Larch Valley and Valley of the Ten Peaks: The Most Beautiful Hiking Trail in Autumn
The Valley of the Ten Peaks in Banff National Park, Alberta, is a picturesque landscape that has inspired many painters and artists. So spectacular, that it graced the backside of the 1969, and 1979 twenty dollar bill. All ten peaks are over 10,000 ft high, aligned together creating a massive mountain presence, surrounding an enormous valley. At the Lake Moraine shoreline, you can see the iconic view of Lake Moraine, along with these ten peaks behind it. On clear sunny days, in the early morning, you can see the stunning reflection of these peaks in the emerald water of Moraine Lake.
However, to get the best views of the Valley of the Ten Peaks, you will need to enter Larch Valley, stroll pass Minnestimma Lakes, and hike the Sentinel Pass trail. The Sentinel Pass trail is one of the highest trails in the Lake Louise area with an elevation gain of 2,378 ft. Larch Valley hike and Minnestimma Lakes is relatively moderate throughout, however, there are steeper sections as you enter the initial Sentinel Pass trail, and the final switchback at the end of Sentinel Pass, which takes you to the lookout. Ranging from east to west, the mountain peaks that can be seen on Sentinel Pass are Mount Fay, Mount Little, Mount Bowlen Mount Tonsa, Mount Perrern, Mount Allen, Mount Tuzo, Deltaform Mountain, Neptuak Mountain and Wenkchemna Peak. Sentinel Pass trail is rated as moderate to difficult, but being able to view not one, but over 10 profound peaks on Sentinel Pass is a great motivator to get past the steeper sections of the switchbacks.
Due to high levels of bear activity in the vicinity, this trail usually has a hiking restriction requiring a group of 4 or more. Masses of tourists come to the mountains at the beginning of September to see alpine larch trees, the deciduous conifers that are found at high elevation, so finding a large group of people to join is never a problem. Every autumn, their luscious green needles melt into brilliant gold, prompting thousands of tourists into hiking Larch Valley in order to walk into their magical golden forest.
Directions to Sentinel Pass Trailhead
Park your car in the parking area for Lake Moraine. The parking area can get full depending on the time of day, or if you are arriving on a weekend. If so, you might be forced to park way-way-way back on Moraine Lake Road. So plan on walking an extra distance just to get to the trail-head. As you follow the west lakeshore of Lake Moraine, you will see the typical signs marking the way to Larch Valley, and Sentinel Pass.
Larch Valley Hike Best Time
Historically, the best time to hike Larch Valley is the third and fourth weekend of September —the golden colours usually lasting two or three weeks.
Valley of the Ten Peaks: Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass
The first 2 km is a steady ascent through thick forest. Through the forest, you can see a few glimpses of the beautiful Moraine Lake and the Ten Peaks. And as you make your way onward and upward through the forest, you will encounter switchbacks, switchbacks, and more switchbacks. Finally, after a very long trek through the forest, you come to a fork in the road at about 2.7km. We noticed a nice size bench right away and took our much-needed snack break. We then took the right to continue to Larch Valley, Valley of the Ten Peaks and Sentinel Pass.
The road gradually increased in elevation, and shortly, green spruce trees gave way to incredible golden larches, surrounded by majestic snow-capped, glaciated mountain peaks. Once you reach Larch Valley and the Valley of the Ten Peaks, all a sudden, miles of forests you laboured through is forgotten in seconds as you marvelled at the beautiful and vast valley opened up before you. If our goal was Larch Valley, we have made our destination, but for the best view of the Valley of Ten Peaks, we still have a bit of work ahead of us. So for a long while, we sat down on one of the many available seating areas and took in the grandeur of our surroundings.
Along the trail in the beginning and towards the end of the valley, we heard the sound of thundering water. Curious, we explore some of the smaller, more hidden trails that deviated from the path, and found a magnificent waterfall and ravine, perfect for picnicking. Surrounded by lush alpine larch, and magnificent waterfalls and ravines, it was sensory overload for me. However, we couldn’t stay long since our final destination, Sentinel Pass is still ways to go.
Valley of the Ten Peaks and Larch Valley is enormous. You can spend the entire day just walking around the valley, taking in the beautiful views, and exploring the meadows to Minnestimma Lakes. As we look around, we noticed that this area, Larch Valley –at the moment the forest gives way to an enormous meadow, is where almost everyone stops. However, we continued on past the many satisfied tourists, further into the openness, and up Sentinel Pass. Here, the larger meadow is wide, the ground is soft with patches of snow and speckled with large boulders perfect for napping, snacking, or gazing at golden trees and glaciated mountain peaks. The creeks and lakes are emerald-green, larches are above, below, left and right of us, as we explored and continued our hike northward.
As you follow the trail northward leaving the Valley of the Ten Peaks, the trail starts turning towards and ascend the very base of Mount Temple. From the valley, it’s another 2.5 km, and close to 656 ft elevation gain as the trail traverse towards Pinnacle Mountain, making another two switchbacks before reaching the summit of Sentinel Pass. This area is full of loose rocks, so be watchful of falling rocks and debris. A large rolling rock came crashing down towards me around this area and had I not been warned, I wouldn’t have been here to write about this adventure. In the far distance, you can hear the echoing of avalanches. This pass is also very windy, so it’s a smart idea to pack a light, windproof jacket in your backpack.
As you reach Sentinel Pass, you can finally see over into the next valley called Paradise Valley. The view from here is spectacular. On one side is the panorama of Larch Valley with its magnificent mountain backdrop, and on the north side, a picturesque view of Paradise Valley can be seen with Mount Aberdeen towering over. The pinnacles that got Pinnacle Mountain its name are clearly visible from here. For the more adventurous, and physically fit, the scramble toward Mount Temple starts at this pass as well. Not to be attempted unless you have arranged a shuttle or dropped off a second vehicle to complete the circuit between the Paradise and Moraine parking lot.
Mount Temple is a major peak at 3543 m. This particular hiking route is considered a very difficult upward scramble and rock fall from hikers above is a major concern. Helmet, mountaineering and route finding experience is an absolute must if to be attempted as several people have lost their lives underestimating this scramble. As for us, the thought of challenging the next trailhead did not occur to us. It was 10 degree Celsius in Larch Valley, but as we stood there on Sentinel Pass lookout, it felt like and was probably minus 30 degree Celsius. Icicles were making shops on my nose, and taking more than 2 pictures at a time was painful. It was time to reverse our hike, before the path ice over completely.
Note: Valley of the Ten Peaks, Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass may be a bit strenuous. If you are not an avid hiker and prefer a less adventurous option, you might prefer the hiking at Jasper National Park. It is just as beautiful but much less physically challenging.
How to Prepare for a Hike:
Tips for Safe Hiking at Valley of the Ten Peaks, Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass
Being well-prepared is essential for any long day hike. However, hiking in Banff carries with it a few little extra you should keep in mind —if you want to challenge their trails.
Always let someone know what route you’re taking, and what time you expect to return.
Wear proper hiking shoes with good treads. During hiking, the tread on your shoe allows it to grip uneven surfaces, thus preventing slippage on downhill slopes. Most walking shoes or tennis shoes have light tread that isn’t suitable for uneven terrain, although they work quite well for flat trails. However, most hiking trails in Banff and Jasper have uneven terrains with random steep switchbacks, so it is much safer, and easier (on your feet) to wear proper hiking shoes. Here are some suggestions:
Weather in the mountains can change rapidly, so wear light layers, and make sure they’re waterproof. For this hike, I started with short sleeves and ended up wearing a North Face vest, and a light down jacket.
Pack high protein snacks for long hikes, and at least one liter of water. This one should be the first priority of every hiker —keeping yourself hydrated. The amount of water you need will change from person to person, and also depends on the climate —more water on hot days, lesser on cooler days. Generally, one litre is good for every three to four hours that you’ll be hiking, but it’s generally best to err on the side of caution and bring more. However, when doing longer trips it is impossible to bring all of your water with you.
When I first started hiking, I brought water bottles with me that took up a lot of space in my bag. As I started hiking more and more, I found that drinking water out of bottles seems very inefficient —crushed up water bottles take up space in your bag, not to mention rummaging through your pack to take it out, and then putting it back in. So, I do what most people do to solve this problem, I bought a 3L CamelBak, and brought it to all our hikes. You can buy the reservoir to put into your current pack, or you can buy a pack with the reservoir built-in. I love having options.
If you are doing a hike or backpacking trip that is long enough to justify not bringing all the required amount of water with you, then make sure to pack a filter to ensure that it is safe to consume stream or lake water, as even the cleanest of creeks may have bacteria in it. There are a variety of ways to filter water, ranging from pumps to UV pens to iodine tablets. It is best to filter water using a traditional filter, and then use a UV pen to kill any leftover bacteria.
Check for trail closures before you head off and make sure to pack a map, an essential item. Some areas are enormous, and you will get lost.
You might encounter elk, deer, and mountain goats —rarely since they’re usually shy. It’s best to keep well clear of them. Black bears and grizzly bears sightings are a regular event in Banff– carry bear spray with you at all times, talk loudly among yourselves as you walk, and alert park staff to any sightings.
Take only photographs, leave only footprints. Put any garbage into a garbage compartment in your backpack.