Conquest of Larch Valley
My fourth day in Banff started out like the others, an early wakeup call and I was off to breakfast. The difference was the light rain that had enveloped the town. The rain that everyone had been warned about had finally come. It was predicted that it would rain almost every day of my visit. I had been spared my first three days but it had finally come. Thoughts went through my head, “would the precipitation get worse?” I stayed positive during breakfast and geared up for the hike to Larch Valley. This hike, along with Johnston Canyon that was closed, was my top destination so my anticipation was high. I went outside to wait for the hiking tour van to pick me up and the intensity of the rain had gotten worse. Nine hikers and one guide, we all had the same thoughts; would the weather deter us from ascending to Larch Valley? The guide said aloud that the weather in Moraine Lake could be better since it was almost an hour drive and at a higher elevation. We had hoped that the rain was less intense at Moraine Lake where the trailhead was located. As I exited the van, we noticed the rain had just become a light sprinkle. The trail was definitely accomplishable. The sign at the trailhead stated that this trail was limited to groups of four or more hikers due to high bear activity before their hibernation period. This is the primary reason why I paid for the guided hike.
We quickly made our way to the trail and found our way to the dreaded switchbacks and ascended to the valley. The trail is rated moderate and I would agree with the rating. It’s definitely an intermediate hike with a distance of about 6.7 miles up and back and an elevation climb of 2400 feet. The lure of Larch Valley is the trees that occupy the terrain.
The Larch tree needles turn orange during the autumn season and it is a sight to behold. The valley is also a midpoint to some much longer trails and peaks. Halfway up the switchback it started to snow, much to our delight. For someone from southern California, hiking in the snow was an added treat. We made it past the switchbacks and the pine trees of the lower elevation had disappeared and the forest had become the much heralded Larch trees that can only be found in Canada and Siberia. Visibility was hampered and the ten peaks that surround the valley were not all fully visible. We stop at an area where there were three benches and a perfect place to have lunch. With snow came lower temperatures and as I ate my sandwich, my hands become quite cold. I couldn’t eat anything else as the only thing that occupied my mind was how cold my hands were so I had to put my gloves on. Also, I had to get my camera out to take photos of this wonderful valley. Hunger was not my primary concern at the time.
The hike would continue to a small lake below the Sentinel Pass Trail, in the shadows of the towering peaks. On our way to the lake, we could hear avalanches occurring around us. Like thunder they crashed all around us. They were of no threat as they were of some distance from us. By this time, the valley was now covered in snow, a winter wonderland in the first week of October.
We had reached our destination, the lake, were I took another break and another chance to take several photos. Snowfall had ceased before we reached the lake and more of the peaks were visible. It was now time to make our decent to the lower valley and the temperature had climbed. The snow on the ground was now melting and using the trail we were on as its corridor to the lower elevation. The trail was a little tricky but still manageable. By the time we reached the switchbacks, the sky was clear and all remnants of snow had disappeared.
We could see Moraine Lake through the pine trees as we made the hike down. The hue of the lake was a brilliant turquoise, much brighter than my first visit two days before when the skies were over cast. We all used our hiking poles down the trail as the path had become slippery due to the earlier rain and the snowmelt. This was not a hosted excursion but I wanted to mention that Discover Banff Tours managed to put together a magnificent hike and our guide Ed was excellent.
By the time we reached the bottom the whole of Moraine Lake had become visible. We had some time left to take in the beauty of this lake and I took full advantage of it as I made my way to the top of the rock pile. Even though I was here two days ago, it was like viewing a different lake as the water was now gleaming like a gem.
The hike and Larch Valley didn’t disappoint. Although, the weather was not ideal and visability was not clear, it was an experience I won’t forget. The conquest of Larch Valley was complete. As I mentioned earlier, the snowfall was an added bonus for me and this was the single best experience of my holiday.