This post originally appeared on the Travel Alberta blog.
Every fall in Alberta, travellers and locals alike flock to the mountains in search of something you might not even notice in the summertime: the humble larch tree. Native to Canada and the Northern United States, the Alpine Larch or Tamarack is perfectly suited to the mountains. Often referred to as a “pioneer species,” this drought-tolerant tree is great at preventing soil erosion and can often be found living in dry, gravelly soils.
But that’s not what brings travellers from all over the world. What you care about is this: larches are deciduous coniferous trees, which makes them unique — unlike most pine trees, the soft green needles of the larch turn a golden copper hue before dropping to the forest floor every autumn. This means the already scenic Canadian Rockies turn into magical displays of autumn colours. In other words, selfies that your friends won’t believe.
Happening only once a year from the middle of September to the beginning of October — the golden palette of a larch stand is fleeting, and often disappears as quickly as it comes. So with only a small window of time to catch the mountains in all of their fall splendour, we’ve come up with a list of the best spots to see larches in Alberta this fall.
Banff National Park
Banff is ground zero for larch viewing in Alberta, and the aptly named Larch Valley is ground zero of ground zero. After getting over the awe-inducing beauty of Moraine Lake (if that’s even possible), look for the Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass trail, which will take you on a hike through sweeping larch meadows and past rocky spires. With close to 2,000 feet of elevation gain at the top of the Larch Valley trail, it’s another 2.5 kilometres up Sentinel Pass where you will get an incredible view of the golden larches stretching throughout the valley below.
During peak larch season, the trail can get busy, so go early in the day, or look for alternatives. Healy Pass, Boulder Pass and Arnica Lake all offer stunning off-the-beaten-path larch views, (psst: here are a few more spots). Or, if you’re really up for a memorable autumn, how about a trail ride and an overnight stay at Sundance Lodge with Banff Trail Riders? Not only will you get a memorable experience, you’ll have a front-row seat to larch season.
For something a little closer to Calgary, get out to K-Country. Here you can access a wide variety of hikes with varying difficulty, all while getting an incredible view of the larches. Hit up Pocaterra Ridge from the Highwood Pass parking lot and hike 11 kilometres along the ridge for some of the best views in the area. A favourite among locals, you’ll find a dense larch forest between peaks two and three. Hike down from here and meet up with friends in the Highwood Pass parking lot to enjoy a celebratory beverage.
If you’re looking for something less rigorous, but truly stunning – be sure to check out Chester Lake. This multi-season area has something special for everyone. Located in Spray Valley Provincial Park, about 43 kilometres from Canmore via the Spray Lakes Road, Chester Lake is one of the easier hikes in the area with only 400 metres elevation gain and also one of the best areas to view larches. Framed by the cliffs of Mt. Chester, the lake is surrounded by larches accenting the rim of the lake in a golden glow during the fall. This is not one to miss!
Jasper National Park
There are not many places to see the larches in Jasper National Park, so the best experience might be to pack your overnight bag and head up to Shovel Pass Lodge, located high up on the Skyline Trail. The lodge is accessible until the September Labour Day weekend, and, if conditions are right, you might just get lucky enough to see a landscape dotted with intense fall colours. If you’re looking for a slower pace and love fall colours, even if they aren’t larch trees, try taking the Jasper Sky Tram at autumn and you’ll be in for a treat. If you are there before it’s seasonal winter closure, be sure to kick back at Miette hot springs to soothe your well-used muscles.