O Canada! Autumn in the Rockies

Autumn is enchanting almost everywhere.

But our planet has some unique places that manifest the season’s splendor in such vivid, phantasmagoric glory that hitting these places at precisely the right time is an experience one never forgets. Obviously, the hardwoods of New England and the aspen forests of Colorado. The arctic plain burnished with gold; the cottonwood trees of the Colorado Plateau that seem to be bent in prayer, worshiping the languid rivers flowing through the canyons.

Golden larches and soaring spires make for a beguiling combination.

Somewhere high on this list are the Canadian Rockies, a place where I’ve returned again and again. For years, I made pilgrimages to the Rockies during every season, including some memorable winter excursions. Each season is beautiful, but autumn is truly something special.

Excellent, well-constructed hiking trails lead to Valhala-like destinations, places that are hard to leave at the end of the day. There are, of course, opportunities to dive deep on multi-day backpacking trips, and these can not be recommended enough, but even for the day hiker, the wonders are overwhelming.  Yes, the Rockies are crowded. Advanced planning is required. But these inconveniences prove trivial when the last rays of the sun illuminate the larches below Sentinel Pass.

Moraine Lake/Larch Valley/Sentinel Pass

Moraine Lake and the Valley of Ten Peaks. Photo by John D’Onofrio


I’ve visited Moraine Lake many times. Its beauty is known the world over, a classic Canadian Rockies scene located in Banff National Park. The lake, fed by glaciers, is the color of dreams.  Around these iridescent waters rise the Ten Peaks, a cavalcade of iconic ramparts, the summits frequently swaddled by clouds. Canoes are available to rent. They’re expensive but worth it. Opportunities like this don’t come along every day.

The trail to Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass starts here, rising above the lake through a luxurious forest that thins as you climb, eventually transporting you to larch meadows with spectacular views of the Ten Peaks. The final climb to Sentinel Pass ascends scree and rubble, with ever more awe-inspiring views. It’s seven miles roundtrip to Sentinel Pass with 2400 feet of elevation gain.

You’ll need to make reservations on the Moraine Lake Shuttle Bus to visit Moraine Lake—as of this year, the parking lot at the lake is closed to personal vehicles. If hiking to Larch Valley or Sentinel Pass, be sure to allow enough time to descend and catch the last bus out at 7:30 pm.

Parker Ridge

Parker Ridge. Photo by John D’Onofrio


Parker Ridge rises west of the Columbia Icefields Parkway, just south of the icefields near the northern edge of Banff Park. A well-graded trail transports hikers via switchbacks to the sinuous meadow-covered parklands stretching out amidst jaw-dropping mountain grandeur. There’s some excellent (and easy) wandering here on trails that traverse the length of the ridgetop, tinged in autumn’s magenta and gold.

Stupendous sights abound, including memorable views out to the Columbia Icefield proper, which feeds the Athabasca Glacier (this glacier, which descends almost to the valley bottom—the focus of tourist activity— is what most visitors believe to be the Columbia Icefield). Equally impressive are the epic summits that rise above the blue ice, including 11,453-foot Mt. Athabasca, a glittering jewel in the crown of the continental divide.

The trail granting access to the ridge is a scant four miles roundtrip, with an elevation gain of only 1100 feet. Once on the ridge, of course, the journey has just begun.

Wilcox Pass

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Wilcox Pass. Photo by John D’Onofrio


The trail to Wilcox Pass, located in Jasper National Park, just north of Parker Ridge on the Icefields Parkway, is another easy ingress point to the wonders of a northern autumn. The way is steep at first—and covered in roots that, when icy, can make progress slow—but the grade eases as you ascend through a thinning forest, now adorned with an autumnal orange and red understory. At a spectacular viewpoint, a pair of bright red Adirondack chairs sit beside the trail offering a place to rest and enjoy the sweeping views out over the valley below. The good folks from Parcs Canada have placed pairs of red chairs such as these at various trailside vista points around the Rocky Mountain National Parks to encourage hikers to pause and contemplate the beauty of the world. What a great idea! It’s an excellent place to sit and not think.

The trail continues upward through the broad pass to barren slopes of boulders and scree. Passage is easy, thanks to the ingenious trail construction commonplace in the Canadian Rockies, and by veering west on a side trail, hikers reach a birds-eye view of the Athabasca Glacier streaming down from rugged peaks across the valley.

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep inhabit Wilcox Pass, and it is not uncommon to share the view with these majestic creatures. I’ve been to the pass four times and seen them on three of those visits, the embodiment of the wild Rockies.

Roundtrip distance to the pass is five miles (but more if you explore, which you absolutely should) and the elevation gain is a fairly gentle 1280 feet.

Lake O’Hara

Lake O’Hara. Photo by John D’Onofrio


First, the bad news: Getting the necessary permits to get to Lake O’Hara, located in Yoho National Park, in the autumn (or anytime) is not easy. Reservations for both the campground and the park bus required to access the lake (no private cars are allowed) are made available at specific times in March or April. A frenzy always ensues. You will need fortitude and luck to score one.

But let’s not complain about the restrictions. Lake O’Hara is so radically, consciousness-altering beautiful that were it not for the restrictions, it would surely be reduced to rubble by the masses, coming from far and wide, drunk with beauty. We owe a debt of gratitude to Parcs Canada for their stalwart stewardship in the face of constantly increasing demand.

But…if you do manage to secure a permit, prepare for an out-of-body experience. Lake O’Hara is astonishingly beautiful, and the trails radiating upward in various directions from the lake and campground offer easy access to spectacular alpine landscapes. Golden larches and soaring spires make for a beguiling combination.

A favorite trail leads to Lake Oesa, cradled in a high cirque, and accessed by a gentle climb through meadows and larches. The lake, at 7400 feet, is surrounded by towering peaks, rising almost 4000 feet above the lake. It’s a dramatic scene. You can continue across the Yukness Ledge, a somewhat airy alpine traverse that eventually descends onto the Opabin Plateau with its beautiful lake and larch forest.

From the plateau, you can return to Lake O’Hara via trails that descend from either the east side of the plateau beneath the cliffs of Yukness Mountain or from the west side, stopping along the way at lovely Mary Lake. Or—if you want more— you can continue across the alpine route, a climb up through boulders and scree to All Soul’s Prospect, aptly named.

Another sublime hiking destination is Lake McArthur, its vibrant aquamarine waters set in a barren bowl, a glacier hanging above its eastern shore. The hike can be done as a circuit, hiking up the Big Larches Trail (some of the prime larch viewing in the Rockies) and back down via the McArthur Pass Trail past the Elizabeth Parker Hut. It’s five miles roundtrip with about 1,000 feet of elevation gain.

Other alpine routes lead to remarkable viewpoints and high mountain environments, places that would otherwise be the exclusive realm of climbers. One is the route to Wiwaxy Gap, a relentless climb to a rugged notch high above Lake O’Hara.  It’s an arduous undertaking (1800 feet of elevation gain in only 2.25 miles to the Gap!), but from here, you can pick up the alpine traverse (acrophobes, beware) that leads across the legendary Huber Ledges to Lake Oesa.

Lake O’Hara is best enjoyed over several days by camping in the small campground, assuming you can secure a camping permit.

Mt. Assiniboine Traverse

Mt. Assiniboine. Photo by John D’Onofrio


The Mt. Assiniboine Traverse is a commitment, a once-in-a-lifetime deep dive into the Canadian Rockies. In fall, this inspiring traverse through high meadows and subalpine forest is ablaze with color, and the views along the way are continuously inspiring. Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park is truly a wild place – no roads enter the park, but the trail system is superb.

You’ll want to allocate some time for this excursion. The total distance is only 35 miles, but the many irresistible side trails will add many more miles. Take your time here and let the days pass.  I took 12 glorious days to make the traverse and explored far and wide along the way. Every exploration was rewarding, every side excursion a feast for the senses.

The traverse starts at the Sunshine Meadows Ski Area in Banff National Park, accessible via a shuttle bus from Banff. The elevation here is 7200 feet, so you have the benefit of starting high (the total elevation gain on the 34-mile traverse is only 2500 feet). After climbing over Quartz Hill, you’ll drop a little to Howard Douglas Lake (campsites here), then traverse along a ridge to Citadel Pass, Assiniboine rising ahead, before descending through the Golden Valley (a larch paradise) and into the chaotic Valley of Rocks. After the rocks comes Og Lake, a primeval place amidst rubble and boulders, with Assiniboine, closer now, looming to the south. Austere, inspiring campsites here.

Og Lake. Photo by John D’Onofrio


The trail crosses Og Meadows to Lake Magog, a world-renowned beauty spot, that reflects the majesty of Assiniboine in its turquoise waters. It’s like the Swiss Alps without the hotels, cog trains, and trendy bistros. There is a lodge here. The Assiniboine Lodge, an institution in the Canadian backcountry since 1928, is situated at the lake’s northeast end and maintains a low profile.

Lake Magog is an excellent base camp for explorations of the remarkable country rising above it on all sides. The trail to the Nublet, and beyond to the Nub itself, yields mind-boggling views of Assiniboine and Magog. The trail to Windy Pass, which lives up to its name, escorts you through luminous larches to an airy pinnacle, a place to sit and contemplate, to soak it in.

When it’s time to leave Magog and finish the traverse to its conclusion at the Mount Shark trailhead at Spray Lakes, you can choose between two trails. Their names tell the story: Wonder Pass and Marvel Pass.

Campsites in the core area of Assiniboine must be reserved in advance. Needless to say, the demand for these world-class places to pitch a tent is exceedingly high.

The Fleeting Season

It’s important to remember that autumn comes earlier here than in the North Cascades (or the American Rockies). So does winter: it’s not uncommon to see snowfall in mid-September (or earlier). The seasonal transition is short, and invariably the autumn color palette in the mountains includes the gold of larches and the white of snow.

Smoke Inhalation

The last several years have seen wildfire smoke occasionally engulf the Canadian Rockies in autumn.  Unfortunately, smoke seems to be the new abnormal due to global warming.  The smoke is subject to wind direction and can change dramatically from day to day. Be forewarned: when it’s bad, it’s bad. Check with www.firesmoke.ca before you go.

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