Exploring Banff National Park during fall brings a plethora of perks. Visitors will enjoy remarkable adventures, room to roam, and mountain scenery bursting with beauty for its last grand finale.
From September onward, parts of the forests near Banff and Lake Louise take their cue from nature to change into autumn attire. Larch trees that usually blend in with their neighbours suddenly stand out, as their needles turn a brilliant golden hue before eventually shedding for the winter.
There are only a few weeks of the year to soak in one of nature’s most unique displays, and avid hikers and aspiring adventure seekers can find larch delights on these lesser-known trails that the locals love. Check the trail conditions and only choose hikes that suit your ability level to ensure an enjoyable larch experience in Banff National Park.
1. Healy Pass
This wildflower paradise near Banff Sunshine Village ski resort turns into an equally brilliant display of yellow larch trees once the cooler weather hits. A steady incline through the forest will bring you to Healy Creek before the trail mellows out through a gladed meadow of larch trees, lakes, and a gentle ridge walk.
Distance: 17.5 km
Elevation gain: 655 m
*Please note that the Sunshine Gondola stops running on September 11th, 2022.
2. Rock Isle Lake via Sunshine Meadows
This loop begins at Sunshine Mountain Lodge and journeys just beyond the winter ski slopes of Mount Standish and over the Continental Divide. The trail continues past Rock Isle Lake to Larix and Grizzly Lake. Larches, meadows, and stunning vistas are sure to impress on this beautiful hike. This moderate trail is great for families.
Distance: 8.0 km*
Elevation gain: 309 m
*Please note that the Sunshine Gondola stops running on September 11th. Sunshine Meadows can still be accessed by hiking up the ski-out, which adds 5 km (one way) and 500 m elevation gain.
3. Bourgeau Lake
Easily accessible with a short drive from the town of Banff, this thick, forested trail eventually opens open to a horseshoe of sheer mountain faces carved by glaciers, which cradles Bourgeau Lake. Continue onwards another 2.3 km to Harvey Pass for even more views of forested larch floors.
Distance: 15 km
Elevation gain: 725 m
4. Taylor Lake
A steady but gradual incline through the trees allows ample time to forest bathe amongst the larches. Your efforts will be rewarded by views of beautiful Taylor Lake, cradled by the surrounding peaks of Mount Bell and Panorama Peak. On a calm day, the contrasting colours of larches and mountain ridges will reflect brilliantly on the lake’s glassy surface.
Distance: 12.6 km
Elevation gain: 585 m
5. Zigadenus Lake
This lake is found in the Skoki Valley and neighbours the historic Skoki Ski Lodge built in 1931. While a trip all the way to the lodge would be too far for a day trip, reaching Zigadenus Lake is possible with a long day. This trail delights in endless ways, bringing you through meadows, alpine lakes, two passes, and endless views of larch trees.
Distance: 22 km
Elevation gain: 750 m
6. Gibbon Pass
Be ready for the long haul on this hike and come well-prepared (as on all hikes) with snacks, water, bear spray and hiking poles. This out-and-back hike begins on Hwy 93, just south of Boom Lake trailhead. Meander through the larches as you pass by two stunning lakes before reaching the pass. This hike can be easily decreased in difficulty by shortening the distance. A trip to Twin Lakes is 16 km return, and to Arnica Lake is 10 km return.
Distance: 21.8 km
Elevation gain: 1300 m
7. Rockbound Lake
Heavily treed trails are a larch lovers delight, and this hike is no different. This trail takes you behind the iconic Castle Mountain, easily seen from Highway 1. Rockbound Lake is nestled in a horseshoe of rock cliffs and features beautiful panoramic views from the Rockbound Lake and Tower Lake viewpoints.
Looking for an easier start to your day and a beautiful, cozy cabin overnighter? Stay the night at Castle Mountain Chalets, which are a 2-minute drive from the trailhead.
Distance: 16.8 km
Elevation gain: 760 m
8. Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley
This classic larch experience is highly popular, but time things right, and you can avoid the crowds in Larch Valley. Early risers can enjoy the trail by parking at Moraine Lake - you'll need to get there well before sunrise. Or you can take Roam Route #10 - Moraine Lake from Banff, which only runs during larch season. Begin your journey along the trail on the lake's west (or looker’s right) side. You’ll be immediately immersed in the blissful larch foliage. At the pass, enjoy stunning views of the valley below. For an easier outing, turn around once you’ve reached Larch Valley, about 4 km in.
Distance: 11.6 km
Elevation gain: 725 m
9. Saddleback Pass
Start at the Lake Louise lakeshore - arrive early to find parking or take Roam Route #8x from Banff - and head southeast (left if you are looking at Victoria Glacier). From there, it's a steady climb through a mixture of different types of trees that eventually transition into a full-blown larch forest. Once you are in Saddleback Pass, you'll have beautiful views of the Lake Louise Ski Resort and down the Bow Valley. When you look southwest you'll get a full larch forest around you with towering peaks - including Mt. Temple - as the backdrop. With all this work, you deserve a treat at the end. Step into the historic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and grab a quick bite at The Guide’s Pantry or have a sit-down meal - along with a view of Lake Louise - from Lakeview Lounge.
Local's Tip: Snow can come early at this elevation, be prepared for any slippery sections by bringing traction devices.
Distance: 7.5 km
Elevation gain: 590 m
Guided larch tours
Get more out of your larch exploration with a guided tour. White Mountain Adventures, Discover Banff Tours and Alpine Air Adventures can help you discover some of the best local larch-viewing spots and learn more about the area.
Horseback adventures are another great way to access remote corners of the national park, with Banff Trail Riders, Brewster Adventures, and Timberline Tours all offering day trips. Or, for truly unbeatable views and access to alpine larch hiking, check out a heli-hike trip or helicopter tour with CMH, Alpine Helicopters, or Rockies Heli Tours Canada.