Hiking Yoho NP – Lake O’Hara Golden Larch

Want to hike in the Lake O’Hara region of Yoho National Park? Persistance – and $$ – are required. Determination and luck are required to book a seat on the Parks Canada shuttle bus, a spot in the Parks Canada Lake O’Hara campsite, a stay at Alpine Canada Club’s Elizabeth Parker Hut or a reservation at Lake O’Hara Lodge. After 5 years of trying (and crying when the entire season sold out in about 90 seconds), we finally got a reservation on the 8:30 Parks Canada bus one weekday in mid-September. We booked and paid for the reservation five months earlier, at about 8:01 the morning reservations opened at 8:00. At less than $10/seat plus a nominal online reservation fee, it’s a bargain compared to $1000/night at Lake O’Hara Lodge.

Is the hassle factor and extra cost worth it? Yes! The secluded Lake O’Hara region of Yoho National Park – dotted with beautiful turquoise lakes connected by creeks, waterfalls and more than 80 km of trails – is a hiker’s paradise.

Getting There

The Lake O’Hara parking lot is about 2 km west of the Alberta/BC border along the TransCanada Highway, just west of one of the many wildlife crossings that have been installed in the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks over the past 20+ years. We changed things up a bit this time, stopping at rest area that includes a model of a wildlife crossing, with explaining their history, use patterns and success. The low-hanging cloud and high cloud cover confirmed that we were likely in for rain while hiking.

Low hanging cloud off the TransCanada highway

Unlike most hiking areas in Banff, Yoho, Kootenay and Jasper national parks, the connection between the parking lot and the lake is not a hiking trail – it’s a gravel fire service road. You may, of course, walk the road, gaining about 400 meters over 11 km through the forest. Leave early and you’ll minimize your exposure to dust kicked up by the Parks Canada and Lake O’Hara Lodge shuttle buses (first departure 8:30 am). Strong hikers should arrive at the Lake O’Hara Le Relais Day Shelter in about 2 hours. Bicycles are not permitted on this road. In the winter (and assuming adequate snow cover), cross-country skis or snowshoes will get you there.

If you don’t have reservations, another option is to show up about a half-hour before the Parks Canada shuttle bus departure times at 8:30 and 10:30, $10 in hand, with fingers crossed that you can grab a standby seat. Because the forecast called for rain and cool temperatures (daytime high around 5C), there were plenty of standby seats on our mid-September Monday 8:30 bus.

Le Relais

Once at Lake O’Hara, Le Relais Day Shelter is a good spot to borrow trekking poles, take shelter from the sun or rain, grab a coffee, snack or trail map, or wait for the afternoon shuttle bus back to the parking lot. It’s operated by the Lake O’Hara Trails Club. No cell phone and internet service means all transactions are on a cash only basis.

The Hike

The Parks Canada staff member who checked us in for the bus ride asked our plans for the day. When we told her we planned to do three-quarters of the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit, she advised us against the Wiwaxy and Huber Ledges legs of the circuit. Several days of rain and below freezing overnight temperatures meant slippery conditions and there are some somewhat exposed stretches on those trails. So we modified our plans for the day, opting for a short loop that involved the easier hike up to Lake Oesa, across the Yukness Ledges and down from the Opabin Plateau.

It was misty and raining when we arrived, so we donned full rain gear and pulled rain covers over our packs before heading out along the shoreline trail to the Lake Oesa trail junction.

Lake O’Hara to Lake Oesa

A short pause at the first lookout over Lake O’Hara along the Lake Oesa Trail. Thanks to our friend, Mrs C, for taking this (and other photos of the two of us). Much easier than digging out the tripod, etc.
Mrs GeoK leads her friend, Mrs C, through the “land of the Orcs” section of the Lake Oesa Trail.
Mr GeoK on the Lake Oesa trail, passing Victoria Falls. What a nice splash of yellow, thanks to a willow(?) shrub beside the trail.
Mr GeoK looks back at how far we’ve climbed, and thinks about how far we’ve yet to go. Meanwhile, the sight of the rock wall behind him was giving our friend a touch of vertigo!
We are so grateful for the leadership and hard work of Lawrence Grassi (and others) who established the trail system at Lake O’Hara. And also for the Lake O’Hara trail club, which maintains and improves the trail system today. 🙂
Mrs GeoK taking a short break at the top of Victoria Falls, along the Lake Oesa trail. Notice her friend, Mrs C, approaching. Mr GeoK waited down below to get this shot.
See? There’s Mr GeoK waiting patiently below, while our friend Mrs C takes in the amazing scenery and then hikes up to join me at the top of Victoria Falls. Notice Victoria Lake in the center of the frame and that’s Lake O’Hara down below.
Lefroy Lake is always a lovely shade of turquoise, but it really pops with those golden larch on the far shore.
Mr GeoK hikes along the Lake Oesa trail above Lefroy Lake, on the way to Lake Oesa. One golden larch grows beside the trail where I’m watching for him to catch up after taking my photo at the top of Victoria Falls.
We had Lake Oesa pretty much to ourselves, seeing just 4 other people on the trail from the Lake O’Hara shoreline. And we were the only ones continuing to Opabin via the Yukness Ledges.

Yukness Ledges

Mrs GeoK and her friend, Mrs C, departing from Lake Oesa. See the little waterfall at the outlet of the lake?
It was at this point, descending from Lake Oesa to the Yukness Ledges trail, that our friend, Mrs C, wondered aloud about just what she’d gotten herself in for!!
Early along the Yukness Ledges trail, hiking past the other side of Lefroy Lake, Mrs GeoK pulled ahead of Mrs C and Mr GeoK. It was just to get a photo showing the lakes from this other perspective, and they soon caught up.
Somehow, the bigger steps on the Yukness Ledges trail always take us by surprise – and they were certainly a surprise to Mrs C! Thank goodness for the Lake O’Hara trail crew that makes sure the Alpine Circuit trail markers are refreshed and the stone steps maintained and enhanced, as needed.
Views like this are one of the main reasons we love to hike in the Lake O’Hara region of Yoho National Park. The fact that it’s hard to get to – so the trails aren’t crowded – is the other big draw.
Mrs GeoK and Mrs C, working their way along the Yukness Ledges trail towards the Opabin Plateau. That’s Lake O’Hara down below. By this point, we’d been hiking in the rain for more than 4 hours – ‘though this is also about the point where we had a short-lived switch to snow pellets!
Finally, the Opabin Plateau is in sight. The chance to see golden larches on the Opabin Plateau is the main reason we’ve been trying (for at least 5 years) to get to Lake O’Hara in September. Despite the steady rain, it was worth it! That’s Mary Lake tucked in down below on the left, with Lake O’Hara below to the right.

Opabin Plateau

Yes, we did hike up to Opabin Lake. It was raining so hard by this point that it was almost impossible to take photos without water drops on the lens. As we headed back down from Opabin Lake towards Hungabee and Moor Lakes, the wind was behind us so a few photos like this were possible. We spotted a couple of dozen intrepid hikers on the Opabin Plateau. This made complete sense to us; if you’re at Lake O’Hara and the weather is poor, the Opabin Plateau is the best scenery for the effort and a loop hike is possible (up/down West Opabin and down/up East Opabin).


Spectacular fall colour on the Opabin Plateau.
Even though it wasn’t quite “peak larch”, needles floated on some of the small tarns. Must have come down in the wind and rain. Whatever the reason, they enhanced the golden glow!
Classic Opabin Plateau view of Mary Lake (green, left) and Lake O’Hara (turquoise, right). Mr GeoK (wisely) hung back a little from the edge of the cliff. It was quite slippery due to steady rain over the past few days.
View from the bridge between the Moor Lakes on Opabin Plateau. Lovely, despite the liquid sunshine.
Farewell! The outlet of Moor Lakes is via a waterfall just off the East Opabin Trail.


Distance = approx. 9 km
Elevation gain = 576 meters
Time = 6 hrs, with plenty of stops for photography and lunch

Despite the mist, rain, sleet and snow pellets, it was definitely worth hiking at Lake O’Hara during golden larch season and we hope to do it again (in better weather) some time over the next few years.

Many consider all or part of the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit as the hike to do if you have only one day to hike at Lake O’Hara. We agree, so long as weather, trail conditions and what you’re capable of line up. What do you think? Is the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit on your list of “must do” hikes in the Canadian Rockies?

3 thoughts on “Hiking Yoho NP – Lake O’Hara Golden Larch

  1. Five years is a long time to wait but your persistence paid off! I recently hiked the West Coast Trail. It also took a few years to reserve and a bit of money. In the end it was priceless. This post has inspired me to plan my next hiking trip to Yoho NP! So much beauty in the Rocky Mountains.

  2. Pingback: Out & About with the GeoKs - Photo Blogging Challenge – Nature (September 2019)

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