After spending a week exploring Banff National Park in Canada, I'm excited to share one of my favorite activities with you, the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass. This was my first time visiting the Canadian Rockies, and the experience was nothing short of spectacular.
I love hikes that present a bit of a challenge, there's just something about earning the view that makes it that much more enjoyable for me. Larch Valley is known for its vibrant fall colors, and Minnestima Lake which sits just below the ascent to Sentinel Pass itself.
Once you reach Sentinel Pass you'll be rewarded with epic views of the Valley of the Ten Peaks, Larch Valley and Lake Minnestima all squished into a single frame.
In the opposite direction, you can see down into the Paradise Valley, which I hope to explore on a future trip to Banff.
This experience competes with the Lake Agnes Tea House to Big Beehive hike situated near Lake Louise for my favorite hike in Banff. But ideally, you'll squeeze both of these bucket list hikes into your trip.
In this blog post, I aim to cover everything you should know when attempting the Larch Valley Hike to Sentinel Pass. Along the way I'll share with you some of my personal experiences from the hike along with some of my favorite photos that I captured that day. I'll even touch on how to secure reservations to Moraine Lake, which is no longer accessible by car.
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Where is the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass located?
The hike from Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass is situated in the heart of Banff National Park, located in Alberta, Canada. With the sparkling Moraine Lake at its base, the trail winds through a dense forest of larch trees before finishing at the Sentinel Pass ridge.
Starting in 2023, it is crucial to note that private vehicles are no longer be permitted to reach Moraine Lake. The change was made to combat traffic and overcrowding of the lakeshores which has been a reoccurring issue in recent years.
This means visitors will need to secure either a Parks Canada Shuttle reservation or make plans through a private transportation company located in the area. The Parks Canada option is substantially cheaper, but these seats typically sell out within minutes of being made available to the public.
I'd suggest heading over to the Parks Canada website to review their current practices around shuttle reservations, but the key takeaway I want you to have is that you need to be on your computer ready to make reservations the minute they become available.
One day during our visit we weren't able to secure a reservation to either Moraine Lake or Lake Louise since the tickets all sold out in the first 30 seconds after becoming available. As a backup plan, we were able to make reservations with a private shuttle company, but at a substantially higher cost.
Keep in mind that you'll still need to reach your shuttle pickup location, so while there are some public transportation options available around this area I think it's difficult to beat the convenience of renting your own vehicle.
Rental cars tend to sell out far in advance for people flying into the region so I'd suggest using a tool like Rentalcars.com to compare prices and make your reservation far in advance.
Where is the best place to stay when attempting the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass?
The towns of Banff and Canmore are my two top picks for where to stay during your visit to the area. Each town has its own merits, and we split our nights between the two so we could experience them both.
The town of Banff, nestled directly within Banff National Park, is approximately 58 kilometers (36 miles) away from the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass trailhead. The estimated drive time takes around 1 hour.
With its bustling downtown shopping area, easy walkability, and diverse dining choices, it's no wonder that staying in the town of Banff is a popular choice for visitors. We spent two of our nights in Banff at the budget friendly Brewster's Mountain Lodge. Or, you can check out deals on other hotels in Banff here.
The town of Canmore, on the other hand, is about 77 kilometers (48 miles) away from the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass. The drive takes around roughly 1 hour and 15 minutes. But being slightly farther away doesn't make Canmore any less charming or convenient.
Known for its relaxed pace and panoramic mountain views, this town is a great place to unwind after a day of hiking. We spent four nights at a VRBO in Canmore, taking advantage of its reputation as a more budget-friendly alternative compared to Banff, without sacrificing the spectacular surroundings or easy access to hiking trails. You can check out some budget friendly hotel options in Canmore here.
While I didn't stay here, I feel it's necessary to mention that Moraine Lake Lodge is a luxury hotel option situated directly on the Moraine Lakeshore. If you can swing it, this would be an incredible experience. Imagine having the lake and access to incredible hikes just steps from your room!
Choosing between Banff, Canmore or the lodge often comes down to budget, preferred surroundings, and the kind of experience you're hoping to have when not on the trail. A combination of stays in both towns, as we did, could offer a nice solution if you can't decide on a winner.
What is the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass named after?
The name is derived from two key areas found along the trail: the captivating Larch trees that line the valley and the majestic Sentinel mountain pass that marks the final destination of the hike.
Larch trees are known for their needles that turn golden yellow during the fall. This aspect has made the trail particularly popular in the autumn season when the Larch needles change color, saturating the valley with vibrant hues set against alpine landscapes.
Sentinel Pass is named after one of the large spires, known as the Grand Sentinel, that can be seen once you complete the ascent to the pass. Mountain passes are areas, typically ridges, that allow access through a range of mountain peaks.
Is there cell phone service during the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass?
Visitors who are planning to take this hike should be aware that they should not expect reliable cell phone service when venturing on the trail. I'd suggest downloading a trail map in advance from an app such as AllTrails which I use extensively.
The trail's remote location in the Banff National Park means it's far from cell phone towers. This can result in weak and intermittent signals on the trail for most part. Service can be particularly poor in the lower valleys and dense portions of the forest where connectivity can be blocked by the high peaks and thick vegetation.
In fact, cell service throughout much of Banff National Park is weak, even along the main highways. It would be wise to familiarize yourself with the area before leaving major towns where you'll have access to maps, GPS and internet.
Are dogs allowed along the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass?
The trail from Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass does welcome dogs, just be sure to keep your pet on a leash and clean up after them along the way.
While dogs are welcome on this hike, it's on the challenging side so be sure your furry friend is up to the challenge. Just because a dog is allowed to hike, doesn't necessarily mean it should.
Some dogs, depending on their age, size, and overall health, might not be capable of handling the rigorous climb, length, or altitude of this trail.
Are there bathrooms at the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass?
There are no bathroom facilities along the trail. I'd strongly suggest using the bathrooms available at the nearby Moraine Lake parking lot before starting the hike up to Sentinel Pass.
If you find yourself in a pinch out on the trail, your next best bet would be to find a private place to pull off before exiting the dense forest in Larch Valley. Once you pass this area, the tree line disappears and your opportunities for privacy will be few and far between.
Can you swim during the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass?
There are two opportunities to swim during this hike, with the first being along the shores of Moraine Lake near the trailhead origination point. This is a popular option for visitors and something you should consider once you return from the pass.
It's a great way to cool off if you're feeling brave enough to wade into the icy cold water. Given that the water temperature doesn't rise too far above freezing, even during the summer, don't expect to last very long!
Alternatively you could just kick off your hiking boots and refresh your feet in the water after a long day of hiking.
Minnestimma Lake, situated at the base of Sentinel Pass, offers another great swimming opportunity in this area. This lake is a less popular swimming option since you'll have to pull it off mid hike and the water will still be just as cold as Moraine Lake.
What is the best time of year to do the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass?
The best time to enjoy the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass is during the summer and early fall. The weather during these seasons is typically warm and dry, which is ideal for hiking. During these times snow should be absent from the trails making for a safer and more enjoyable hiking experience.
We planned our trip for the first week in September. We were still able to enjoy great hiking weather during this time but it also aligned with the end of peak season in Banff which meant the crowds had started to moderate.
If you're still trying to plan your trip to Banff National Park then I'd suggest checking out a couple of trip planning resources I've put together. My list of the best cheap flight hacks is a great way to ensure you're getting the lowest price on airfare while my guide to planning a trip abroad will help you plan a mistake free vacation.
What is the best time of day to do the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass?
The best time of day to embark on a long day hike like the one to Sentinel Pass is undoubtedly first thing in the morning. An early morning start has a multitude of benefits that more casual latecomers might miss out on.
One significant advantage of an early start on the trail is the potential to avoid heavy crowds. The Larch Valley portion of trail can be especially popular, especially during peak summer season and the early fall when larch trees turn golden.
Part of why I love hiking is to get away from crowds, and on popular hikes such as this the only way to do that is by getting an early start.
Additionally, beating the afternoon sun is another crucial reason to consider an early start. An early start ensures completion, or at least a significant portion of your hike, before the hottest part of the day.
How difficult is the the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass?
In terms of difficulty, I'd peg the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass as somewhere between moderate and hard. The hike itself measures approximately 7 miles (or 11 kilometers) in total length.
This distance can be covered by most hikers in just under four hours excluding stops. But I'd budget another hour on top of that for stops near Larch Valley, Minnestimma Lake and atop Sentinel Pass.
A big contributor to the hike's difficulty is the significant amount of elevation gain, which comes in at around 2,700 feet (or 820 meters). From the time you leave the Moraine Lake shore until you reach Minnestimma Lake you'll be facing a gradual uphill climb.
Once you reach the base of Sentinel Pass, the trail will turn into a very steep climb up narrow switchbacks. This is by far the most difficult section of the trail and it will also narrow out, which means you'll need to watch your footing as you make your way up the exposed loose gravel path.
Upon reaching Sentinel Pass you'll be sitting at an elevation of over 8,500 feet (nearly 2600 meters) which will feel like you're nearly eye level with the mountains of the Valley of the Ten Peaks which exceed 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) in height.
The good news? It's pretty much all downhill on the way back! For that reason, don't be surprised if your hiking time on the way up is twice as long as the time spent hiking back down.
Do I need any special hiking gear for the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass?
When preparing for the hike from Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass, it's important to pack the proper gear to ensure you have a safe and comfortable experience.
Perhaps the most essential item to have is a sturdy pair of hiking boots. The trail has varying terrains, including rocky sections and steep inclines. Quality hiking boots provide the necessary support for your feet and ankles, while also offering much-needed grip during the more exposed sections of trail.
Another piece of gear I'd suggest bringing for this hike is a set of trekking poles. This hike as a significant amount of elevation gain so trekking poles can make the ascent less strenuous while making your descent much easier on your knees. From my experience, you'll enjoy having these more on the way down than the way up.
Bear safety is also a critical aspect of hiking in Banff National Park. Grizzly and black bears can be found in the region, and knowing how to react in a possible encounter can make all the difference. As part of this, it is vital to carry bear spray, ensuring it's readily accessible, and knowing how to use it properly.
You'll also want to pack layers for this hike and possibly a rain coat and waterproof backpack cover. Mountain weather is notoriously unpredictable and even though the forecast didn't call for rain, we ended up getting wet during our hike back to Moraine Lake. It can also be quite windy at Sentinel Pass itself so you'll be happy to have an extra layer to throw on when you get there.
I'd suggest heading over to my complete day hike checklist as you prepare for this hike to ensure you don't leave any essential gear behind.
Is the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass dangerous?
Under normal circumstances, the hike from Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass is not inherently dangerous. When it comes to worrying about steep drops, the majority of the trail does not feature any significant stretches of exposed trail. However, the last section which leads up to Sentinel Pass is narrow at times and is fairly exposed.
If you're visiting Banff during shoulder season, when there could be ice or snow on the trails, I would exercise additional caution around the last portion of this hike. Outside of this last section, much of the trail weaves through forested terrain and doesn't feature any technical portions.
It's also worth mentioning that about half of the trail is exposed, meaning that sun exposure should be a consideration for hikers. Be sure to apply sunscreen (or pack it) especially if you'll be on the trail in the afternoon when the sun is at its peak.
Is the Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass worth it?
The Larch Valley hike to Sentinel Pass is an incredible trail and was one of the top highlights from my week spent exploring Banff National Park. If you enjoy hikes that make you work for the viewpoint, then this one is definitely up your alley.
Given the difficulty involved, this hike may not be suitable for all guests. If you're on the fence, I would say most visitors can successfully reach Minnestima Lake. From there you can assess whether or not the ascent to Sentinel Pass is something you still have the endurance for.
As I've alluded to throughout this post, the view from atop Sentinel Pass of the Valley of the Ten Peaks is a memory I'll take with me for the rest of my life. If you can time your visit just right, in late September or early October, you'll also have the opportunity to enjoy Larch Valley ablaze with fall colors.
One day I'd like to make it back through this section of the Canadian Rockies so I can enjoy a stroll through Paradise Valley, which resides on the opposite side of Sentinel Pass.
If you're looking for other ideas on activities to fill out your itinerary during your Banff trip be sure to check out my post highlighting what to expect at Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park. Yoho is adjacent to Banff, but some visitors neglect to spend any time here. Don't be one of those people!
Another great activity to do during your visit is to drive along the Icefields Parkway and make a stop at the Peyto Lake Upper Viewpoint. It's one of the most picturesque spots in all of Alberta Canada and since it doesn't require hiking, makes for a nice activity if you need to rest your legs.
Thanks for reading my blog post! I hope the information I laid out here proves useful in your trip planning process to Banff National Park, Canada and during your hike from Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass.