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.
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.
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.
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 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
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?