Hiking Banff National Park – Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass

We finally did our first big hike of 2013! With so many trails closed due to damage from the June 2013 floods, we opted to head a little deeper into Banff National Park. The last time we hiked to Sentinel Pass was 17 or 18 years ago (BC – before children). We debated waiting until the fall to make the long overdue return trip (so we could enjoy the larches in their golden stage), but the relatively short overall hiking distance eventually swayed our decision.

The drive from Canmore to Lake Louise was a little slower than usual. Reduced speed limits were posted for several sections between the park gates and the turn-off to Sunshine Village, on account of flood damage. More than two weeks after the flooding, there’s still plenty of evidence of the power of Carrot Creek at its peak. Several sections of the Legacy cycling trail from Canmore to Banff are simply gone! Crews and equipment were hard at work making repairs.

When we pulled into the large parking lot at Moraine Lake just before 9 o’clock, there was still plenty of parking available. We even managed to compose a couple of photographs without including hordes of visitors!

From the end of the lake, it’s a very short walk to the Larch Valley trailhead and after just a couple hundred meters the crowds were even thinner. NOTE: Parks Canada frequently requires hikers to tackle the trail in groups of 4 or more (bear safety), so be sure to check the most recent trail report or call ahead to find out whether you need to recruit friends or family to join you for this hike.

The first 2.4 km is a bit of a slog, gaining more than half the total elevation over a series of long switchbacks in heavy trees. The trail is well-maintained and wide enough to pass comfortably. At the 2.4 km mark there’s a large wooden bench where you might want to take a break. It’s also where there’s a fork in the trail – head left (west) to Eiffel Lake and Wenkchemna Pass or take the right fork (northwest) to Larch Valley, Minnestimma Lakes and on to Sentinel Pass. We encountered several groups, including families with young children, who were enjoying the scenery in Larch Valley before turning around.

K on the trail in Larch Valley
K on the trail in Larch Valley

The bench is also where we met Clairemont, who joined us for the rest of the trek to Sentinel Pass. He’s in Canada on a working visa from France, and is currently on vacation from his work in the Okanagan Valley. He opted to come explore every trail in the Rocky Mountain Parks that he can squeeze into a few short weeks. We wish him safe travels and scenic trails.

We enjoyed watching the play of sunlight and shadows on Eiffel Peak, Pinnacle Mountain and Mount Temple as we crossed the flat section near the Minnestimma Lakes:

The saddle between Pinnacle Mountain on the left and Mount Temple on the right is our destination - Sentinel Pass.
The saddle between Pinnacle Mountain on the left and Mount Temple on the right is our destination – Sentinel Pass.

We spent a bit of time at the largest of the lakes. The beautiful clear water and a few patches of ice and snow were appealing to the eye:

We crossed a few sections of snow on the final climb to the pass, but they were fairly well-packed. Otherwise, the final elevation is gained along a series of packed dirt and scree switchbacks.

Gain the rest of this hike's elevation along a series of nice wide switchbacks from the Minnestimma Lakes to Sentinel Pass

The Rocky Mountain ground squirrels at the pass are very bold. We resisted the temptation to share any of our lunch, but their behaviour made it clear that not every one does!

It was really windy at the pass, so we made good use of the rock-walled wind shelter constructed by some of the many hikers who came this way before us. We also explored the ledge just up from the pass and used the timer function on the camera to get a couple of family shots. There’s a whole crowd of stone sentinels visible from the pass:

Mr. GeoK took a couple of panorama photos from the ledge above the pass:

Panorama view of Paradise Valley

Looking back down towards Minnestimma Lakes

It was also easy to spot the trail down from the pass into Paradise Valley. Continuing down the other side through Paradise Valley and past Lake Annette provides a “loop” option for this hike, but you either have to arrange a shuttle or hitch a ride between the Paradise and Moraine Lake parking lots.

After enjoying the views long enough that it was starting to get a little crowded at the pass, we started back down:

Our return to the parking lot took quite a bit longer than it should have, as we stopped to try out our new Hoya neutral density filters at the waterfall between the lakes and once more downstream of Larch Valley. We’re really happy with the initial results and look forward to experimenting with them some more.

K patiently waited while I swapped camera lenses several times, taking a series of macro photos of wildflowers as well as several photos of the very impressive Faye Glacier. Unfortunately, I still need more practice with the macro lens, so there’s only the one photo of “hippies on a stick” to share:

The parking lot was jam-packed when we got back at about 3 pm. Vehicles waited while we loaded our packs into the car, changed footwear, etc., just to snag our spot. And more vehicles were parked for a long ways along the narrow road back to Lake Louise. So if you plan to do this hike in the summer or in golden larch season, be sure to arrive early to avoid tacking another km or two onto your overall distance.

Total hiking distance = 12.5 km

Elevation gain = 770 m net (860 m total)

This is a moderate half- to full-day hike. The more family-friendly option would be to hike to Larch Valley, spend a little time wandering and enjoying the scenery and then returning to the parking area. Another option to consider would be taking the left fork at the bench and continuing to Eiffel Lake as a turnaround point. (If anyone has done this, please leave a comment with your thoughts, as this option is on our list of potential future hikes). Larch Valley is a very popular hiking area during larch season (hence the name), and the trail can be extremely crowded. Finally, be sure to check for minimum group size restrictions. If they’re in effect, Parks Canada personnel will probably be checking for compliance at the trailhead.

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