Alberta and British Columbia's network of hiking paths are usually dominated by hikers wearing earth-toned pants with unnecessary zippers. For the next two weeks, however, Rocky Mountain regulars will have to share the trails with thousands of visitors breaking the dress code – there have already been sightings of a woman with a string bikini top, and a bride in a white wedding dress.
The masses come to the mountains this time of year to see alpine larch trees, the deciduous conifers that favour high elevations. Larch green needles melt golden every autumn, prompting thousands of tourists into hiking mountains in order to walk in what feels like magical forests. Banff National Park and its neighbours are in the middle of the annual larch rush, with tourists so thick officials temporarily closed the road to Moraine Lake Saturday and Sunday in case ambulances needed to thread through the vehicles parked on the edge of the pavement.
Imran Hayat stopped hiking the Larch Valley trail where almost everyone stops: at the moment the forest gives way to an enormous meadow. Green spruce trees are minority citizens at this point, with the Rockies' so-called Ten Peaks stretching across the backdrop and Fay glacier adding sparkle. Digital cameras with fancy lenses threaten to outnumber hikers here as folks click off rounds of photos of the yellow trees with narrow satiny needles.
"I was reading an article in the newspaper saying it was going to be chaos," said Mr. Hayat, who runs Canadian Rockies Photo-Hikers club in Edmonton. "I thought I'd go and see what all the excitement was about."
Alpine larches – known as larix lyallii in textbooks – usually grow at 1,800 to 2,400 metres above sea level, although they can grow at elevations of 2,650 metres. A loner was once found at 371 metres in British Columbia, said Omar McDadi, a communications officer with Parks Canada. These larches are common in the mountains in southwestern Alberta, southeast and south-central B.C., northern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana. They prefer moist to dry slopes – steep ones, with an average gradient of 32.7 per cent – in the subalpine.
Alberta's Larch Valley hike, a 4.3-kilometre (one-way) stretch with moderate switchbacks the whole way, starts at Moraine Lake and sports an elevation gain of 535 metres. Hikers can continue on past the clog of tourists at the first break in the trees and walk further into the openness and up Sentinel Pass. The larger meadow is wide, the ground soft, and speckled with boulders perfect for napping, eating lunch, and gawking at the yellow trees and mountain peaks. The creeks and lakes are glacier clear. Here, larches are above, below, and right beside hikers.
"The people in our area go to see the larches like the people down east go to see the sugar maples," said Catherine Southwood, a Calgary resident by way of Montreal who was wearing sensible hiking attire Saturday. "They go to see the red. We go to see the gold."
Official numbers are not in yet, but Parks Canada estimates thousands of people showed up at Moraine Lake and Lake Louise on Saturday alone. This is on par with attendance during the summer's long weekends, although some of the less ambitious – perhaps less curious, and those wearing wedding dresses – settle for staring from the trailheads.
But even the less able can get to Larch Valley, itself in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, which is why is it one of the most crowded hikes during the two-week autumn larch pilgrimage. A disabled woman made it in a purple chariot thanks to folks pushing her ride. A woman nearing her due date wandered the meadow. Parents wore special hiking packs designed to carry children, some piggybacked their little ones, and other youngsters doddled along the path. Some screamed, but consider that a safety precaution: This is bear country and when the trail is less busy, Parks Canada will fine folks for hiking in groups smaller than four.
Locals say it jokingly, but some wish the bears were a bit more aggressive this time of year, keeping their city counterparts out of the Bow Valley.
"When the larches are going off, it's worth it to take a day off mid-week just to stay off the highways and trails on the weekend," said Dave Aschim, a Canmore resident. "Too many people not respecting each other and their surroundings. And don't get me started on the driving."