Beautiful, Pristine And Highly Protected Lake O’Hara
We have been hearing about the amazing hiking around Lake O’Hara for quite some time. We finally got around to doing it this past weekend. All we can say is wow, it did not disappoint! This area in Yoho National Park is not as easily accessible as other hiking spots in Yoho, or Banff National Park. To keep the pristine nature of the area the access has been limited by Parks Canada. The restriction is what makes this area all the more special. It offers some of the best hiking in the Rocky Mountains or anywhere for that matter.
Hiking at Lake O’Hara offers the chance to view the unique flora and fauna of this sensitive high alpine area. During the summer it hosts a variety of wildflowers and into fall the Larch trees display their beautiful yellow colour. There are unique mosses, lichen covered rocks and forest mushrooms. The varied scenery of vast open meadows, glacier fed turquoise lakes and rugged snow capped mountains have been the inspiration for many artists, including the works of Canada’s renowned Group Of Seven.
The O’Hara area gives hikers the chance of catching glimpses of mountain wildlife. Hikers frequently spot marmots, pikas and mountain goats. You could also spot a grizzly bear or a wolverine.
Book Early To Get Your Spot On The Bus To Lake O’Hara
The parking lot for the access road to Lake O’Hara is located off of the Trans Canada highway east of the town of Field. It is just across the Alberta/B.C. border on the B.C. side. From Lake Louise is about a 15 minutes drive. Look for the signs on the highway for the Lake O’Hara parking lot. There is an 11km gravel access road to get to the lake. No public vehicles or even bicyles are allowed on the road.
Parks Canada runs buses that will take you up to the lake from mid June to the beginning of October. Make sure you lock your valuables in your car and don’t forget you will require a National Park Pass. For current fares and schedules, or to reserve a seat call the Yoho Park Visitor Centre at (250) 343-6433.
There are only a few buses that go in each day. You can start booking the bus 3 months in advance of the day you want to take it. With such limitations it books up quickly, so act fast if you want to get a spot. The phones open up at 8am and you will need to keep dialing repeatedly. We were lucky enough to get a spot on the last bus of the year. Reservations are not required for the outbound bus. If you walk in you can take the bus out for a fee of $10 that you pay to the driver.
You could try calling closer to the time you want to hike to see if a cancellation has come up. Another option is to try your luck the morning of the day you want to hike. Occasionally there may be no shows, especially if the weather is inclement. Get there half an hour before the bus is scheduled to leave. The Parks Canada attendent will take a waiting list. Once they are ready to go if there are some spots left, you’re in! Make sure you bring cash to purchase your ticket.
There is no restriction on the number of people that want to walk the road. The problem with hiking in is there is nothing to see along the way. It’s just a gravel road lined with trees. It only gains 400 meters in elevation, but after walking 11km’s you will have already exhausted a lot of your energy.
Options For Staying At Lake O’Hara
There are only a few options for accommodation at Lake O’Hara. There is the Elizibeth Parker Hut operated by the Alpine Club of Canada. To book a night at this hut from June to October you have to enter a lottery. The deadline for the lottery entry is November the year prior, talk about a hard to get into place!
The Abbot Pass Hut is also operated by the Alpine club. It is for advanced hikers only. At an elevation of almost 10,000 feet it is the 2nd highest permanent structure in Canada. It’s kind of strange, we saw this hut when we did the Plain Of Six Glaciers hike from Lake Louise in Alberta.
Camping at the 30 site campground is another option. Reservations can be made through Parks Canada 3 months in advance for these spots. Note that the campground is situated a few kilometers down the access road from the lake. Reservations for camping can also be made by calling the same number as the bus for Lake O’Hara through Parks Canada.
The last option for staying at Lake O’Hara is to stay at the Lake O’Hara Lodge. However, this lodge is not for the budget minded. The minimum cost to stay in one of the rooms in the main section of the lodge is $400 for a single and $500 for a double per night. The bathrooms for the lodge rooms are shared. To stay in one of the individual cabins on the lake will run you over $700. All reservations are a 2 night minimum.
The rates include all meals, afternoon tea and the round trip bus fare to the lake. We do not know anyone personally that has stayed at the lodge, but they do get rave reviews about their personal and attentive service. They have many repeat customers year after year.
Be Prepared To Be Self Sufficient
Prepare for all weather conditions. Take extra clothing, sunscreen, hat, gloves and rain gear. You will need sturdy shoes or hiking boots. Bring food and water. Check weather conditions before you go and find out about the latest trail conditions. This is a high alpine area that can have extreme weather fluctuations. It can snow any day of the year or it can be 30.C.
Le Relais Day Shelter
The Lake O’hara Trails Club operates the LeRelais Day Shelter. From June through September it is staffed daily from 8:30am to 6:30pm. They have a few options for snacks and drinks available as well as trail maps, wildlife and weather information. You can also purchase the O’Hara annual t-shirt as a souvenir. Note that all sales are cash only. If nothing else it is worth going in to get warmed up by the wood stove.
The Le Relais is not staffed during February and March, so no food or drinks are available. It is left open as a day shelter for people that snow shoe or ski into the area. Wood is available so the stove can be lit to provide warmth.
Hiking Options In The Lake O’Hara Area
Once you arrive at Lake O’Hara there are several hiking options on over 80 km’s of trails that you can explore in relative solitude. They range from easy strolls through alpine meadows to more challenging high alpine trails. This is a perfect destination for day hiking. You can choose an easy shoreline trail or a loop trail that will take you through alpine basins filled with small lakes. For the hikers seeking more of a thrill there are spectacular high alpine traverses.
The whole area is full of such beauty it can be difficult to make a decision of where to hike. It doesn’t help matters when asking people where they suggest to go. Everyone will tell you the hike they did was amazing. The truth is you can’t go wrong with any decision you make, the whole area is simply stunning.
Our Experience On The Lake McArthur Trail
We decided to hike the Lake McArthur Trail. It is an 8km circuit with a 310 meter elevation gain. The trail starts at the Le Relais Day Shelter. From there the trail goes up in elevation through the forest and then opens into an alpine meadow where you will see the Elizabeth Parker Hut. From the hut further elevation is gained through the forest into another alpine meadow area. Crossing over a small bridge on Schaffer Creek brings you into view of Schaffer Lake.
The trail then takes you through McArthur Meadows to a junction with the Odaray High Line Trail to the west. Just beyond the junction, the Lake McArthur circuit reaches the summit of McArthur Pass where the trail forks. You have two choices to get to the lake at this point. There is a low line or a high line trail to the lake. We were told the high line trail offered better views due to the fact that it was above the treeline. The trail starts to go high into a rocky area where there are a few sections of rugged rock steps to negotiate. There are also a few sections in this area where the trail is on a cliff side that drops hundreds of feet below. It made me a little nervous due to my fear of heights, but the trail remains wide, it’s not like you are having to hug the rock face at any point.
It felt like we were going higher and higher into the mountains. At one point we thought we might be going the wrong way. Could a lake actually be present up here somewhere? Finally everything opened up into a meadow. We could see a glacier on the mountain that was obviously the feed to Lake McArthur. The lake suddenly appeared before us. What an incredible sight. The colour of the lake varied from one end to the other. The end closest to the glacier was a deep indigo blue.
Unfortunately we didn’t have a lot of time to stay at the lake. We had taken our time on the way there, stopping several times to take pictures and take in the incredible views. Each time we stopped we stood in awe of the silence. You can feel your body instantly relax and become at peace. It’s hard to describe a total lack of all noise, it takes a few seconds to get used to. It sound strange but at first it almost hurts your ears.
We took the low line trail back. It went down hill mostly through rugged rocks and trees. There was nothing very scenic about it. It eventually reconnected with the trail we had taken on the way in. We made it back with about 45 minutes to spare before the bus left. We spent the time walking over to the Lake O’hara Lodge and taking a short trail along the shoreline of Lake O’hara.
The Alpine Circuit, Rated As The Best Hike In The Canadian Rockies
This is O’Haras most challenging, yet most rewarding trail. This was a masterpiece of trail building that was originally crafted by an alpinist by the name of Lawrence Grassi. He was the park warden of O’Hara for many years.
It is recommended to give yourself 6 to 7 hours for this hike. Depending on what trail options you take the distance ranges from 9.8km’s to 12.4km’s. It is not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights. The circuit is full of catwalks and ledges that have some sections where you will be clinging to the walls of the towering mountains. The scenery is stunning, offering turquoise lakes below the thousand meter cliffs. Much of the trail is above the treeline so pack for all types of weather possibilities.
Winter In The Lake O’Hara Region
The O’Hara area turns into a magical place during winter. It becomes even more silent after being covered in a deep blanket of snow. In winter the only access to Lake O’Hara is by cross country skiing or snow shoeing on the 11km access road. It is a popular area for ski tours. Lake O’Hara Lodge offers winter accommodation from early February to early April.
The Elizabeth Parker Hut is open year round for bookings. This hut was built in 1919 and named for one of the founders of the Alpine Club. It has one large main room with a wood burning stove and bunks. There is a small kitchen room. The main hut sleeps 20. There is a smaller cabin that sleeps another 6 and also has a wood stove. The huts are busy even during the winter, and especially on weekends. Book early to get the dates you want.