Every September, alpine larch (Larix lyalli) needles turn a brilliant gold at higher elevations throughout the Canadian Rockies, and hikers are inspired by some of the best weather of the season to go in search of autumn splendour in the high, subalpine forest of the Rockies. Expect the final 10 days of September to display the best and the brightest foliage. Here are a few favourites, complete with personal biases:
Opabin Plateau (Lake O’Hara, Yoho National Park)
Without a doubt our favourite area. Because most people travel to Lake O’Hara by bus, and access is restricted, you need to book well in advance. However, strong hikers who don’t mind the boredom of an 11-km hike up the access road (no bikes allowed), can continue up and around Opabin Plateau and then catch a bus back down at day’s end (no reservations required, but a one-way fee is charged for the ride). Total hiking distance is around 17 km, but don’t miss the 6:30 bus at day’s end!
Larch Valley (Moraine Lake, Banff National Park)
Once upon a time, this was a favourite fall trip, mostly because of its accessibility and the scenic backdrop of the Ten Peaks. But we haven’t hiked there in years. The trail is overrun every autumn, parking is a nightmare, and you are trapped in a procession of pilgrims that rivals those of Mt Fuji or Mecca.
Boulder Pass (Banff National Park)
A long 17-km day trip from the Fish Creek parking lot at Lake Louise Ski Area to the pass and back. Larch groves at the pass are cradled between Redoubt Mtn and Ptarmigan Peak, and views stretch southwest to Mount Temple. Ptarmigan, Hidden and Redoubt Lakes are a bonus.
Saddleback, Lake Louise, Banff National Park
Not the vast stands of alpine larch that you can find elsewhere in the Canadian Rockies, but just before you crest the summit, you pass by monster larch trees that are undoubtedly some of the oldest in the Rockies. The hike is fairly short but steep.
Panorama Meadows, Taylor Lake, Banff National Park
Less visited than most destinations, this basin is filled with larch and just a short hike above Taylor Lake. Total round-trip to this hidden gem is 15 km.
Ptarmigan Cirque, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
If you’re not a strong hiker, you can still reach larch country by driving Canada’s highest paved road (Hwy 40) to Highwood Pass in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. The 1.8-km Ptarmigan Cirque trail leads up from the pass to a scattering of larch trees in the predominantly fir forest.
Each of these hiking trails is detailed in the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide.
Photo © Brian Patton