Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass – Banff National Park – Hiking Alberta

 

Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass is a classic fall hike above Moraine Lake in Banff National Park.

 

 

The Larch Valley hike above Moraine Lake near Lake Louise in Banff National Park assaults the senses in a very special place at a very special time.

 

 Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass – Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

 

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'.

 

Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass – Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass – Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass – Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass – Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass – Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

 

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. 

 

Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass – Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass – Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

  Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass – Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass – Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass – Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

 

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.

 

Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass – Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

 

The achievement award is a Big Rock Traditional at the posh Post Hotel in Lake Louise Village, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.

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.

 

 

 

 

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Comments

I have hiked Sentinel Pass many times, over many years, from Moraine Lake via Larch Valley. I have hiked Paradise Valley from Moraine Lake Road to Giant Steps only once and that was about 25 years ago. Although I have no personal experience with the popular and commonly hiked Moraine Lake, Larch Valley, Sentinel Pass, Paradise Valley route towards Lake Louise and ending on Moraine lake Road, I would estimate the hike at about 22 KM with significant gross elevation, so a full day hike with side routes and spectacular features. As I recall there is about an 18 KM gap between the Moraine Lake Road trailhead for Paradise Valley and the parking area for Moraine Lake. Many people leave bicycles locked at the Paradise Valley trailhead to provide much needed transportation back to the car. There is an excellent Visitor Centre in Lake Louise which will help you with your plan. Group bear awareness rules apply in the area. Check this hike on the Banff National Park - Parks Canada website. Recommend you obtain the Lake Louise Gemtrek Map and a good hiking guide for the area. You will be able to locate and order these from Amazon. These routes are very popular and there should be trip reports on Google from hikers who have done the route. You will need to assemble some documentation and perform due diligence to do this lifelong-memorable hiking experience. There is plenty of information and assistance available in Lake Louise. Sorry I cannot be more specific. Hopes this helps you a bit. Thank you for your comment and kind words, Vrushali.

Hi Barry, Wonderful informative website and great pictures! My husband and I are heading out to Sentinel Pass in late August. We were hoping to take the Sentinel connector and exit via Paradise Valley. We are taking our full camera kit with us too! Haven't found a lot of information on how long this trek might take. Have you done this before by any chance (ie Sentinel to Paradise)? I know there is a campground near Horseshoe Meadow which could be used to make it a 2 day trip. What would you suggest? Again, great pictures! Vrushali.

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