Hiking Lake Louise and Larch-Peeping in the Fall
I recently revisited a hike with my brother that I had done in the same season in September 2012. Hiking at iconic Lake Louise in Banff National Park is really quite surreal. Experiencing it during the spectacle of the luminescent golden larches during the very brief window of opportunity as they don their fall colours before losing their needles for the winter season is, somehow, even more unforgettable.
My “Passion” for Hiking
As I’ve recounted in a previous blog, hiking is not one of my strong suits. I do love being outdoors enjoying nature. But the preparation, planning and execution of a hike doesn’t necessarily get me going in the morning. Having said that, though, when I have experienced a hike that I’ve enjoyed, the likelihood of returning is pretty high. Hiking the well-groomed paths around Lake Louise counts as one of those return-worthy destinations.
Larch-Peeping at Lake Louise
Given that there had been reports of recent snow at the higher elevations, and the fact that temperatures had already been dipping to below freezing at night in the Rockies, we equipped ourselves with waterproof hiking boots, decent socks, gloves, toques, and layers of clothing that we could shed if required. I brought along a hiking pole to ease the climbing strain on my knees. And we both brought our fully charged camera gear: our handy iPhones and our matching Nikon D5600 cameras.
We could not have asked for a more perfect fall morning to hit the trail. After the mandatory photo shoots at the lakeside with the iconic Plain of Six Glaciers and Mount Victoria as backdrops, we made for the trailhead on the Lake’s north shore.
Chateau Lake Louise to Lake Agnes Tea House via Mirror Lake (3.4km)
The hike from the shores of Lake Louise to Mirror Lake is not particularly steep and climbs steadily along well-groomed pathways through dense woods. There are restricted viewing vantage points of the blue glacial waters of Lake Louise below as you make the ascent to Mirror Lake.
Mirror Lake is a convenient and welcome stopping point at the 2.4km mark on the route to Lake Agnes. Although not a particularly large water-body, its greenish crystal-clear waters and its positioning make its name very apt as photographers try to capture the mountain reflections in its mirror-like sheltered waters.
Continuing your ascent beyond Mirror Lake, the trail becomes a little steeper and slightly more rocky. Hikers emerge into the sunlight above the tree line where the first hints of the golden larches appear and the first aerial views of Lake Louise are visible. Horseback riders ascending the mountain along dedicated horse trails leave their horses tethered along this final leg of the climb to the Tea House.
A wooden stairway elevates hikers up the last 20 metre climb where the waters from Lake Agnes cascade down the mountainside. As you emerge from the stairway the valley vista looking across Lake Agnes towards Mt Niblock and the Devil’s Thumb is breathtaking, particularly in the fall as the golden glow of the changing larch needles hugs the shoreline of the lake and the adjacent mountainside beneath the Beehive. Breaking your hike here at the Tea House is definitely worthwhile.
We, however, chose to continue on beyond the crowds and settled on a shoreline beach in the sunshine beneath the glowing larches to enjoy our packed snacks.
Lake Agnes Tea House to the Beehive (1.7km)
From the Tea House, our hike took us along the north shore of Lake Agnes, through the golden larch forests, around the western tip of the Lake beneath the Devil’s Thumb, then up the steep switchback path ascent to the Beehive. Although the pathway conditions were good, the altitude and climb certainly got my heart pumping and almost ejecting itself from my chest cavity! Make no mistake, the climb looks benign from a distance, but when climbing it, it does require some tenacity and perseverance. But be assured, the view at the end of the climb is indescribable!
Once you summit the switchback path ascent, the views overlooking Lake Agnes to the north or Lake Louise to the south are breathtaking – if your climb hadn’t already done that for you! I was happy to linger up here as my shutter-happy finger attempted to capture the vistas.
Take the time to walk to the Beehive pagoda viewpoint. It’s worthwhile just sitting here, or on any of the numerous rocky outcrops, and being captivated by the awe-inspiring majesty that will whisper to your soul.
The Beehive to the Plain of Six Glaciers (4.2km)
Now, begin your descent from the Beehive on the south face of the mountain to the shores of Lake Louise some 675 metres below. For the most part the pathway is in very good condition. However, for those with hip and knee aches and injuries this could be a slow process. Your hiking poles or walking aid will come in handy here. Once again, you descend through the timberline almost immediately when you leave the summit, so views of the Lake, mountains and glaciers are minimal.
While here in the summer and fall, listen out for avalanches that are constantly occurring on the glacial shield across the valley. The power of these events is both captivating and bone-chilling, knowing just how devastating they can be to climbers, fauna and flora that might be caught in their path.
Plain of Six Glaciers to Chateau Lake Louise (6km)
Emerging from the tree line and taking in the Plain of Six Glaciers at the western end of Lake Louise is other-worldly. The glacial meltwaters that have deposited their fine, white glacial flour along its banks create a barren, clay-like grey-white foreground to the steep mountain and glacial backdrop. These meandering streams feeding Lake Louise carry the remaining suspended glacial flour – the microscopically fine mountain rock scoured by the slow migration of the glaciers – into the Lake. It is the reflection and refraction of the sunlight off these suspended particles that give Lake Louise – and other similar glacial lakes in the Rockies – their distinct blue-green colour.
The final home-stretch walk along the lake lends itself to a very easy, flat saunter with innumerable photographic vantage and selfie spots.
Hold your breath as you watch rock climbers scaling the nearby cliff faces.
Explore the mud flats at the western end of the Lake.
Look out for the numerous endearing but perhaps all-too-friendly chipmunks.
Observe the undergrowth for mushrooms and wildflowers.
Or complete your hiking escapade with a quintessential Lake Louise activity, a canoe paddle across her blue waters.
Preparing For the Worst
Thinking we’d be clever and miss the crowds by visiting here on a weekday, we made our way from Calgary to Lake Louise, arriving by 9am on a Thursday morning. The already-gathering, maddening crowds were a reminder of the heaving masses of humanity we’d recently encountered at numerous attractions throughout Europe during our summer vacation. If you’re visiting the Rocky Mountain attractions in high season, you will just need to prepare for and live with delays and crowds.
I love that the tourism industry in and beyond Calgary is being so well promoted. Sadly, though, it seems that the infrastructure to cope with the seasonal crowds is less than optimal. Around the townsite of Lake Louise attempts have been made to address the crowd control. However, with it come some significant impositions on your precious time as a tourist.
Most notably, if you’re not a guest at one of the local accommodations, or are not here by sunrise, the likelihood that you’ll find convenient parking within walking distance of your favourite attraction is very slim. As a result, you’ll probably find yourself being redirected to a distant parking facility. From here you can catch shuttle buses to either Lake Louise or to nearby Moraine Lake, an equally popular tourist hot-spot.
The benefit of the shuttle system is you don’t have to sit in long traffic lineups and the shuttles are free and frequent. The downside is that you will need to carry your days’ requirements with you: clothing, hiking gear and food with little chance of returning to your vehicle if you accidentally left something behind!
Lake Louise and Surrounding Seasonal Highlights
There’s no doubt about it, visiting Lake Louise in the fall to see the changing colours of the larches is a must-do activity if you’re here at the right time of the year. A similar visit to the popular Larch Valley near Moraine Lake is equally compelling.
However, Lake Louise should be on your to-do list at any time of the year.
Our other annual highlight is visiting during the winter festival and ice sculpture event in January. Seeing the frozen lake transformed into a winter wonderland complete with an ice castle, skating rink, fire pits and horse-drawn sleighs one would never believe it was the same place.
Downhill skiing at the nearby famous Lake Louise ski slopes is a world-renowned attraction.
Mushing and dog sled tours are offered in the area and are very popular, too.
Lake Louise is definitely a destination for all four seasons.
Remember, you will require a Park pass to stop over in the National Park. Be sure to display your annual pass or day permit if you don’t want to be fined by the Authorities.