The storied Larch Valley Trail is the signature larch hike of the Canadian Rockies and with good reason. Snow dusted mountain peaks and golden yellow larches make for one of the most beautiful hiking experiences on the planet. It gets crowded during peak season, but it’s worth braving the crowds to hike this iconic trail. Here are some tips for how to hike Banff’s most popular trail in peak season. We also offer some suggestions for other less busy Canadian Rockies larch hikes.
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Related: If you love hiking and photography, check out our post about Table Mountain, Alberta – A Most Instagramable Hike.
What’s Makes Larch Trees Special?
Larch trees are deciduous conifers. This means they lose all of their needles each year. In summer, you might not notice larch trees, because their green needles blend in with the rest of the coniferous forest. But in mid to late September, larch needles turn golden – just like leaves. The bright golden colors are stunningly beautiful. Larch hiking has become so popular that roadways and parking lots near the Larch Valley trail head become incredibly crowded in the fall. The Larch Valley hike is the signature larch hike in the Canadian Rockies.
Peak Season to Hike Larch Valley
It’s very difficult to predict the precise moment that larch needles will start turning color. Like the change in leaf colors for deciduous trees, a variety of environmental factors contribute to the transformation of larch needles. In general, the peak season is mid to late September.
Where to Stay
If you’re looking for an inexpensive accommodation, it’s hard to beat the hostel accommodations at HI Lake Louise Alpine Centre. You can book a single bed in a mixed dorm or if you have a group, you can reserve the entire dorm. We did this hike with several of our children, so we rented a full dorm for our family. We had four beds and a private bathroom. If you’re looking for a more luxurious accommodation, consider the Post Hotel in Lake Louise. It’s been ranked as one of the top hotels in the world. It has a wonderful dining room with one of Canada’s best wine collections.
Avoid the Crowds
Getting up early makes all the difference – especially when you are in peak larch season. If you get up very early, you might even be able to drive your own car to the trailhead near Moraine Lake. There is a very small parking area near Moraine Lake. Once it’s full, Parks Canada closes the road. We were up and on the road at 7:00 am. We got one of the last parking spots near the trailhead. This also meant we were on the trail early and had less crowds to deal with while hiking. During the peak autumn season, Parks Canada operates a hiking shuttle to help minimize road congestion. If the road is closed, park your car in the designated lot and catch the shuttle. Lineups can be long for the shuttle, so you should go early for that as well.
The Larch Valley Hike
We awoke to find freshly fallen snow in Banff National Park and to be honest, I was disappointed. I was afraid the snow would ruin our photographs, but it was just the opposite. The snow dusted mountain peaks added another dimension to the images and made the yellow larch trees pop. There is a reason the Larch Valley hike is the signature larch hike in the Canadian Rockies and it was absolutely worth getting up for. The hike starts at Moraine Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in Canada. We had great views of the turquoise lake early in this hike. We stopped in the Valley of the Ten Peaks for a picnic lunch and the views were breathtaking. While we relaxed there with other hikers, a tiny whiskey jack fluttered around stealing food from unsuspecting hikers. After a relaxing lunch in one of the prettiest spots on the planet, we continued on the Sentinel Pass trail to reach Larch Valley and Paradise Valley. Though it’s quite steep, the views are stunning and it’s worth the effort. Parks Canada ranks the Larch Valley Trail a moderate hike.
Good hiking shoes and a lightweight day pack are essential for this hike. This hydration backpack is one of our favorites because it comes with a 2-litre hydration pack that tucks away in a special pocket. It’s easier to stay hydrated on a steep hike when you have a hydration pack with a handy hose for drinking. We wished we would have brought hiking poles – especially when we reached Sentinel Pass. Newly fallen snow made the final ascent up Temple Mountain very slippery. The poles below are highly recommended.
Sentinel Pass Trail
The newly fallen snow got deeper at higher elevations. The ground was completely snow-covered and very slippery as we continued hiking up Sentinel Pass. This trail leads to Larch Valley and Paradise Valley – two of the prettiest spots on the planet. We stopped at the lake before the last ascent and took pictures. It was such a beautiful scene. The younger hikers in our group scrambled up the last steep ascent to Temple Mountain. If we had brought hiking poles, I would have tried it. Since I didn’t have them and the snow was very slippery, I waited by the lake and took more photos. It was absolutely gorgeous. Parks Canada ranks Sentinel Pass a difficult hike.
Hiking Distance – Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass
The Larch Valley hike is 4.3 kilometres (2.7 miles) one-way with a 535 metre (1755 feet) elevation gain. If you add on Sentinel Pass, the total distance is 5.8 kilometres (3.6 miles) one-way with a 725 metre (2379 feet) elevation gain. It’s an out and back trail, so double these numbers to get your total distance.
Alternatives to the Larch Valley Hike
The Larch Valley hike is absolutely spectacular in fall. Get up very early and you can avoid some of the crowds. Trust me. It’s worth getting up for. If you’re looking for less crowded alternatives to this very popular trail, check out this post about Golden Larch Day-Hikes by Parks Canada. You’ll find more great larch hikes in this article about Alberta’s Best Larch Hikes that I wrote for Canadian Geographic.
Bucket List Autumn Hiking: Read more about hiking and beautiful fall foliage in our post about Japan’s Lake Towada and Oirase Gorge.