Larch March

After such a strenuous hike on Saturday, we decided to take the day off from outdoor activities and drive down to the hot springs in Banff to soak our weary legs and sore feet. The naturally heated spring water is maintained at 100ºF and has a very slight sulphur odor. Very refreshing – and in a beautiful setting, to boot! I took this picture of the hot spring as we were leaving:

After our soak, we contemplated taking the nearby Banff Gondola up to the top of Sulphur Mountain, but decided against it due to the cost ($56/ea) and wait time (75 minutes) and the fact that we had hiked to higher and better views. Instead, we opted to drive into the town of Banff to stroll the streets and find somewhere for lunch. Lunch was good, but the town, which reminded me of Aspen, Colorado, was crowded, so we didn’t linger.

Monday morning, we woke early and drove to Moraine Lake Trailhead, elevation 6,200 feet, arriving before sunrise which is necessary this time of year in order to be able to get a parking spot. The tourists and locals all turn out to see the larches change color for Autumn. Or so we had been told. When we arrived, the parking area was already almost full, but not, apparently, with hikers. This crowd, already assembled on the Lake Moraine Rockpile – a jumble of boulders, the result of an ancient landslide – was here to photograph the Golden Hour of sunrise…

… as it lit up the lake and opposing mountain peaks.

We opted to forgo the Rockpile, starting our hike up to Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass instead. There was almost no one on the trail and we were able to get an even better Golden Hour photo en route uphill.

Moraine Lake, Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass are all in Banff National Park, Canada’s oldest national park, founded in 1885. The trail up to Larch Valley switched back and forth through a forest of firs a number of times before suddenly opening up with a splash of gold, our first close encounter with larches.

Here, the mountain was alive in gold, these trees tending to grow together to the exclusion of other species.

The larch is a deciduous conifer, to my knowledge, the only evergreen whose needles change color in Autumn and then drop from the branches. The rest of the year, the larches’ needles are green, just like any other conifer. Here in Larch Valley, the ground was littered with golden needles. In fact, the needles were so thick that at first we thought there was some sort of golden ground cover plant growing on the forest floor.

There are three species of larch in Canada – this one is called Lyall’s Larch. Its needles grow along the trees’ branches in clumps that, when golden, are soft as a feather duster.

Ascending the rise, we crossed a depressed meadow that held the cold, morning air, resulting in frost all around, as you can see in the photo, below.

Passing through Larch Valley, we gained altitude and soon arrived at Minnestimma Lake, elevation 8,000 feet, and the trail up to Sentinel Pass which is another 600 feet higher up:

The trail to the pass is not for the faint-of-heart, winding to the right around the lake and then making several switchbacks over loose gravel and stones at a severe angle. If you look closely, below, you should be able to make out the switchbacks.

There were times on the hike up that I had a sensation of vertigo, probably a result of the tilted horizon, coupled with my myopic focus on the narrow trail. I assume Dale had the same experience, but we weren’t talking to each other as we hiked this segment; we were concentrating on keeping our footing. But we made it to the top and the view of the Wenkchemna Peaks, towering above Larch Valley, below, made it worth the effort.

We celebrated our accomplishment.

Here’s a view of the other side of the pass. No larch there.

We sat and admired the scenery for a while and had a light lunch of trail mix, contemplating our descent.

We were joined by several other hikers at the top and then saw more on their way up. It was going to get crowded on this little patch of real estate.

so, we made our way back down at nearly double the speed of our ascent.

We didn’t think anything could match our Yoho Valley to Iceline hike from a couple days ago, but this one sure came close. Total distance, 8 miles, with an ascent of 2,400 feet. Plus, larches!

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