One of the shorter summits of the Bow Range, the iconic group of peaks surrounding Lake Louise, Saddle Mountain is a pint-sized outlier just southeast of Fairview Mountain. While the summit elevation may be a mere 7,963 feet (2,427 m), Saddle’s small crest affords a sweeping view across Paradise Valley and out to massive Mount Temple.
The best time of year to hike Saddle Mountain is arguably in early fall as the larch trees near their peak. The areas around Lake Louise and Moraine Lake have some of the highest concentrations of alpine larches in Banff National Park and, as a result, the surrounding valleys transform into gilded woodlands each September.
For those unfamiliar with larches, these coniferous trees are members of the pine family. At first glance, they look strikingly similar to their evergreen relatives. However, larches are unique in that they are deciduous – losing their needles like many broad-leafed trees. Before the needles drop each autumn, larches turn a striking shade of gold for a very short window, typically just a matter of days.
With an abnormally protracted summer delaying the larches’ expected turn this year, Stephan and I made plans to head to Jasper the last weekend in September. We’d just hiked Healy Pass – another of Banff’s premier larch spots – and the trees surrounding the pass were still very green. Thinking we had more than a week before they peaked, we headed four hours north for Jasper town. Unfortunately, larches are pretty fickle. They are both difficult to predict with pinpoint accuracy and inopportunely fleeting. As I continued to compulsively check trail reports on Saturday night from Jasper, I saw that reports of golden forests had begun pouring in.
Feeling some major FOMO, we decided to cut our Jasper excursion a bit short, racing back to Banff Sunday afternoon hoping to get in one short larch hike. With such a short window and increasingly unpredictable weather in the fall, procrastinating seemed the fool’s choice. After spending half a day in Jasper, we jumped back in the car and headed south. We scored a parking spot a Lake Louise around 3:30 pm, grabbed our camera gear, and hightailed it for Saddle Mountain.
Clocking in at just over five miles roundtrip, this short out-and-back trail is pretty straightforward. Departing from the main parking area, the trail heads south toward Fairview Lookout. Instead of taking the path to the lookout, however, bear left and look for the sign for Saddle Mountain and Sheol Valley.
The trail is a pretty moderate grade for the first couple miles, switchbacking through spruce-pine and larch forests until it reaches Saddleback Pass – a flat expanse nestled between Fairview and Saddle Mountains. If you’ve come for the larches, Saddleback Pass won’t disappoint. The meandering path snakes through a canopy of lustrous gold, smoldering in the late-day sun. The last fleecy plumes of anemone (pasqueflower) speckle the shaded understory, with Mt. Temple’s imposing summit coming into view as you crest the pass.
To get to Saddle Mountain, head hiker’s left (a trail up taller Fairview Mountain heads off to the right). While there’s no well-worn path to the top, the route is largely discernible, and the scramble easy. As we made our way up, the views of Mount Temple got better with every step. Looking back towards Haddo Peak and Fairview Mountain, the golden larches blanketing Saddleback Pass were particularly striking.
Although Saddle Mountain is a short little knob compared to its grandiose neighbors, the view of Mount Temple from the summit is pretty incredible. Beneath the snow-capped behemoth, the turquoise waters of Lake Annette pop from the shadowy pine forests of Paradise Valley, with yellow larches draped across Temple’s lower slopes. Having thru hiked to Lake Annette, over Sentinel Pass and down to Moraine Lake years ago, it was cool to try to visualize our route through the valley.
Our impulsive larch quest may have resulted in more of a trail run, but those golden trees shimmering in the late-afternoon light were totally worth the last-minute madness. With such a fleeting window to enjoy the alpine larches (typically less than two weeks), you’ve got to seize those fair-weather hours whenever you can.
If you’re looking for a short hike during larch season to immerse yourself in golden forests, Saddle Mountain is surprisingly good. Lake Louise is one of the prime larch areas of Banff, and one we couldn’t resist visiting as the trees neared their peak. Even though the lakeshore is annoyingly crowded at seemingly all hours, it’s fairly easy to escape the masses once you hit the trail. This is in stark contrast to the nearby route to Sentinel Pass via the Larch Valley, perhaps the most popular fall hike in Banff. Having heard horror stories of people arriving at 2:30 am to secure a parking spot at Moraine Lake – and comparisons of the Sentinel Pass Trail to the Calgary mall – we had absolutely zero interest. For us, our off-hours trip up to Saddle Mountain was the perfect alternative.
Total distance: 5.3 miles (8.5 km)
Elevation gain: 2,322 feet (710 m)
- Due to high demand, paid parking is now enforced at Lake Louise (as well as neighboring Moraine Lake). A valid permit is required from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily during the Lake Louise shuttle’s operational season, which runs from mid-May through mid-October. Credit card kiosks are available within the lots, and the fee was $12.25 CAD/day during the 2022 season. I’m not going to sugarcoat it – parking here is a major pain in the ass during peak season. Things certainly changed from our 2014 visit when we just rolled in to either lot whenever felt like it (and free of charge). If possible, try to get a shuttle ticket. It will save you a little money and a lot of hassle. Just be aware that dogs are not allowed on transit buses. If you plan to hike with your furry friend, you’ll be at the mercy of the lot capacity.
- Because this is such a short hike, you can start early in the morning or late in the day to escape any midday trail traffic (and associated parking lot hell). We started shortly before 4pm and were finished well before the sun fell for the day, with a moving time of just an hour and a half. While we are pretty fast hikers, you should be able to plan an off-hours trip accordingly if you’re well-acquainted with your pace.
- If you’re looking for a longer, slightly more challenging route, you can head hiker’s right for Fairview Mountain. The roundtrip hike from the parking lot is about six miles (10 km) with around 3,500 feet (1,050 m) of elevation gain. We hiked this one back in 2014. It’s a steeper scree slog, but an easy scramble and decent hike. That said, the views of Mount Temple are actually quite a bit better from Saddle Mountain. Although Saddle Mountain is shorter by about 1,000 feet (315 m), the view from Fairview is partially obstructed by the eastern side of Sheol Mountain.