September is hands down the best month of the year in the Rockies
I love my backyard. When your backyard includes the mountains around Lake Louise, it's easy to understand. I’ve always thought that the Lake Louise area is home to some of the most spectacular, jaw-dropping one-day hikes in the world. Yes, in the world. The places you can go, the scenery you can see—in just a few hours from your car and back—are astounding. Sure you hear some complaints about the crowds, and it’s true: the shores of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake in July or August can be very hot and very busy. That's just one reason September is the best month of the year in the Rockies.
September is for hiking what April is for skiing. By the time Labour Day rolls past, most people’s attention has turned elsewhere. The kids are back at school (or back at home in school), much of life has returned to the city and those frivolous days of hiking are done for another year. But not for all of us. September days are clear and crisp. Morning often brings a light layer of frost and the larch trees don their golden cloaks. Oh yes, and there are no crowds. Hikers, real hikers, have the playground to themselves.
There are so many places to go, secluded spots to find and hidden trails to explore; you could hike every day without crossing the same path twice. But, if I were only able to do one fall hike, it would be Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass. This is no revelation to anybody familiar with the area. I have not outed a secret stash. It is simply the most awe-inspiring half- to full-day hike in the area. Admittedly, in the summer, the experience is often dampened when you are forced to share the view with 50 or so of your closest friends. In the fall, this is just not the case.
If you're lucky enough to be in the neighbourhood, the hike starts on the shores of Moraine Lake, which presents a stunning photo op in itself. The path winds up through the subalpine forest for an hour or so. This may sound daunting to some, but the journey is broken up by startling views of the sapphire lake and imposing mountains. The grade of the path is quite moderate and with modest pacing, anybody can make the journey.
As you reach the apex of your climb, a welcome site comes into view: a bench. As you round the corner, a remarkable thing happens. You leave behind the world of the green spruce and fir and enter the domain of the larch. A golden canopy envelops you. Nowhere else in the park is the colour change so sudden and drastic. When there is a light dusting of snow, the effect is even more dramatic.
Another kilometre or so brings you to an open meadow. The Ten Peaks of Moraine Lake tower above you to the east, while Eiffel Peak, Sentinel Peak and Mount Temple complete the enclosure. Half an hour more along lightly forested, gradual uphill path brings you to the high alpine meadows by Minnestimma Lakes. The flowers of summer are gone but many hikers are still inspired to do a Sound of Music twirl (when they think they're alone).
In front lay the dire looking switchbacks to Sentinel Pass. It looks much worse than it is. In fact, by this point, you’ve gained far more elevation than you will in this final push, and the grade of the path is again very user friendly. The reward for your effort is well worth it. Sandwiched in a tiny col between Sentinel Peak and Mount Temple, you will have a bird's-eye view of Larch Valley and the Valley of the Ten Peaks in one direction with Paradise Valley and the Grand Sentinel in the other.
If you stay in the pass long enough, you may eventually be joined by a few other hikers. It’s entertaining to relive your own experience mirrored in their reaction. In their last few steps, they will slow, they'll look back to see where they have come from, and then forwards to see the new expansive view down the backside. After a short pause and a 360-degree skyward-looking turn, all they can usually muster is very faint.
5 reasons fall is the best time to visit the Rockies
1. The weather is perfect
While the weather can be unpredictable at the best of times in the mountains, fall brings some reliably cooler temperatures and clear skies. You no longer need to swelter through a hike or a bike ride, and you don’t really have to worry quite yet about snow or mud throwing a wrench into your plans.
2. The colours are even better in person
Eastern Canada gets a lot of well-deserved love for their fall colours and while there are fewer oranges and reds in the Rockies, the larch trees in the area go all in on the yellows. Plus, the shrubs and groundcover turn dark red as the seasons turn, and are only accentuated by the deep blue sky and sometimes a light dusting of snow. And it only lasts a few special weeks, usually in the second half of September.
3. There are fewer people everywhere
Even though 2020 has been a weird year, you can safely assume the Rockies parks will see fewer visitors and smaller crowds once school resumes (however that looks) like every other year. The RVs clear out, parking spaces return, the hiking trails remain open and the mountain peaks and meadows start to feel a little lonelier, in a good way.
4. The wildlife is out and about
The animals of the Rockies get down to business in the fall, and that sometimes means some of them are easier to spot. Male elk spend September to October herding up some new lady friends, and they’re not quiet about it—or all that friendly—so keep your distance but keep your ears open for their bugling mating call. Bears, meanwhile, are carb-loading on buffaloberries in preparation for hibernation. With so much to do, and so little time, this is a good time to observe them in action (without being a jerk).
5. That end-of-summer buzz
There’s definitely a buzz in the air as the days begin to shorten and the daytime highs slip. A sense of urgency stirs among those who remain, eager to pursue those yet-to-be-accomplished summer adventures before dusting off the winter gear. And you know you can’t put any of it off because no one can predict when summer will actually end or, perhaps more accurately, when winter will descend—not here. You could be hiking in 20 degrees one day and shovelling 10 centimetres of snow the next. Come September, every day is precious.
So, here’s my advice: go. See this place in all its September glory before it slips away for another year. HI Canada has hostels throughout the Rockies—in Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper and in a network of wilderness hostels along the Icefields Parkway.