Larch Season is Almost Here!
It's the most magical time of year to hike in Alberta
“Do you think September is the best month?” I recently asked Annalise.
“Not really, do you?” she replied.
“Yes, of course. It’s larch season,” I said.
I (Cailynn) LOVE this time of year. There are multiple reasons why, like the fact it’s time to harvest my garden, and how the morning air is suddenly crisp. But the biggest reason, of course, is the larches.
Around mid-to late-September, the needles on larch trees in parts of the Rockies briefly turn from green to golden. It makes for a striking scene on many mountain trails, albeit a brief one. (Plus, it’s not just on mountain trails; you can also find many city larches in Calgary!)
The colourful transformation doesn’t last long though. There’s typically only about two to three weeks to see these vibrant colours. We’ve previously dubbed this “the most magical time to hike in Alberta,” and it’s a distinction we stand by. So, by now you’re probably wondering, where should I go to see larches?
Talk about golden goodness! This is a view from the Larch Valley trail, heading down into Paradise Valley, on September 19, 2020.
There are many places you can go to experience larch season!
If you want to brave the very popular Larch Valley in Banff National Park (pictured above), we wrote about our experience there in 2020. The TLDR version is that there’s good reason why it’s the most well-known larch hike in the Rockies, but expect extra planning and logistics to make it happen.
We love this list from Banff National Park on golden larch day-hikes other than Larch Valley. Personally, our favourites so far have been Taylor Lake, Arnica Lake, Healy Pass, Rockbound Lake and Saddleback Pass (which is pictured at the top of this post, and described in more detail below).
Friends of Kananaskis also has a lengthy list of larch hikes. Note they recommend avoiding the busy Highwood Pass area, including Arethusa Cirque and Pocaterra Cirque, plus this year there’s a construction closure at Little Highwood Pass Day Use Area.
The timing of when larches start and stop ranges every year, which only adds to the excitement! Do keep an eye on what others are seeing/experiencing via trail reviews or on social media and don’t delay. As we’ve said, the golden goodness doesn’t last long.
For a few of our favourite trails in Banff National Park and Kananaskis, check out our photos and captions below! We’ve noted when we’ve hiked the trails, as timing is crucial when it comes to larches. While it varies year by year, we’ve found mid-to-late-September is typically the best time to witness larches in their prime. (That being said, all of these hikes are also outstanding outside larch season.)
A few of our favourite larch trails
Here’s a view from the beautiful Healy Pass trail in Banff National Park, one of our all-time favourite larch hikes, on September 24, 2016. It’s lengthy — 9.0 kilometres one way, with 655 metres elevation gain — but that just means more time with the larches.
Fresh snow, towering rocks and golden larches make for an extra special scene on the Rockbound Lake trail in Banff National Park on September 24, 2017. The hike is 8.4 kilometres one way to the lake, with 760 metres elevation gain.
On September 30, 2018 we found pops of colour sprinkled throughout the forest as we climbed up the Burstall Pass trail in Kananaskis. It’s a moderate 7.4 kilometres to the pass (one way), with 470 metres elevation gain.
We’re asked often, how can I avoid the crowds? Because larch season is so short and so sweet, it’s hard to do. Go with a backup plan, as you might not be able to find parking at the trailhead. Try heading for less well-known trails, and if possible, we recommend going on a weekday rather than a weekend. You can also hike just before or just after peak larch season, when you’ll still be able to see the first or the last of the larches, and you’ll share the trails with fewer people.
Now, for some insight on a new favourite larch hike. Based on the aforementioned list from Banff National Park on golden larch day-hikes, last year I (Cailynn) tried Saddleback Pass for the first time as well as Bourgeau Lake.
I was a little early on Bourgeau Lake, as I didn’t find many golden larches there. But Saddleback was FULL of them when I went on September 21, as you can see in the photos below. It’s a spectacular hike, and one of my new favourite trails for seeing many larches.
Snow-capped peaks and golden larches, what a combo!
Cailynn showing her baby the glory that is larch season last September.
While the Saddleback trail is only 3.7 kilometres one way, it is steep, with 595 metres of elevation gain. Note that parking at Lake Louise gets busy and you have to pay for parking. It’s worth checking out the transit options available, including the shuttle you can reserve to Lake Louise’s lake shore.
Wherever you go, happy hiking during this most magical time of year! Please tag us in your social media photos, we'd love to see where you end up and what the larches look like.