The hardwood deciduous forests of eastern Canada and the USA are home to trees like oaks and maples that explode into fluorescent colours of reds and purples in the fall. We in K-Country are not so blessed. Here, the deciduous aspens, poplars and birches mostly just turn yellow, and some even skip the yellow and the leaves go straight to brown before falling. There are many ground plants that introduce reds and oranges, but if you’re looking for beautiful fall colour in our trees, there is really only one tree people care about: the Lyall’s Larch.
What larch species are there?
There are three native species of Larch you can encounter in K-Country, and one widely planted non-native species.
The primary Larch in question in these parts is the Subalpine or Lyall’s Larch — larix lyallii. It’s the one everyone flocks to see, creating traffic jams in the Highwood Pass area.
The extreme northeast corner of K-Country (near Yamnuska) is the western edge of the native range of the Eastern Larch or Tamarack, larix laricina, of which there are many in Northern Alberta. Tamaracks like muskeg and wetlands – and full sunshine.
There are a surprising number of readily accessible Western Larch, Larix occidentalis, in K-Country. For reasons beyond us, they are not nearly so popular to go see (and they should be). Read all about them and where to find them here.
And in Canmore, Calgary and elsewhere, you can find a LOT of non-native Siberian Larch, larix sibirica. Siberians are wildly popular and readily available in local greenhouses, so every Larch lover plants them. Want to try a native Larch in your yard? Bow Point Nursery carries locally sourced Tamaracks.
When is the colour the best?
Mid- to late-September is Larch season, that 2-3 week window where there’s a colour in our forests other than green. Larches are deciduous conifers, dropping their needles in a brief blast of green turning to yellow turning to gold in the fall, but otherwise having all the attributes of other conifers like spruce, pine & fir, since it is actually in the pine family. Colours rarely start turning much before September 15th, and the needles have basically dropped everywhere by October 5th.
Lyall’s Larch can get to be VERY old trees, with the oldest one recorded in the province in Kananaskis, dated in 2012 at 1,917 years old (it’s in the area of Hidden Lake on the west side of Upper Kananaskis Lake, but you won’t find it). Lyall’s Larch tend to grow in small groves interspersed with (endangered) Whitebark Pine and Engleman spruce trees; a full Larch forest is very rare indeed.
Where do Lyall’s Larch grow?
The Lyall’s Larch is an interesting tree in that it can only survive at high altitude – generally 1,800 m and above. You can try to plant one lower, but it will wither & die, getting too hot in the summer. Subalpine Larch can survive very low temperatures and thin rocky soils, which is why the tree is normally found near treeline.
The northern limit of its range is up near Bow Pass in Banff Park and in the Ghost, and it grows as far south as southern Montana, though in Alberta, dies out by the Crowsnest Pass and is rare in Waterton. You can see the range map for them in our area at right, courtesy of Evan Derickson and Wikipedia. You can clearly see they hug the 2-3 ranges along the Continental Divide, and are not present in the valleys between the mountains. The area where the range map touches the Bow River is actually the flanks of Mt. Rundle. Look carefully from the TransCanada Highway and you’ll find larches right at treeline on the two most northerly peaks of Rundle. At the bottom of this page, you’ll find a detailed topo map showing the core of the Lyall’s Larch areas in central K-Country.
How can I see a Lyall’s Larch?
In Larch season, where can you go see the beautiful colours and strange shapes of the Lyall’s Larch? Well EVERYONE likes to hike into Larch Valley in Banff (a hike of ~5 km one way and 400 m gain, where it’s so busy they actually run shuttle busses to manage the throngs who go up there, and you’re required to hike in groups of 6), but you’ll find Larches all over K- Country with peaceful walks of similar distance and gain, but with generally smaller crowds, no need for shuttle busses and fewer parking headaches. Many people think that you have to go to the Highwood Pass to see Lyall’s Larches. While true there are many there, and it’s one of the few places where they close to the road (and you can just do the very easy and short interpretive boardwalk to see many up close), it can get “Larch Valley” busy up there. And that busy-ness is causing environmental grief.
Because the fragile nature of the Highwood Pass area, we now recommend avoiding the overly popular Arethusa Cirque and Pocaterra Cirque and it’s environs. There are no official trails there, and the foot traffic is heavily damaging the environment to the concern of Alberta Parks (remember, Parks are first and foremost there for ecological protection). Note that popular Pocaterra Ridge is barren of Lyall’s Larches and other trees for the south peaks 4-7 (though we admit looking down on a lot of colour is fun).
If you insist on going to Highwood Pass, stick to the official Ptarmigan Cirque and Boardwalk trails to reduce environmental damage. Note you won’t be alone.
On the other hand, there are many, many other Larch-y places in K-Country, which happens to be full of elevations over 1,800 m. Plus remember, you can readily see Western Larch if you know where to look.
If not Highwood Pass, where SHOULD we hike?
Instead, we recommend picking most any hike that leads to treeline at the 1,800 m level and above on the western side of K-Country, and you’ll find a lot of Larches. Try the treeline/upper sections of any of the following (ones with official, designated trails are in bold):
- Mt. Allen/Nakiska (yes, they’re visible from Hwy 40 — right at the overlook where you can see the Western Larch)
- Memorial Lakes
- Ribbon Lakes
- The backside of The Wedge
- Galatea Lakes
- Old Goat Glacier
- Tryst Lake (though the lake usually dries up in September),
- Commonwealth Ridge (far more here than the Smutwood area)
- the basin around Tent Ridge (the ridge itself is barren)
- both North and South Buller Passes
- Rummel Lake (and up to Rummel Pass)
- Rummel Ridge
- Chester Lake (and up into Three Lakes Valley)
- Headwall Lakes
- James Walker Creek
- Burstall Pass, and many of the ridges around it, including Piggy Plus
- Sparrowhawk Tarns
- Read’s Ridge
- the south end of Mt. Lawson
- the Black Prince cirque (the lake will be mostly dry there, too, and to get to the larches here, you have to go off the official trail and take the route around the right side of the lake. Watch for bears.)
- above Hidden Lake towards Aster
- Rawson Lake
- the east (back) side of Mt. Kent
- Rae Lake (inaccessible in 2022 due to construction and trail closures)
- Tombstone Lakes (inaccessible in 2022 due to construction and trail closures)
- Piper Pass (inaccessible in 2022 due to construction and trail closures)
- Mt. Lipsett, plus the basin between Lipsett and Mist
- Odlum Ridge (arguably the best in K-Country, though hard to get to)
- Running Rain Lake
- Odlum Pond
- Loomis Lake
- Nameless Ridge’s east side
- the flanks of Mist Ridge
- South Mist Hills
- A few crossing the pass to get to Picklejar Lakes
Or the parking lot of the Canmore Save-On-Foods (Siberian Larch HQ).
Because there are more Larches in any of those places in K-Country than in Larch Valley.
Remember: When visiting Lyall’s Larches: they live in fragile, high alpine environments where a footprint can be visible for 100 years. Stay on the trail, and better, if you’re not familiar with (and follow) Leave No Trace principles regarding off-trail use (in particular, Travel on Durable Surfaces), please stay on the official trails noted above while going to view them.
See some of the other equally fascinating plants of Kananaskis Country here!