I grew up in Quebec, where fall is an explosion of colour from maple trees turning red, orange and gold. Fall has always been one of my favorite seasons, but when I moved to Alberta, it never seemed to be as exciting or as colourful. Poplars and trembling aspen, common native trees here, do turn yellow gold, but once their leaves start to turn, the first good wind blows them down and the show’s over.
When I started hiking, though, I discovered larches. The particular variety we see in the Canadian Rockies is the subalpine larch (Larix lyallii), a deciduous, coniferous tree that lives at high altitude, often near the treeline. The end of September into early October is the magic time for larch hikes, usually a two to three week period when the larch needles turn gold, but before the needles fall off.
Every year I try to get out for one or two larch hikes, so I’ve had a chance to explore a few of them. Be warned, though, getting to larches usually requires some significant uphill hiking, and because of the elevation, getting snowfall during larch season isn’t unusual.
Of course, the best known is the Larch Valley hike near Moraine Lake. I’ll admit it is beautiful, but the downside is the hordes of tourists and hikers who are also in the area. It has gotten bad enough that they now run a bus shuttle from the highway to Moraine Lake during peak season. I’ve been up there when it was sunny with blue skies, and also when it’s cloudy, rainy and snowing, and the crowds never let up.
There are a number of other larch hikes throughout the mountains, and while all of them enjoy a surge in popularity during larch season, none of them see the kind of crowds that Larch Valley gets, especially the unmarked, unofficial trails (do not try to find these without maps and/or guidebooks). Tryst Lake offers some good larch viewing. I once went up there on a somewhat rainy day, and while the views around the lake were lovely, the slippery conditions on the trail weren’t so wonderful. Rummel Lake also has a good stand of larches, and I really enjoy the views around this lake. The bonus is that there’s an outhouse near the lake (this area serves as winter backcountry camping).
One of the official trails I’ve explored is Chester Lake, though most of the larches in this area actually surround the nearby Elephant Rocks. That makes for some cool views; larches, massive boulders and mountains in the distance.
I’ve also gone looking for larches on a hike to Rae Lake. We didn’t actually get to the lake itself, as we were following a newer trail that still needed some work, but we found the slopes surrounding the valley we were hiking in had plenty of larches to look at, not to mention some stunning peaks.
The lastest trail I explored was Taylor Lake in Banff National Park, which has a bit more elevation gain than I usually do. It also has a tendency to turn boggy and slippery when it’s been raining. We were there just as the larches were starting to turn, and the low-lying cloud made the views come and go a bit, but you could still see the larches standing amongst the ghostly sentinels of spruce.
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