Sunday, 27 September 2015

Sept 23: Larches

It is the peak of fall colour. Our fall season isn't nearly as spectacular as the show put on by oaks and maples back in Eastern Canada, but we do our part. Our colours are dominated by aspens and poplars down low, and the king of the western colour changers, larches, up high. Add to that willows and various ground cover like avens and we have a 2 week window at this time of year to take every blue sky day we can get, go up high and visit larches.

The best larch hikes I know are not short strolls because larches live high and most trailheads are low. So I annually trek to places like Sparrowhawk Tarns (last year's show was spectacular), Read's Tower, Tryst Lake or others to see the colours. Gillean Daffern's new Volume 5 of the 4th edition of the Kananaskis Trails Guide came out a few months back, and in reading it, she said the best larches in K-Country are in Arethusa Cirque. Makes sense; that's the first cirque south of the Highwood Pass, the highest car-accessible pass in Canada. And Ptarmigan Cirque right at the pass is OK larch viewing.

However, I was stunned by Arethusa. Not 5 minutes after leaving the car, the first larches appear. Not even 1 km from the trailhead, it's a sea of larches, 2 beautiful streams, and spectacular mountain backdrops. You want easy larches? Arethusa wins, hands down.
Gold on blue 
A sea of colour 
The basin 
The larches continue 
Ice in the creek 
The larches just keep on going 
A gold sea
A slow 30 min saunter snapping endless pictures got us to the meadow. We figured out a way to hop the creek; not as easy as we thought (but we found an easy way to do it on the way down). We sat by the creek and had lunch marvelling in the view. After lunch, we continued an easy climb on what Gillean calls the "Larch Trail", one of 3 routes up in the cirque.
Looking up the trail 
Mt. Arethusa 
Karen taking it all in 
A little higher 
Looking back across the valley 
So many larches 
An outlier of Storm Mountain 
Convoluted Storm Mountain
After climbing just 170 m -- a total of only 270 m since leaving the parking lot -- you pop out of the forest to a grassy headwall. Now you get to look down to the vast expanse of colour at your feet.
Across the valley is Highwood Ridge 
A gold sea towards Storm 
Grassy meadows on the way towards Mt. Arethusa 
Larches on Arethusa's flanks 
The basin below 
You can pick out the creeks sparkling in the trees 
High up, the forest thins
Isolated larches in the meadows 
Storm in it's larchy glory 
Looking southwest
Another creek springs up in the basin and runs down a waterfall in the draw in the photo above.
The creek under Mt. Arethusa 
Looking down the creek 
And the larches just keep on glowin' 
Storm Mtn.
We dropped down what's called the North Cirque trail. MUCH steeper than the way up through the Larch Trail and very slippery with the afternoon sun melting the morning frost on the ground.
Across the draw to the forest of the Larch Trail 
Down this way 
A little lower
Once back in the meadow, we explored a bit. We had time; the whole saunter thus far had taken a little more than 2 hrs and had only been a 4 km walk.
What a spectacular meadow
I saw a scree jumble. I saw trimmed grass near it. That meant pikas, and sure enough, we found one, though he didn't want to stick around that much to get his picture taken.
I was even having trouble focusing on him
Despite being 15° and nice in the sun, there was ice in the creek, and it made cool patterns.
Like ice spiderwebs
We saw little in the way of wildlife, but it's there, especially the grizzly bears. We saw a dozen recent bear digs.
On the Larch Forest trail 
In the meadows above the forest 
At the creek at the top of the North Cirque trail
Gillean is right. There's probably no better space for larches that I know of in K-Country, or in Banff, either. A 5 km walk that anyone and their kids can do will let you explore spectacular colours and vistas with little effort. Just make a ton of noise, stick together and carry bear spray.

PS: How to avoid getting wet crossing the creek: When you get to the creek, turn right and follow the trail on the right side of the creek. Near the scree at the far end of the meadow about 150 m on the other side of the meadow, the creek braids and there are several places you can easily step across it.


H-woman said...

Looking forward to hiking this one! Is there a parking area?

RyderDA said...

You'll find a short gravel road on the east side of the highway ~2 km south of the Highwood Pass parking lot. It's not a parking lot, per se, but it gets your car well off Hwy 40. Trailhead is at the north end of the gravel, marked with a yellow sign.