- Written by Tanya Koob; Photo: Courtesy of Tanya Koob
Autumn is here, the kids are back in school, extracurricular classes are starting up again and families are busy. Camping, hiking and traveling seem like distant memories as we pack the tent away for another year and store the beach gear in the basement. Don’t put your hiking boots away just yet, though. I have three trips for you to do this fall that should be done at least once in your lifetime, if not every year.
These are the top three hikes in the Canadian Rockies if you want to see golden larch trees, fall splendor and colors that will take your breath away. Our family tries to do one or two of these hikes every September, and we look forward to them all year long.
Larch Valley, Lake Louise: The name says it all, doesn’t it? Hike here and you will definitely see golden larch trees. Larches are the only deciduous conifer trees in North America. Their needles turn a golden yellow color in the fall before they fall off for the winter. The third weekend of September will see thousands of people trying to get into Larch Valley to catch the trees at their peak and for many people, young or old, this hike is an annual pilgrimage.
If you want to do this hike, I have two suggestions. Go mid-week and go early! Last year, the RCMP had to close the Moraine Lake Road to the trailhead on the third weekend in September because of public safety concerns. Vehicles were backed up for several kilometres along the narrow road leading to the parking lot and emergency vehicles would have had a hard time getting through.
We went on a Monday last year and though it was still very busy, we got to the parking lot and got on the trail. It would be a huge disappointment to drive all the way to Lake Louise to find the road to Moraine Lake closed.
Trail information: The trail starts at Moraine Lake and is well signed. You’ll gain 360 metres of elevation gain in 2.6 kilometres to reach the valley. From here, it is your choice to continue on toward Sentinel Pass and Upper Larch Valley or to enjoy a picnic lunch and turn around. Either way, the views of the Ten Peaks surrounding Larch Valley are stunning from the first meadow and the trip will still be worth it if that is the end of your journey. Sentinel Pass is an additional 360 metres of height gain and 2.5 kilometres farther. There are a couple of lakes at the foot of the Pass that make a lovely resting spot if you take one look at the steep trail up to the pass and decide you’ve gone far enough.
Note: There is usually a trail restriction in effect for the whole valley due to the presence of grizzly bears in the area. Check the Parks Canada website before you go. If the restriction is active, you’ll need a group of four people to get on the trail and it’s often enforced right from the trail head by Parks Canada staff. If you get caught hiking in a smaller group, you could face fines, so don’t risk it. Not to mention that it’s just not safe. Your group of four also has to hike in a tight group, so make sure the kids don’t run ahead or drag behind. For more information, visit the Parks Canada website at www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/banff/activ/activ1/c.aspx or call the Lake Louise Visitor Centre at 1-403-522-3833.
Sunshine Meadows, Banff: This one is a little easier for families with small children. You’ll catch a bus from the Sunshine Village parking lot, climbing 500 metres as you travel up to the Village itself at 2,100 metres. Trail heads start at the edge of tree line, which means very little height gain to reach gorgeous alpine meadows. The trails are considered easy and at most, you might have to gain 100 metres to reach Rock Isle Lake, a premier fall destination for larch viewing. Sunshine Meadows has been named the top hike in the Canadian Rockies and once you get up there, you’ll understand why. The meadows are surrounded by some of the biggest peaks in the Rockies as you stand perched right on the Continental Divide between Alberta and BC.
Bus reservations: To make a reservation with White Mountain Adventures, visit www.sunshinemeadowsbanff.com or call their booking office at 1-403-762-7889.
Lake O’Hara, Yoho National Park: Lake O’Hara is in my opinion the most beautiful location in the Canadian Rockies. The trails are quiet, the area is uncrowded and the Opabin Plateau is like a patch of heaven. The Plateau is located in a hanging valley 250 metres above Lake O’Hara and is accessed by the West and East Opabin Trails to make a 6-kilometre loop. In the valley, you will find numerous ponds, lakes and meadows all surrounded by golden larch trees. The walking is relatively flat once you get up onto the Plateau and if you climb up to Opabin Prospect, you’ll be able to stand on huge boulders to look way down over Lake O’Hara. This is a view that few tourists to the Rockies ever get to see. Photographers will be running around giddy like children in a candy store.
Getting into Lake O’Hara: Getting to Lake O’Hara is the crux of the whole journey. It’s much harder than any of the hiking you will do. Unless you want to hike 11 kilometres up a restricted road to reach the lake, your only option for getting there is to claim a coveted spot on the bus that travels up to the lake four times per day. You may reserve three months in advance of your visit by phone only at 1-250-343-6433.
If you haven’t made a reservation yet, there is still hope. You can try to get a spot on the bus mid-week when it is quieter. You can show up at the parking lot half an hour early before a scheduled bus and hope to fill a cancellation (it happens). Lastly, you can phone The Alpine Club of Canada and try to book spots in the Elizabeth Parker Hut for a night. You will get a bus reservation with your hut booking. For more information on Lake O’Hara, please visit the Parks Canada website at www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/bc/yoho/activ/ohara/a.aspx#reservations. For more information on staying at the Elizabeth Parker Hut, visit The Alpine Club’s website at www.alpineclubofcanada.ca/facility/ep.html.
Other popular fall hikes
Lake Agnes Tea House, Lake Louise (3.4 kilometres one way, 385 metres elevation gain)
Chester Lake, Kananaskis (4.6 kilometres one way, 300 metres elevation gain)
Ptarmigan Cirque, Kananaskis (4.5 kilometres loop, 200 metres elevation gain)
For more information on hiking in Kananaskis, visit the Alberta Parks website, www.albertaparks.ca/albertaparksca/visit-our-parks/activities/trails.aspx
Tanya loves hiking, camping, skiing and all things mountain-related. Tanya is the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, www.rockiesfamilyadventures.com, and the creator of the Calgary Family Adventure Community on Facebook.