Peak larch viewing season spurs 2-hour shuttle lineups in Banff National Park

As larch needles turn bright gold in the Rocky Mountains, so many visitors are flocking to the legendarily beautiful area around Moraine Lake in Banff National Park that they're having to wait two hours for a shuttle to the trailhead.

Parks Canada says shuttles moving between 1,200 and 1,300 people a day to iconic Moraine Lake

This 2016 photograph shows Healy Pass in Banff National Park in late September, when larches turn golden yellow. The route is popular but not as overrun with visitors like the more iconic Larch Valley Trail near Moraine Lake. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

As larch needles turn bright gold in the Rocky Mountains, thousands of tourists are converging on Moraine Lake in Banff National Park to get a closer look

But the increased numbers flocking to see the golden larch trees change colour during Canada's 150 birthday celebration year have led to long waits to hike up the Larch Valley Trail, near Moraine Lake just south of Lake Louise.

Moraine Lake and the surrounding Valley of the 10 Peaks is so renowned for its natural beauty that it earned the nickname "$20 view" after being featured on the back of the 1969 and 1979 $20 bill. 

This past weekend, visitors were told it would be up to a two-hour wait for shuttles to the trailhead.

Moraine Lake provides one of the most iconic backdrops for photos in Banff National Park. (Kelly Quinn)

Richard Dupuis, acting visitor experience manager for Parks Canada in Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay, said the popular hiking spot has been "inundated" with visitors.

"Consistently, almost every day, we're moving about 1,200 to 1,300 people," Dupuis said.

Parks Canada says plan ahead

The Lake Louise area is so popular that Parks Canada runs a free shuttle bus from Banff to the hamlet of Lake Louise and from the hamlet to the lake itself in a bid to ease traffic from May to October. Lake Louise Ski Resort also offers a free shuttle from its summer gondola to the hamlet and Lake Louise.

Visitors wanting to catch a glimpse of golden larch trees near Moraine Lake waited up to two hours for one of the shuttle buses from the hamlet of Lake Louise last weekend. (Chris Franklin/CBC)

And all summer there are private shuttles for a fee to Moraine Lake once its parking lot is full — which often happens by 7 or 8 a.m. and prompts the closure of the access road until parking is available.

Because the lure of the larches makes the influx of visitors to the Moraine Lake area soar even more in the fall, Parks Canada has added free, daily shuttles there from Sept. 11 to Oct. 9.

It also increased the number of shuttles daily this year from seven to 10, with that number going up to 12 on the weekends.

The shuttles have been helping manage traffic in the park, Dupuis said.

Richard Dupuis, acting visitor experience manager for Parks Canada in Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay, said the park has been 'inundated' with visitors wanting to hike trails to see the golden larch trees. (CBC)

Dupuis said there are long waits to hike Larch Valley Trail every year, but added the large number of visitors attracted to the park by free entry during Canada 150 means people should plan ahead.

"What I really strongly recommend is people plan ahead, come early," he said. "The time of day makes a big difference in your experience."

Buses leave from the Lake Louise overflow parking lot to Moraine Lake every 15 to 20 minutes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the last shuttle from Moraine Lake heading back to Lake Louise leaving at 5:40 p.m.

Where else to see the trees

Dupuis said there are many other options for visitors who want to see the golden larch trees but don't want to roll the dice on waiting for a shuttle or finding a parking spot.

Taylor Lake, Lake Agnes, Healy Pass and Boulder Pass are all good alternatives to see the golden needles, he said.

Dupuis said the larch trees typically grow at a higher elevation, which is why Moraine Lake is such a popular spot to see them. 

Parks Canada have a list of all the trails where you can see the golden larch trees on their website.

With files from Dave Gilson