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Annual rush to Banff, Kananaskis for spectacular larch display underway

It's not uncommon for Albertans to flock to Banff National Park in the autumn with the hope of catching the golden hues of the larches, but this year there are a number of factors that have caused parking lots and roadsides to be packed beyond capacity.

Larches are a coniferous tree found in subalpine areas of the Rockies that lose their needles in the fall after turning beautiful shades of golden yellow.

Set against the high peaks of the mountains, they create a picturesque view that many are eager to see.

Last weekend saw massive lines of parked vehicles spilling over from the relatively small parking lot at Ptarmigan Cirque on Highway 40 in Kananaskis Country. Cars lined both sides of the road for more than a kilometre and a half in both directions, stretching all the way to another popular parking area and trailhead to the south.

Warm fall weather likely plays some role in the large crowds. However, the closure of another popular trailhead at Elbow Lake has also changes the distribution of day hikers looking for access to the stunning alpine valleys.

Similar crowds are also flocking to the Lake Louise area, where crowds have been a challenge for Parks Canada through much of the year.

Vehicle access has become extremely limited and now the vast majority of visitors need to use Roam public transit bus service if they wish to have any chance of accessing popular trail heads at Lake Louise or Moraine Lake.

Larch Valley in Banff, Alta. While it's been necessary to purchase a pass to enter Banff National Park for decades, drivers are now also required to purchase a daily or yearly conservation pass experience Kananaskis Country and the Bow Valley Corridor. A day pass is $15 per vehicle, while a yearly pass is $90 but purchases can register two vehicles.

On Oct. 2, numerous vehicles parked illegally along the side of Highway 40 could be seen with red tickets flopping from their windshields.

Though Minister of Environment and Parks Whitney Issik was unable to speak about Larch season on Wednesday, her office did issue the following statement:

"Those who are seeking to visit a provincial park are reminded that parking on the roadway or shoulder of a primary highway is illegal and poses a safety risk. We encourage visitors to park in designated lots and obey all posted signage.

"Albertans are also reminded that the fall is a critical time for wildlife, including bears, and parking along roadways to view wildlife is dangerous and can result in wildlife strikes.

"Vehicles not in compliance with local parking regulations, acts and bylaws risk being ticketed by the RCMP and/or conservation officers."

Reliable cell service ends at the turnoff from Highway 1 to Highway 40, so Environment and Parks advises purchasing your pass online prior to your visit.

"Visitors should plan ahead, arrive early and be prepared to make alternate plans should safe parking be unavailable at certain trailheads or day use areas."

So far this year, conservation officers have issued 46 tickets for illegal parking on Crown land.

More than 180 tickets were issued in 2021 and more than 400 tickets were issued in 2020.

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