Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley

August 8, 2017
September 18, 2020

Sentinel Pass is a gorgeous and easily hiked trail located above Moraine Lake. On the way to Sentinel, we passed through the lovely Larch Valley, which people flock to in the fall to see the trees turning colour.

The larch trees do put on an amazing show in the fall. This ensures that the Moraine Lake area is inundated for the entire season.

Unfortunately, this area is a victim of it’s own popularity. On any given day, it is absolutely overrun by serious hikers and tourists alike. If you can keep your good humour, it’s actually quite fun to watch. On my last trip, I saw an adult man groan like a five year old, arms flapping and feet dragging, as he whined to know how much further.

On the downside, the trail is getting beat up, and people have no thought whatsoever of trampling the fragile alpine vegetation. As the day goes on, I see more and more people sprawled out, picking flowers only to toss them away, moving rocks, taking a pee (and poo!) and leaving their tissue in the middle of the trail. I’ve seen people better behaved in downtown Manhattan than here in this protected and treasured back-country environment.

 Parking and Shuttles

As mentioned in the posts about Lake Agnes and Devil’s Thumb, please do not bring your car. This is even MORE important for Sentinel Pass because the access is via Moraine Lake. There is only one small parking lot, and it fills up early – like 4:00 am early.

If you are just hiking to Sentinel Pass, or any of the other hikes in this area, then PLEASE take the shuttles. The Roam Transit service provides big coach buses from Canmore or Banff (there is free parking in both places). If you are spending the night in Lake Louise, there are plenty of hotel shuttles. Please leave the parking spots for the serious climbers. What I’m saying is, you do NOT need an alpine start to hike Sentinel Pass. Take the bus.

Gear

Hiking boots, poles, and your regular backpack kit. There are bears – grizzly and black – so bring your bear spray.

Overview

From the Moraine Lake parking lot, walk past Moraine Lake Lodge. The trail to Sentinel Pass forks right. The trail switchbacks up a steep wall, and then levels out into a gorgeous valley between Eiffel Peak and Mount Temple. After the lake, the trail ascends once more in sweeping switchbacks to gain Sentinel Pass. Return the way you came.

Trail Head

From the Moraine Lake parking lot (where the shuttle dropped you off :-), head right (south west) along the shore, past Moraine Lake Lodge and the little cabins. After walking for about 200 m, we found the trail sign. Take the Right trail heading uphill to Sentinel Pass.

Shortly after we started, we found the trail head sign. Moraine Lake is on our left, and the lodge is to the right.

Main Trail

From the trail sign, there is about 2.5 km of low angle switchbacks. This entire section is in the trees, with nary a view of the impressive surrounding mountains. We did find a few gorgeous creeks to admire.

There are a few creek crossings on this part of the trail. We took the time to admire them, because there was frankly nothing else to look at. Still, this is an awesome trail. with a perfect ascent gradient.

This is one of the best trails in existence. I swear it was created by one of those old Swiss guides who said that if you could smoke your pipe while hiking, you were going slow enough for the guests to keep up. We gained about 330 m (just over 1,000′) without breaking a sweat, but saw enough people huffing and puffing on the way up to realize that everything is relative.

The low-angle switchbacks turn a heinous slog into an easy stroll. Please do not cut across the slopes. There are thousands of people up here every year, and everyone must do their part to help keep the trails in shape.

At about 2.6 km, we came to The Bench. This is where we found the second trail sign. Take the Right fork to continue to Sentinel Pass.

I didn’t notice the pictograms until I started writing my trip report. Check out the perilous climber icon to denote Sentinel Pass. No wonder people get freaked out!

This is where the payoff begins. First off, the elevation backs way off as you are now in Larch Valley between Eiffel Peak (left) and Mount Temple (right). It is a gorgeous walk through the trees, with glimpses of the mountains above.

Larch Valley is a wide plateau between two stunningly beautiful mountains. Unfortunately, my second visit was one of the worst for California smoke, but that’s life. We had a mountain to climb, and took our window of opportunity when it came.

As the spruce and pine trees begin to thin out, the larch trees take over. People flock to the Lake Louise and Moraine Lake areas to catch these trees as they change colour in the fall.

The light was perfect to highlight the yellow Larch trees in the background, while the green of the spruce provide depth and shade.

As you get close, the wall of Sentinel Pass comes into view. It looks daunting from here, but as you’ll see, there is a very easy way up.

This photo was taken from my 2017 trip. On the left is Pinnacle (Eiffel Peak is further left) and Mount Temple is on the right. Sentinel Pass is the saddle between the two mountains.

At 4.7 km, we reached a small tarn called Minnestimma Lake. This is where many people will decide to call it a day. I have no idea how many hundreds of people tramp through here daily, but lets just say I’m surprised there is any grass left. People are sprawled everywhere. I wish Ottawa would increase funding to the Alberta National Parks, because we could really use dozens of wardens to help educate people. But I digress, again.

Looking back at Minnestimma Lake. Sentinel Pass is behind me.
There are actually two little tarns. The second Minnestimma Lake is prior to the main one (above) but you can only really see it on your return trip. After a long day on Mount Temple, my daughters are hightailing it back to the car. Their stamina outstrips me on the downhill.

The ascent to Sentinel Pass looks daunting. It is a near vertical wall that gets steeper as you ascend. I can see why it intimidates the casual hiker. It is 220 m (720′) of elevation gain over a very short distance. Fortunately, the trail was made by the same pipe smoking guide. The ascent first curves around the base of Mount Temple, and then starts a series of long, sweeping switchbacks that gently guides you to the top of Sentinel Pass.

Other than being a stunning view of Mount Temple, this photo also shows the very gentle grade to hike Sentinel Pass. The trail traverses the base of Temple, slowly gaining elevation.
When looking straight on at Sentinel Pass, you can see the final switchbacks as they snake up the face. This is an extremely steep wall, yet the trail builders have made easy work of it. If you’ve ever slogged straight up a mountain in Kananaskis Country in swirling, churning scree, you can definitely appreciate the skill and beauty of this trail.
This is what the switchbacks look like. This is coming back down. As you can see, the trail has a mild and consistent grade, and the trail itself is quite wide. Below is the second, more secluded tarn. The main trail is to the right, and out of view.

Distance to Sentinel Pass is 6 km, with an elevation gain of 750m (2,475′). We hiked it in 2 hours, but we were on a mission that day to climb Mount Temple. I suggest a more leisurely pace to enjoy the scenery.

This is the view from Sentinel Pass looking back down into Larch Valley. This photo was taken in the wee hours. The sun had just come up enough for us to turn off our headlamps. There was a lot of smoke from the California wild fires. Still, an impressive vista!
This is the view down the other side of Sentinel Pass, into Paradise Valley. The big mountain on the left is Mount Aberdeen. Directly in front is Sheol Mountain. The most accessible mountain in that range is Fairview Mountain, which I highly recommend.

At Sentinel Pass, you will be joined by hundreds of others celebrating their success in a variety of ways. Some will be drinking beer. Some will decide that blasting music is appropriate. Others will be in various stages of undress as they pose for that perfect IG shot.

You’ll have to forgive my cynicism. As a 25 year mountain veteran, I realize that hiking is a ‘thing’ right now. I’ve watched as the people in the mountains have changed from being well-educated and respectful, to being – well, the opposite. I write these trip reports because I truly want to encourage people to enjoy the mountains, and to improve their health, both mental and physical. I also hope to educate people new to the mountains.

Sentinel Pass was not my sole destination this day. I was off to climb Mount Temple! Click HERE to read this trip report.

Sentinel Pass Return

Return the way you came from Sentinel Pass. You may see some people coming up or going down the other side of Sentinel Pass into Paradise Valley. This is a completely different valley, and unless you planned this in advance, return the way you came.

The way back affords you views not seen on the way up, like this peak at the Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel is a scramble on the other side of Moraine Lake. Earlier this year, we rode our bikes to Moraine Lake before the road opened. The climb was lovely as we had the mountain all to ourselves. Click HERE to read the trip report.

For the switchbacks on the lower slope above Moraine Lake, please do not take the “short cuts” between the trails. This ruins the trail, erodes the hillside, and makes a mess, especially in wet weather. There are plenty of signs asking you not to do this, but like I said, people behaving poorly…

Back at Moraine Lake, we took advantage of the cold lake waters to take off our boots and wade in. The water was just the right temperature, and our swollen feet felt better almost instantly. This made the ride back to Calgary that much more enjoyable.

If you found this post useful, please do me a huge favour and click the Star button to “Like” it. You can also follow my blog, follow me on Instagram, or join my FaceBook page Al’s Adventurers.

Alisen

Totals – Tracked on Strava

Date: September 18, 2020
Group:  Four (Alisen, Mike, Kayla & Mackenzie)
Distance:  12 km
Elevation:  750m (2,475′)
Time:  ~4 hours

There are only two switchback sections to Sentinel: one at the beginning, and one at the very end. Both are an excellent grade and in perfect shape. Enjoy the long flat area of Larch Valley between the two.
This is the elevation profile for Sentinel Pass. Please ignore the centre section, which is Mount Temple. As you can see, despite the two walls, the elevation gain is very gradual due to the excellent trail system and low angle switchbacks.
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Posted in Adventures, Hiking
20 comments on “Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley
  1. Another great post. I feel saddened by the change in behaviour re those who cannot respect the landscape they are in. Taking care is a simple enough thing to do.

    • alisendopf says:

      Thank you for your kind words and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I normally don’t like to get all preachy. I think respect and empathy need to be practiced everywhere. When that happens, then perhaps nature will be respected.

      • I don’t think you were preachy at all. I grew up in the Australian bush and desert country in the north west. We would go out into this landscape for 2 – 5 days at a time, hiking and camping here and there, respecting the environment long before it became a conscious thought in today’s world. It was just commonsense. Your posts remind me of the great times we had well away from the main stream popular hot spots, enjoying pristine pools of water and waterfalls, kangaroos and dingoes, aboriginal rock art (when you find such works in the middle of nowhere it really makes you think), colourful landscapes and just chilling out with nature 😊

      • alisendopf says:

        Oh, what an amazing experience and memories. Do you still go out sometimes? I have never been to Australia, but if I ever go, I would love to spend some time in the desert and bush. It would be 100% opposite to what I am used to in the mountains, but that’s what an adventure is all about!

      • I do go back to the area two or three times a year for the work I do, but not actually out and about. It’s amazing country in, perhaps, the oldest part of the world. I have shared a link for you to look at if you have the time one day:

        https://www.australiasnorthwest.com/explore/pilbara/karijini-national-park

      • alisendopf says:

        Thank you SO much. Wow. What beautiful country. Those gorges look fantastic, especially against the red rock. Okay – even more motivated to get there. I can see why you spent so much time there.

  2. nitinsingh says:

    Awesome, a great post again, πŸ™‚πŸ‘thnx for share.

  3. This is such a good read..!πŸ˜ŠπŸ™ŒπŸ»
    Lovellyyyyy ❀

  4. Leonie M. says:

    Thank you very much for sharing this informative article.

  5. asthaisha says:

    Great post πŸ™ŒπŸ‘

  6. Lovely, thank you for sharing
    Stay wealthy healthy safe and happy

  7. cheriewhite says:

    Great post. Like you, I wish that everyone respected the land.

  8. I wish I could travel to all these beautiful places!

    • alisendopf says:

      I feel for you! I am sure you have many great places to adventure where you live.

      Actually, Covid has made it possible for ME to travel to Lake Louise, even though I live nearby. The park was being overrun to the point where locals could not visit. I’m hoping we can get back to normal soon, but I’m also enjoying a bit of a breather too.

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