A complete guide to the Larch Valley Hike & Sentinel Pass

It’s no small statement to say that we’ve never seen anything like the Larch Valley hike in the Fall. If you’re in Banff in September/October, make sure this hike is top of your list. 

It’s worth the painfully early start to nab a spot at Moraine Lake car park and the 400 metres of elevation gain to see this valley covered in dazzlingly yellow trees with a backdrop of the Ten Peaks. It’s simply magical. 

After this you can carry on to Sentinel Pass, which takes you higher up for stunning views of Paradise Valley - a worthy addition to create an unforgettable hike.

Here’s what to expect and how to plan your Larch Valley & Sentinel Pass hike.


Larch Valley hike & Sentinel Pass

Larch Valley hike Stats

Difficulty: Moderate

Distance: 4.6 km one way (this gets you all the way through the valley, it’s 3km to the start of the valley)

Elevation: 544 metres (to the very end of the valley)

Time needed: 3-4 hours to appreciate it

Best time to arrive

Sadly, the Larch Valley hike leaves from Moraine Lake - a place that gets so crowded that the car park is often full at 5.15am in peak season which causes the road to close, and when it opens again is anyone’s guess.

We’ve seen it re-open at 4pm but not always. You can make a slightly later start by parking in Lake Louise (their car park normally closes later and spots come up more regularly) and take the shuttle to Moraine Lake, but this also means you’ll have a very, very long journey back as the buses go to the park & ride car park and make you queue up again to get to Lake Louise.

The Larch Valley hike - best time to arrive

We’re not fans of these crazy early starts, so you know this is a stunning hike if we’re saying that you should push through the pain for the Larch Valley hike.

Read next: Epic hikes in Banff - Ha Ling Peak, Johnston Canyon & the Ink Pots, The Peyto Lake Hike, Healy Pass, Parker Ridge Trail & Stanley Glacier

The Larch Valley hike stats

Distance: 3 km one way
Elevation:
381 m
Type of trail:
Out and back

Starting the hike

Seeing as you’re at Moraine Lake at sunrise - one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen - you might as well take in this incredible view before your hike. The rock pile is a great vantage point and it always leaves us mesmerised - I mean seriously, how can water genuinely look that colour? The rock pile is a very short, uphill trail from the car park and you can get up there in around five minutes.

Sunrise at Moraine Lake - Larch Valley hike

Once you’ve taken in the sunrise, the track starts from the eastern side of Moraine Lake, just follow the shore until you see a fork in the path with a brown trail sign (take note of the grizzly advice, we’ll go into more depth at the bottom of this post). Head right and begin the uphill climb. 

The first section of the trail is all through fairly dense forest, you get the odd tiny glimpse of that dazzling blue water but for the most part it’s a standard forest trail (it’s easier to see the colour on the descent as there is a lot of shadow in the morning). It’s in great condition, a wide dirt path that has gentle switchbacks. It’s uphill all the way without ever being steep.

Start of the Larch Valley Hike

You hike for approximately 3km on the well maintained track before you reach another fork with a brown sign. Thankfully the track is relatively flat from here through the valley, so you can lift your head up and admire the stunning landscape you’re about to see.

On the day we hiked there was a grizzly spotted on the forest trail but we were already in the valley at the time but keep an eye out.

The beginning of the yellow larches

The beginning of the yellow larches

Read next: The best hikes in Jasper - Mount Edith Cavell, The Bald Hills Trail and The Sulphur Skyline Trail

The Larch Valley

Heading right, the forest changes from the evergreen conifers to the Larch trees that this track is named after. It would be beautiful at any time of year but if you come here in fall, you’ll see how the trees begins to turn yellow before you get to the top of the valley and everything is awash in a truly vivid yellow. Spectacular doesn’t even really cover it. We can honestly say we’ve never seen anything like it and could not stop talking about how magical it was.

The larches on the Larch Valley Track

Give yourself plenty of time to take it all in. It’s not long before the trail opens up to a clearing where you can see these stunning yellow trees with a backdrop of the famous Ten Peaks. The snow capped mountains and the yellow larches create a real pinch yourself moment and we spent a long time taking in this breathtaking view. 

The larch valley in the fall
View of the Larch Valley in the Fall

Once you’ve had your fill, continue upwards for even more yellow Larches and arguably more impressive views as the colours become deeper and more intense the higher up you go. Soon you’ll be in a complete clearing where the trees stop. Be sure to look back at where you came from, it’s a mesmerising scene.

Ahead you’ll see Mount Temple and the Sentinel Pass, we recommend adding Sentinel Pass onto the Larch Valley hike for even more spectacular mountain views.

If you look closely you can see the switchbacks up to Sentinel Pass

If you look closely you can see the switchbacks up to Sentinel Pass

Before you get to the trail that heads up to the pass there is a pretty lake which makes a good spot to take a break and have a snack or some lunch.

Read next: Revelstoke hikes for a perfect weekend break and The best Jasper hikes for jaw-dropping views


Sentinel Pass

Sentinel Pass Stats

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 1.55km from the end of the Larch Valley hike(one way)
Elevation: 181 metres additional to the Larch Valley hike

At first glance, Sentinel Pass looks pretty precarious, incredibly steep and potentially slippery. I was wondering whether I would even make it to the top. From the foot of the trail, all you see are steep switchbacks carved into the side of what looks like a scree slope!

Luckily this is deceptive. The Sentinel Pass track is surprisingly wide when you’re on it (well compared to how it looks anyway!), and is well graded and nowhere near as steep as it looks. Our Apple Watch calculated an elevation gain of 180m in just under 2km - not a flat hike, but not one that will make your legs burn either!

The start of the switchbacks to Sentinel Pass

The start of the switchbacks to Sentinel Pass

It can get a little muddy if there’s been recent rain but overall it really isn’t too difficult. The views from the trail looking back at the lake, larches and snow-capped mountains is reason enough to go on and that’s before you’ve seen the views on the other side!

Hiking up to the Sentinel Pass

Once you have got up the switchbacks you have made it to the pass and there are some terrific views of Paradise Valley which you can’t see until you’ve made it to this point.

If you want to go a little higher there is a very short and easy scramble up some rocks to get an arguably better view. We stopped here for ages revelling in the outstanding beauty of the whole mountain range.

The scramble up to Sentinel Pass
The column in the middle is the Sentinel, a favourite of rock climbers

The column in the middle is the Sentinel, a favourite of rock climbers

The view from the Sentinel Pass

If you want a longer hike and don’t mind hitching a ride back to your car you can actually carry on down into Paradise Valley and out onto Moraine Lake Road. We met a few people doing this and it sounded a lot of fun but after our 4am start we were happy with what we’d done.

Read next: 10 beautiful hikes in Tofino, Vancouver Island

The descent

I had been a bit nervous about descending Sentinel Pass but it turned out to be fine - I did have walking poles with me though!

The Larch Valley from the Sentinel Pass

Once you’re back at the lake it’s smooth sailing all the way as you’re back on that excellent path which makes for quick walking - or it would have if we didn’t stop to take photos every other minute!

Descending the Larch Valley Hike

We always prefer loop hikes but the beauty of this one is that the views look different in the other direction so we felt like it was a new trail until we hit the forest.

It won’t be long before you’re back at the lakeshore where you can be staggered all over again by that blue water!

Read next: 14 things to do in Winnipeg, Manitoba and The best things to do in Riding Mountain National Park


Essential info about Larch Valley Hike

Where is the Larch Valley?

The Larch Valley is above Moraine Lake and heads towards Lake Louise. The trail to the Larch Valley starts from the shore walk at Moraine Lake.

 


Bears on the Larch Valley hike

This is prime grizzly territory and there may be a group restriction in place (minimum of four hikers). For our hike it was recommended but not mandatory. If it’s mandatory please heed it, for your own safety but also because if you’re caught not in a group by a ranger you will be fined.

Four bears were spotted in the area on the morning we hiked although we didn’t see any ourselves. Don’t worry if there’s a group restriction in place and you don’t have four people - it’s a popular hike and it would be easy to join up with people.


Banff National Park entrance fee

The Larch Valley hike falls under Banff National Park and requires purchasing a permit before you visit. You can buy it on Highway 1, but the queues here can be awful.

You can buy it online by clicking here to go to the Banff & Lake Louise Tourism website. It costs $9.80 CAD per person per day ($7 USD).

If you plan on visiting multiple National Parks in Canada, you could look at the annual pass. It costs $136.40 CAD ($102 USD) for a whole car and will get you entry to 80 parks in Canada.


Best time to do the Larch Valley hike

The absolute best time to do this hike is in fall for the exceptional colours. You tend to get some good colour from around the second week of September, we hiked in the third week and we’d say around 80% of the trees had turned.

If you can’t visit in fall this is still a great hike and well worth doing. The Moraine Lake Road closes each year roughly between late October and late May - but this is all subject to snow fall and avalanche risk so it’s worth checking ahead of time if your dates fall into a time when the road might potentially close.


Facilities at Moraine Lake

As well as the small car park Moraine Lake has pit toilets and a cafe which serves drinks and snacks. If you have opted to drive and not take the shuttle that cafe will probably be a godsend for the chance to have a coffee and a muffin before you set off - it’s not cheap or particularly tasty but definitely needed with such an early start!


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Are you planning a trip to Banff? Have you ever seen Fall colours like the Larch Valley Hike? Let us know in the comments below!


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