Kananaksis fall photography

Viewing Kananaskis larches at their peak fall colors is a sight everyone should see.

Without insider knowledge, you can be left searching 100’s of websites, trying to piece together a trip. Hoping and praying that you’ve picked the best time and the best spots to view larches in the fall.

We ventured out from Vancouver Island in late September and headed east to Alberta for a 10 day larch viewing mission.

The best larch viewing hikes in Kananaskis Country all in one, easy to access Quick Guide below. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

The mountains are calling….(again)

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Fall Color Photography in Kananaskis Country

All of the Larches!


Best Larch Viewing Quick List

Larches everywhere! The colder weather throughout September leads to this beautiful contrast of green and gold as the seasons change from fall to winter. Peak color can shift a week or two either into Sept or Oct, but typically, peak color is the last week of Sept. You get perfect hiking conditions, with cooler weather and decently challenging terrain.

First thing to note is that you have to buy a pass to enjoy the Kananaskis Area Parks. You buy that pass online and then your license plate is registered in the system: no need for a paper pass.

To get the best larch viewing opportunities, you have to hike up and up! The thinner air at even this meager altitude of 1800-2500m was tough. We hiked slower, drank much more water, and were exhausted after hiking a simple 10kms. What can I say, Albertans just breathe better than us Coastal folks. Here is my quick list of my 2 favorites and maybe the best larch hikes in Kananaskis Country. *You can find these hikes on the AllTrails App*

  • Pocaterra Ridge
  • Arethusa Cirque

Pocaterra Ridge

This trail is BUSY! Everyone and their dog and grandma love to do these fall larch hikes in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. I’m talking like people are walking on each other heels! Paired with the fact that the parking lot is kind of small for the volume of people enjoying larch madness, you need to get to the trailheads EARLY. We arrived at 7am and the lot was almost full (and we thought we were early!). Within a few minutes, the lot was full and folks were parking on the road. GET THERE EARLY! The air in late Sept is perfect, with just a slight chill; enough to keep you cool while hiking up some of the alpine terrain.

Arethusa Cirque

This hike is much shorter and easier than Pocaterra Ridge. If you have limited time, and need a larch fix, this is the hike for you.

The parking lot is also on the smaller side for this hike, so get there super early, especially if you’re hiking on the weekend.

Arethusa Cirque is also a busy hike, but you at least have some space between yourself and other folks. The trail gets busier as it gets later in the morning, with families and kids starting the trail.

Here is a quick list of the other hikes that we found that are definitely worth exploring.

  • Chester Lake, 9.3km
  • Rawson Lake, 8.7km
  • Grassi Lakes, 1.4km
  • Ptarmigan Cirque, 3.5km
  • Tent Ridge, 11km
  • Mount Smutwood (to the Ridge), 16km

Long Journey from Vancouver Island

Living on Vancouver Island sucks because it takes us an extra 2-3 hours to get to the mainland before we can even start driving to Alberta. We left on a 7am ferry (with a Super Saver discount, trip cost $66 instead of over $100, small win) and didn’t arrive at the Elkwood campground until 9pm.

We tried to get there earlier, but we should have known better than to drive on the outdated 2 lane Trans Canada Highway on a Friday afternoon. Massive amounts of delays, slow speed zones due to construction and a couple of accident that shut down the highway. It felt like we were never going to get there!

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Kananaskis Country: Peter Lougheed Provincial Park

fall larch viewing

We camped for 7 days in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, named after a historic Premier. We started to notice a ton of things named after him, including a hospital and a mountain.

We camped at the Elkwood and the Boulton Creek Campgrounds, which were both mostly deserted. The camp sites are enormous and very private; there is a large amount of space (fully treed) on all sides of your campsites. Between the two, we preferred the Elkwood Campground.

All of them had plenty of clean washrooms, (even though they were pit toilets), they were decently ventilated. Not that I’d willingly spend my spare time there, but I did come out relatively unscathed by the stench.

The whole check in/out was a breeze…you printed your site passes online through Alberta Parks Camping website. (On a side note, that website and the organization of camping services blew my mind, thanks for nothing Discover Camping B.C, step up your game).

There was a nice Visitor’s Centre with plenty of information about the area. Two things to note about the Visitors Centre: #1. They have Wifi! #2. There is a large meadow behind the building which is a viewing area for local Grizzlies that come into the meadow to feed on roots, etc. Bring a BIG telephoto; with my 650mm I didn’t have enough reach: the bears like to be close to the back of the meadow.

Other Places We Visited around Kananaskis

We played tourist and stopped along the main highway through Kananaskis at various day use areas to take in the local mountain scenery. Below is a list with a brief description of each.

Mount Lorette Ponds

Mount Lorette Ponds

Easy, level walking around a small but beautiful glacial pond. The water is quite blue and you get great reflections of the mountains in the distance. This “trail” is paved and about 1 kms round trip if that. There are many beautiful day use picnic tables and fire pits here for everyone to enjoy.

Wedge Pond

Wedge Pond is a quick easy walk around the Pond. Reflections galore here of the surrounding mountains. Early morning is best for reflections in the pond because the wind tends to pick up at around 10am.

Smith Dorrien Trail (HWY 762)

The scenery along the Smith Dorrien is magnificent! Smith Dorrien is a gravel road that you travel North to South or vice versa. You don’t need a 4 wheel drive to drive this road. Some areas feel like you’re driving on a washboard (bottom left) but otherwise, this road is no problem to drive.

You can see so many mountains just from the side of the road. You can see the dusting of snow on top of these mountains as the season shifted from fall to winter towards the end of our trip.

Barrier Lake/Dam

Barrier Lake is along Highway 40, a quick stop with a glacial blue lake and day area. There is plenty of parking, washrooms, and beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.

Heart Creek Canyon Trail

Fall kananaskis larch viewing

This trail is close to Canmore. The trailhead marker says there is a waterfall at the end of the canyon, and there is….the geography of the canyon meant that we couldn’t get any shots of the waterfall.

Half of the hike is the journey from the trailhead to the actual start of the canyon at Heart Creek. Throughout the first part of the hike were so many fall colors. The light breeze inspired me to go for a slightly longer exposure to create an almost impressionist feel with the movement of the leaves in the breeze.

Buller Mountain Day Use Area

We didn’t spend much time exploring this small area along Smith Dorrien. I bet sunrise and sunset are pretty amazing here. Super easy access with a very short walk to the lake. When we got there the wind had already picked up, so no chance at catching a reflection image. Beautiful nonetheless.

Upper Kananaskis Lake

Upper Kananaskis Lake is a large area to explore. There are a few trailheads here, the most popular being Rawson Lake. The thin air kept us from hiking up to the lake, so we explored down by the shore. At sunset, we cooked dinner at a day use area and then waited for the alpine glow. We ended up getting skunked, but the sunset was beautiful nonetheless.

The lakeside trail was absolutely stunning, I recommend it!

From the shore, you could see one lonely larch standing out on the mountain side which I captured here.

Policeman Creek

The Policeman Creek Trail is approximately 4kms long and winds its’ way through the center of Canmore. The City is on either side of the trail, so you can hear and see other people, the traffic, etc. Such a beautiful example of Rocky Mountain terrain, including a creek, meadows, marshlands, and beautiful mountain backdrop. The perfect place to bring your a coffee and stroll along the trail, taking it all in.

Here is a small sample of some of my images in my Fall Gallery, please head over to take a look. This gallery includes images from Alberta and Vancouver Island.

Photography Gear to Bring to Kananaskis

Here are the things I bring with me as a basic kit, yours may differ, and I add or remove things depending on what is available to shoot. I typically didn’t bring my tripod as we were hiking during good light and there weren’t any long exposure opportunities that I planned on.

  • Tripod
  • Lens Cloths
  • ND Filters
  • Polarizer
  • Remote Trigger
  • Wide Angle (Rokinon 14mm)
  • Zoom (Canon 24-105mm)
  • A knee pad or something to sit and kneel on

Easy Mountain Photography in Canmore

Depending on the time of year, you can take a quick 5 minute hike down a very easy trail in the middle of Canmore that leads you to the Bow River. A lazy river, more of a pond here, created some fantastic sunrise reflections of both the 3 sisters mountains and Ha Ling Peak (far right). Parking is in a gravel parking lot (unmarked) along the main road at the south end of town. Follow the river bed all the way to this beautiful view.

While I had barely seen anyone on our 10 day trip taking images, this was the one spot where there were about a dozen other photographers waiting for the morning alpine glow. The glow never appeared, but we were graced with this calm part of the Bow River and a few clouds for depth. Just look at those beautiful fall colors below 3 sisters!

One place we didn’t visit that is in Canmore is Quarry Lake, with it’s impressive views and reflections of Ha-Lin Peak it’s one you shouldn’t miss!

Conclusion

Hiking in the Rockies for the first time was something else. Viewing the larches in Kananaskis Country should be on everyone’s photography bucket list. Hopefully, you find the info above useful in planning your next trip.

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