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A colourful guide to Alberta’s amazing larches!

A colourful guide to Alberta’s amazing larches!


Sep 22, 2014

This post is presented by Travel Alberta

There’s lots of questions that everyone has been asked at least once in their life:
What are you doing after graduation?
Get up to anything fun this summer?
Have you seen the larches?

Okay, maybe the last one is a little more rare. But if you live in Alberta, you’ve been asked that question at least once a year, usually right around this time.  But, wait, “What’s a larch?” you might be asking yourself?

From Alberta larches

A larch is a rare coniferous tree is also deciduous, which means it loses its needles in the autumn. But, before it does, the needles turn a beautiful colour of gold. It’s only one of two types of trees like that in North America. While some people might ho-hum over the fact that we don’t get the beautiful colours that maple trees offer up on the east coast, over the past two years, I’ve discovered that the larches are an amazing consolation prize….if not the real winner.

But, here’s the thing, the golden larches come but once a year and when they come, they almost go just as quick.

For the past two years, on September 21st, I’ve gone to visit the larches in two different spots, and here’s what I’ve learned to make the most of your visit:

From Alberta larches

The higher the better: Larch trees live and thrive in the higher elevations. So however you get to them, just try to go higher.
If you’re not much of a hiker, you can easily spot the larches from the highways and lookouts. But there’s lots of trails that are great for even a novice hiker..so if you can, try to get out of the car and hike up to to see the larches close up. There are also a few guided opportunities if you wanted to be sure that you don’t miss a thing.

Go now! Like right now:  The larches can be a little unpredictable, but many of them are golden now, so you probably only have a week or so to see them in all their splendour.  If you can call in sick or take that lingering vacation day, now’s the time. Actually, if you’re reading this, you’re already running of time. Don’t wait.

 

From Alberta larches

But where?  There are a ton of places to see the larches, but here are some of the main picks:

Waterton National Park:

Rowe Lakes
12 kms, 4hours, moderate
Avion Ridge
26 kms, 8 hours, difficult
Tamarack Trail
31.6 km, 2 days, 600 m

Banff National Park:

Boulder Pass
8.6 km to the pass; 640 m elevation gain; 6 to 7 hour round trip
Taylor Lake 
6.3 km one way; 585 m elevation gain; 4 to 5 hour round trip
Larch Valley/Sentinel Pass
4.3 km one way; 535 m elevation gain; 3.5 to 4 hour round trip
Saddleback Pass
3.7 km to pass; 595 m elevation gain; 3 to 4 hour round trip
Twin Lakes
8.0 km one way; 120 m elevation loss; 715 m elevation gain; 6 to 7 hour round trip

 

Kananaskis Country:

Burstall Pass
15 kms, 5hours, moderate
Chester Lake
10 kms 4 hours moderate
Pocaterra Ridge
11 kms , 7 hours, moderate

If you’re coming from the Calgary area and are short on time, Kananaskis might be your best bet! Both Chester Lake and Burstall Pass can be done and enjoyed in about five hours. But if you didn’t want to rush, you shouldn’t. Bring lots of food, comfy shoes, camera full of battery power.

Here’s a break down of two of the more popular places to see the larches!

Larch Valley

From Alberta larches

Because of its name, Larch Valley is probably the most popular place to visit this time of year..and no wonder, once do make it up the pretty steep 2.6km hike beside Moraine Lake, it is like nothing I’ve ever seen. There’s probably nothing more humbling than walking into a valley and being surrounded by giant mountain peaks. It’s sort of like how movie always show someone who just moved to New York City, walking out of the subway and twirling around as they look at the skyscrapers. It’s a lot like that, but as you hopefully already know, nature is always more impressive than buildings.  The bonus of going to Larch Valley is that you get an immediate reward by starting at Moraine Lake, easily one of Canada’s most beautiful and photographed destinations.

From Alberta larches

As you make your way up the trail, you start seeing the larches slowly, but as you walk into the Larch Valley and the Valley of the Ten Peaks your breath will truly be taken away. When we did this hike last year, we regretted not bringing more food, because there was a ton to explore in the valley. You could see people walking all over the place, hiking trailers, setting up picnics, and yes, even throwing a few snowballs. The valley itself is huge, so even though the trails might be packed, there was more than enough room in the valley for everyone to enjoy their own space and take it all in.

This time of year, the trails are so busy, that there are Park Canada shuttles to bring you up to the parking lot from the highway. Now, I’m not saying to do this, but last year I said I was just checking into Lake Louise and sneakily made my way to Moraine Lake. Again, not advising that you lie to avoid the shuttle bus…just putting some information about there. What you do with it, is up to you.

Chester Lake/Three Lakes Valley

From Alberta larches

This year, we went to Chester Lake, which is sort of known as one of the easier hikes in the Kananaskis area, but with an amazing payoff. It’s definitely family friendly and can be done pretty quickly. I had done Chester Lake before, but what I didn’t know until this weekend, was that I had missed the best part. The first time I did the hike, it was in the middle of the summer and I just stopped at the lake itself.  I mean why not, it’s quite, there’s a ton of sun, a beautiful lake and lots of room for everyone to enjoy. This time of year, there’s some larches there too, but not really a dazzling array. That’s right, I said dazzling array.

From Alberta larches

But if you walk clockwise around the lake and take the first path you see on the left, you’ll walk by Elephant Rocks, which are a pile of boulders that are a ton of fun to climb and explore. They’re also a pretty easy scramble, with lots of different options to get to the top, where you get an even better view. From atop the boulders, you’ll be treated to a treasure chest of golden larches.  The simple rule of larches: The higher, the better.

You could just stop at the boulders too, but if you want a little bit of a harder hike, but not that hard,  we hiked all the way up to Three Lakes Valley and were amazed but the sheer strength of the colours around us. The blue sky, the grey rock and of course the golden larches. We sat up there for hours just taking it in.  I honestly don’t think I’ve ever gone so long without seeing another person, hearing another sound or seeing a cloud. If you painted a perfect portrait, it would be the view from Three Lakes Valley.  Of the nine years I’ve been hiking in Alberta, this was by far one of my favourite hikes, especially considering it wasn’t that hard. Sure, you’re a little bit out breath, but when you get to the top and turn out around, wow. I’ll never forget it.

From Alberta larches

Here are some more photos:

From Alberta larches
From Alberta larches
From Alberta larches
From Alberta larches

 


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