What is Larch Madness?
If you haven’t heard of the Larch Valley hike, it needs to go on your bucket list immediately.
Each year in September, a few parts of Banff National Park (and Kananaskis) transform from green to an incredible gold colour. Rare Larch Pines start to change colour and transform whole valleys into a burst of yellows and oranges. For a place that’s normally a sea of green, the bright colours are a beautiful change in scenery, and us locals go crazy for it.
There’s even a phrase for it; “Larch Madness”. So called because for just a couple of short weeks in September, we’re all absolutely bananas for Larch hikes. (By the way, if you’re into US College basketball, it’s a play on words with “March Madness”)
Why is the Larch Valley Hike so popular?
Larch Valley is probably the most well known of all the larch hikes in the Canadian Rockies. Because Larches are a tree that thrives at high elevations, they normally line the upper treelines of various mountains around Banff and Kananaskis. For the most part, that normally means you have to hike a very long way to reach them.
However, Larch Valley is a rare exception, thanks to the Moraine Lake Road, which allows you to gain most of the elevation in your car first (unless you decide to bike the Moraine Lake Road – which can also be fun!).
For that reason, the Larch Valley Hike is actually quite short, with only a small amount of elevation gain, and therefore it’s much more accessible to people who wouldn’t normally be able to reach them. The trailhead also begins at the shores of Moraine Lake, which is probably the most popular place in the entire National Park.
Finally, let’s not forget that Larch Valley is absolutely stunning. There are lakes with perfect reflections of the Valley of the Ten Peaks, towering summits which seem to rise out of Larch Valley, and endless rows of stunning larches.
As a result, for 2-3 weeks per year (in Late September), the Larch Valley hike is overrun with hikers.
Here’s everything you need to know about Larch Valley:
Larch Valley Hike Quick Stats:
- Distance: 4.3km each way
- Elevation Gain: 535m
- Difficulty: Easy
- Time: 1-2 hours each way
The Hike from Moraine Lake to Larch Valley
The hike from Moraine Lake to Larch Valley is uneventful and almost entirely made up of switchbacks. You’ll get the occasional glimpse of Moraine Lake behind you as you hike, but for the most part, the hike is hidden in the trees.
You won’t catch a glimpse of any larches until you’re virtually in Larch Valley, so it’s the perfect hike to start in the dark!
Eventually, you’ll reach a small bench and a sign, and that’s your indicator that you’ve made it! Turn right here, and enter Larch Valley!
The Crowds on the Larch Valley Hike
As I mentioned earlier, Larch Valley is probably one of the busiest hikes in Banff during Fall. If you start at a reasonable hour, expect to have to deal with hundreds of hikers. Below is an old photo I snapped in previous years, and it’s just a taste of the chaos you’ll have to deal with.
If you’re someone that is actively trying to practise social distancing, this is probably not the hike for you!
However, if you can battle through the lines of hikers on the way up, you’ll find plenty of space to spread out once you reach Larch Valley itself. Larch Valley has a large meadow where you can comfortably avoid people.
When is the best time to visit Larch Valley?
My experience with Larches over the years tells me that Fall usually happens in Banff in the last two weeks of September. Larches are deciduous, meaning they lose their needles shortly after autumn. Therefore you have this short 2-3 week window to catch them before their branches are bare and black.
As I update this post, it’s September 24, 2020, and the larches are in absolutely perfect condition. Sometimes it begins a little earlier, and it can last longer, however the snow will soon begin to blanket Larch Valley, which will completely change the experience.
Last year we hiked Larch Valley on September 30th (see the photo below), and the entire valley was blanketed with snow, and most of the needles had already fallen. The difference between years can be enormous, and sometimes the larch window only lasts a few days!
Is there a good time to visit Larch Valley?
Crowds are always crazy at Moraine Lake (and Larch Valley), so you might be wondering if there’s a good time to beat the crowds?
I suppose the honest answer is, yes, you can go up super early and hope to be up there for sunrise, and most people probably wouldn’t be up for that. However, as soon as the sun pours in, you can guarantee that the crowds will too.
Certainly don’t expect to have the place to yourself, and especially not from 9am onwards.
How to plan your visit to Larch Valley
Planning your visit to Larch Valley is the exact same as planning your visit to Moraine Lake (which we’ve covered extensively in this blog post). The key is over-preparing and setting off early.
During these strange COVID times, there are no Parks Canada shuttle buses running, so your options are to either take a private bus/taxi up there at a reasonable hour, or hope for the best with a parking spot.
This means, either get there early enough to snag one of the first parking spots, or do laps of the Lake Louise road, hoping you’ll pass the Moraine Lake turnoff when they happen to open the barrier to cars coming out.
Either way, it’s a logistical nightmare, so be prepared for that!
How to get to Larch Valley
As I mentioned earlier, the Larch Valley hike begins at the shores of Moraine Lake. Specifically, on the right side of the shore, just past the last Moraine Lake Lodge cabin. Take a right turn at the trailhead sign, and begin the switchbacks (sigh).
To get to the Moraine Lake Parking Lot, follow the Transcanada highway to Lake Louise, follow the road up the hill as if you were diving to Lake Louise, and then take a left turn up the Moraine Lake Road.
From Banff, driving to Moraine Lake takes approximately one hour. From Lake Louise, it’s approximately 15-20 minutes (depending on whether or not you get stuck behind an RV!)
Things to know before you do the Larch Valley Hike
Occasionally, there is bear activity in the area and it’s recommended to always travel in groups of 4. There are also times where it’s mandatory to hike in a group of four. Being caught with less can mean being given a hefty fine! If you only have 2 people and find that it’s mandatory, just hang out until another group arrives and hike with them.
It’s also always a good idea to pack bear spray.
The weather in Larch Valley
The weather at high altitudes is rarely predictable. The closest weather predictions will be Lake Louise, but even they can be way off. Also expect the temperature to be several degrees lower than the stated temperature.
To adequately prepare for the weather, always make sure you bring warm layers, hats, gloves and a raincoat. Bad weather can arrive out of nowhere and being cold and wet is never fun!
The closest toilet (or should I say, outhouse) is in the Moraine Lake parking lot. There is nothing up in Larch Valley
Other Hikes you can do from Larch Valley
I’ve been to Moraine Lake more times than I can count, but it’s always nice to mix it up with an extra hike. There are a number of great hiking options at Moraine Lake for virtually all abilities but, second to perhaps Consolation Lakes, Larch Valley is the easiest.
Once you’re actually in Larch Valley, there are several challenging hikes/scrambles that you can add on.
- Sentinel Pass
- Paradise Valley
- Mount Temple
- Eiffel Peak
- Eiffel Lake
- Wenkchemna Pass
Sentinel Pass is another 2.5km each way, and the trail follows a number of switchbacks up to the saddle between Mount Temple and Eiffel Peak. There’s no scrambling involved, and it turns your hike into approximately 12km round trip. The views back into Larch Valley are stunning, with towering views of Minnestima Lakes and the forest of Larches below. It’s well worth the effort.
Paradise Valley is what you’ll find if you continue over the top of Sentinel Pass and descend down into the larch filled valley beyond. This extra section can be as long or as short as you like, and you can even do this in a huge loop down to the Moraine Lake Road or dare I say it, down to Lake Louise (if you have energy to burn!)
This is the biggest hike-able mountain in the Lake Louise area, and is reached via Sentinel Pass. From here, the hike turns steeply upwards, and you still have about a kilometre of Vertical left to go. It’s an 11k foot mountain that will seriously test your abilities, and that definitely includes a few sections of exposure. Depending on the snowfall, this may not be possible to complete during Larch season. You can read our full hike report for Mount Temple here.
Eiffel Peak was my first 10k foot mountain, and it’s a bit of a beast.
Enter Larch Valley, continue past the meadow and take a sharp left turn down and across a small stream. The trail then continues upwards, through a rock-field and all the way up this enormous mountain. This is definitely a scramble with occasional sections of extreme exposure. It’s not for the faint hearted, and also may not be summit-able during Larch season, depending on the season’s snowfall.
Technically this isn’t an offshoot of Larch Valley, because you take a turnoff just before you enter the area (by the bench at the top of the switchbacks up to Larch Valley).
Once you’ve completed the gruelling switchbacks, the hike over to Eiffel Lake is fairly flat and simply traverses the valley. It’s a few extra kilometres but the sea of Larches is well worth the effort. The trail doesn’t actually descend down to Eiffel Lake, so you’ll have to blaze your own trail if you want to actually make it to the water.
This is a continuation of the Eiffel Lake trail, and is the best way to look back into the Larch filled valley and see the peaks with Eiffel Lake below. Once you’ve reached Eiffel Lake, it’s a small amount of elevation and a couple of extra kilometres for the views.
Where to stay when visiting Larch Valley?
The closest place to stay is Moraine Lake Lodge, but that can be astronomically expensive. In which case, the next closest place to stay is in Lake Louise Village (around 15 minutes away).
Banff is also a very convenient place to stay (around 1 hour away), but if you’re planning to visit for sunrise, that extra hour can be very painful!
Looking for other great hikes in the Moraine Lake area? Check out 6 great hikes at Moraine Lake. Looking for other Larch hikes in the region? Read more about our favourite Larch hikes in Yoho National Park.