Remember junior-high biology class when you had to learn about photosynthesis? Sunshine, water and carbon dioxide combine to make chlorophyll, which turns the leaves green. Come autumn, the shorter days mean less photosynthesis going on, so the green fades away and the leaves, well, die – albeit turning brilliant shades of gold and red in the process.
But enough with the life cycle of a leaf. It’s time to hit the trails and admire the autumn hues. Alberta has amazing places to hike and more than a few of these places are just a short drive from Calgary.
Hikes in Banff and Lake Louise
Photograph by Paul Zizka/Banff Lake Louise Tourism
Larch (or Tamarack) is the only coniferous tree that loses its needles the way a deciduous tree loses its leaves, turning these “evergreens” a surreal bright gold. Larch Valley, near Lake Louise, is the Holy Grail for those seeking this seasonal spectacle. The trail is a bit of an uphill slog at first, but it quickly levels off. You’ll forget all about the switchbacks once you’re taking in the Larch Valley and the view of the adjacent Valley of the Ten Peaks. Plan for a hike of at least 8.6 kilometres (return) and travel in a pack of no fewer than four to keep bears at bay. Autumn larch spotting is a popular pastime, so consider visiting on a weekday to avoid the parking-lot crush.
Fire lookouts can usually be counted on for great views and the old Castle Lookout is no exception. Perched on the Goat Ledge on Castle Mountain, the lookout provides a stunning panorama of the Bow Valley. The trailhead and parking lot are located approximately five km west of Castle Junction along the Bow Valley Corridor. The trail starts out easy, following the old fire road, gradually becoming steeper as a series of zigzags. It eventually pops out of the trees, revealing views of the forested valley with its seasonal mix of evergreen trees and amber and gold larch and aspen. Keep walking to the foundation of the old lookout, which makes for a perfect picnic spot, before the quick return trip down the mountain. Plan a half-day total for this eight-km (return) hike.
photograph by Paul Zizka/Banff Lake Louise Tourism
Lake Agnes is a popular destination for more than just the autumn show – the Lake Agnes Tea House serves up some of the best banana bread in the valley. Set out from the Lakeshore Trail on Lake Louise (near the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise) and veer right at the sign for the Lake Agnes Trail. There are a few switchbacks in the trees, but it is worth the effort as the Tea House is a joy to discover (bring cash if you’re planning to order tea). Continue on from there to the Little Beehive. This is another former Parks Canada fire lookout, so expect stunning views of the surrounding forest in all its autumnal glory. The trail to the Lake Agnes Tea House is 6.8 km (return); add another two km to include the Little Beehive.
The easy way up is across the valley at the Lake Louise Ski Resort, where a 14-minute sightseeing gondola ride lets you skip the uphill slog so you can enjoy a leisurely lunch on the deck of the Whitehorn Lodge Restaurant and a hike in the picturesque surrounding areas. Take the 45-minute guided Trail of the Great Bear hike or venture out (in a group) on one of the many loop trails of varying lengths. If it’s fall colours you’re after, the 1.7-km Kicking Horse Viewpoint Trail is worth checking out for its vibrant clusters of larch.
Hikes in Kananaskis
Burstall Pass Trail
photograph courtesy Canmore Business & Tourism
Burstall Pass Trail in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is a classic trail that is popular year-round, although it is particularly beautiful during the fall. The hike is roughly 15 km (return), so budget ample time based on your own pace. It begins by following an old logging road, eventually narrowing down to single track. Along the way, you’ll see an abundance of golden larch and an artist’s palette of fire-red autumn colours in the rock-hugging shrubs on the towering peaks and ridges.
Hikes in Calgary and the area
In the short time that Glenbow Ranch has been a provincial park, it has become a favourite of hikers, bikers and nature lovers. Located between Calgary and Cochrane on the north shore of the Bow River, the more than 1,300 hectares of foothills parkland offer sweeping views of golden prairie grasses and brilliant red and purple shrubs along the Bow River Valley. Explore any or all of the nine trails that loop and weave through coulees, along the river and over the hills. The Narrows Trail winds through a canopy of golden leaves, where you’re likely to spot deer and resident songbirds. If the trails seem daunting on foot, consider booking a two-hour “Best of Glenbow” golf-cart tour, available for private groups. And, while the seasonal colours are breathtaking, they can be fleeting, so step out and enjoy them before a strong wind blows through.
photograph courtesy the City of Calgary
Weaselhead Flats is actually a small delta where the Elbow River slows down to feed the Glenmore Reservoir (who knew Calgary had a delta?). The 237-hectare natural environment park can be accessed from either South Glenmore Park or from the parking lot on the west side of North Glenmore Park. The best view of the entire area is up on the north bank, but don’t stop there. Take the paved path down into the flats and veer off on any of the soft trails that meander along the river and through the balsam poplar and trembling aspen trees while golden leaves flutter around you.
3 tips for being bear aware in the mountains
If you’re hiking in the Rockies you’re on the home turf of the resident grizzly and black bears. Parks Canada recommends taking the following steps to minimize the chance of an encounter:
Clap, sing and talk loudly. Don’t rely on bear bells alone to make your presence known.
Hike in a group of four or more and don’t let kids wander off.
Leash your dog
Or better yet, leave the pooch at home. Dogs provoke defensive behaviour in bears.
For more information on bear safety visit pc.gc.ca.