Travel Guide: Everything You Need To Know To Visit Moraine Lake and Hike Larch Valley in Banff National Park

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Did you know: Alberta is home to one of the most photographed lakes in the world?

Well, the province is probably home to many of the most photographed lakes in the world, what with all of our stunning blue-green glacial lakes set against mountain backdrops, but officially, Alberta’s Moraine Lake, located in Banff National Park, generally holds the top title. A visit to the lake—or just browsing a few photos—makes it clear why. Moraine Lake is brilliant! It’s beautiful. It’s a bucket list lake. For real.

But being that beautiful, and that photographed, means guess what it’s also pretty busy! Moraine Lake is notorious for being hard to access because it’s not unusual for the parking lot to be full by 6 a.m. (maybe earlier). It also doesn’t help that Moraine Lake is the starting point of the popular Larch Valley hike, so in the parking lot you’ve got people there to visit Moraine Lake and people there to hike! 

Lucky for you, I’ve done both! And as a casual adventurer, I’m here to share some tips to make your visit to Moraine Lake and hike up Larch Valley as enjoyable as possible. 

Read on for my Travel Guide: Everything You Need To Know To Visit Moraine Lake and Hike Larch Valley in Banff National Park!

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Share my casual adventurer's Guide to Moraine Lake + Hiking Larch Valley!
What and where is Moraine Lake? 

Moraine Lake is a glacially-fed lake in Banff National Park, Alberta. This stunning lake is located just 25 minutes from Lake Louise (before, if you’re driving from Banff), 1 hour from Banff (driving west), or 1 hour and 20 minutes from Canmore (where we were coming from that day—I generally enjoy Canmore as a base for my adventures and I often stay at Coast Canmore Hotel—watch for their seasonal deals!)

The brilliant, blue-green turquoise colour of Moraine Lake is caused by glacial erosion (from Fay Glacier). Casual adventurer knowledge = lakes that are glacially fed get turquoise-y in colour and are extremely beautiful, cute and Instagrammable. Lakes that are not glacially fed are not as beautiful, cute, or Instagrammable (lol but they’re fine). 

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Dukie and Margie at Rockpile lookout to Moraine Lake!

Moraine Lake is surrounded by what’s called the Valley of the Ten Peaks. In case you’re interested, according to Wikipedia, the ten peaks from east to west are: Mount Fay, Mount Little, Mount Bowlen, Tonsa, Mount Perren, Mount Allen, Mount Yuzo, Deltaform Mountain, Neptuak Mountain, and Wenkchemna Peak. There are also smaller but other visible peaks in the area—Mount Temple, Mount Babel, and Eiffel Peak!

The lake is actually a lot smaller than Lake Louise (its popular neighbour), but arguably more beautiful.  (I don’t know, I think Lake Louise is pretty friggin beautiful, and you don’t necessarily need to get there *that* early to enjoy it, but I see where Team Moraine folks are coming from, lol.) 

This world famous lake was also once featured on the back of an old $20 Canadian bill!

Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Rocky Mountains
Taking in the STUNNING VIEW!! at Moraine Lake.
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Rocky Mountains
Giving my skirt a little twirl at Moraine Lake!
How early should you get to Moraine Lake? (and by what mode of transport?)

Moraine Lake Road, the road you need to take to get to Moraine Lake (as the name of the road suggests lol), is open mid-June through mid-October. So that’s the main period of time you’d want to go to Moraine Lake (it’s not accessible by car during winter but you could hike to it—though you won’t get the scenic turquoise colour during your winter visit). 

During our mid-September 2020 adventure, we headed out from Canmore to Moraine Lake around 4:45 a.m. (So wake-up was around 4 a.m. depending on how much time you need to get ready). I know—so early! Our goal was to get to the parking lot by 5:30 a.m. at the latest because yes, it’s true, the parking lot does fill up by 6 a.m., depending on what time of year you’re going. So if you’re driving to Moraine Lake, plan to wake up early and drive in darkness (be careful for wildlife!!!)

It’s not uncommon for people to be driving loops back and forth from Lake Louise to Moraine Lake just waiting for a spot to free up because they didn’t arrive early enough and the lot is full. Watch for signs along the highway as well, if parking lots are full then the signs will indicate such, and indicate if there is overflow parking available in another lot (this is true for Lake Louise as well). 

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The sky was black and we could see the stars when we pulled into the Moraine Lake parking lot lol
There are a few other options if you don’t want to drive or wake up too early:
  • You can take the Roam Bus! This Banff / Canmore / Lake Louise area transit service offers different routes to popular destinations in the area—Sulphur Mountain, Tunnel Mountain, Canmore, Banff or Lake Louise, and Moraine Lake! Taking the Roam Bus to / from Moraine Lake makes you don’t have to wake up at such an early hour, lol. Their service (depending on time of year) runs from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and if you get a spot on the bus, you’re guaranteed a visit to Moraine Lake—even if the parking lot is full! Be sure to check out the Roam Bus website for updated fare and schedule information.
  • In addition to the bus, you can also take dedicated Parks Canada Shuttles to/from Moraine Lake. These shuttles run on weekends during peak seasons and are often full as well, so you do need to do some planning as the shuttle is first come first serve with no reservations. 
  • And your third alternate option to driving is to stay at the Moraine Lake Lodge, located just steps from the lake! The Moraine Lake Lodge only operates from June 1 to Sept. 30 and staying here means you would not need to worry at all about getting up early to drive or take transit to visit the lake. 
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Larch Valley Trail Minnestimma Lake Hike - Rocky Mountains - Larches - Ten Peaks
You can take the Roam Bus to Moraine Lake if you don't want to drive!
I want to make an important Moraine Lake adventure distinction here as well:

People go early to Moraine Lake to secure a parking spot, but then they go up Rockpile Trail early to secure a good spot on the rocks overlooking Moraine Lake—in order to get that quintessential Moraine Lake photo! Although we arrived in the parking lot by 6 a.m., we didn’t actually get going up the Rockpile until closer to 7:30 a.m., and by the time we got up to the photo lookout (it’s a very short and easy hike—more on that below), it was already PACKED with people. Very much an ‘Instagram versus Reality’ situation.

At that point the sun was only really just starting to rise, but it was clear that the people who arrived in the lot around 6 a.m. had also just gone straight up to the Rockpile in order to snag a good viewing and photo spot overlooking the lake. Since we didn’t do that, we ended up staying on the Rockpile probably closer to an hour waiting for people to leave their good spots so we could snag them. 

There are also those who need to get a spot in Moraine Lake parking lot just to ensure they’ve got a spot to go hike Larch Valley. There’s really no rush to do the hike—it’s just the rush to Rockpile Trail to get that iconic photo that is mainly the reason the lot is full, lol. 

Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Rocky Mountains
Rockpile Trail to the lookout over Moraine Lake.
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Rocky Mountains
Up at the Rockpile overlooking Moraine Lake!
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Rocky Mountains
Taking our time one we got a good spot lol.
What is and how do you get to the Moraine Lake Rockpile?

Rockpile Trail is the very short, very easy hike up to get up on a rocky lookout / platform that offers you that quintessential view of Moraine Lake! As I’ve said, I’m a casual adventurer, so when I say the hike up Rockpile Trail is very short and very easy, I mean it, lol. 

A friend asked if she could do this hike with her young kids—yes absolutely. 

The Moraine Lake Rockpile Trail is about 0.8 kilometre, very popular, very short and easy incline up to a pretty big rocky lookout of Moraine Lake. 

Rockpile Trail starts just steps from the parking lot—so that’s an adventure distinction as well.

  • If you want to go straight to Moraine Lake, no hike involved at all, just walk from the parking lot towards the hotel and the lake will be to your left, very easily accessible (there’s even canoe/kayak rentals, depending on time of year—or bring your own, I love my inflatable kayak Khaya! lol) 
  • If you want to go to Rockpile Trail, you access that trail to the left of the parking lot (left of the lake). 
  • If you want to go do Larch Valley hikes, you keep going straight past the lake/hotel. 

If I hadn’t been adventuring with my serious adventurer friends during this visit, I probably would’ve just “hiked” (I put this in quotes because it’s really just a walk lo) up to the Rockpile, got my Moraine Lake photos, and then went back down to the actual lake to play, swim, maybe kayak, and wrap up my adventure. That could be your perfect Moraine Lake adventure!!

But if you *are* interested in hiking, Moraine Lake is the base for the popular Larch Valley hike!! 

Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Rocky Mountains
Rockpile Trail is mostly just stairs like this!
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Rocky Mountains
Instagram vs. Reality ya'll!
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Rocky Mountains
The iconic view! (Except for maybe that tall tree in the middle lol)
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Rocky Mountains
Moraine Lake is just steps from the Moraine Lake parking lot!
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Rocky Mountains
Me and Great Grams of Gary, my very famous adventure cat friend at Moraine Lake!

Watch my 15-second video showing scenes from our Moraine Lake visit:

@lindorable

🇨🇦 Woke up early to experience Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada!! 🇨🇦 ##explorealberta ##naturalwonders

♬ original sound – Linda Hoang

What is Larch Valley?

Or perhaps the first question we should answer is: what’s a larch? A larch is an alpine tree with deciduous needles that turn a beautiful golden colour during autumn. It’s really not unlike your regular leaves changing colour in whatever town or city you live in, but for some reason, people go bananas over larches. lol!

This again, is coming from a casual adventurer. Serious adventurers will tell you larches are the most stunning tree you could see during the fall season (also known as Larch Season—usually the colours will turn mid September to early October). As a side note: did you know the oldest tree in Canada is a larch tree that is located in Kananaskis Country? Not far from Larch Valley! 

Larches are beautiful—and perhaps additionally beautiful because if you find one larch you’ll probably find many, and they’ll likely be set against a mountainscape. Such is the case for Larch Valley! 

Larch Valley sits above Moraine Lake, surrounded by the Ten Peaks. It’s a very popular hike, and one that attracts hundreds of people each year, all taking in the beauty of that brilliant gold. 

Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Rocky Mountains
Larch Season is mid September to early October!
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Doing a little skip in Larch Valley with Ten Peaks in view.
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Larch Valley Trail Minnestimma Lake Hike - Rocky Mountains - Larches - Ten Peaks
Happy to be hiking in Larch Valley during Larch Season!
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Larch Valley Trail Minnestimma Lake Hike - Rocky Mountains - Larches - Ten Peaks
This was when I was still enthusiastic on the hike, lol.

According to Parks Canada, Larch Valley is considered a “moderate” hike. It’s got an elevation gain of 535 m and is about 4.3 km one way. Hiking up / through Larch Valley takes you from Moraine Lake to Minnestimma Lake. This is the hike I did with my friends.

For a casual adventurer/novice hiker like myself, the Larch Valley hike up to Minnestimma Lake was very difficult. Parks Canada estimates it takes about 4 hours round trip. For me it took closer to 6 hours, though we did also stop for a mountain charcuterie lunch too. 

Either way, I say hike at your own pace. Challenge yourself but also enjoy, and know where your limits are. Larch Valley contains a fair bit of “switchbacks” which are essentially steep trails that you sort of have to zig zag up. Switchbacks help protect the hill/mountain from eroding. It’s like a sharp walk up one direction, then it turns and you have to sharply walk up the other direction, back and forth that way. Larch Valley has a lot of switch backs, but again the elevation is not *as high* as other hikes labelled difficult. 

For my seasoned hiking friends, Larch Valley up to Minnestimma was a leisurely hike for them, lol. If you are a more seasoned hiker, you’ll probably want to do Moraine Lake up through Larch Valley then up to Sentinel Pass. Minnestimma Lake is located at the base of Sentinel Pass. When you summit Sentinel Pass, you’ll get views of Larch Valley as well as Paradise Valley. 

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Hiking Larch Valley with Great Grams of Gary and his dad James.
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Larch Valley Trail Minnestimma Lake Hike - Rocky Mountains - Larches - Ten Peaks
Look, larches!
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Larch Valley Trail Minnestimma Lake Hike - Rocky Mountains - Larches - Ten Peaks
A close-up of a larch tree.
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There's lots of lovely boulders to snap photos on in Larch Valley.
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Larch Valley Trail Minnestimma Lake Hike - Rocky Mountains - Larches - Ten Peaks
Larch Valley in Banff National Park during Larch Season is so stunning.
What should you know before you go on your Larch Valley hike?  

Moraine Lake is base for a few different hikes you can do. The most popular one as I’ve mentioned is Moraine Lake up to Larch Valley / Minnestimma Lake. Then most people will continue from Minnestimma Lake up to Sentinel Pass.  Or you could do Moraine Lake to Eiffel Lake. There’s an even more difficult hike to Wenkchemna Pass. Basically, you’ve got lots of options depending on what your hiking ability is! 

I’ve really only gotten into very casual hiking since 2019. So, I haven’t been doing this long at all. And I’ve never actually summited a mountain yet, at least as of writing this post in 2020 (though I’ve made it to lookout points lol). The way my seasoned hiking friends describe summiting a mountain to me really feels like a drug, lol. And one you’ve got that mountain summit high, you’re always trying to achieve it again.

I mean, that’s easier to do when you live in Calgary or Canmore area and mountains are *right there* lol. 

But I have no shame in saying I hike (or sort of hike, casually hike, started hiking) 100% for the Instagrammable photos. Absolutely I am blown away by the views and enjoy my time in nature, but without that motivation to snap some photos, I don’t think I’d do it, LOL. 

I do think many folks are like me. You’d like to see the nice views too, and you’re not really hardcore into hiking, I truly believe “if I can do it” I think many people can (not all people—of course some hikes labelled easy might be really, really difficult if you have pre-existing conditions). So I hope you’ll appreciate my hiking perspective and Larch Valley hiking tips below!

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Posing for a photo in Larch Valley with adventure cat Great Grams of Gary.

Here are some tips from a casual hiker to help you plan your Larch Valley hike: 

  • Do look for those hikes labelled “easy” to “moderate” to help plan your trip if you’re new to or casual about hiking. Do your research in general before you decide what adventure to go on, and pay attention to signage so you don’t get hurt! The signage is important too, because there were a lot of signs warning people not to try to “short cut” through the switchbacks on the way up or down Larch Valley. Don’t do it! It’s dangerous and you’re hurting the natural ecosystem. 
  • Know when to go: that means when to go on the actual day (early wake-up call, etc.) but also when to go during the season (larches turn the most golden probably mid to end September, but Larch Season is goes until early October-ish. You can hike during the winter but the road is only open until mid-June to mid-October as well). 
  • Bring lots of water for your hike!! I also found drinking water from something called a “Hydration Bladder” quite helpful. It’s basically a pouch you fill with water and stick in your backpack, and then a little tube is attached to it so you can just suck water from the tube. Hands-free drinking! 
  • Also for hands-free hiking, recommend you carry a little fanny pack too. This is a good spot for your phone, so you don’t have to keep stopping and unpacking your backpack to get a phone for photos. Quick photo access is what I’m all about, lol. 
  • And on the note of backpacks… you’ll want a comfortable and intended-for-hiking backpack that has straps around the shoulder and waist, to help with posture and even distribution of weight, as well as be a material that won’t stick to your body! I borrowed my adventure friend’s backpack lol. 
  • Do make sure your footwear is appropriate!!! I can’t tell you how much more comfortable adventuring has become since I’ve invested in quality adventure shoes (like from KEEN Canada).
  • Bring snacks to help keep you going, or do what we did during our Larch Valley adventure and plan to hike up a charcuterie lunch!! Digging into our charcuterie was really a picture perfect and delicious hiking break. 
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We packed charcuterie to hike up Larch Valley for lunch!
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Larch Valley Trail Minnestimma Lake Hike - Rocky Mountains - Larches - Ten Peaks
So many photo ops in Larch Valley!
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Larch Valley Trail Minnestimma Lake Hike - Rocky Mountains - Larches - Ten Peaks
I changed after lunch to hike down Larch Valley in my dress lol.
  • Go at your own pace. Take lots of breaks (or plan / factor time for many breaks into your day). And make sure you go with people who understand your ability level and are comfortable going at that same level with you. 
  • Don’t over plan around your hike. That helps with the going at your own pace and not being afraid to go slow or take lots of breaks. We knew we’d be eating dinner that night but it was pretty loosely timed so there wasn’t really pressure to get back or be done at any particular time. 
  • Don’t be afraid to turn back if you need to. Of course there is something to be said about pushing yourself, challenging yourself, you can do it, etc., but also, no one else will know what your body is telling you and if your body is telling you to stop, stop.
  • As with apparently many of the adventures in the Canadian Rocky Mountains—there is no service at Moraine Lake, Larch Valley, Sentinel Pass, Rockpile, etc. So make sure you sent your texts before you go (so, at 4 a.m. lol) or if you hike enough, you’d likely want to get a satellite phone or communicator just in case. (Satellite phone / communicators are not something a casual adventurer would have, lol so if you can, go with more advanced adventurers who may have satellite phones, or you know, just text before you leave Canmore/Banff lol).
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Rocky Mountains
The text I sent to Mike (who couldn't adventure, he was away at work) via my friend James' satellite communicator lol.
  • Bring outfit changes if you’re hiking for the Instagrammable moments! There is no reason you can’t look super cute in your photos, or have different looks for your hike, lol. I had a different outfit for Rockpile overlooking Moraine Lake, a different outfit for Moraine Lake itself, and then two outfits for the actual hike. You just have to be okay either heading back to the car to change, changing in the trees, and making sure some of your outfits can work with the other (i.e. mix and match top or bottoms lol). 
  • I did find the Larch Valley hike was quite hot. I mean we got good weather, so it really depends right, be sure to check your forecasts but I was pretty comfortable without a jacket or sweater for my hike. I started with more layers but quickly took them off as I was sweating (you don’t want to overheat!) I also planned for different outfit changes throughout (you can change hiding in the trees lol). I honestly believe as long as your footwear is solid then it’s okay if you’re in a—for example—dress, lol. 
  • Also: pack some toilet paper! You’ll probably need to relieve yourself in the trees along this hike. It feels a lot cleaner if you pack some toilet paper to wipe. But also please don’t toss the toilet paper on the mountain—bring a little baggy to put dirty stuff in in your backpack or fanny.
  • Note: Minnestimma Lake is NOT as cute as Moraine Lake, lol but the view of the larches and the Ten Peaks from Minnestimma Lake is unreal. 
  • As I’ve written above—plan to go early! Be prepared for crowds. Possibly consider transit/shuttle transportation instead. 
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Larch Valley Trail Minnestimma Lake Hike - Rocky Mountains - Larches - Ten Peaks
A view of Sentinel Pass from Minnestimma Lake at the top of Larch Valley.
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Larch Valley Trail Minnestimma Lake Hike - Rocky Mountains - Larches - Ten Peaks
A lovely view of Larch Valley and Ten Peaks from Sentinel Pass (photo credit: my friend @tylermajeau)

(I didn’t hike up Sentinel Pass but my friend Tyler did and he shared this photo (above) just days after my visit! Check out Tyler’s Instagram @tylermajeau for more hiking content!)

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My amazing hiking friends Ashleigh, Margie and Dukie!
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Larch Valley Trail Minnestimma Lake Hike - Rocky Mountains - Larches - Ten Peaks
I am very grateful for my amazing adventure friends!
Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Larch Valley Trail Minnestimma Lake Hike - Rocky Mountains - Larches - Ten Peaks
I'll never forget these views!

Watch my 15-second video showing scenes from our Larch Valley hike: 

@lindorable

Hiking ##LarchValley during ##LarchSeason in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada 🇨🇦! 🍂 ##Autumn ##Hiking ##ExploreAlberta

♬ Sunset – Tobias Bergson

I think that’s probably all I have to say about Moraine Lake and Larch Valley in Banff National Park! 

If you have specific questions, feel free to reach out to me! 

I really enjoyed my day even though DURING the hike I was definitely complaining a lot (lol).

Looking back, I’m so proud I did it, and I’m so happy I did.

I love the photos. I love the memories. I am so grateful for my hiking friends for planning the hike and taking me (shout out to James and Ashleigh, and their adventure animals Gary, Duke and Marge). 

Explore Alberta - Travel - Banff National Park - Moraine Lake - Rocky Mountains
Share my casual adventurer's Guide to Moraine Lake + Hiking Larch Valley!

Hopefully you found this travel guide useful as you plan your visit to Moraine Lake or your hike to Larch Valley! I hope you enjoy your visit. If you do and this blog helped you just a little bit, let me know! I just love to see it.

And remember to stay safe on your travels!! 

Linda

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