Hiking Banff National Park – Mount St. Piran

It’s larch season in the Canadian Rockies! When the needles of these deciduous conifers turn from green to lime to yellow to gold, it’s a sure sign that fall has arrived and it’s time to start thinking about scheduling an appointment to have snow tires mounted on whatever vehicle you use to get to the mountains.

It’s been a couple of years since we made a real effort to see the golden larches in all their glory. Not wanting to join the hordes at Larch Valley (trailhead at Moraine Lake), we decided to try Mount St. Piran (trailhead at Lake Louise). Kathy and Craig Copeland, authors of Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies, rate this as an outstanding day hike and we concur.

Trailhead parking is the bi-level parking lot located about 200 m before the end point of Lake Louise Drive (Chateau Lake Louise). Plan to arrive by about 9 o’clock to be sure of a parking spot, especially on weekends.

From the west end of the parking lot, make your way to the northeast shore of Lake Louise. For those wanting to experience nature, the crowds thronging the shore are almost enough to make you turn around and try another trail, but in less than 10 minutes you head up hill to the right (away from the lakeshore) and the crowds thin slightly.

Lake Louise
Reflections on the smooth surface of Lake Louise first thing in the morning.
GeoKs at Lake Louise
One benefit of the cloying crowds along the shore in front of the Chateau Lake Louise is that it’s pretty easy to find someone to take a family photo!
Beehive and Mirror Lake
The water level in Mirror Lake was really low, but still reflected some of the fall colour starting to show – especially the golden larches atop the Beehive.

At the 3 km mark, most people head up the trail and stairs to the Lake Agnes teahouse, with very few continuing on towards Little Beehive. We made the quick detour to Lake Agnes to take a few photos and then took the trail behind the teahouse to reconnect with the Little Beehive trail.

Lake Agnes
Lots of visitors stopped at the Lake Agnes teahouse to enjoy a cup of fresh coffee or hot cocoa. We stopped just long enough to take a few photographs before continuing along the trail to the turn-off to Mount St. Piran. Last time we visited Lake Agnes (2009), we hiked the shoreline all the way around.

The Mount St. Piran hike doesn’t appear on Gemtrek’s Lake Louise / Yoho map. Nor does it appear on the Canadian topo map or trail map sets we have loaded into our GPS receiver. So we referred to photocopied pages from the Copeland’s guidebook to locate the spot where the trail to Mount St. Piran branches off from the trail to Little Beehive. It would be easy to miss. Although there’s a Parks Canada trail sign located about 5 meters along the Mount St. Piran trail, the distance and label for Mount St. Piran have been scratched off.

Less than 100 meters along this easily-overlooked trail, we had nature to ourselves! In fact, we saw only 3 other day hikers over the three hour period we were on this trail.

Larch forest
Just a few steps after leaving the trail to Little Beehive and starting along the trail to Mount St. Piran, we entered a beautiful larch forest. At this time of year, the trees range in colour from dark green, to lime green, to yellow, to gold. Within a week or so, all of the needles will be golden and another week or so later, the needles will start to drop. Our oldest GeoKid took this photo.

About 10 minutes along the Mount St. Piran trail, we emerged from the larch forest to enjoy expansive views.

Looking back to Lake Louise
Bright sun and haze to the east made for challenging light conditions, but this will give you a good idea of the view once we emerged from the larch forest. We spotted lots of canoes on Lake Louise and could see the Chateau from some of the switchbacks.

From there, a series of long switchbacks make the elevation gain quite manageable. And because the switchbacks are so long they provide alternating views of the Lake Louise valley and the Pipestone River Valley to the north-notheast.

Beehive from the switchback trail
Looking back at the Big Beehive from the switchbacking trail up Mount St. Piran.
Larch on the slopes of Mount St. Piran
Larch on the slopes of Mount St. Piran.
Youngest GeoKid and Mrs. GeoK above the tree line
The long switchbacks make for a fairly gentle climb to the saddle just below the summit of Mount St. Piran. Here, K leads the way while Mrs. GeoK follows behind.
Curious chipmunk
A curious fellow came out to greet us from just beside the trail.
Lonely larch below the summit of Mount St. Piran
This lonely larch, growing at a higher elevation than most of the other trees in the area, sits just off the trail and well below the summit of Mount St. Piran, which can be seen up and to the left.

We stopped for awhile at the saddle (about 15 minutes below the summit). After enjoying our packed lunch while taking in the views to the north (which include the Waputick Icefield), the GeoKids opted to rest & relax for a while while the parental units continued to the summit.

This last bit is a little rougher, as the trail ascends a boulder field and loose slabs, but there’s little exposure along the boot-trodden route. The views from the summit are definitely worth the last bit of effort.

Mrs. GeoK at the summit
We were surprised to find a number of stone constructions at the summit of Mount St. Piran – a few cairns and also a long wall to provide shelter from the winds, for those wanting to stay a while to absorb the majestic scenery.
View from the summit of Mount St. Piran
Panorama view from the summit
Another view from the summit
Another photo from the summit. The large peak just to the right of centre is Mount Niblock.

We spent 5 or 10 minutes watching a trio of ptarmigan.

A pair of ptarmigan
Three ptarmigan were sunning themselves near the summit. If they hadn’t been peeping to one another, we probably wouldn’t have spotted them. Here are two of them…
…and here’s the third.

Mr. GeoK walked southwest from the summit, down the rounded crest of the ridge, to overlook Lake Agnes, Mirror Lake and Lake Louise all at once, while Mrs. GeoK walked northwest to overlook Big Beehive and Lake Louise. After about 45 minutes exploring the summit ridge, we radioed back to the GeoKids that we were on our way back down to the saddle.

The sky clouded over as we began our descent towards the Little Beehive trail. It was a quick trip down and we soon rejoined the human migration from the Lake Agnes to Lake Louise, but making the necessary observations to log GC32H6Y The Talus Slopes of Mount Fairview earthcache kept us reasonably distracted from the crowds.

Mount Fairview
The clouds rolled in just after we started making our way back down. Without bright sunshine to illuminate the golden larches, the scenery was a little less impressive. We made some careful observations of Mount Fairview in order to fulfill the logging requirements for an earthcache, but otherwise spent much of the trip down dodging all the folks making their way up to Mirror Lake or the teahouse.

All-in-all, it was a great hike. The sunshine and warm temperature added to our enjoyment of the start of larch season.

Total distance about 14 km
Elevation gain 950 meters
Family friendly? Not so much, unless your kids are experienced and strong hikers. Many families opt to hike along the lakeshore trail at Lake Louise or take their time making their way up to the Lake Agnes teahouse for a refreshment break before heading back down. Whatever destination you choose, plan to start early to avoid large crowds.
Total hiking time for us was about 5 1/2 hours, including well over an hour for lunch / exploring the summit.

5 thoughts on “Hiking Banff National Park – Mount St. Piran

  1. Pingback: Hiking Banff National Park – Saddleback Pass / Fairview Mountain | Out and About with the GeoKs

  2. Andrew

    Ok, you have convinced me to do this hike when i am there next month! Plus your photography is amazing. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Always glad to hear our hiking blog posts are of use to visitors to Banff and Kananaskis. Just wanted to make sure you’re aware that the larch trees only turn golden in September/October. You’ll still have great views and a relatively solitary hike, but all the trees will be green in July.

      Hope you enjoy the hike and your visit to the area.

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