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.
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.
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.
About 10 minutes along the Mount St. Piran trail, we emerged from the larch forest to enjoy expansive views.
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.
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.
We spent 5 or 10 minutes watching a trio of ptarmigan.
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.
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.