Larch Valley/Sentinel Pass
Banff National Park
Time: 5 hours (average is about 7 hours but we hiked it very quickly)
Distance: 7.0 (return from the lake) + 5 km (return from the pass)
Elevation Gain: 532 m (to lake) + 200 m (to pass)
How To Get There: From the Moraine Lake parking lot, walk counterclockwise around the lake until you reach the sign that indicates the start of Larch Valley. Turn right at this sign.
Today was the first day I was going to be hiking with my brother-in-law, Kalvin. I was really excited because we had been planning to go on a hike together since January. We had flipped through a few hiking books before he finally landed on this hike as his final choice. And what a great choice it was! My brother loves a challenge and climbing the switchbacks to the Pass was definitely that.
It was an early morning as we left from Calgary at around 6:00 am. Since the trail started at Moraine Lake it was important that we got there earlier than 9:00 am so that we wouldn't have to walk too far to get to the actual lake itself. The forecast was calling for plus 17 degrees with a chance of thundershowers. As we reached the trailhead, we were lucky enough to be surrounded by nothing but blue sky.
The first 3 kilometers (give or take a few hundred meters) is the exact same as when you are heading towards Eiffel Lake. To see a description of this part of the trail, please click here. I think Kalvin and I set a new record when we finished the 3 km of switchbacks within 30 minutes. I think I finally met my match when it comes to hiking speediness!
Once we reached the fork in the trail, we headed off to our right (left takes you to Eiffel Lake).
The first part of the trail that leads to Larch Valley is a gradual uphill through a forest, following along a graveled path until you begin passing by the titular Larch trees themselves.
Since we were hiking in the summer, the pine needles were still a light green. However, in the fall the larches turn a wonderful yellow and attract tourists from all over the world. This trail can get incredibly crowded during this time of the year so it's actually best to go before the fall colours develop. For a brief moment, the larch trees open up to a small meadow as you cross a small wooden bridge.
This is when you get your first real look at the famed 'Ten Peaks'.
Once you get past the small meadow and duck back through the larches for another short bit, you find yourself coming up to a beautiful and vast alpine meadow that is dotted with boulders, wildflowers and a few random bodies of water. Not far off you can see Sentinel Pass nestled in between Pinnacle Mountain and Mount Temple. When you look behind you, you are greeted with the stunning wall of the Ten Peaks.
The meadow seemed as good as spot as any to take a moment and have a snack so we perched ourselves on a larger rock and chowed down on some beef jerky and chocolate covered almonds.
After our snack break, it was just another few hundred meters before we reached Minestimma Lake.
After inspecting the clear blue lake for a few minutes, we moved off to the right of the lake where the trail immediately begins to ascend upwards in a series of short and grueling switchbacks. The first part of the ascent up to Sentinel Pass is covered with large rocky scree that eventually fades away into a smoother dirt path.
Once you reach the part of the trail that sits right beneath the pass, you are treated to a great view of the lakes and alpine meadow below.
The last part of the ascent to the top of the pass is across three widespread switchbacks. It's a difficult ascension but the views at the top are definitely worth it.
Getting to the top of the actual pass means scrambling up a boulder pile where you will be accompanied by numerous overly friendly chipmunks. Once on top of the pass, you are able to gaze upon paradise valley in all it's glory.
After taking a few more pictures, Kalvin and I sat down to finish off the rest of our lunch (and fight off intruding chipmunks).
Once we had had our fill of food and the view, we began making our way carefully back down the pile of boulders.
This trail definitely lived up to my expectations and I can see why it's so popular. It offers fantastic views and a great physical challenge to get to the top of the pass. I absolutely loved it and would do it again in a heart beat!