Last weekend we suffered a serious case of gold fever! The result? We joined hundreds and hundreds of people hoping to find Larix lyallii (aka alpine larch). Our search area was Larch Valley, so of course we found them – in all their golden glory!
A few weeks ago we accepted an invitation from one of our Canmore neighbours to join a group hike to Larch Valley. We thought long and hard before responding, mainly because we knew the trail would be extremely crowded on a late September Saturday. On the flip side, there were three compelling reasons to say yes. First, despite hiking Larch Valley several times in the past, it’s been almost 20 years since we’ve gone during larch season. Second, Parks Canada pretty much always has a “minimum group size = 4 hikers” requirement in place for this trail and with our oldest son off at university our family no longer meets that minimum size requirement. Third, spending several hours together on a hiking trail is a great way to get to know your neighbours better.
In the end, representatives of four families joined the hike. The nine of us fit (relatively) comfortably into two vehicles for the drive to the Moraine Lake parking lot. Arriving a few minutes before 8:30 we found the parking area was already more than half full. After a couple of quick stops to photograph Moraine Lake, we were underway. Within about 15 minutes our group was fairly spread out, but with so many people on the trail we weren’t really concerned about bears.
I settled in at a comfortable pace and enjoyed chatting as we slowly gained elevation with the help of a series of switchbacks. The youngest member of our group (she’s 8 years old) excelled at spotting mushrooms. I wish I’d been able to identify some of them for her.
As the tree canopy thinned, we spotted our first golden larch. A few minutes later we joined 15 or 20 other hikers where the forest opens up. It seemed to me that everyone had a camera, ranging from smartphones to great big Canons on tripods and everything in between. Here’s why…
Beyond that first stop, there’s more space between the trees and the ascent is much gentler.
About 4.5 km from the parking lot there’s a beautiful open bowl surrounded by mountains, with Eiffel Peak, Pinnacle Peak and Mount Temple most proximate. Some of our neighbours opted to stop here for lunch and relaxation, but most of us continued up the short, steep, switchback trail to Sentinel Pass (elevation gain approx. 250 m over a distance of about 1 km).
While taking in the beautiful views from Sentinel Pass, we witnessed two common mountain hazards: rock fall and snow fall. A large rock (I estimate it was just over a half meter in diameter) came tumbling down from higher up the shoulder of Mount Temple. Fortunately, it stopped before crossing the trail up to Sentinel Pass. I say fortunately because despite the many people yelling “Rock! Rock!” from the pass, two hikers stood frozen, looking up the hill while standing pretty much in the path of the rock had it continued down the slope. A short while later, we heard the unmistakable sound of a small avalanche coming off a cornice across Paradise Valley.
The trail to Sentinel Pass was really busy as we came back down. I’m not sure how many times I had to step off to let those on the way up get past; I stopped counting at 25. At times, it looked like a long line of ants going up and down the slope. In fact, the only other time we’ve seen a trail this busy was on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand, but since that’s a one-way trail it wasn’t quite the same experience.
Back down in near the Minnestimma Lakes, the trail is wide enough to accommodate two-way traffic, so it was a pretty easy walk back down to parking. The broad expanse of golden larches was just as impressive on the way down as it was on the way up!
Total hiking distance = 12.6 km
Total elevation gain = 873 meters (862 net)
Total hiking time = 5 hours (including 1.5 hours for lunch and photography)
Despite the crowds, it was well worth going. The blue sky and golden larches were glorious. We got to know our neighbours a little better. And we were all pleased to have two of the youngest hikers that we saw all day as part of our group (ages 8 and 14).
NOTE: To minimize the overflow of vehicles onto the non-existent shoulders of Moraine Lake Road, Parks Canada runs a weekend shuttle bus service during prime larch viewing season. It starts running at 9 a.m. which is pretty much perfect timing for anyone leaving from Calgary at 7 o’clock. For September 2014, Parks Canada has added a third weekend to its free shuttle bus service between the Lake Louise overflow parking lot and the Moraine Lake parking lot (September 27 & 28).