How To Hike Larch Valley And Sentinel Pass In Banff National Park

There is nothing better in Banff National Park than the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass. It’s the epitome of the Canadian Rockies in one hike. You’ve got gorgeous lakes, towering peaks, and lovely forests.

It’s honestly the most magical place I’ve ever been, and that’s saying something. I’m sure you’ll feel the same after seeing photos and setting foot in this stunning place.

Inside, I show off pictures of the beautiful scenery, everything you need to know about traveling here, and hiking details to crush the Larch Valley hike.

Hiking throughout Larch Valley in Canada.

Everything you need to know for hiking into the dazzling Larch Valley in Canada

One Minute Guide for the Larch Valley Hike

  • Larch Valley Hike Trailhead: Moraine Lake
  • Distance: 5 miles RT into Larch Valley, 3.5 miles to Sentinel Pass
  • Elevation Gain: 1,700 feet of gain to Larch Valley, 2,600 to Sentinel Pass
  • Difficulty: Moderately Difficult
  • Crowd Level: Always crowded at the trailhead and especially during fall colors

Lakes near Banff you should check out!


Planning your trip to Banff National Park

Where to stay while in the Canadian Rockies

There are many places to stay in Banff and around Lake Louise, so you shouldn’t have an issue finding a place to crash. As a budget traveler, I love staying in the Hosteling International locations. There’s one in Lake Louise, a prime location for exploring Banff National Park and the Icefield Parkway.

Near Banff, Canada

Near Lake Louise, Canada

Reflections during the Larch Valley hike in Banff National Park.

How to get to Banff National Park

Getting to Banff is straightforward, as it sits on the Trans Canadian Highway (Highway 1).

Calgary to Banff

Head west for about three hours for those flying in and renting a car in Calgary. American readers, make sure to drive the speed limit. They’re considerably slower than in the United States. (100kph = 62.5 mph)

Seattle or Vancouver to Banff

From Vancouver, it’s a 10-hour drive – all on Highway 1. And for those coming from Seattle, you have a few different options. If the border moves quickly, going north into Canada is marginally quicker.

However, the next fastest is taking I-90 through Spokane and northern Idaho. While 75 miles longer, you can drive faster – because, America.

I’d recommend going into Canada via I-5 North, as the drive from Revelstoke to Lake Louise will be stunning.

Hiking Clothes and Gear to bring on your Larch Valley hike

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Getting your Banff National Park Pass

You must have a National Park pass to visit Banff National Park and all the other National Parks in Canada. However, they make it easy to get one, as you have to pass through a toll booth on your way in.

You can buy one online as well or at the park entrance on Highway 1.

The Discovery Pass is an Annual Pass, while they also offer Day Passes (probably not recommended for most people who are there for a while).

Stunning image from Banff National Park.

Cost Breakdown:

  • Family/Group Discovery Pass is $145
  • The Adult Discovery Pass is $72.25
  • The Senior Discovery Pass is $61.75

New Travel Rules for Moraine Lake in 2023 and Beyond

The most significant change to hiking into Larch Valley and visiting Moraine Lake is you can no longer drive your car there starting in 2023. For many visitors, this might be a hassle. However, you no longer need to fret about finding a place to park.

The biggest impact will be on photographers wanting to be there for sunrise and sunset. My recommendation, grab a bike and bike the route up.

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Moraine Lake 2024 Schedule

Park’s Canada is running the Moraine Lake shuttle for the 2024 season. Starting June 1st at 6:30 AM, then every 20 minutes there after, with the last one departing at 6:00 PM from the Ski Louise parking lot. Departures from Moraine Lake will then go to the Ski Louise parking lot at 20 minute intervals with the last one leaving at 7:30 PM.

Due to high demand, reservations are required for the Moraine Lake shuttle. Use the button below to take you to the Park’s Canada reservation page. You can make a reservation up to 2 hours before the scheduled departure time.

Moraine Lake Sunrise Canadian Rockies road trip

Some Exceptions for Moraine Lake Vehicles

There are some exceptions for driving up to Moraine Lake.

Commercial vehicles, shuttles, taxi’s, vehicles with handicapped placards and guests of Moraine Lake Lodge will still be allowed in from June to mid October.

Biking from Lake Louise Visitor Center to Moraine Lake

Reaching Moraine Lake on a bike is a 15 km or 9.3-mile ride. Sadly, it’s not flat. You’ll have a 420m (1,400 feet) ascent to reach Moraine Lake and begin your Larch Valley hike.

Going with an E-Bike might be a popular way to reach this without too much effort. I have a write-up of top bikes under $2,000.


My 12 favorite hikes in the Canadian Rockies


What time of the year is Larch Valley Best?

Spring Treks

Once the snow melts (again, later in the year than most people would think), this is a perfect opportunity to drive up without crowds. In addition, the buses won’t run to Moraine Lake until June, meaning you could have a couple of months of adventures here by your lonesome.

The view from Sentinel Pass above the Larch Valley hike.
Sentinel Pass views in Banff National Park

Summer Adventures in Banff Natotional Park

The craziest part of the year but the best. Your long days allow you to hike to your heart’s delight around Larch Valley and let you tackle other nearby trails. Honestly, the Larch Valley hike will bring you so much joy that you won’t want to leave.

Other Banff hikes in the area:

  • Eiffel Lake or Eiffel Peak
  • Wenkchemna Pass
  • Tower of Babel
  • Mt Temple
  • Moraine Lake Shoreline Trail
  • Consolation Lakes
  • Neil Colgan Hut Hike
  • Mt. Little
  • Mt Perren

Fall Frenzy in the Canadian Rockies

Larch Valley is one of the most idyllic places to see fall colors in the Canadian Rockies. Plus, the bang for your buck is among the highest you can find. I spent the fall of 2021 here and had the most amazing time ever.

Make sure to dress warmer for your hikes because, as the Starks said, ‘Winter’s Coming.’

Winter Wonderland

The road here is closed during winter, but that’s about mid-October in the Rockies. So if you’re going to bike it, I would double check you can still go up. Assuming you can, it could be done until the snow is too deep that it’s prohibitive for biking.

Trail Guide: Hiking to Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass in Banff

Be Bear Safe

Always carry bear spray while hiking in the Canadian Rockies. Additionally, try to hike in groups of 2+, but it’s better with 3+. Grizzly bears are less likely to attack when outnumbered.

Hopefully, this area is crowded enough to keep bears away, but you don’t want to rely on hope when hiking in Banff National Park.

Lastly, you cannot fly with bear spray, so pick it up once you land.

A small stream on the Larch Valley hike.
Trekking on the Larch Valley trail.

Moraine Lake to Larch Valley

Starting at Moraine Lake, you’ll ascend steadily for the first .75 of a mile before encountering ten switchbacks that will take you up 700 feet. Coming from sea level the day before and hiking at 6,500 feet, I felt the altitude (and lack of sleep).

Once you leave the switchbacks behind, it levels off, and you’ll be surrounded by larches. There will be lakes to your left and right at the 2.3-mile mark. This is where you can get the classic mountains rising out of the ground/reflection shot seen below.

I recommend going to the bottom one (to your right) first as it’s more dramatic and also a larger body of water. Unfortunately, the top lake doesn’t have the same insane photography presence.

The best time to photograph this is sunset and sunrise when your light is perfect, and you’ll have less wind.

Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass

As you pass Minnestima Lakes on your left, your climb to Sentinel Pass begins. This section is a little less than one mile. You’ll have a long traverse, followed by three switchbacks near the top. It’s not too hard of a climb, and the stoke of how beautiful the area will distract you.

You’ll be able to capture photos from both sides at the pass, but looking down the way you came is more impressive with the lakes below.

Lastly, for those looking to summit Mount Temple, you’ll continue going up to the left if you’re looking out over the Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass trail.

The peaks of Banff National Park.

What to know about the Larch Valley hike?

How long should the entire hike take?

Well, it’ll take a while because you’ll spend half of it taking photos. When I went, I was there for sunrise – started around 6 am in early October. And then I think I was coming down close to noon. So I’d plan for 4-5 hours and see what happens.

How hard is the Larch Valley hike?

I would give it moderate to difficult. If you’re just going into Larch Valley, it’s not too bad. Getting up to Sentinel Pass is indeed harder but only by degrees. The most challenging part, as I wrote above, is those switchbacks. I was huffing and puffing going up!

As for trail quality, it’s a perfect trail and shouldn’t give anyone issues. I’d rate it suitable for anyone 8+, with the understanding it’ll take younger kids longer.

How are the crowds for Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass?

So historically, this is one of the most populated trailheads in Canada. Many people photograph it for sunrise, making even early risers earlier risers to ensure they get a parking spot. Now with the new rules on buses, it’ll be crowded, but I expect a bit more controlled.

Are there bathrooms nearby?

There are restrooms at the trailhead, but that is it. Use it when you start but after that, it’s all nature.

Do I need a permit to hike here?

No permit is needed, but you do need a bus permit or to stay at the hotel which costs a pretty penny. If you want to backpack this area, you’ll need a permit. Consult with Banff National Park for that information.

Golden larches in the morning light.

Photo Tips for the Larch Valley Hike

Be there for sunrise or sunset

If you can, be there for sunrise. It’s unbelievably pretty as it comes over the mountains to the left of you. Now, with the new rules, I’m not sure how that will work. Worst case, stay for sunset – but remember that could be at 10:15 pm during the summer, and the shuttles won’t be running then.

Wide Angle Lens

Having a wider lens (16-35 or 24-70) will allow you to capture the entire scene with the mountains seemingly rising out of nowhere. However, if you’re going to have one lens when you hike Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass, go with the 24-70.

70-200mm

I love zooming in on intricate glaciers or details in the mountains, and the 70-200 mm lens allows you to do that. Furthermore, 100-400 would give you a little more oomph, but I don’t currently have one and definitely wasn’t carrying my 150-600 up. So while you want the wider lens for the bottom, a zoom lens is great for up at Sentinel Pass.

Bring a Tripod

Make sure you bring a tripod when photographing the lakes on the Larch Valley hike. This will let you do a long exposure and get a lovely reflection. Additionally, having an ND filter would help if you want to continue shooting long exposure later in the morning.

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Views from Banff National Park and the larch valley hike.

FAQ: Larch Valley Hike in Banff

How many days do you need in Banff National Park?

I recommend spending at least five days in and around Banff National Park. This will allow you to see the classics while also driving up the Icefield Parkway and enjoying the scenery there. Plus, there are so many other hikes in the area – you’ll surely have items unchecked from your trip’s bucket list.

Should I rent a car when visiting Banff National Park?

Most definitely. This will allow you easier access to more locations and let you stay out later, as most shuttles stop before 8 pm.

What is the USD to CA conversion rate?

As of February 2024, $1 CA is equal to $0.74 USD, meaning when Americans spend dollars in Canada, it’s, in a way, 26% off. In other words, your dollar goes farther in Canada.

A glacier behind golden larches.

Wrapping Up – Larch Valley Hike in Banff National Park

If there’s one hike you do in Banff National Park, it needs to be Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass. It’ll show you the full depth of the Canadian Rockies’ glory while still letting you feel like you’re in nature and not at a zoo.

Unfortunately, the new rules will affect you whether or not you’re a photographer, as you’ll have to book a shuttle to visit and won’t be able to see them in ‘good light’ unless you’re biking in or using one of the other avenues to see it early.

Still, make sure you do the Larch Valley hike while hiking in Banff National Park, as it’s more incredible than you can imagine!

Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.


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Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Bio:

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on ExploreWithAlec.com. Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside