The Golden Larches of the Kootenays: A Brief Three Week Window to Take in Pure Magic

British Columbia is known worldwide for its towering trees, but there’s something special about the larches. Their golden hue, their brief time horizon, and their connection to local indigenous culture. Hans Tammemogi was there with his notebook and camera to capture the magic.

Golden Larches, BC
Chris Skinner pointing to some golden larches in the valley. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Larch trees are magical, behaving strangely while creating unbelievable beauty. Entire slopes in the western mountains transform in the fall into brilliant golden hues, like a vivid sunset. It is heart-achingly gorgeous and many visitors time their travels just to experience this iconic display. My wife, Ally, and I were visiting the Kootenays in southeastern BC to explore this ephemeral spectacle.

There’s just a brief window to view this stunning phenomenon, typically from the middle of September, and ending with the season’s first snowfall which often isn’t much past the first week of October.

To see them, travellers and locals head to parks such as Frosty Mountain, Mount Assiniboine, Kokanee Glacier, Cathedral, and Kimberley Nature, but I was closest to Kootenay National Park, as this trip was all about appreciating the larch in the Kootenays.

The Larches of Pedley Pass

Chris Skinner of Playwest Mountain Experience led us to Pedley Pass, southeast of Invermere. We trudged upwards and upwards, panting heavily. Only Chris’ promise that we would encounter many golden conifers kept us going.

Soon we were embraced by solitude and beauty with the natural surroundings wrapping their arms around us in a giant caress. Moss of varying hues draped logs and trees. A bee was sleeping inside the purple flower of an aster. We passed under the branches of pines and spruces enjoying the sounds of the forest, the scent of the trees and the sunlight playing through the leaves. The fresh, clean air was intoxicating. 

Turning a bend, we came into a scene of bright golden yellow and walked among conifers brilliant with colour. At every clearing we were left speechless with the views of golden forest against a backdrop of enormous cliffs, towering peaks and striated sedimentary rock. It was inspiring, but also humbling.  

I could understand how forest bathing has become popular, connecting one to nature through all the senses. It was soothing, calming and restful. It was also humbling and I felt like a tiny cog in the midst of a mighty creation. 

A bee in the Kootenays
A bee on the purple flower of an aster. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

The Deep Indigenous Roots of the Region

We lunched at a tarn (a small mountain lake), which reflected the yellows of the larch forests and the grand peaks surrounding us. I felt very tiny, dwarfed by these soaring mountains that were born millions of years ago. Although exhausted from the hiking, I was truly at peace with the world.

Chris talked about how First Nations have lived here for millennia and how he admires their close attachment to the land. This land was traditionally occupied by the Ktunaxa Nation, which is comprised of four individual First Nations communities – Akisq’nuk, St. Mary’s (ʔaq̓am), Tobacco Plains (ʔakink̓umǂasnuqǂiʔit), and Lower Kootenay (yaqan nuykiy).

Indigenous peoples have actually consumed larch sap like a candy since time immemorial because of its inherent sweetness. They also make the sap into a red dye for use in painting, and more specifically face painting.

I was told that in their mythology the larch was formerly a man-eating monster. However, Coyote broke off its top, changing it to its present form and also giving it medicinal properties.

As we descended, our minds were on the golden forest, the splendor of mountain nature and the deep meaning behind Indigenous myths.

Learning More About Larches Over Beer, in Invermere

At the Ullr Bar in Invermere (the only Viking pub in Canada), while sipping well-earned ales, Chris explained that the declining day length and falling temperatures in autumn trigger the transformation of deciduous plants from green to bright colours. 

As chlorophyll degrades, the leave’s green fades and yellow and orange pigments known as carotenoids burst forth. Photosynthesis — the creation of sugars from carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight — breaks down, and the relevant chemicals (mostly nitrogen) are stored inside the tree, to re-emerge in the spring.

“The larch is the only conifer to behave like a deciduous tree,” he said.

Larch Trees in British Columbia
There’s nothing else like them. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

A Brief Stop at the Historic Fairmont Hot Springs

That evening we lazed in thermal pools at Fairmont Hot Springs, nursing aching muscles, surrounded by the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. 

Next day, wanting to learn about western larches compared to the alpine larches found at higher elevations, we entered a forest on the ski hill at the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort.

Our guide, Michelle, pointed out western larches and told stories about these iconic trees, which were a mottled green-yellow and not too dissimilar to the pines and spruces around them. “These larches will transform colour in another few days to a week. You’ll spot them instantly then,” she promised.

Michelle went on to explain that the western larch can grow to a great size and is sought-after for the quality of its wood. Sadly, most of the large larches in BC are now stumps because of logging. One woman in the group was so smitten by the larches, she hugged one lovingly.

Spotting Larches in the Purcell Range via ATV

In the morning, we headed west of Invermere to Toby Creek Adventures in the Purcell Range, unaware we were about to have a very exhilarating day. Our guide, Lorraine, a former Canadian mountain-biking champion, helped us don Darth Vadar helmets. A bandana placed underneath the goggles warned we might encounter some dust. 

We clambered aboard Can-Am Outlander all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and bumped upward and upward into the Purcell Range along more than ten kilometres of narrow rocky — and often dangerous, it seemed to me — pathways. The machines were noisy and the ride jolting and dusty, but it was exciting and the views were unparalleled. The ATVs were thrilling to ride and our adrenaline count had gone off the chart.

Larches in the Kootenays, BC
Our ATVs on the rocky pathways. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

About halfway up we came into alpine larches in their brilliant yellow splendor. Nearing the top, we gazed across at the ski runs of Panorama Mountain Resort, the vast tumbling cliff faces and the golden, shining trees that lit up the slopes. Hair-pinning ever higher, we reached an elevation of 2,400 m. Lorraine felt Ally was a pretty good ATV driver and took her on a couple of Black Diamond runs. I stayed behind, claiming the need to take photos.  

Sitting on top of the world, we savoured barbecued hamburgers at a cabin in front of an adit to a century-old silver mine as the setting sun painted the western peaks in soft hues, reflecting the larches in the valleys below.

Riding ATVs in British Columbia
The Kootenays (and the Purcell Range) offer surreal terrain to ATV through. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Learning from the Larches

We had experienced the glory of larches in two very contrasting ways. The hike at Pedley Pass reminded us that humans are a part of the magnificent and complex entity called creation. Here we experienced a completely different side of the human character, one that focuses on our inventive side and how we use our clever tools. One was peaceful and calm, the other brash and full of adrenaline. But both led us into nature and all its wonder.

As dusk fell, we mounted the ATVs and descended with the sunset highlighting the golden larches. A perfect ending to a perfect day. 

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