Today, Mel and I are hiking to a very special place. Mel is my hiking partner from Edmonton, Alberta. In September 2003, Mel and I hiked across the Grand Canyon from north to south on the North Kaibab trail and the Bright Angel trail through the Bright Angel Fault. In September 2005, Mel and I hiked every day for two weeks in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park.
We will hike in the Lake Louise area of Banff National Park today from Moraine Lake through the Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass. To the best of my knowledge, the Larch tree is the only member of the evergreen family whose needles change colour 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’.
We start early and drive west to Lake Louise, then 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 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.
Mel and I walk past Moraine Lake Lodge to the trail-head then hike on excellent trail through forest and past babbling brooks to a long series of 11, nicely graded switchbacks which will deliver us to the trail junction of Eiffel Lake or Larch Valley. We are hiking under sunny skies with some cloud beginning to build. At the Eiffel Lake trail junction we take the right fork and within half a kilometre we pop out of the forest 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. In spite of the fact this is an annual sojourn for thousands of people, mysteriously, there is no evidence of other people on the trail.
We amble through the relatively flat forest, past the small and beautiful Minnestimma Lakes to the view of the daunting switchbacks which will deliver us to Sentinel Pass at 8,566 ft (2,611 m) wedged between 11,626 ft (3,544 m) Mount Temple and 10,062 ft (3,067 m) Pinnacle Mountain.
The slog above the tree line and up the rugged scree slopes is not as bad as it looks. By the time we reach the top of the pass for the spectacular view into Paradise Valley beyond, the sky has become overcast and there is just a light breeze. Mel guards the backpacks from marauding picas. The pica is a rodent that looks like a small, chubby squirrel or a large, chubby chipmunk. They are chubby from being well fed by the throngs of hikers that share their lunch with them over the summer.
I hike the length of Sentinel Pass and do the beginning of the scramble up Mount Temple towards the Throne, then return to guard the packs while Mel does the same. During lunch break, one particularly persistent pica is determined to have a piece of Mel’s chocolate bar.
About half a dozen hikers join us on Sentinel Pass before the ceiling drops suddenly and a snow squall begins. Both Larch and Paradise Valleys disappear in a blanket of white. We hastily finish lunch, pack up and head down the scree slopes before the rugged trail becomes impassable or dangerous. By the time we are back in the valley the sky begins to clear.
On the return hike in sunshine, we hike off-trail down the length of a beautiful stream of cascading rapids and waterfalls before regaining the main trail. As we descend on the switchbacks, an incredible, iridescent blue Moraine Lake becomes visible through the forest.
Excellent day. If you have only one opportunity to hike in the Rocky Mountains, Larch Valley during the third week in September would be an excellent choice. It is an easy, relatively short hike suitable for the moderately fit and offers huge reward, at virtually no risk with reasonable effort. You can take your time and stretch it out over the entire day. Sentinel Pass is an option but definitely worth the effort. The picas are waiting for you.