Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass is a classic fall hike above Moraine Lake in Banff National Park.
This day's hike will take place in the incredibly beautiful area of Lake Louise in Banff National Park from Moraine Lake through the Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass. The Larch tree is the only member of the evergreen family whose needles change color and drop to the ground. This occurs every year near the third week of September. Around and above 2,286 m (7,500 ft) of elevation, Larch Valley becomes the 'Valley of Gold'.
The drive west from Calgary, Alberta, Canada to Lake Louise along the TransCanada Highway begins very early, then continues to the Moraine Lake parking area for a brief trek up to the Moraine Lake Lookout on the Rock-pile Trail for the famous view of this pristine emerald lake nestled in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Many years ago Moraine Lake and the surrounding mountains were featured on the back of the Canadian $20.00 bill.
The principal hike passes Moraine Lake Lodge a short distance to the trail-head near the boat launch. The trail above Moraine Lake is a sustained ascent on wide, good quality trail through forest and past babbling brooks to a long series of eleven, evenly-graded switchbacks which lead to the trail junction for Eiffel Lakes or Larch Valley.
Current sunny skies are beginning to entertain some cloud building. At the Eiffel Lake/ Larch Valley trail junction the right fork leads into forest and within half a kilometer the trail crosses a small, wooden platform bridge and enters into the magic of Larch Valley. The hike through the valley is an incredible, sensory experience of orange and yellow larch trees surrounded by majestic snow-capped and glaciated mountains. This is an annual sojourn for thousands of people but, mysteriously, there is little evidence of other people on the trail this day.
Ambling through the relatively flat forest, and passing the small and beautifully reflective Minnestimma Lakes proceeds to the intimidating view of the daunting switchbacks which ascend to Sentinel Pass at 2,611 m (8,566 ft) wedged between 3,544 m (11,626 ft) Mount Temple and 3,067 m (10,062 ft) Pinnacle Mountain.
The slog above the tree line, and up the rugged scree slopes, is not as bad as it looks. By the time the top of the pass is achieved for the spectacular view into Paradise Valley beyond, the sky has become overcast and there is a light breeze.
There is time and opportunity to hike the length of Sentinel Pass and do the beginning of the scramble up Mount Temple towards the Throne, before returning to guard the packs from marauding ground squirrels.
About half a dozen hikers arrive on Sentinel Pass before the ceiling drops suddenly and a snow squall begins. Both Larch and Paradise Valleys disappear in a blanket of white.
Lunch is hastily finished prior to packing up and making a quick departure off Sentinel Pass and down the scree slopes before the rugged trail becomes impassable or dangerous. By the time return to the valley has been achieved, the sky begins to clear. Such is the way of the mountains.
On the return hike in sunshine, the hike proceeds down the length of a beautiful stream of cascading rapids and waterfalls before regaining the main trail. Descent on the switchbacks features an incredible, iridescent blue Moraine Lake peaking through the dense forest.
Excellent day. If there is only one opportunity to hike in the Rocky Mountains, Larch Valley during the third week in September would be an excellent choice. The hike is relatively short and suitable for the moderately fit. The hike offers huge reward at virtually no risk with reasonable effort. Time can be taken to stretch the experience over an entire day. Sentinel Pass is an option but definitely worth the effort. The picas are waiting. Group rules may apply. A very early start to acquire parking and reduce crowd exposure would be advisable. Check with Parks Canada.
Be aware. During fall colors, there can be thousands of people in attendance daily. Avoiding the weekend may help a bit. A very early start is advisable, Check out less crowded alternatives for the Larch Tree metamorphosis.