Most people are familiar with the annual show put on by the maples of Eastern Canada, but the Kootenays have their own, equally stunning autumn colour riot, as the larch trees paint the mountains brilliant gold in late September/early October into mid-November.
Often mistaken for their Eastern relative, Tamarack, the Kootenays boast some of the highest concentrations of both Western and Alpine Larch. All three are members of the Larix genus. A confused family of trees, Larix are both coniferous trees (trees with needles and cones) and deciduous (they recycle pigments and drop their foliage each fall), recycling their valuable green chlorophyll molecules by storing them inside the tree itself when the days shorten and the temperature drops, leaving only the yellow and golden-hued carotenoid and xanthophyll pigments in the needles to brighten up the world.
The Larix Lyallii are the wind-gnarled and frost-sculpted cousins of the Western Larch and can be found on rocky slopes and alpine meadows at high elevation. Destinations like Brewer Creek, Kokanee Glacier Park, Jumbo Pass, Rockwall Trail (in Kootenay National Park), St. Mary’s Alpine Park, Monica Meadows and Welsh Lake, offer great Alpine Larch viewing, and the annual show begins to light up in mid-to-late September.
The Larix Occidentalis is a tall, straight tree found at lower elevations, prized for both lumber and firewood. With up to 30-cm of bark, it can survive repeated forest fires, and can grow to monstrous proportions. The world record Western Larch boasts a 6.7-metre diameter, and they can reach 80 meters in height.
Few of these giants survived the early forestry boom of the Kootenays, but the next generation of larch carpets our low-elevation slopes, and these younger trees still put on an incredible autumn show. Kimberley/Cranbrook areas, Elko (Silver Springs Lakes), Fernie and the Yahk Valley boast extra high densities of Western Larch. These larch tree begin to turn a little later in the season, mid-Oct to mid-November.
These bonsai-like golden forms against a backdrop of an early snowfall and crystal blue Kootenay skies is well worth a hike. Some ancient Grandmother alpine larches have been leaning into the mountain winds for close to 2,000 years.
Playwest Mountain Experience is offering guided to Brewer Lake in the Purcells starting in mid-September to mid-October. See the stunning alpine larch trees up close. This fall experience is suitable for all hiking levels and includes a professional guide and a freshly packed lunch.
Toby Creek Adventures at the base of Panorama Mountain Resort offers ATV guided tours to the area’s spectacular golden alpine larch trees. A 4WD ATV or Side-By-Side is the easiest way to travel to the high alpine (2,438 m. / 8,000 ft. elevation) to see these larch trees. This natural spectacle only lasts for a few weeks each fall season, so book early.
Know Before You Go – Plan ahead so you can travel safely and responsibly. Familiarize yourself with weather, road conditions, general alerts for travellers and provincial health orders & recommendations.
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Top/cover photo by David Gluns at Monica Meadows (across Kootenay Lake from Kaslo, BC).
Words by Dave Quinn. Born in Cranbrook, BC; Dave is a wildlife biologist, educator, wilderness guide, writer and photographer whose work is driven by his passion for wilderness and wild spaces. His work with endangered mountain caribou and badgers, threatened fisher and grizzly, as well as lynx and other species has helped shape his understanding of the Kootenay backcountry and its wildlife.