Alpine larch surrounding Rock Isle and Larix Lakes above Sunshine Village turn the Great Divide to golden on Tuesday afternoon, Sept 22. View from the Rock Isle Lake webcam, courtesy  Sunshine Village skibanff.com.

Alpine larch surrounding Rock Isle and Larix Lakes above Sunshine Village turn the Great Divide to golden on Tuesday afternoon, Sept 22. View from the Rock Isle Lake webcam, courtesy Sunshine Village skibanff.com.

Just like Halloween and Christmas, alpine larches (Larix lyallii) are providing an annual celebration in the Rockies’ high country. And despite rather grim weather last weekend, hundreds of larch enthusiasts hiked through mud and rain to pay homage to this unique tree that paints mountain ridges and passes gold every September.

Larix lyallii is one of three species of larch in Canada that are deciduous conifers—unlike true conifers, needles turn gold in autumn and fall from the trees (all three species also called Tamaracks).

Time was I tried to advise hikers on places in the Mountain Parks where they’d find colourful stands of this species without the accompanying hordes larch seekers. That was a fool’s errand. If an area is trail accessible and in a Mountain Park, you can bet it will be overrun on the third and fourth weekend of September.

One of the problems is the limited range of alpine larch, both by altitude and latitude. You don’t need to look for this tree in Jasper Park or northern Banff (north of Hector Lake), because the species disappears in North America around Latitude 51°43’. And since stands seldom appear below 2100m or above the treeline (of course), the elevational band of possibility is very narrow.

So what do I suggest? Wait for good mid-week weather during the fourth week of September, call in sick to work and head for the hills (anywhere but Banff’s over-hyped Larch Valley). You’ll never regret it. Who cares if your boss fires you, you will have experienced one of nature’s great annual events.

Other larch options. Sticking with my good weather advice, try Waterton Lakes National Park, a real treasure in September (fewer visitors and excellent larch colour on the Carthew-Alderson or Rowe Lakes trails). If you plan well in advance, and maybe have a bit of excess cash on hand, you will find fewer people and grand larch stands in spectacular landscape at Yoho Park’s Lake O’Hara and the Lake Magog core of Mt Assiniboine Provincial Park.

Also consider the Purcell Range, which forms the western edge of the Columbia Valley near Invermere, BC. This year, Panorama Mountain Resort is offering its first annual Tamarack Ridge Walk on Saturday, September 26. The resort will fire up three ski lifts to take hikers up to 2366m, where they will be guided on half-day hikes to the best larch stands on Mt Goldie. Lifts, guide, lunch and post-event drink at the resort included. Adult cost $99, youth (6-12) $79.