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The most famous hiking trail during fall in Banff is the stunning Larch Valley hike. This moderately difficult trail is truly magnificent and I’ve had it on my bucket list for a long time. Recently, I got to finally enjoy the Larch Valley trail, and the best part? I did it during larch season!
I hiked among breathtaking autumn colors with cool crisp air and mountain views. I must say, this spectacular trail is easily one of the best things to do in Banff.
However, hiking the Larch Valley trail wasn’t without its difficulties. In fact, if you want to enjoy the Larch Valley hike during fall or even any other time of the year, you need to be prepared for an early morning. The reason?
The Larch Valley hike starts from Moraine Lake (arguably the busiest lake in Canada.) So, if you want to enjoy the Larch Valley as I did then read on. In this blog, I’ll explain everything you need to know before you go including how to get parking at Moraine Lake!
Larch Valley Hike Overview
Distance: 4.3 kilometers (each way)
Elevation gain: 535 meters
Time needed: 5 – 6 hours
Type of Trail: Out and back
The Larch Valley hike is a moderately difficult trail that begins with a steep climb up to the Larch Valley. This climb gains roughly 450 meters in elevation and takes around 1.5 hours. Once in the Larch Valley, the trail flattens out to a slight incline until you reach the end of the trail where you’ll find Minnestimma Lakes (small alpine tarns.)
Along the trail, you can enjoy stunning mountain views as well as wildflowers in the summer and the beautiful colors of Larch trees in the fall. There is also the option to hike on a little further to Sentential Pass. This extra 1.5-kilometer trail (each way) takes you to a viewpoint overlooking Paradise Valley on the other side of the mountain pass. In good weather, it’s well worth checking out!
Overall I think the Larch Valley hike is one of the best in Banff any time of the year. However, Larch season (in autumn) does prove to be a once in a lifetime time to visit!
Read next: Another great hike near the Larch Valley is Lake Agnes Tea House Trail. The hike to Lake Agnes is slightly easier but just as beautiful especially during fall.
Larch Valley Hike FAQs
The best time to hike the Larch Valley is during Larch season between mid-September and early-October (depending on the year.) However, you can hike the Larch Valley anytime during the summer months when the road to Moraine Lake is open (read this blog for more on wildflower season.)
Yes, you can. The trail is not only dog-friendly, but the moderate difficulty of the trail makes it easy for dogs. Dogs just need to be on a leash and you must clean up after them.
Bears a common in the Larch Valley especially during wildflower season and fall. During times of grizzly bear activity, it is required to hike in groups of four or more. This will be signposted at the trailhead.
The Larch Valley is labeled as a moderate trail, however, I would put it on the easier side of moderate.
What to Pack to Hike the Larch Valley Trail
Bear spray – As I mentioned above, this is bear country, and grizzly bears frequent the area. You should always carry bear spray with you on the Larch Valley Hike.
Flashlight – If you plan on hiking early in the morning a flashlight is a great idea. We personally hiked through the dark to reach the Larch Valley for sunrise.
Snacks – It’s a long enough hike that snacks and even lunch would be a great idea.
Hiking poles – If you have bad knees then hiking poles would be helpful on the Larch Valley trail. The trail is wide and free from rocks a shale so hiking poles work great.
Warm clothes – It may be warmer at Moraine Lake but in the Larch Valley, you are exposed to high winds that come over Sentential Pass. It gets cold!
Best Time to Hike the Larch Valley
The best time to explore the Larch Valley is during Larch season in fall. Larch season runs from the middle of September to the beginning of October with the best time usually (it changes every year) around the 25th of September.
The season can happen earlier or later, however, after experiencing two Larch seasons in Banff (one later and one earlier) traveling around September 25th is a safe bet as it falls right in the middle of peak Larch season.
The second best time (preferred by many) is in late July when the wildflower season is in full bloom. During this time of year the crowds are nowhere near the size they are during Larch season and the wildflowers are stunning. Oh, and it’s also warmer!
Personally though, nothing beats Larch season! Then colors of the Larch trees are nothing short of amazing!
Read next: If you’re looking for a hike to really test your fitness consider doing the Heart Mountian Horseshoe Loop. We loved this challenging hike and it’s actually on our list of the 33 best things to do in Canmore.
Getting to Moraine Lake to Hike the Larch Valley
The Larch Valley trail starts from the Moraine Lake parking lot. For this reason, the hardest part about hiking the Larch Valley trail isn’t actually the walking involved. Nope, instead, it’s the early morning required to get a parking spot at Moraine Lake.
To get a parking spot at Moraine Lake you’ll need to arrive before 5:30 am during any time of the year, and during Larch season, as early as 4:30 am! Of course, this does change slightly day by day and depends on whether it a weekend or not. Here’s what I’ve found based on my multiple visits:
Summer weekday: 5:30 am
Summer weekend: 5:00 am
Larch season weekday: 5:30 am
Larch season weekend: 4:30 am
These above times are intended to ensure you get a spot. You can test the limits a little, but once it’s full you won’t get back into the parking lot until much later (if at all.) The reason?
Parks Canada actually closes the access road to the Moraine Lake car parking lot every morning from about 8 am until 5 pm. During this time, traffic controllers are in place and they only open the road once 15 cars have left, letting in another 15. They do this in order to prevent unnecessary congestion on this windy road and in the small car parking lot. It also prevents illegal parking and limits visitor numbers at Moraine Lake at any one time.
It’s also important to note that from the main road you can’t turn left directly onto the road to Moraine Lake (no left turn allowed.) Instead, you are required to drive all the way up to Lake Louise and the loop all the way back to Moraine Lake turnoff where you can turn right.
That means you have to be driving past Moraine Lake Road at the exact time they let in 15 cars. If you’re not, you’ll have to drive down to Lake Louise Village, do a U-turn, and complete the circuit again until you get lucky and are let in by one of the traffic controllers. Each circuit takes around 30 minutes when the traffic is bad. It’s honestly a nightmare and a serious test of patience.
That brings me to my next recommendation…
If you don’t want to get up early then you need to take one of the shuttles either from Lake Louise Village or Banff town. These shuttles start at around 8 am and you can read all about them on the Parks Canada website.
Parking at Moraine Lake is a lot of effort, but the shuttles get to Moraine Lake too late for me. That’s why I get there so early…
Larch Valley Trailhead and Climb
Once parked, dropped off using the bus, or you’re one of the lucky ones staying at the Moraine Lake Lodge, it’s time to finally start the hike!
If you did park, you probably need to wait a little while as it’s likely dark otherwise you could hike in the dark as I did. Another option is to enjoy the sunrise at Moraine Lake. This is another bucket list experience and Bailey and I actually got engaged here during sunrise in 2019!
The Larch Valley hike starts along the Moraine Lake Lakeshore trail. This is the same side of the lake as the hotel so just walk towards the hotel along the lakeshore. Eventually, you’ll come to a sign that marks that start of the Larch Valley hike. Here, turn right and you are officially on the trail.
At the start, the Larch Valley hike is nice. It begins with an incline, however, it’s not that steep and there are flat areas to give your legs a rest. But shortly after this, you’ll hit the switchbacks.
This section consists of 10 large switchbacks (yes, I counted them) where the path goes nowhere but up. It’s tiring!
Thankfully it does end and you’ll know it has (if you didn’t count the switchbacks) once you get to a sign that points to the Larch Valley in one direction and Eiffel Lake in another. This is the official start of the Larch Valley.
Exploring the Larch Valley
The hard part is over! Yes!
Honestly, one reason the Larch Valley is so amazing is that the hard part of the hike is over once you get there. Now it’s time to take a slow stroll along the Larch Valley and enjoy the magnificent views around you!
The hike to the end of the trail takes around 45 minutes from here and at the end be sure to stop at Minnestimma Lakes. On a calm day, the reflections of the larch trees are out of this world. I’ve only seen photos though, the day I went it felt like a tropical cyclone was on its way! Let’s hope you have more luck with the weather than I did!
As you get closer to the end you’ll want to turn around. These amazing views show a sea of yellow (if you’re here during Larch season) with the famous 10 Peaks in the background.
It’s truly one of earth’s greatest views!
Hiking to Sentential Pass
Distance: 1.5 kilometers (each way) from end of Larch Valley
Elevation gain: 170 meters
Time needed: 2 hours
Type of Trail: Out and back
After exploring the Larch Valley there is a short add on to the trail to Sentential Pass. The day I went it was so windy it would not have been safe to explore the mountain pass, so we didn’t. However, if you get better weather then it’s something you should consider doing.
We started to hike the trail and it’s pretty much a large switchback that climbs up the pass. It’s not very steep and only takes around 30 minutes to complete. Once at the top you can then explore the pass and enjoy the views. We turned back halfway up as the gusts of wind were simply too strong!
Read next: After the Larch Valley consider check out all the best breweries in Banff. In our guide, we show you the 3 best to check out in the area!
Essential Things to Know
Canada Parks Pass
The Larch Valley is in Banff National Park so you do need a valid Canada Parks Pass to do the hike and park at Moraine Lake. This can be purchased at the gates coming into Banff National Park or online.
Bailey and I prefer online and we actually have a yearly family pass (up to 7 people in one car) that cost $140 CAD.
If you’re just here for the day, its $9.80 per person per day.
This is Bear Country
The Larch Valley trail is not just a great place for humans to visit. In fact, it’s frequented by grizzly bears. For this reason, there is either a recommendation to hike in groups of 4 or more, or it will be a requirement (depending on bear sightings in the area in that particular year.)
If it is required and you aren’t in a group then just wait for other hikers at the trailhead and join them! If you get caught in a smaller group you can be fined!
Also, carry bear spray and make lots of noise. When we hiked up in the dark, I will admit that we were a little scared!
Where to Stay
When visiting the Larch Valley for Larch season often people stay in Banff. I too have done this, however, on my last visit I decided to stay in Lake Louise Village. The main reason is that it’s closer. From Banff to Moraine Lake is takes around 45 minutes to an hour. From Lake Louise, about 10 minutes. When you consider the fact you need to be at Moraine Lake so early, the extra sleep is a no-brainer.
Besides the distance, there are plenty of delicious restaurants in Lake Louise as well as hotels to spend the night. It is a nice place to stay and more peaceful than Banff.
Some great options for places to stay in Lake Louise include:
Hi Lake Louise
For budget travelers coming to Lake Louise, the Hi Lake Louise is by far the best option. They have dorm beds and budget doubles with an onsite kitchen and restaurant. I’ve stayed on multiple occasions and love this hostel.
Baker Creek Mountain Resort
If you have a bigger budget and want a place to stay a little more unique, the Baker Creek Mountain Resort stands out. Located in the wilderness around 11 kilometers from Lake Louise this cabin-style hotel is truly in paradise. This would be the perfect stay for wilderness lovers!
You can check it out on Booking.com
Fairmont Château Lake Louise
The ultimate luxury stay in Lake Louise has to go to the Fairmont Château Lake Louise. This spectacular hotel overlooks Lake Louise and makes getting to Lake Moraine and Lake Lousie super easy. If location and luxury are important to you, this is the best hotel.
You can check it out on Booking.com
Obviously, if you’re here for more than just Moraine Lake and the Larch Valley trail then it’s very tempting to stay in Banff. The reason? Banff is such a lively place and Lake Louise just doesn’t have that atmosphere nor the quality of restaurants and shops.
Below are a couple top choices for places to stay in Banff, but if you want more recommendations and details then be sure to read our blog about all of the best hotels in Banff!
There aren’t many budget options in Banff but this is one of the few. One of the cheapest is Samesun Banff. Although cheap the hotel/hostel still has great reviews. With dorms and privates available it’s a great choice.
Moose Hotel and Suites
In the mid-range, there are so many great options in Banff. A place I’ve stayed at before and love is Moose Hotel and Suites. The hotel has the most amazing hot tub on the roof as well as a fitness center and restaurant and bar.
You can check it out on Booking.com
Fairmont Banff Springs
Once again for the most luxurious option, the Fairmont takes the cake. This hotel is actually out of this world and is more of a castle than a hotel. In fact, touring the grounds is actually a thing to do in Banff! Honestly check it out!
You can check it out on Booking.com
Canada Travel Essentials
Before you decide to head off and explore the gorgeous mountains, lakes, towns, and cities around Canada it’s important to have the right equipment. Of course, it’s likely you’ll have most of the basics already but there are some common items people forget that I never travel without.
Crampons: In winter crampons are super handy, but what people don’t realize is that they come in handy in summer too. In fact, up until mid-July, you can still expect icy conditions in the mountains. The pair I use is only $29 and they have lasted me 3 seasons so far!
Waterproof shell: Most people will have this item but I thought I’d include it anyway since it’s so handy in Canada. The Columbia waterproof jacket is a lightweight windproof jacket that will seriously save you in many situations. The best part though? It comes in pink!
Scent-proof bag (for bears): Most people think you only need to keep the smell of food away from you when you’re overnight camping. However, bears can smell the food in your bag while you’re hiking and the best way to avoid an encounter is to use a scent-proof bear bag. Basically, you put your food in the bag and the bear cannot smell it while you’re hiking. This is one item most people never have (I never hike without it) but it could save you and the bear.
Buff: I love my buff! Seriously, I go nowhere without it both in winter and summer. There are a few brands around but I always buy the original Buff (you know, the one from Survivor!) They’re a little more expensive but the material is good quality and both breathable and quick drying.
Dry bag: I have expensive camera equipment so I always travel with a dry bag large enough to fit some of my equipment. It can be a camera, book, binoculars, or even my keys. Regardless, a dry bag gives me peace of mind! The MARCHWAY bag is really good quality, and when not in use, takes up only a small amount of room.
Binoculars: I love my binoculars! Seriously they have come in hand so many times especially when I’m looking for wildlife. The best part is, I use a set that only costs $27 and they serve my basic needs without any issues!
Renting a Car in Alberta
If you’re arriving in Alberta via plane then I can’t recommend getting a rental car enough. Canada is a large country and traveling between cities and even just getting out to the best attractions within them requires transport. Although you can use public transport on some occasions it means your trip will not only require more time but more planning.
Car rental in Canada is relatively cheap especially if you get a budget car. The cheapest car with a pickup and drop-off in different locations is around $70 CAD per day. The price does vary though depending on the time of year. For car rentals, I use the website Rental Cars.com. It’s a search engine with lots of deals with good customer service. In fact, I’ve used them all over the world including Chile, New Zealand, and Australia.
Another popular option is to rent a campervan or motorhome (only for the brave in winter.) Using Motorhome Republic you can search hundreds of deals across multiple companies to pick a great vehicle and the cheapest price. Having a motorhome is a stunning way to see Canada and using crown land and campsites you can often camp for free or very cheap in the most beautiful places imaginable!
Before you go…
The Larch Valley hike is truly one of the most breathtaking trails in Canada and should be part of every Banff itinerary. I can’t believe it took me this long to do it! Next time I want to hike it in wild flower season and hopefully spot a grizzly bear!
If you found this guide helpful be sure to read more of our Canada blogs. We have so much on the Rocky Mountains.