Fall is larch season in the Canadian Rockies, and many hikers scramble to capture photos of the stunning golden trees alongside the trail. To avoid crowds on popular trails like Larch Valley, I ventured off the beaten path (literally) to try a lesser known but equally beautiful larch hike in Kananaskis Country: Smutwood Peak. I only encountered around 10 other hikers here during a full day on the trail in September, so it’s truly a hidden gem.

   

Gearing Up: What You’ll Need

Smutwood Peak is a high-elevation trek (the peak sits at more than 2,650 metres above sea level), so it’s only possible to attempt it between June and November. If you’re planning to try this hike in early June or November, it’s critical to wear snowshoes and/or crampons because there will likely be snow and ice on the trail.

In any season, you should invest in trekking poles for the challenging ascent to the peak. You’ll need gloves and a jacket to accommodate the temperature change at the higher elevation. My hands were freezing at the top with a pair of thin waterproof gloves, so opt for something warmer if you’re doing this hike in fall.

Safety Tip: Always carry bear spray and know how to use it. Hike in a group of two or more if possible. If you are hiking alone, carry an emergency communication device.

  

When To Go

Photo by Robynne Trueman

The ideal time to hike Smutwood Peak is from July to September when the weather is warmer and there is no snow on the trail. There is a narrow window in the fall when the larches, the only tree that sheds its needles in autumn, turn a vibrant golden color. This occurs in the last two weeks of September and the first two weeks of October.

  

Hiking Smutwood Peak

Photo by Robynne Trueman

Location: Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Distance: ~20 kilometres
Elevation Gain: 961 metres
Trail Type: Out-and-back

The trailhead is an unassuming car park down a long, winding gravel road in Kananaskis Country. Driving from downtown Canmore takes about one hour, and there is no cell service for most of the drive and on the trail. You need to purchase a Kananskis Conservation Pass for the day online prior to arrival.

Photo by Robynne Trueman

In the parking lot, there’s a small sign indicating the trailhead that states dogs are allowed (great news for pup parents!) and camping is not. I set out on this trail early in the morning, around 8 am, on September 19th. The air was crisp and there was a light layer of frost on the ground, but the sun was shining. Best of all, the larches were already starting to change colors, dotting the horizon with warm flecks of gold.

The first six kilometres of the Smutwood Peak trail are extremely easy to navigate and mostly flat. Almost all of the 961 metres of elevation gain is undertaken in the last three-to-four kilometres towards the summit. The trail alternates between narrow paths in thick forest and an open trail in a field for the first six kilometres before turning into a steep incline. And I mean steep. I heavily relied on my trekking poles for the uphill and for the downhill on the way back.

Photo by Robynne Trueman

The vegetation thins out as you ascend. After the first uphill portion and before the two alpine lakes, there is a flat area that is perfect for resting and taking in the dazzling view of where you just came from. In the fall, golden larches line the side of the mountains, and this viewpoint gives a fantastic show. It’s also where we saw our only bear of the hike—this little moss creation on the side of a rock.

Photo by Robynne Trueman

From this point on, you’re treated to more golden larch views surrounding the two lakes in a stunning valley. You hike along the edge of the valley, above the lakes, to approach the peaks.

Photo by Robynne Trueman

This last portion of the trail sees another 200 metres of rapid elevation gain and a lot of loose rocks. Take your time and be cautious—a couple of girls ahead of us reached the first section of the rocky peaks, took their photo and then turned back because they were afraid of heights. I admire this attitude because knowing your limits as a hiker is so important to your safety and overall enjoyment of the journey.

Photo by Robynne Trueman

Once you reach the summit, the views are truly epic. It’s cold and windy up there, so we didn’t linger long before descending. By the time we got back to the parking lot, the hike took us around seven hours, covering 20 kilometres.

  

Where to Stay

Photo by Robynne Trueman

I highly recommend booking accommodation in Canmore for the night before and after the Smutwood Peak hike because it’s a full-day excursion that leaves your body and mind drained (in the best possible way!).

I opted for a hotel with a 24-hour front desk the night before the hike so that checking out early in the morning was easy. MTN House by Basecamp was a fantastic place to stay in Canmore, offering cozy rooms with rustic decor and upscale finishes. The night after the hike, I also stayed in Canmore, this time at Basecamp Suites, which has a virtual self-check-in and check-out process that is geared towards hikers who are coming and going at odd hours. Booking accommodation in Canmore from June to October can be challenging due to high demand, so book as far in advance as possible.

Look for a hotel, motel or hostel that offers amenities like saunas, hot tubs or hot springs so you can treat your body right after a day on the mountain? Soaking in the rooftop hot tub at Basecamp Suites in Canmore with views of the mountains I had been hiking in just hours before was a dream.

  

Where To Eat

Rhythm and Howl. Photo By Robynne Trueman

If you’re staying in Canmore, there is no shortage of hearty meal options to nourish your body with post-hike. Here are some of my favorite food spots in this charming mountain town:

Ending your hiking experience in Kananaskis Country with a cold beer and a hot meal in Canmore is the perfect bookend to an ideal adventure.

  

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