Lake Moraine and Larch Valley
A few weeks ago we were lucky enough to sneak in a beautiful fall hike at Lake Louise between some heavy morning rain and afternoon blizzard. This short window of good weather made for an absolutely beautiful day and one we couldn't pass up being out in the mountains.
Upon arriving at Lake Louise, we discovered Banff Park Tourism had a shuttle running from the highway up to the Moraine Lake parking lot that we happily took advantage of. The transfer system was set up to provide visitors with easy access to the lake during peak season when parking is very limited. The shuttle departed from the Lake Louise overflow lot in 20-minute intervals, dropping us at the lake's edge with a similar return schedule running until 5:40 pm. An added bonus of the shuttle ride was the additional time granted to sneak in a pre-hike nap as it seemed our morning coffee that day wasn't quite strong enough!
We eagerly jumped off the bus and took the opportunity to snap a few pictures of Moraine lake in good light. I'm thankful we did because by the end of the day we were jogging down the trail through the rapidly approaching blizzard and narrowly caught the last shuttle back.
On our travels, we have been to many places where autumn does not exist - merely dry and rainy seasons, or hot and hotter seasons. Living in Alberta, we are so fortunate that once each year our own backyard becomes an incredible mosaic of gold and green larch forests. It is truly spectacular to experience and in its fleeting moments provides a wondrous gasp before the long sigh of winter.
This time of year, known to many as larch season, is when these particular conifer trees lose their needle-like leaves and in the process turn beautiful shades of copper and gold. Larches are native to cooler temperate climates and, therefore, dominant in the forests of Russia, Scandinavia and Canada. Several trails in Banff National Park boast beautiful views of the larches that are worthy of exploring. We chose the Valley of the Ten Peaks, also known as Larch Valley, based on its reputation as one of the premier fall experiences in Alberta.
The trail began along the north side of the lakeshore and ascended for a little over 2km before reaching a fork where left led to Eiffel Lake and right went a short distance further to Larch Valley. Continuing right, the golden larches slowly started to appear and began to multiply with each step. Arriving at the Valley of the Ten Peaks was like entering an IMAX theatre of mountains. A near 360-degree panorama view of snow-capped peaks painted with coral hues of orange greeted us. It was absolutely breathtaking.
Many hikers stop here, just ten minutes short of Sentinel Pass but charged with an excitement to explore further, we continued on. The trail gently climbed out of the trees, meandered around the two pint-sized Minnestimma lakes and zigzagged up the pass. The narrow switchbacks up the talus slope side provided a gradual ascent 176 meters to the top of the pass. This short push further provided a new perspective of the valley that was well worth the effort.
From the summit of the pass, both sides provided drastically different views. Looking back south was a colossal wall of mountain peaks draped with a mosaic of larches. Peering north down the other side of the pass was a dramatic drop into Paradise Valley. The trail continues through Paradise Valley on to Lake Annette and is highly recommended; however, this requires organizing a shuttle connection back to your starting point.
Sentinel Pass is one of the highest passes in Banff National Park and resembles a saddle between the soaring peaks of Pinnacle Mountain and Mount Temple (which are in fact two of the ten peaks). Unusual rock spires seen from the summit give the pass its name and provide a surreal Lord of the Ring's atmosphere. After a short exploration at the top, snow clouds blew in and cloaked the mountains limiting our view. Deciding at this point to head back, we briskly made our way back down the mountain in time for a quick stop at the iconic canoes of Moraine Lake and jumped on the last shuttle down to the highway.