It was during my third visit to the Canadian Rockies that I finally got to experience a mountain autumn.
I had always been in summer in the past which is a fantastic time of year for hiking and camping, but I was very much looking forward to discovering the mountains when the air was cooler and the trees were lit up with their golden coats.
My brother was scheduled to visit me in the tiny village of Field in Yoho National Park, where I was living for six weeks, in the middle of September. The perfect time to embark on some autumn hikes. And the best hike in the Banff/Yoho area to do in Autumn?
The Sentinel Pass and Larch Valley trail in Banff National Park.
During the short mountain autumn, the needles of the larch trees in Larch Valley above Moraine Lake turn a gorgeous golden colour, something I have never seen before. I never even realised that there were any conifers (trees with needles instead of leaves) that were deciduous.
Backed by the snow-dusted and spectacular Ten Peaks, it looked like exactly the spell-binding scenery I was after.
It was my brother Robbie’s first time in the Rockies so we took the time to climb the rock pile for the iconic view of gorgeous Moraine Lake first, passing cute pikas and fat ground squirrels along the way. I will never get sick of this view. Try to show me a more beautiful lake in the world than Moraine, I dare ya.
The area around Moraine Lake is a high risk grizzly bear area and you aren’t allowed to hike the trails with less than four people and without bear spray. Luckily I had the spray and we didn’t have to wait long at the trailhead before a couple of German backpackers wandered up and agreed to join us.
Hiking to Larch Valley
We got to know each other as we hiked the lazy switchbacks through the pine-scented forest. There were no magical larch trees yet in sight but it was beautiful to be out in the clean mountain air surrounded by green.
Slowly we started to see the brilliant yellow larches amongst the deep green forest beside the trail as we got closer to Larch Valley. And what a stunning sight they were.
And then we were there.
The impossibly scenic Larch Valley backed by ten snow covered peaks stretched out before us. The trees were alight with gold and a sparkling river shone in the sunlight in a lush green meadow. What a place!
Once we peeled ourselves away from the magical Larch Valley we continued further through a forest of larch and evergreens till we emerged out of the forest and into rocky terrain. A steep exposed mountainside was before us with a faint trail through the rocks up to Sentinel Pass.
Hiking to Sentinel Pass
Out of the protection of the forest and into a windy afternoon that was rapidly clouding over, we were freezing. We stopped briefly to eat our packed lunches by a still lake before setting off again to tackle Sentinel Pass.
The trail underfoot was rocky and steep but the exertion of hiking warmed us up.
Until the snow began to fall.
It was the first snow I had experienced since living in London and the first time I have ever hiked in the snow so I may have been ridiculously excited. Maybe… OK I was.
At the top of Sentinel Pass we were truly exposed to the increment weather so we didn’t linger long. A few hardy chipmunks and ground squirrels hung around hoping for food and sheltering under the rocks.
There was no visibility down the other side of Sentinel Pass but the view over the trail we had traversed was still visible and starkly beautiful. The ground was now covered with a patchy layer of white and the lonely lake reflected the dark clouds above.
The snow began to fall harder as we were heading down and soon the rocky landscape was completely blanketed in fresh snow. As we headed back into the tree line the snow turned into a light sleet then ceased all together, much to our relief.
Soon there was no sign that it had snowed at all as we began the descent back into the forest, away from the unforgiving landscapes of Sentinel Pass and down into Larch Valley.
It was just before we reached Larch Valley that we had a not wholly unexpected but still surprising encounter. A giant grizzly bear crossed our path.
The German couple were behind us and I heard a loud gasp. We turned around in time to see a gigantic lumbering grizzly slowly crossing the path only ten-fifteen metres behind us, approximately five or so metres from the Germans.
The girl was terrified but her boyfriend already had the camera out and was taking as many pictures as he possibly could.
I was nervous at first but quickly noted that the bear was not interested in us and was intent on just crossing the trail to head up the wooded mountain on the other side. It was extremely large and slow moving and I was very thankful that he didn’t give us a second look.
I feel very lucky to have seen this beautiful creature in its natural environment. Excitement coursed through me for the rest of the hike.
It seemed much faster descending the switchbacks back down to Moraine Lake than it had been on the way up. And as we got to the bottom, the sun came out and a rainbow brightened the sky in front of us.
Soon we were back at Moraine Lake where we farewelled the Germans and took one more glimpse at the most brilliant lake of blue I have ever seen.
Hiking through Larch Valley and up to Sentinel Pass was one of my favourite experiences in the Rockies, and I have had many. A bear, some magical golden trees, snow and one of the world’s most beautiful lakes definitely makes for a great hike.
The Nitty gritty
Getting there: To reach the Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass trailhead, drive to the Moraine Lake carpark, 12 km from Lake Louise Village, then it is a few minutes walk along the lake shore. Unfortunately there is no shuttle or public transport to Moraine Lake.
Length: 7.5 miles/12 km return to the top of Sentinel Pass
Elevation Gain: 2400 feet/730 metres
Difficulty: I would rate it as Intermediate. Not too steep but still a lot of uphill with some being on exposed and rocky terrain.
Tip: The larches in Larch Valley start turning yellow in the first couple of weeks of September each year.