You could be like us and unknowingly book a month in Canmore, Alberta, in the center of the larches, starting September 17 and be there for every moment but not everyone can fall backwards into it like us.
If possible, stay flexible and once you hear that they are starting to change book some time to see them then. If that’s not possible try for the end of the third week of September for your best chance. In 2020 they started changing by the September 15th and we still found some until about October 4th.
In 2021 they started changing around September 13th and most of these hikes are perfect as of when I updated this post on September 20, 2021.
Once you get there, go through our list of best larch hikes in Banff and Kananaskis and make your plan of attack.
Where are the best larch trees near Canmore?
We quickly came to realize that there were a lot of spots with larches in the mountains around Canmore, Alberta especially in Kananaskis Country and Banff National Park but there weren’t usually wide swaths of them and almost all the best spots required you to hike in (they tend to be at higher elevations than the roads).
Which was right up our alley. This led to a two week stretch where I researched all the best options, tried them out and came up with this list of our 6 favourite larch hikes near Canmore. Because it turns out that I am slightly obsessed with larches.
They are just so beautiful!
3 Best Larch Hikes in Kananaskis
I am listing these hikes in order of difficulty with the easiest first and providing the AllTrails link so its easy to see the details of the trails. All of them have amazing larches, usually at the end of the hike.
They all take some effort to get to but most people will be able to do one of the options. Or do them all!
4km / 1.5 hrs / 270 m gain
This was our first larch hike and our first hike in Kananaskis Country on Kananaskis Trail about an hour and 20 minutes drive from Canmore. We did it on September 18th and the larches were already fully changed in this area (on later hikes we found some larches whose needles were still half green and half light yellow).
It is the easiest of the hikes we tried and we saw a wide range of people on the trail from toddlers to older people. It’s still a steep hike up, although for the area it is relatively short. Once past the tree line its turns into a impressive lush valley between looming peaks.
The loop of the valley goes past impressive larch specimens (and this is where I discovered that larch needles are shockingly soft. Crazy! I know!). There is a small waterfall at the end of the valley and views of mountain, both far and near, in every direction.
This hike made our list of the best easy hikes near Canmore.
4.5 km / 2 hrs / 380m
In the same area as Ptarmigan Cirque and a similar trail with a hike up through the trees and a loop at the end. Its only a little over 2 km one way so it’s a shorter larch hike option.
It’s a good idea to do the trail clockwise so that you go up the steepest parts of the trail. It’s a fairly quick hike for the mountain and larch views you get. Keep an eye out for the fossils in the rocks.
Chester Lake Hike
10km, 2.5 hrs, 400m (probably 1-2 km shorter if you stop at closest point on lake)
So we tackled this hike on a Saturday not knowing that it’s a popular short hike with larches near Calgary. So needless to say, it was busy. But it’s a wide, relatively gradually sloped trail in the way up so there was room for everyone.
This was also an example of be prepared for anything when hiking in the mountains as it was bright and sunny in Canmore and snowing at Chester Lake. This is why we follow our day hike packing list and had layers, gloves and toques even when we didn’t think we would need them.
The girl hiking up in short shorts did not follow the ‘be prepared’ plan. Once up the 400 meters of elevation gain the trail opens up to a series of meadows and ends a Chester Lake with mountains edged right up against it.
Because of the snow we also encountered our only ‘snarch’. Snow larch. Get it? Larches surround the one side of Chester Lake and you can hike all the way around for reflection photo opportunities. This hike is also in Kananaskis Country on the Smith Dorrien Trail.
We also think that driving the incredibly scenic Smith Dorrien Trail is one of the best things to do in Canmore.
Honourable Mention – Tent Ridge
The truly spectacular Tent Ridge hike also surprised me with their larches. However it is only an honourable mention as the vast majority of the hike is spent far above the larches and even I have to say the larches are secondary to the surrounding scenery.
However, you spend some time among the larches at the end of the walk out so it deserves a mention.
Check out our guide to hiking the Tent Ridge Horseshoe Hike.
3 Best Larch Hikes in Banff National Park
7.5 km / 2.5 hrs / 430m
This trail is in Banff National Park and starts at the startlingly blue Lake Louise. The hike up to Lake Agnes and its popular tea house is worth it all on its own for the views of Big Beehive, Devil’s Thumb and reflections.
The reflections on this lake is what got it on my list of the best photo spots near Canmore.
But in the fall you add in the fact that Lake Agnes is surrounded by larches and this hike goes to another level. I had no idea there were larches here. None of the lists I looked at included Lake Agnes or anything around Lake Louise so it was such a exciting surprise to find them.
Make sure to walk around the lake to get up close to the larches and for the view back to the teahouse (and if you have the energy, continue on to the Big Beehive viewpoint over Lake Louise).
Larch Valley Trail from Moraine Lake
7.5 km / 3 hrs / 430m
This is the most well know larch hike in Banff, Canmore or Kananskis. I mean, it has larch right in the name. It’s another hike with a hour or so of hiking up a fairly gradual path gaining over 400 meters in elevation.
Once up to the valley though, you are surrounded by golden larches. As you continue along the valley and look back the larches have the 10 mountains from the $20 bill looming over them.
This hike is popular for a reason with the number of larches and the surrounding epic scenery.
A longer option of the trail continues up to Sentinel Pass with a spectacular view over everything. This longer version, though harder, made our list of the best hikes near Canmore.
The Moraine Lake parking lot fills up quickly so we got there before 6am to watch the sunrise at Moraine Lake and hike Larch Valley.
25km / 8 hrs / 850m gain
22 km / 7 hrs / 650m from Sunshine Meadows if gondola is running
Most of the larch hikes we went on were very busy. Because, you know, larch season and all. Since it only lasts two weeks there are a lot of people out larch hunting. But we were taken on this hike by friends who live in Calgary and hike the area frequently so we got to go on the ‘locals in the know’ larch hike.
Once we turned off the Healy Pass trail to head towards Eohippus Lake we had it all to ourselves. This was our longest and hardest larch hike that started with 6 km on a pleasant uphill through shaded forest along a creek.
And then the larches started.
They told me to not get excited because better was coming. And they were right! Multiple lakes and meadows surrounded by larches in their bright golden yellow prime glowing in the sun. If the gondola is running from Sunshine Village it makes the hike shorter and easier but, if you can, I highly recommend this hike.
NOT Larch Island
Larch Island is just a short walk from downtown Canmore and obviously the name sounded pretty promising. Unfortunately, there are NO larches on Larch Island. I call misleading advertisement.
Nonetheless, there are still many great options. Happy larch hunting!
What to Take
It is always important to be prepared when venturing out hiking, especially in the mountains. Obviously, long, challenging hikes require more advance planning and safety gear but even for short hikes you still need to be properly equipped.
Dressing properly will make the experience much more enjoyable and carrying useful safety supplies can ensure you are prepared in case mishaps take place (as they tend to). Here is a quick checklist of items we alway carry, wear or use while hiking:
A good day pack is essential. We have recently become big fans of Gregory packs and would recommend the Gregory Miwok 18 for short hikes or when your gear is split between two people. And the Gregory Optic 48 for longer hikes. I know 48L sounds big but it is a super-light and comfortable pack that cinches down smaller when it isn’t full.
Water is obviously important and we go back and forth between using a Camelbak bladder and just a couple of water bottles.
We also keep a few Aquatabs with us at all times just in case we ever run low and want to treat some river or lake water. They are tiny and every now and then come in quite handy. It is always a good idea to carry some snacks as well. It never hurts and sometimes hikes end up taking longer than planned.
Laynni always hikes in compression leggings that she swears by for the extra knee, hip and muscle support.
Layers, baby! You never know what kind of weather nature will throw at you so it pays to be ready for anything. Obviously, the forecast might change what you carry but if there is any doubt (and there almost always is in the mountains), bring extra.
And just in case we are so impressed by the scenery that we decide it’s worth a photo with both of us in it we always carry the tiny, extremely handy octopus tripod.
Of course, a comprehensive first-aid kit is key to make sure those “mishaps” are simply inconvenient and don’t ruin your whole day.
Other useful items that we sometimes carry and sometimes don’t, depending on the hike:
Well, that probably covers most of it, although somehow we have even more to say on the matter in our Day Hike Packing List post. Check it out if you’re looking for even more detailed info.
Where to Stay in Canmore
A benefit of slow travel and staying for a month is that we can also rent a fully-equipped apartment, get a monthly rate and have plenty of space and all the comforts of home. We stayed at the Canadian Rockies Chalets and it was excellent – well-equipped, roomy and walking distance to grocery stores and downtown.
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