A secluded alpine valley dotted with beautiful turquoise lakes all connected by creeks, waterfalls and more than 80 km of trails, the Lake O’Hara region of Yoho National Park is a hiker’s paradise.
BUT…Parks Canada restricts road access to Lake O’Hara, so getting there can be a challenge.
Since the mid-1970s Parks Canada has limited summer access to Lake O’Hara to somewhere around 250 visitors/day. From what I’ve been able to learn from a few hours of research, options for summer access include:
- Book a minimum two-night stay at Lake O’Hara Lodge, which runs its own shuttle bus service in the summer (see below for more about this option);
- Enter the Alpine Club of Canada lottery (the entry period is October/November of the preceding year) for the chance to pay to stay at the Elizabeth Parker Hut (Parks Canada shuttle bus service is included with your booking);
- Book with an approved guiding company – such as Canadian Rockies Hiking by Yamnuska or Great Divide Day Hikes – as they have (limited) preferential access to the Parks Canada shuttle bus service;
- Reserve a maximum three-night stay at the Parks Canada Lake O’Hara Campground (shuttle bus service is included, with specific luggage restrictions). Reservations can be made starting beginning April 1 each year and no more than three months (to the day) in advance of your planned stay. You can check availability (including any recent cancellations) here. At the date of writing, the only dates available were in late September and early October 2014;
- Reserve a seat on the Parks Canada shuttle bus. Reservations open at 8 am on April 1 of each year and can be booked no earlier than the morning that is three months (to the day) prior to your planned visit. The bus is usually booked to capacity by 9 am on the same day. You can check availability (including any recent cancellations) here. At the date of writing, there were no seats available for the balance of the 2014 season;
- Show up early (i.e around 6:30 am) and hope that someone with a reservation for the Parks Canada shuttle bus is a no-show, so that you can get on board; or
- Walk up the fire road to access the Lake O’Hara trail system. There is currently no restriction on the number of people who walk, because the 11 km walk with 400 meters elevation gain leaves limited time and energy to enjoy the Lake O’Hara trail network. This option is basically self-limiting. If you do end up walking, you may be able to pay cash to ride the shuttle bus back down, space permitting.
NOTE: For winter access, the only option is to propel yourself up the access road (on skis or snowshoes). Winter accommodation options are the main lodge building at Lake O’Hara Lodge or the Elizabeth Parker Hut.
How We Got To Lake O’Hara
Last September I phoned the Lake O’Hara Lodge to request a reservation for anytime during the 2014 summer hiking season. I explained that we were completely flexible as to dates and that we would be delighted to stay two or three nights, whatever they could accommodate.
At the beginning of December, we opened our mailbox to discover an early Christmas present – an offer to confirm a reservation for a two-night stay in mid-July by sending a personal cheque for the stated deposit amount to arrive at Lake O’Hara Lodge not later than December 20.
Our last stay at Lake O’Hara was in 2008 (also made possible due to our willingness to be completely flexible in terms of dates). We have friends (without the same scheduling flexibility) who, after several years of trying, have given up on making a reservation at the Lodge. So we seized the opportunity and sent our deposit cheque by return mail.
Earlier this year we phoned to arrange to ride up on the Lodge-operated morning shuttle bus and to make special meal arrangements to accommodate severe allergies. So on a Wednesday morning in July, we arrived at the very crowded Lake O’Hara parking area at about 9:30 a.m., ready for a three-day/two-night stay at Lake O’Hara.
Parks Canada’s Yoho National Park website includes great information on the many trail options at Lake O’Hara (each write-up includes a description of the trail, including distance, elevation gain and estimated time to hike). The same Parks Canada web page also describes trail restrictions (over and above shuttle bus quotas), including why the restrictions are in place and for what dates.
Another great source for trail information is the Lake O’Hara Trails Club website. LOTC also operates Le Relais Day Shelter, where visitors can purchase a detailed topo map showing all the trails in the area, warm up with a cup of coffee (and a slice of delicious carrot cake), borrow walking poles for the day and get the inside scoop from the knowledgeable staff.
Between our visit in 2008 and our three days in the area this summer, we’ve hiked all the main trails in the region. They are all worth doing. You will want to take the weather forecast, your fitness and experience level, time available and energy level into consideration when choosing your route for the day.
Day 1 – Duchesnay Basin
We actually planned to return to Odaray Grandview Prospect and then visit Lake McArthur on our first day. But someone (no name, no blame) didn’t read the signpost in the meadow near the Elizabeth Parker Hut so we ended up on the Morning Glory Lakes Trail…and then opted to continue on the Linda Lake Trail and Cathedral Lakes Trail before finally turning around and returning via the Linda Lake Trail along the north shore of Linda Lake and on through the woods to the Lake O’Hara Campground.
Total hiking distance = 12.1 km (we stopped at Cathedral Lakes, add about 3 km (return) to Cathedral Prospect)
Total elevation gain = 386 m (100 net)
Total hiking time = 4 hrs 30 min including an hour for lunch and photography
Since much of this hike is in the trees, it’s a great choice for a hot day when shade is welcome. There’s also the option to dangle your feet in chilly water from a couple of bridges along the route. And since other trails in the area are more popular, the Duchesnay Basin trails are your best chance for solitude. In fact, we saw only three other people all day. It’s a good thing they were on the trail – they found Mr. GeoK’s graduated ND filter along the trail and overtook us on the trail to return it. Thank you! The only negative on this day? The BUGS!!! I think we applied DEET-laden repellent at least a half-dozen times and I still had about three dozen mosquito bites below the hem line of my long shorts!!
Evening 1 – Information Night
We learned from staff at Lake O’Hara Lodge that the first night of our stay coincided with one of the dates for the Lake O’Hara Speaker Series. The series is presented as a joint project of the Lake O’Hara Trails Club, Lake O’Hara Lodge and Parks Canada and runs at 8:30 PM in Le Relais on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays in June, July & August. Topics include history, geology, ecology and flora and fauna of the Lake O’Hara area. We attended a talk by Craig Richards, an inspiring black and white film photographer. And although we came away reminded that we still have a lot of room to develop as photographers, we were also inspired to take several evening and sunset photographs as we walked back to our room.
Day 2 – Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit
A separate blog post highlighting the scenery along the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit we published in the next day or so. We hiked the 11 km loop (1051 m total elevation gain, 492 net) in about 6 hrs 30 minutes, finishing shortly before the staff at the Lodge packed away the fruit juice and treats on offer as part of the afternoon hikers’ tea.
Day 3 – All About Photography
The last morning of our stay we woke up to very hazy skies and a strong smell of smoke in the air. Over breakfast we learned that the hazy atmosphere was due to smoke from two wildfires (West Kelowna and Spreading Creek). The result was going to be all-day-long diffuse light, so we opted to “chase the light” and focus on photography until our afternoon departure.
Along the Shore
Seven Veils Waterfall
Along the Lake Oesa Trail
Lake O’Hara is a very special place, and we hope to make another visit to the area, but not for a couple of years. We spotted a lot of larch trees in the area, especially on the Opabin Plateau, so we’d ideally like to see Lake O’Hara in all its golden autumn splendor.