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Today, I’m thrilled to have Tanya from Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies with us. She and her family are HUGE hikers and love to tell about all their adventures on their blog. She’s one who enjoys the outdoors all the time and is just as adventurous during the long, cold winter as she is in the summer. All of her great ideas and photos make me often think “lets pack the kids up for a drive today…Canada’s not THAT far! (Okay, it really is THAT far – darn) Thanks for sharing your expertise with us Tanya!
I was going to give you a list of my top favorite hikes until I thought about how overwhelming that would be to narrow it down to an actual list. Were Ito actually recommend hikes to a visiting tourist I’d first need to know how old your children were, how far you wanted to walk, how many feet you were comfortable climbing up the trail, and where exactly you planned to visit. The Canadian Rockies covers a very large area including 6 National Parks. Locals from Calgary also like to hike in Kananaskis which lies just outside Banff National Park and that’s a whole different area to cover yet!
Therefore, I thought I’d narrow the topic down to the best fall hikes within a two hour drive from Calgary. Calgary makes a great jumping off point for your visit to the Canadian Rockies with a major airport and bus service to Banff National Park.
This hike is super easy for families with small children. You’ll catch a bus from the Sunshine Village Ski Hill parking lot, climbing 500m (0.3 miles) as you travel up to the Village itself at 2100m (6890 ft) above sea level. Trail heads start at the edge of tree line which means very little height gain to reach gorgeous alpine meadows. The trails are considered easy and at most, you might have to gain 100m to reach Rock Isle Lake, a premier fall destination for larch viewing. The Larch tree is a member of the Pine family and is unique in that its needles turn golden yellow in the fall. Then they fall off for the winter to grow back the next spring.
Sunshine Meadows has been named the top hike in the Canadian Rockies and once you get up there you’ll understand why. The meadows are surrounded by some of the biggest peaks in the Rockies as you stand perched right on the Continental Divide between Alberta and BC.
Bus Reservations: To make a reservation with White Mountain Adventures, call their booking office at 403-762-7889 or visit their website at http://sunshinemeadowsbanff.com
In second place – my next pick – Larch Valley, Banff National Park
The name says it all, doesn’t it? Hike here and you will definitely see golden larch trees. The third weekend of September will see thousands of people trying to get into Larch Valley to catch the trees at their peak and for many people, young or old, this hike is an annual pilgrimage.
If you want to do this hike, I have two suggestions. Go mid-week and go early! Last year local authorities had to close the Moraine Lake Road to the trailhead on the third weekend in September because of public safety concerns. Vehicles were backed up for several kilometres along the narrow road leading to the parking lot and emergency vehicles would have had a hard time getting through.
We went on a Monday last year and though it was still very busy, we got to the parking lot and got on the trail. It would be a huge disappointment to drive all the way to Lake Louise to find the road to Moraine Lake closed.
The trail starts at Moraine Lake and is well signed. You’ll gain 360m (1180 ft) of elevation gain in 2.6km (1.6 miles) to reach the valley. From here, it is your choice to continue on towards Sentinel Pass and Upper Larch Valley or to enjoy a picnic lunch and turn around. Either way, the views of the Ten Peaks surrounding Larch Valley are stunning from the first meadow and the trip will still be worth it if that is the end of your journey. Sentinel Pass is an additional 360m (1180 ft) of height gain and 2.5km (1.55 miles) further. There are a couple of lakes at the foot of the Pass that make a lovely resting spot if you take one look at the steep trail up to the pass and decide you’ve gone far enough.
Please note that there is usually a trail restriction in effect for the whole valley due to the presence of grizzly bears in the area. Check the Parks Canada website before you go. If the restriction is active, you’ll need a group of four people to get on the trail and it’s often enforced right from the trail head by Parks Canada Staff. If you get caught hiking in a smaller group, you could face fines so don’t risk it. Not to mention that it’s just not safe. Your group of four also has to hike in a tight group so make sure the kids don’t run ahead or drag behind.
For more information, visit the Parks Canada Website at http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/banff/activ/activ1/c.aspx or call the Lake Louise Visitor Centre at 403–522-3833.
Finally, in third place – The Opabin Plateau, Lake O’Hara
Lake O’Hara is in my opinion the most beautiful location in the Canadian Rockies. The trails are quiet, the area is uncrowded, and the Opabin Plateau is like a patch of heaven. The Plateau is located in a hanging valley 250m (820 ft) above Lake O’Hara and is accessed by the West and East Opabin Trails to make a 6km (3.7 miles) loop. In the valley you will find numerous ponds, lakes, and meadows all surrounded by golden larch trees. The walking is relatively flat once you get up onto the Plateau and if you climb up to Opabin Prospect, you’ll be able to stand on huge boulders to look way down over Lake O’Hara. This is a view that few tourists to the Rockies ever get to see. Photographers will be running around giddy like children in a candy store.
Getting into Lake O’Hara: Getting to Lake O’Hara is the crux of the whole journey. It’s much harder than any of the hiking you will do. Unless you want to hike 11km up a restricted road to reach the lake, your only option for getting there is to claim a coveted spot on the bus that travels up to the lake four times per day. You may reserve three months in advance of your visit by telephone only at 250-343-6433.
If you haven’t made a reservation yet there is still hope. You can try to get a spot on the bus mid-week when it is quieter. You can show up at the parking lot half an hour early before a scheduled bus and hope to fill a cancellation. (It happens.) Lastly, you can phone the Alpine Club of Canada and try to book spots in the Elizabeth Parker Hut for a night. You will get a bus reservation with your hut booking.
For more information on Lake O’Hara, please visit the Parks Canada Website at http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/bc/yoho/activ/ohara/a.aspx#reservations.
For more information on staying at the Elizabeth Parker Hut visit the Alpine Club’s Website at http://www.alpineclubofcanada.ca/facility/ep.html
For more great Fall Hiking Ideas in the Canadian Rockies, please visit my website at www.rockiesfamilyadventures.com where I’ve created a page listing all of our favourite spring and fall shoulder season hikes.
Tanya loves hiking, camping, skiing, paddling, biking and all things mountain-related. Tanya is the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, www.rockiesfamilyadventures.com, and the founder of Calgary Outdoor Playgroups.