The hardwood deciduous forests of eastern Canada and the USA are home to trees like oaks and maples. They 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. 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 Larch.
What kinds of larches are there?
We have three native species of Larch in Kananaskis. The most common and popular is the Subalpine or Lyall’s Larch, Larix lyalli, which we write about here.
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. There are many of these in Northern Alberta. Tamaracks like muskeg and wetlands – and full sunshine. No Tamaracks are readily accessible or particularly visible on any K-Country trail or route. Consider yourself lucky if you find one.
The third species is Western Larch, Larix occidentalis. If you know where to look, they’re readily accessible and easy to see in K-Country. The Western Larch can survive down to 500 m elevation. Even the lowest point in K-Country is well above that.
If everyone is stampeding to the Highwood Pass to see the Lyall’s Larch, why not avoid the crowds and go find the Western Larch?
Where do Western Larch grow?
The extreme southern end of K-Country in the Cataract Creek and Highwood Junction area is the normal extreme northwest corner of the range of the Western Larch. You can find a lot of them in the Pasque Mountain area, for instance. The larch density there really rivals any Lyall’s Larch groves in the Highwood Pass or Odlum ridge areas.
More accessible, and for reasons oft debated by researchers, there are a number in the Interlakes and Elk Pass areas. Based on the maps and research, there should be many visible on the trail between the Upper K Dam and North Interlakes Day Use Area. Our experience says you need to snoop around in the forest a lot to find them, but they are there. You can see some of them on the northern slopes of Blueberry Hill from the White Spruce DUA area. There are even a few Western Larch growing on the flanks of Pigeon Mountain above Dead Man’s Flats; we’ve seen them with binoculars.
Western Larch are common in British Columbia, and especially in upper reaches of the Elk Valley south of the Elk Pass. One theory about the Elk Pass and Interlakes Western Larches is wind blew the seeds over Elk Pass. Another theory is distribution by border-crossing Clark’s Nutcrackers, who are very good at long-distance seed dispersion for Whitebark Pine. Still other theories relate it to historic fires that occurred.
Want Larches that are even more accessible? There’s a small outlier grove of Western Larch visible from Hwy 40 at the Nakiska overlook. If you really like them, they actually grow in the Sundance Lodges campground, in sites 8a, 9a, 9b and 10 (the 9a sign is attached to one). You can actually camp among the larches here, though the campground closes for the winter just as the larches start to turn. If you just want to see them, you’re welcome to drive to the campground office and take the 5 minute walk through the campground to the sites even when they are closed. Thanks to Lori Skulski for pointing them out to us; despite being 70′ tall, we had never noticed them before.
When is the colour the best?
For all the Larch species that grow here, mid- to late-September is Colour season. It’s a 2-3 week window where there’s a colour in our forests other than green. Up high, it’s due to the Lyall’s Larch. All Larches are deciduous conifers, dropping the 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. For Lyall’s Larch Colours rarely start turning much before September 15th, and the needles have basically dropped everywhere by October 10th. For Western Larch, they tend to turn 2-3 weeks later, so are visible late September through late October.
See some of the other equally fascinating plants of Kananaskis Country here!