Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley in Banff National Park
Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass is one of the best Fall hikes in Banff National Park. Imagine bright yellow larches, surrounded by towering mountain peaks, whilst overlooking beautiful lakes.
The Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley hike starts and ends at Moraine Lake which means you need to arrange transport in advance. The entire hike is 11.1km / 6.9 miles return with an elevation gain of 749m / 2,457 ft.
Larch Valley during Fall is a yellow wonderland. Sentinel Pass on the other hand takes you up to a higher viewpoint that gives off slight Mordor vibes, overlooking the valley where you can see crazy looking hoodoos and the stunning larches in the distance.
You can choose to do just Larch Valley, or you can continue onto Sentinel Pass which is a little further (see the full stats for each under the Hike Stats section of this blog post).
We were lucky enough to get to do the Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley hike during Fall which meant we got to hike through hundreds of stunning yellow larches! Fall in the Canadian Rockies is really beautiful and if you do one larch hike while you are there, I recommend this one.
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📑 Hike Stats
The below stats show both Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass as separate hikes so that you can see how far each one is individually. If you decide to do both, you will reach Larch Valley first and then Sentinel Pass is just a little further.
Distance: 8.85km/ 5.5 miles
Time: 3-4.5 hours
Elevation: 560m / 1,837 ft
Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash
Toilets: None on the trail. Use the toilets at Moraine Lake
Distance: 11.1km/ 6.9 miles
Time: 3.5-5.5 hours
Elevation: 749m / 2,457 ft
Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash
Toilets: None on the trail. Use the toilets at Moraine Lake
📍 Where is Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass
The Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass hike is in the Lake Louise area in Banff National Park and starts from Moraine Lake.
How to Get to the Trailhead (Getting to Moraine Lake)
To do this hike, you need to be somewhat organised. It is not a hike that you can wake up one day and decide to do that same day. As of 2023, private vehicles are no longer allowed on the Moraine Lake road and so in order to reach the trailhead, you will need to book a shuttle bus.
Your options to get to Moraine Lake are:
- Parks Canada Shuttle – book here
- Moraine Lake Sunrise Shuttle (for if you want to catch the sunrise) – book here
- Hop on Hop off Bus – book Here
Once you get to Moraine Lake, you will need to walk around the right-hand-side of the lake, past the canoe dock until you reach a trail on your right that takes you up into the forest. There will be a sign here pointing to Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass.
📆 When is the Best Time to Hike Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass
The best time of the year to do the Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley Hike is 10000% Fall. During Fall the larches in Larch Valley turn yellow, making this beautiful hike somehow even more stunning.
Larch season is always slightly different every single year depending on the weather, but it usually starts in the middle of September and goes to the beginning of October (first – second week). The peak time for the larches is usually during the larch week of September.
Summer is also a great time to do this hike. The hike is only accessible from early-June to mid-October. During the snowy, Winter months, the road to Moraine Lake does not get ploughed and is therefore closed.
What Exactly is a Larch Tree and Why is Larch Madness a Thing
If you have any experience at all with researching things to do in Banff during Fall, you will have probably come across something called a larch tree and you might be wondering why there are Fall hiking blog posts completely dedicated to finding these “Larch Trees.”
Larch Trees are part of the Pinaceae family and throughout the year, can easily be mistaken for a classic pine, however they have an important and very special reason for being so popular.
During Fall they turn from green to bright yellow/golden in colour, making any hiking trail with larches feel like candy for your eyes.
They are only golden for a very small period of time (about 10 days during Fall), so when this happens everyone goes completely bonkers trying to time their Fall hiking trips with the time that the larches will be “peaking.” Hence the phrase “Larch Madness.”
Before coming to Canada, Dave and I had never experienced Larch Madness and had no idea that a larch tree was even a thing, but now we totally understand why people go crazy over them. They are truly stunning to see when they are bright golden in colour.
🥾 How Hard is the Hike to Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass?
This question depends greatly on how often you hike. For Dave and I, after doing backpacking trips almost every single weekend during Summer this year, the Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley hike was pretty easy for us.
However, as this is one of the most popular hikes for tourists to do during Fall time in Lake Louise, if you are someone who doesn’t hike very often, I would classify this hike as hard as many of the Alltrails reviews suggest. The switchbacks at the beginning of the hike are unrelenting and feel like they go on forever. They are not super steep but steep enough for you to need to hike at a slower pace.
The hike up through Larch Valley is easier and because you will most likely be stopping quite often to take in the views and to take photos, you won’t notice the incline as much.
After Larch Valley, the switchbacks up to Sentinel Pass are even steeper than the ones at the beginning of the trail, so I would classify this section as challenging for someone who does not hike very often.
Overall, for people who hike fairly often and are used to the trails in British Columbia and Alberta, the Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley is moderate in difficulty.
🐶 Can dogs do the trail to Larch Valley?
Yes! Dogs are allowed on the trail to Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley, however please remember that they should be on a leash.
🕔 Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley Hiking Time
I recommend leaving an entire day to do Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley. Our moving time was about 3.5 hours, however our total time was almost 7 hours because we spent so long enjoying the views and taking photos.
When trying to calculate your own hiking time for this hike, please take into account that we had been hiking almost every single weekend during Summer leading up to this hike so we were faster than usual.
The total hiking time for the average hiker to do Larch Valley as an out and back is around 3-4.5 hours.
The total hiking time for the average hiker to do Sentinel Pass as an out and back is around 3.5-5.5 hours.
There are no bathrooms along the trail, however there are some at Moraine Lake near where the buses stop.
At Moraine Lake, there is also a small café that serves hot drinks and basic food (sandwiches and some hot food such as soup). Be prepared to line up and wait for a long time because this is a super small café that is extremely popular amongst hungry tourists.
Once you get your food, there is an outdoor seating area along with a gift shop which you can browse at.
🦁 Animals in the area and along the trail
Larch Valley is a hike that will take you through Grizzly Bear country. It is important to always carry bear spray with you when hiking in the Lake Louise area and some trails will require you to hike in groups of 4 or more. There will be a sign posted at each trailhead if this is required.
We did Larch Valley during the Fall season and the trail was absolutely packed with hikers from about 9:30am which greatly lessens the risk of coming across a bear but it is always better to be safe than sorry.
Other animals that you might see on the trail include Marmots, Squirrels, Chipmunks, Black Bears, Coyote, Deer, Elk and more.
🌲 Leave No Trace
Whenever you are enjoying the beautiful nature that our world has to offer, remember to leave no trace (LNT)! Respect the beautiful places that make our world beautiful and take out everything that you take in, take only photos and respect the wildlife and other people. You can read more on the 7 LNT principles here.
🥾 Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley Hiking Trail
If you go all of the way to Sentinel Pass, the distance of the hike is 11.1km/ 6.9 miles return with an elevation gain of 749m / 2,457 ft. This could take you anywhere from 3.5 – 5.5 hours, depending on your hiking abilities.
If you decide to finish your hike at Larch Valley, the total distance of the hike will be 8.85km/ 5.5 miles return with an elevation gain of 560m / 1,837 ft. This could take you 3 – 4.5 hours which also depends on your hiking abilities.
Both hikes follow exactly the same trail. You will just stop sooner if you plan on only going as far as Larch Valley.
Starting the Hike from Moraine Lake
The Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley hiking trail begins from Moraine Lake. Once you reach the lake, begin walking around the right hand side of the lake towards the canoe docks.
Keep walking past the docks and you will come to a trail sign post with a trail leading up to the right into the forest. This is the trail you will want to take.
The First lot of Switchbacks Through the Forest
We found this to be the most boring part of the hike.
The never-ending switchbacks through the forest start almost immediately after you get past the hiking trailhead sign. They are super boring because all you can see is trees and they will feel like they are going on FOREVER But don’t worry, eventually they come to an end and the trail opens up and becomes absolutely stunning.
You will know once the switchbacks are over because you will immediately begin to see more and more larch trees. The trail will open up so that you can look back and see the mountains behind you and as you keep hiking you will also see the mountains in front of you.
From here until the end of the trail, the views are awesome the entire way.
As you continue on, you will see a lake on your right-hand side which is one of the Minnestimma Lakes. There are a few small side trails which lead down to this first lake. We decided to take one of these because the reflections in the lake from the shoreline were awesome!
You will come to another large lake in front of you after you hike up over the hill towards the Sentinel Pass Switchbacks… Yes there are more switchbacks, sorry!
The Second Lot of Switchbacks up to Sentinel Pass
It is not too much further up to Sentinel Pass and you will actually be able to see the top from the second lake, but you will also be able to see the second lot of switchbacks from here.
These switchbacks take you up pretty high and the views looking over larch valley get better and better. In my opinion it is worth the extra effort.
Once you reach the top, you will not only be able to see over Larch Valley but you can also see over the other side of Sentinel Pass. Here you will see crazy looking hoo doos. We were surprised how different the landscape was from up here! It looked a lot more like Mordor from Lord of the Rings with the dark coloured dirt and hoo doos.
🛌 Places to Stay Nearby that are so worth it!
I recommend staying in the Lake Louise area for a few days because there is more than just 1 hike to do there. Here are some hotel options that I recommend.
Dave and I stayed at Deer Lodge during Fall which was perfect because we were within walking distance to Lake Louise so we didn’t have to worry about daily parking fees.
Deer Lodge is a short 8 minute walk from the lake and all of the hiking trails that go from Lake Louise. The lodge has a really cosy vibe to it. It has a lovely restaurant and bar and a rooftop hot tub.
When we stayed there we ate elsewhere as the restaurant is quite pricey but then we would have a drink together at the bar which was an awesome way to end the day.
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is located right on the lake and is the most fairy-tale like hotel you have probably ever seen. It has its own 8 on-site dining options, a heated indoor pool and fitness centre and panoramic views of Lake Louise and the Victoria Glacier.
Paradise Lodge and Bungalows
Paradise Lodge and Bungalows are only 1km from Lake Louise so you can easily walk to the lake and hiking trails that start from the lake. You are able to choose from a lodge room or a fully equipped cabin. There is also a BBQ area and a playground so this place is great for families.
HI Lake Louise Alpine Centre – Hostel
We have stayed at the HI in Lake Louise a couple of times and love it there! It’s a great place to stay if you want to be central but don’t want to have to take out a loan to pay for accommodation. 😅 Keeping it real here! The HI offers dorm rooks and private rooms, they have a kitchen so you can cook all of your own meals and an onsite restaurant that is actually affordable! They also provide breakfast! We had some great pancakes while we were there.
Hiking Boots or Trail Runners for Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass?
I wore my Oboz Hiking Boots for the Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass hike. Trail runners would be fine for this hike until up until you continue on from Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass as the trail is steep and slippery with lots of tiny rocks.
Our Packing Essentials for Hiking Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass
These are all of the things we brought with us when we hiked this trail in the Fall.
What’s in our backpack
For a full list of everything we take with us on our day hikes, check our Day Hiking Gear Guide!
Camera Gear we brought with us to Larch Valley
For a full list of all of the camera gear we use, check out our Camera Gear Guide.
If you are spending time in Banff National Park for Fall, you might also enjoy these guides:
- How to Hike Healy Pass in Banff National Park
- Best Fall Hikes in and Around Banff
- Floe Lake Hiking and Backpacking Guide
- 7 Amazing Lake Louise Tours
- Beautiful Lakes to Paddle Board in Canmore and Banff
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