Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass

Larch Valley and the Ten Peaks
7 miles round trip, 2400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Canadian National Parks pass required; parking extremely limited

Larch Valley, just uphill from Moraine Lake and nestled below the Ten Peaks in Alberta's Banff National Park, puts on one of the finest displays of fall color on the planet each September; the trail to Sentinel Pass brings hikers into a harsh alpine landscape at the highest trail-accessible point in the Canadian Rockies. This hike has an extremely special place in my heart: at age 10, my parents dragged me up this trail to Larch Valley on what, looking back, I consider to be my first true hike. While I had hiked trails earlier in my life and had just earlier that day hiked the flat trail out to Lower Consolation Lake, my journey up to Larch Valley was the first time that I came to associate the discomfort and misery of hiking with its rich rewards. Since that June day when a young Chuhern complained incessantly of being tired and out of breath and muttered that the switchbacks would surely kill me, I've covered a distance and elevation gain sufficient to cover the entire Pacific Crest Trail and hiking has become one of the most important aspects of my life and my identity. Revisiting Larch Valley, I found the area to be even more beautiful than I remembered, helping me understand how this one place ended up being the hike that launched a thousand hikes.

A note: the Lake Louise/Moraine Lake area frequently has grizzly bear problems, so Parcs Canada often issues requirements that hikers in the area must travel in groups of four or more. I was lucky enough to visit when grizzly activity was low and it was both legal and reasonably safe for me to hike alone. I'd still recommend that you carry and know how to use bear spray when hiking here.

Visitation to Banff National Park has exploded in the past two decades. During my first two visits to Moraine Lake, my family was able to drive directly to the trailhead and park there and explore; for my latest visit, I discovered that a shuttle bus system had been implemented and that parking at both Lake Louise and Moraine Lake were limited to the few visitors who arrived early in the morning before the parking lots filled. The Moraine Lake parking lot, I was infomed, filled by 7 AM every day; to deal with this, I woke up at 5 AM and drove up to the lake from Lake Louise Village to ensure that I would snag a parking spot. I napped briefly in the car as I waited for it to get light out on that overcast day. Even a weekday visit (I came on a Monday) warranted such measures.

At sunrise, I decided to first check out Moraine Lake before heading up to Larch Valley. Moraine Lake is rightly famous: the Wenkchemna Peaks (or the Ten Peaks), a multi-summited rock wall, rises above the most extraordinary turquoise waters. Even upon seeing the lake for the third time in my life from the Rockpile Trail, I could not help but stare agape at one of the truly wonderous natural gems of our Earth.

Moraine Lake
Returning to the parking area, I headed out on the hike to Larch Valley. From the lodge next to the parking lot, I began following the Moraine Lakeshore trail south along the lake. Within meters of leaving the parking area, I came to the junction with the Larch Valley/Eiffel Lake Trail. I took the right fork here and began to follow this broad, well-built trail uphill.

The trail embarked on a series of switchbacks as it climbed up the western side of the valley holding Moraine Lake. These ten or so switchbacks are reasonably graded and the trail has an excellent tread, which made the ascent quite easy for me now; at age 10, these same switchbacks were tortuous on my first hike, faced with my first extended uphill climb. The younger me, tired and out of breath, doubted it was humanly possible to reach such a place as Larch Valley. There was a certain sense of satisfaction gained when I made quick work of the switchbacks and arrived at the junction with the trail to Eiffel Lake, 1.5 miles from the trailhead, in just over half an hour, having stopped during the journey up only to admire the partial views of Moraine Lake below.

Moraine Lake along the climb
At the trail junction with the Eiffel Lake Trail, I took the right fork towards Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass. Almost immediately, the trail left the spruce fir forest of the ascent and entered a golden larch forest. The trail climbed slightly more before leveling out as it entered the lower part of the valley. Mountain slopes coated in golden larches were visible to the north along the slopes of Mount Temple.

Entering Larch Valley
My early start had paid off: there were only a handful hikers on the trail when I entered Larch Valley. The scenery here is at once majestic and idyllic: the Ten Peaks tower over forests of small larches and meadows dotted with scattered rocks. A log bridge spanned the creek in Larch Valley; in September, the creek had dried completely. This bridge was quite memorable for me: at 10, I sat on the bridge at the end of the hike, exhausted, and watched the clear June waters of the stream burbling through the meadows. At the time I was tired, hungry, and a little miserable, but something about the scene around me ignited a flame, a love for the outdoors, an insatiable wanderlust and a yearning for the mountaintop that has yet to be extinguished or even dimmed. The half hour I spent admiring the Ten Peaks here years earlier had set into motion the development of the current me.

Log bridge in Larch Valley- a location of pivotal significance in my childhood
Larch Valley
The trail continued wandering through the relatively flat valley, passing through meadows lined with larches. The Ten Peaks formed a commanding backdrop and the sun poked through the clouds at intervals.

Larches backed by the Ten Peaks
The half of mile trail threading through the golden colors of Larch Valley is among the most glorious stretches of trail anywhere. A gentle ascent with falling streams, fiery colors, and snowcapped mountains- what more could one ask for?

Larch Valley
The larches thinned out as the trail began to emerge above the treeline. Here, the larches faded to alpine meadows; the Ten Peaks rose to the south and the great bulwarks of the Grand Sentinel and Mount Temple rose ahead of the trail. I was lucky to arrive early enough in the morning to enjoy this scenery without too much company; by the afternoon, the scene was a little less idyllic with scores of hikers, many carelessly tromping on the meadows or blasting music from speakers.

Larch Valley
Larch Valley
The Pinnacle and the Grand Sentinel
Above the treeline, the trail traversed through barren landscape of meadow and rock, passing the lower of the Minnestimma Lakes before coming to the cold, stony main Minnestimma Lake. Sentinel Pass rose directly ahead, a forbidding saddle between two great, cloud-ensconed mountain thrones rising on either side of the lake. The trail followed the northern edge of the briefly before branching off to begin the final stretch, which climbed about 700 feet in less than a mile.

Mount Temple rises above Minnestimma Lake
Leaving Minnestimma Lake, the vegetation thinned as I entered a realm of snow and rock. The trail ascended through scree slopes as it approached the formidable rocky slopes of the pass.

Climbing towards Sentinel Pass above Minnestimma Lake
The trail ended up being not as bad as it looked: a pair of switchbacks through the final scree slope brought me to the pass itself. I scrambled up a small rocky prominence just north of the low point of the pass to survey the surroundings.

The barren, harsh route to Sentinel Pass
The far side of the pass was a wild world of harsh rock spires and snow. Paradise Valley lay far below, with a handful of golden larches visible above the green, conifer-coated valley floor. The Grand Sentinel and Mount Temple, both massive towers of well-ordered sedimentary rock, rose to either side of the pass.

Looking down into Paradise Valley from Sentinel Pass
Looking back from where I came, the Ten Peaks formed a solid wall of rock, snowy peaks above Larch Valley and the Minnestimma Lakes. The gentler delights of Larch Valley seemed so far away in the harsh landscape of Sentinel Pass. This is the highest trail-accessible point in the national parks of the Canadian Rockies; while the trail isn't easy, this is a reasonably straightforward way to enter an alpine world usually denied to day hikers and casual tourists.

Minnestimma Lakes and Larch Valley below the Ten Peaks
I met and shared my Larch Valley story with a number of hikers who I shared the trail with that day, including a photographer, Rick, who had recently moved to Okotoks (a Calgary suburb) and Revanth, a student from Halifax who was taking an ambitious trip with a relative through the Canadian Rockies. All in all, I took my time and enjoyed this overwhelmingly nostalgic spot, spending over 7 hours on the trail. I descended just in time, returning to Moraine Lake as a sudden snowstorm moved in. The waters of Moraine Lake, placid that morning, had turned to whitecaps, with canoers struggling to return to shore in the rough wind and waves. As I drove down, hail and snow fell heavily; by the time the clouds broke briefly when I was down in Lake Louise Village, the slopes of Mount Temple were covered in a frosting of fresh snow.

1 comment:

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