The 5 ‘Golden Larches’ Hikes in Kananaskis You Can’t Miss!

Avatar

Where’s the best place to enjoy fall in Alberta? On the hiking trails of Kananaskis, where the sheet of emerald green covering the mountains starts turning a brilliant golden hue in late September-early October. This is due to the prevalence of Larch trees spread out across Kananaskis, which only grow above 1800m in elevation. For a few weeks in early autumn, their green needles turn bright gold, drawing hordes of hikers to experience this phenomenon up close.

Kananaskis is renowned as the ideal place for larch viewing, so below are the top 5 larch viewing hikes in Kananaskis, just in time for the ‘Golden Larches’ season!

1. Pocaterra Cirque and Ridge

Cirque

Distance
6.9km roundtrip

Trail type
Out and back

Elevation
415m

Level
Easy/ moderate

Ridge

Distance
9.9km roundtrip

Trail type
Out and back

Elevation
550m

Level
Difficult

Dog Friendly? Yes, on a leash
Kid friendly: Cirque is good for children, but Ridge is not recommended for younger children
Busy? Very! Crowded on weekends, arrive early AM. 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Aleasha Cruse (@allilynncruse) on

The Pocaterra Cirque and Ridge hikes are favourites year round (well, June to October!) in Kananaskis, but they are particularly spellbinding in the autumn. As summer fades all too quickly from the memories of Albertans, the upper elevations of the Rocky Mountains contain a feast for the senses in the form of golden larch trees. Found only above 1800m in elevation, larche needles turn a unique golden hue for a few weeks in early-autumn, and the result is jaw-droppingly beautiful for hikers. Pocaterra Cirque and Ridge have become favourite hikes for the slightly more adventurous seeking larch viewing (as opposed to Ptarmigan Ridge, which is great for larches, but an easier hike). 

Insider tip: An alternative to avoid the full parking lots is to go south from north, starting at the Little Highwood parking lot instead

Directions from Calgary

2. Ptarmigan Cirque 

Distance
4.2km roundtrip

Trail type
Loop

Elevation
271m

Level
Moderate

Dog Friendly? Yes, on a leash
Kid friendly? Yes, great for kids!
Busy? Heavily trafficked on weekends, sometimes empty mid-week!

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by C H L O E (@chloedeutscher) on

The Ptarmigan Cirque is the most famous – and consequently, busy– larch viewing hike in Kananaskis. Its popularity stems from it being a relatively short hike with less of an elevation change than many K-Country hikes, making it ideal for families and leisurely hikers.  Thought to be the most scenic short hike in Kananaskis, its elevation gain is mostly in switchbacks within the first kilometre of the trail. In autumn this is made less taxing with the wonderful golden larches the trail takes you through. As the path levels off and emerges into a flowery meadow, a jaw dropping view filled with larches and mountain peaks is the well-earned reward.

Insider tip: This hike has amazing payoffs, chase glacier waterfalls here!

Directions from Calgary

3. Chester lake

Distance
9.3km

Trail type
Out and Back

Elevation
419m

Level
Moderate

Dogs allowed? Yes, on a leash
Kid friendly? Yep!
Busy? Heavily trafficked

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Mike Morrison (@mikesbloggity) on

A hike that will please everyone, Chester Lake is a longer hike, but with moderate elevation gain to take away a bit of the sting. Accessed off the Smith-Dorrien Trail, the hike is frequented by hikers, bikers (for the first 2km only), snow showers and cross country skiers (in winter) and fly-fishing enthusiasts. That’s right, the small, alpine Chester Lake –the destination of the hike– is a renowned fishing spot with ample Cutthroat and Dolly Varden Trout. Once arriving at the lake, hikers will be impressed by the turquoise, mirrored water providing clear reflections of the rocky peaks surrounding it. It is possible to hike around the lake and clamber up parts of the mountainside, from which the most amazing views of golden larches are spread out before you from the direction you came. Chester Lake is a long hike with a tremendous reward waiting for you!

Insider tip: If the area is still smoky, Chester lake is a perfect option since elevation gain is minimum compared to the other hikes.

Directions from Calgary

4. Arethusa Cirque

Distance
4.5km

Trail type
Loop

Elevation
378m

Level
Moderate

Dogs allowed? Yes, on a leash
Kid friendly? No
Busy? Moderately trafficked

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Mandy Gommerud (@mrs_mandyann) on

Kananaskis has an abundance of well maintained, official trails, but sometimes the adventurous want to get a little off the beaten path. Arethusa Cirque is an unofficial trail south of Ptarmigan Cirque that delivers much the same views and larch experience as its more well known neighbour, but with much less foot traffic. One might assume they would feel like an early explorer meandering their way through the forest of an unofficial trail, but don’t let the term fool you: there are flagging tape markings which direct you on the trail and the Cirque is visible most of the way, giving a sense of direction to the unofficial trail. The Cirque is reached through a golden larch forest and the views back towards the trail head are truly mesmerizing, the golden larches in all their glory. And the best part is, there’s a good chance you and your group could have the view all to yourselves!

Directions from Calgary

5. Yates Mountain via Prairie View Trail

Distance
11.6km

Trail type
Out and Back

Elevation
699m

Level
Moderate

Dogs allowed? Yes, on a leash
Kid friendly? No
Busy? Heavily trafficked on weekends, arrive early or mid-week!

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Richelle (@rickeybruyks) on

Many of the great hikes in Kananaskis are a good distance into the provincial park, where the mountain ranges get more dense. But the Yates Mountain hike starts at Barrier Lake, a mere 10 kilometers from the Highway 40 turn-off from the TransCanada Highway. From the parking lot, walk the length of the Barrier Dam to reach the trailhead and begin the journey up the mountain through the forest. After about a 5km journey you will reach a series of clearings with postcard views of the shimmering lake with the commanding presence of Mount Baldy on the opposite side. Continuing towards the summit, hikers will encounter the first high point called Prairie View, looking eastwards towards the open flats, with Calgary’s skyline even in view. But you came for the summit and the larch view, and reaching the top (which doubles as a fire ranger lookout) provides southward views of the entirety of Kananaskis. The panorama gives a startling view of larch growth, providing a big picture glimpse into the elevation at which larch trees start to flourish, where the green line turns gold at 1800m. You’ve reached your goal, and while  the descent means the summit view is fleeting, the location of Barrier Lake allows you to beat the traffic out of Kananaskis. 

Directions from Calgary

Tips

  • These hikes attract large crowds during weekends, go midweek or super early morning to avoid!
  • Best time to see the larches is from the 4th week of September to 1st week of October. Any earlier they will still be turning color, any later it will start getting chilly!
  • The Larch Valley closer to Lake Louise draws crowds this season due to its name. Larch viewing in Kananaskis is more abundant and both closer and FREE!
  • Bear sightings are not uncommon in this area. Bring bear spray just in case.
  • Completely new to hiking or want some local alpine wisdom? Get a guided tour of the Highwood Pass larch hikes with Kananaskis Outfitters.
  • Grab a lunch before or after at Market Cafe or Forte Restaurant.

 

Leave a Comment