Autumn colors

Larch madness—shining a spotlight on the fabulous larch trees of Alberta

Heather Davis, Professional Guide and Owner, Uplift Adventures

Autumn is a spectacular time of year to spend outside. The crisp, cooler air; no mosquitoes; the colourful fall foliage. One tree in particular stands out this time of year: the larch. It has a special place in my heart, and is a sight that never fails to fill me with joy.

What makes larch trees so unique? Is there only one type of larch tree? Where can you find larch trees in Alberta?

Alpine larches near Crowsnest Pass in the Canadian Rockies.

The three types of larch trees in Canada

The turning colour of the alpine larch (Larix lyallii) trees among the mountain landscapes has gained incredible momentum for fall hiking in the Canadian Rockies. We often hear people talk about Larch Valley and locations in Banff and Lake Louise that are popular for larch hikes, but these golden marvels are far from being exclusive to the Bow Valley, or even to the Canadian Rockies.

But the alpine larch is just one of several types of larch trees. I was first introduced to larch trees when I worked in Northern Alberta doing environmental work in the oil and gas industry. They amazed me when travelling through the boreal forest and seeing a landscape filled with views of black spruce and American larches, or tamaracks (Larix laricina). 

A common name we hear for this larch tree is tamarack, which confused me for a long time. What is tamarack? Are tamarack and larch the same tree? Tamaracks are a type of larch tree, but not the same type that we find in the subalpine at elevations between 1,500 and 2,200 metres. They’re similar, but have some distinct differences. In fact, there are no tamarack trees in the South Canadian Rockies… So let’s stop calling them tamaracks and use the proper common name: larches.

I did some more digging to find out the key differences between larch trees. They’re really subtle and difficult to spot visually. It comes down to little details like the look of their needle-like leaves and the number of sides the needle has. 

The most telling difference lies in the distribution and ecoregion. Alpine larches grow in subalpine environments with other trees like the subalpine fir and whitebark pine. Tamaracks grow in the boreal forest in bogs and muskegs with black spruce and/or eastern white-cedar, or black spruce, white spruce, trembling aspen, and white birch.

To make things more confusing, we have a third type of larch tree in Canada and some of its distribution area overlaps with the alpine larch. The western larch (Larix occidentalis) is found at elevations between 400 and 1,500 metres and is usually mixed with Douglas fir, western white pine, lodgepole pine, Engelman spruce, subalpine fir, western hemlock, and ponderosa pine. 

When I zoomed in on a distribution map by Natural Resources Canada, it appears this tree may even grow in Waterton. We do have western larch trees that pop into Alberta near the Continental Divide and I have seen them at the border of Alberta and B.C. along Highway 3. It‘s easy to spot western larches when you drive the valleys in Kimberley and Fernie, B.C. They tend to change colours slightly later than the alpine larches, so you can extend your larch season a little bit! Whoo-hoo!

The one thing these three trees have in common is that they all turn a beautiful shade of yellow and then golden before they officially lose their leaves. This makes them unique as they are a coniferous (bearing cones), yet deciduous (lose their leaves) trees. Typically, coniferous trees are evergreens, like spruce, pine, or firs.  

subalpine larch
Another beautiful alpine larch.

3 places to see the beautiful larch trees of Alberta

Remember that the majority of larch trees grow above 1,500 metres and the alpine larch need wet, yet well-drained, soils. I often see them on northeast- or northwest-facing slopes. I spend my summers getting excited whenever I spot a patch of larch trees and make a note-to-self that this spot is going to be stunning in the fall. 

Banff and Lake Louise (and the surge of stunning larch photos posted to Instagram each fall) have done a great job of marketing larch trees in these locations. A bit too well, perhaps. The lineup along the road leading into Larch Valley far exceeds my excitement to see a larch. 

So, where else are these vibrant gems found? Where is the best place to see the larches? There are many under-the-radar places around Alberta where they grow. Here are three of our favourite spots:

  1. Castle Provincial Park has some great places to spot subalpine larch trees. Our blog post about the Whistler to Table Mountain traverse is one of these covert locations where you’ll get all the larches you want, without the crowds. 
  1. At Uplift, we have a backpacking trip that shows off these stunners in all their glory in mid-September: The Subalpine. Book this fall trip to hike to a remote location in Castle Provincial Park that features the golden glow of larch trees against a backdrop of red rock.
  1. Upper Rowe Lakes in Waterton is also a favourite. Check it out for yourself, or enhance your experience by booking onto a guided day hiking trip with our local experts this fall.
Autumn colors
Some absolutely beautiful golden larches in the Castle Parks, Alberta.

Heather is trained by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides and Interpretive Guide Association as a hiking guide. She holds a university degree in Environmental Science and is a Professional Agrologist with the Alberta Institute of Agrology. She has a passion for the outdoors and connecting others to nature, a place that has given her the space to heal, laugh, and discover. 

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