Three things distinguish the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit from other spectacular hikes found in the Canadian Rocky Mountains:
- Altogether, the various segments of the Alpine Circuit lead to, pass by or incorporate scenic viewpoints overlooking almost a dozen turquoise mountain lakes.
- It offers hikers the flexibility to complete the Alpine Circuit in small sections, linking as few or as many sections in one day as their heart, lungs and legs desire.
- It showcases the vision and generosity of spirit of Tommy Link and Lawrence Grassi, who devoted many years and considerable effort to create a network of engineered trails that significantly improve the hiking experience in the area while at the same time doing much to preserve the fragile alpine environment.
So the obvious choice for our one full day at Lake O’Hara was to hike the spectacularly scenic big loop around the lake better known as the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit. Our goal for the day was to complete the approximately 11 km route that incorporates Wiwaxy Gap, Huber Ledges, Yukness Ledges and All Souls’ Prospect (NOTE: this route does not incorporate Oderay Highline to Odaray Grandview Prospect, the fifth segment of the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit).
Since we were staying at the Lake O’Hara Lodge, successfully meeting that goal (and collecting photographic proof along the way) would earn each of us the right to add sign the Lodge’s “Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit” register and receive a special pin.
You may be thinking that hiking 11 km doesn’t sound particularly difficult. But before you rush to judgement, you should know that the total elevation gain over the route is more than a thousand meters. Add all the scenic distractions to the mix and it took us more than 6 hours from start to finish (including an extended lunch break and multiple photography stops along the way).
This configuration of the Alpine Circuit is most commonly hiked in a clockwise direction starting with a short section of Lake O’Hara Shoreline Trail. It was a beautiful morning when we set out, with just a bit of haze from the Spreading Creek wildfire in the air.
A standard Parks Canada brown and yellow trail sign, located just a couple of hundred meters east of the outlet bridge, indicates the start of the Wiwaxy Gap trail. Gaining 495 meters in elevation over just 1.5 km requires multiple switchbacks – first through the alpine forest and then (after a few somewhat ledgey bits) up (and up) an extended scree slope. The views from the “gap” are phenomenal – and so are the winds! If you don’t hang onto your hat (or stow it in your pack), it’s likely to be blown right off your head and up the valley towards the TransCanada highway!
Leaving Wiwaxy Gap towards the east, Huber Ledges descends about 260 meters over 1.7 km before reaching Lake Oesa. Highlights include multiple gentle waterfalls along the trail, wildflowers and scenery that includes four turquoise alpine lakes and range after range of Canadian Rocky Mountains. When we visited Lake O’Hara in 2008, our boys (then ages 8 and 12) really enjoyed playing in and around the waterfalls.
We ate lunch while taking a break on one of the big rock slabs at the west end of Lake Oesa. A few chunks of ice floated on the water and a couple of ducks came in for a landing while we ate. As long as there was a bit of a breeze, the mosquitoes and other flies stayed away, but as soon as the air grew still we were swarmed!!
NOTE: Lake Oesa can also be accessed via the Lake Oesa trail, which gains about 250 meters in elevation over 3.2 km (each way). It’s a preferred trail option for families with younger children and for those wanting to enjoy an easy hike to a scenic lunch spot. When we visited in 2008, our boys really enjoyed hanging out at the lakeshore, spotting waterfowl, skipping a few stones and generally having fun.
Departing Lake Oesa towards the Yukness Ledges trail we took our time exploring the giant stone blocks along the shoreline. The lake outlets over some of these blocks, via a pretty little waterfall that fills a bit of a pond that drains, via a wide and shallow cascade, into Lefroy Lake. It wasn’t quite yet one o’clock when we reached this spot, so we took the time to break out our Joby Gorillapods and take a few long-exposure photographs, including this one by Mr. GeoK:
The 2.2 km Yukness Ledges trail is relatively flat. Sections of large stone steps are good examples of how the first Lake O’Hara trail builders wielded the powers of levers and pulleys to great effect. Beyond the stone steps there’s a talus traverse, some flat slabs of rock (also carefully selected and positioned) and a stretch of dirt trail. The ever-changing nature of the Yukness Ledges trail means just when you think you’re familiar with the character of the trail, it changes! After rounding the north end of the shoulder of Yukness Mountain, the trail continues on along a narrow, rocky bench under the shadow of a cliff before finally reaching a talus slope and descending to the Opabin Plateau. When we hiked this trail in 2008, I had nightmares for the next couple of nights (in which I watched – too far away to intervene – as my kids slipped off the ledges at which point I abruptly woke up).
Crossing the Opabin Plateau provides a welcome break from the ledges and several more examples of excellent trail building. We opted for trails that took us past Hungabee and Moor Lakes, cascading pools and over creeks before eventually reaching West Opabin trail where we watched for the trail marker indicating the start of All Souls’ Prospect.
NOTE: The Opabin Plateau can also be access via the West or East Opabin trail from the Lake O’Hara shoreline. Using one trail to hike up (about 250 meters gain over 3.2 km) and the other to hike down provides a very appealing “loop” option, with a few short trails on the plateau allowing for more extended exploration of this beautiful hanging valley. The larch trees and many small pools, cascades and creeks would make this an ideal destination for the fall season.
All Souls’ Alpine Route
The rest of the Alpine Circuit’s total elevation gain accumulates over the 2 km stretch of All Souls’ Alpine Route connection West Opabin Trail to Schaffer Lake.
The trail begins with a steep climb up through a series of large rocks and small cliffs, with the help of some seriously-engineered and well-placed stone steps. As the trail levels off, it meanders across large (natural) rock slabs crossed by tiny creeklets that support patches of moss and small plants. We spotted several birds here.
All Souls’ becomes more difficult once you reach the wide scree slope at the base of Schaffer Ridge. The trail angles slowly up and across the scree. Crossing two or three wide patches of snow added to the challenge here. Then, after one final steep section we reached All Souls’ Prospect, marked by a large rock cairn.
Once again, strong wind gusts had us grabbing for our hats. After taking the requisite photograph to prove we reached the top of All Souls’ we started looking for the way down. After a couple of false starts we found the trail down. It was extremely steep and Mrs. GeoK stowed her trekking poles in favour of grabbing hand holds on the rock face adjacent to the trail.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but once we were safely down from All Souls’ Prospect we had a couple of options for returning to the Lodge. We ended up on Big Larches trail (definitely the longer option) and by the time we neared the end, K was literally running in order to make it back in time for the tail end of afternoon tea! We all enjoyed fresh fruit juice and a couple of treats before claiming our achievement pins and signing our names in the Alpine Circuit register (we were numbers 13, 14 and 15 in the new register book).
The pin has a simple design: double yellow standing bars on a blue background, a compact and portable representation of the trail markers we so carefully watched for all along the Alpine Circuit. Pinned to the back of our hiking packs, they will regularly prompt remembrance of the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit – one of the most picturesque day hikes we’ve ever undertaken…and one that should be on every serious hiker’s bucket list!
The Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit features some of the finest engineered trails in the Canadian Rockies, primarily thanks to Lawrence Grassi and Tommy Link. Their fine efforts are detailed in the short book “Tommy and Lawrence: The Ways and Trails of Lake O’Hara” by Jon Whyte, second edition edited by Chic Scott and available at Le Relais Day Shelter and bookstores in the Bow Valley. We would also like to acknowledge the Lake O’Hara Trails Club for their financial support and volunteer effort that goes into maintaining and enhancing the trails enjoyed by us and so many other visitors to Lake O’Hara.
Total hiking distance = 11.7 km
Total elevation gain = 1051 m (492 net)
Total hiking time = 6 hrs 30 min including at least an hour for lunch and photography