It is on! Once again, people are out searching for the best hikes to view the larches. Personally, I am much more fascinated with the grasses, bushes and other low vegetation that turns bright red and orange. These colours can be seen anywhere you have a meadow. So feel free to zag while others zig.
For those who don’t live in Alberta, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. We have a very short growing season, and we are at elevation. This means the types of trees that grow in our Rocky Mountains is very limited. For conifers, we have spruce, a few varieties of pine, and of course, larch trees. For deciduous trees, we mainly have aspen poplars.
The short growing season and being at a high elevation limits the trees that can grow. This means we only have two trees that turn colour – aspen and larch trees. They both turn a beautiful yellow, but it’s short lived. If you miss that week of colour, you’ll have to wait until next year.
Thankfully, the flowers, grasses and low bushes provide much more colour, and it lasts way longer. It’s possible to get rich and vibrant oranges and reds for weeks, and entire hillsides can explode in a riot of colours. Usually, this low vegetation turns colour prior to the larch season, so if you wait for the larches, you’ll miss the other colours.
Where to Find Larches
Larches prefer to grow at higher elevations, with little or no competition. At tree line, where pine and spruce stop growing, this leaves space for the larch trees to thrive.
While spruce and some pine trees can grow very close together, larch trees prefer to have ample space between them. As you hike up and gain elevation, you can see the dense spruce and pine forest will eventually give way to a more open forest. This is most likely a larch forest.
In the summer when all the trees are the same shade of green, you can tell a larch tree by their very soft needles.
Sensitive Alpine Environment – Stay on the Trail!
What absolutely kills me every year is the hoards of people who travel out to view these amazing trees in their pristine native mountain environment, yet have zero respect for that same environment. The amount of times I see people trampling precious and fragile alpine flowers and meadows to get that perfect photo of a larch tree is mind boggling.
The alpine is a very fragile environment. It takes forever for plants to grow. Trampling fragile flowers and bushes is like walking on a Picasso is get closer to a van Gogh. All plants have value. All plants deserve to live. Please treat them all with respect.
If you go, please remember to:
- Stay on the trail at all times. Do no go ‘cross country’ and stomp on other plants.
- When stopping for snacks, please do not sprawl out in a meadow. Find a rock near the path.
- If the trail is very wet, muddy or covered in wet fall snow, go a different day. Wet trails degrade faster than dry trails. Thousands of feet trampling a muddy trail in one single season can destroy a trail for years to come.
- Be bear aware. This is PRIME bear feeding season. If there are bear warnings for an area, even if it’s not closed, please go somewhere else. There are literally hundreds of hikes with larches.
Hikes to See Larch Trees
Larch trees grow just about anywhere in the Canadian Rockies. If you can hike high enough, you can find larch trees. For example, the first photo above was taken below Mount Sparrowhawk. This is not on anyone’s larch radar, yet there are hundreds of larch trees to admire.
There are several hikes that are ‘known’ for viewing larches. Here are some of these popular hikes.
Arethusa Cirque & Ptarmigan Cirque:
Arethusa Cirque and Ptarmigan Cirque are both quick wins. Most of the elevation is gained while driving up to the Highwood Pass. Both of these hikes are fairly short, with not a lot of elevation to be gained.
Many larch hunters will not do the entire Pocaterra Ridge, but will instead stop in the meadow just below the ascent to Pocaterra Ridge above the Highwood Pass. This is one place where you can find people spread out everywhere. Please stay on the trail at all times.
The two photos by Steve Riggs are both at Pocaterra Ridge.
This trail goes up and down a few passes. The top of each pass is a glorious feast of larches. Go as far as you like and return. Or make a traverse with Shadow Lake trailhead off the Trans Canada highway, but two cars are needed.
Chester Lake / Burstall Pass:
These two hikes are found on the Smith Dorian highway, and are across the road from each other. Both start at very high elevations, so you don’t have to do much work to get high enough to see the larches.
Healy Pass is a longer hike through a forest, with the payoff being right at the very end. It’s a lovely hike though, and if you haven’t done it yet, then get on it.
As the name suggests, Larch Valley is an ideal place to see the larches. This is a busy area. Please consider booking the shuttle in advance. It’s fast, easy, and removes 99% of the stress of driving and parking.
This is not a long hike. You do not need a 4:00 am alpine start to get it done. Trust me – it is way nicer to arrive at the shuttle station at 8:00 am, and actually enjoy yourself, than to drive in the dark and then sit in your car for hours waiting for the sun to come up.
Sentinel Pass is above Larch Valley. Again, this is a place where people tend to spread out and trample fragile plants. Please stay on the trail.
I hope you enjoy your fall hiking and larch hunting season.