I’ve heard it said that everyone loves Lake Louise (Banff National Park) until they have visited Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park. For us, Lake Louise was way too crowded but we still enjoyed the beauty of the lake itself. However, hiking and camping in Lake O’Hara is how mountainous landscapes are meant to be experienced. The beauty of the lake’s tranquil turquoise water is breathtaking. The surrounding landscape is dotted with an almost countless number of other gorgeous lakes with varying shades of glacial turquoise. Add to this that the park’s authorities only allow four busloads worth of visitors in each day and Lake O’Hara is one of the best camping and hiking experience in the Canadian Rockies.
Distance: 20+ miles of day hiking adventures available
Time: 4 days, 3 nights (maximum stay and recommended)
Camping Permits: Required
When to go?
The best time to visit Lake O’Hara is arguable. If you like snow-covered peaks and don’t mind the trails being impassible go in mid-June as soon as camping is permitted. Mid-July should see most of the trails open with snow still on the peaks but the bugs will be rough. Late August is the best time to fully explore the Lake O’Hara area as all the trails will be open and the bugs will be fewer. However, by late August, all but the glacial snow will be gone unless you get lucky with a summer snowstorm (It happens). Late September will see the autumn color change but the nights will be frigid and fresh snow very possible.
Campground: 30 sites (Single tent on each site, max 6 people per site, and 2 site max per group)
On any given night in the summer there are just over 100 guests sleeping in the backcountry near Lake O’Hara. Each of these reservations has a different deadline for being able to acquire a spot. The lodge and cabins are expensive but would be a warmer alternative to the campground.
Lake O’Hara Camping
The campground is relatively cheap ($11.70/night in 2019) and as backcountry sites go very nice. There are two cooking shelters with wood-burning stoves. The cooking area also has running potable water spigots and solar toilet facilities. Each of the 30 campsites has a numbered bear locker for storing food and are large enough to store bags. (The porcupines really like to eat the salt from human sweat off of backpacking bags.) All the tent pads are very nice and flat. There are about eight open-air picnic tables with a communal fire pit. All wood is provided with the reservation and the park even provides an ax for splitting the logs. This is luxury camping but not glamping.
What to Pack
While bus camping allows for more elaborate packing than a traditional backpacking trip, visitors are limited to one backpack and one day pack so don’t go crazy. The park also has set limits on what can be brought in. No folding chairs, no big hard-sided coolers, no instruments, and no hammocks.
You will need ample clothing. It gets cold here. It can snow in the middle of summer. Dress in layers and make sure your sleeping bag is rated for at least 30-degree (F) weather.
Hiking poles, bear spray, bug spray, sunscreen, and the other usual hiking gear is needed. The bugs are really bad in the middle of the summer (July & August) in the Canadian Rockies. I recommend wearing long sleeves and hiking pants at all times and bring a bug head net (might look funny but everyone else will be envious).
Camp stoves are nice to bring but campers can also cook on top of the wood-burning stoves in the covered cooking areas or can roast food over the central firepit.
Credit card you wish to use to pay for the reservation.
Day Hiking Reservations
There is a quota of day users allowed into the Lake O’Hara area as well and that is also a hard ticket to come by. However, there is so much to do inside the Lake O’Hara area I highly recommend camping for the maximum of 3-nights to take it all in. If you do decide to go with a day visit you will now need to win a lottery. Starting on Feb 1st, 2020 and continuing through the entire month, applications can be submitted for a non-refundable $10 fee. The drawing will take place in March and winners will be contacted. Visit the park’s website for more details.
Hiking the Lake O’Hara Road
If you missed the reservation windows, you can also hike the road in and potentially take a bus out but that is a 7-mile journey (one-way). Make sure to bring some cash with you. In 2019 the one-way ticket was $9.75. You should also be prepared to hike the road out as there is no guarantee that there will be a seat available on the bus. Again, there is so much beauty to see in the Lake O’Hara area that I recommend against hiking the road. It is by far the least scenic part.
Lake O’Hara Hiking Trails
The lake O’Hara region is beautiful with many hikes that accommodate the adventurous souls of different skill levels. Nearly all of these trails start on the shores of Lake O’Hara (elevation: 6,625′) so if you are hiking in on the Lake O’Hara road plan accordingly and anticipate adding 14-miles to each hike. Some trails will remain snowcovered until early July in most years and microspikes are recommended for the higher elevation routes in early summer.
This trail is an easy stroll around Lake O’Hara always hugging the shore of the turquoise waters. On the backside of the lake, there is a short but steep climb up to the ever-present Seven Veils Falls. This waterfall is seen and heard from the lodge area and most of the shoreline. It is beautiful and well worth the extra effort to climb to the viewpoint adjacent to the veil of water.
If you are looking for iconic aerial views of Lake O’Hara and the surrounding Canadian Rocky landscape you will want to hike the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit. While this is a difficult trail and not one for individuals who have bouts of vertigo, it is a stunning trail with beautiful views that encircle the cliffs above Lake O’Hara. Come prepared for a long day of steep climbing up and down trails covered in boulders and sometimes lose terrain with some of the most stunning overlooks in the Canadian Rockies.
The path to Lake Oesa starts on the north shore of Lake O’Hara and climbs moderately steep up into a narrow valley filled with streams and lakes of blueish-green water. The path itself closely follows the flow of the creek coming down from Lake Oesa but along the way hikers are treated to the turquoise waters of Yukness Lake, Victoria Lake, & the truly stunningly rich blue color of Lefroy Lake. Oesa Lake itself is surrounded by verticle glaciated cliff faces and has a stunning waterfall flowing from the west side.
While all the trails in the Lake O’Hara area have numerous alpine lakes along there paths the Opabin Plateau Circuit has the most and in one of the most moderate climbs. This trail which starts on the southern shore of Lake O’Hara climbs into an alpine meadow and passes by no less than six beautiful lakes. It even has the option for a short spur that climbs to the Opabin Prospect which is an outcropping that overlooks Lake O’Hara and the surrounding Canadian Rocky landscape.
The Loop to Lake McArthur is more like a set of figure-eight paths through the mountainous landscape. The trail passes by Schaffer Lake with Mount Shaffer rising behind it and then splits into a lower and an upper route. The upper route while more difficult is more scenic, but I prefer variety and would recommend taking the upper route in and the lower route out. Lake McArthur is the largest and deepest lake in the Lake O’Hara area. The depth of the lake gives it a rich blue color and the glacier flows into the eastern end of the lake making it a very different scene from the other lakes in the area.
The Morning Glory & Linda Lake loop trail takes hikers from the Le Relais Shelter, located between the Lake O’Hara campground and the Lake itself, up to a series of smaller lakes called the Morning Glory Lakes with a massive waterfall coming off the glacier clinging to Odaray Mountain. This scene alone would be enough reason to make the hike but Linda Lake is found further up with beautiful blue waters and reflective mountain views. Still further up the path are wildflower-filled alpine meadows and Cathedral Lake. Cathedral Lake is the end of the recommended moderate route which returns back past Linda Lake following the northern shoreline back and returning via a loop that finds its way through the dense fertile forest and to the Lake O’Hara Campground.
Visiting the Lake O’Hara area requires planning and precise timing. Permits are frustratingly hard to acquire but this system keeps the area pristine and preserves it for generations of visitors seeking the wonders of Yoho National Park. If you are seeking out the best backcountry adventures in the Canadian Rockies and want seclusion full of seemingly endless beautiful greenish-blue lakes than Lake O’Hara is a must-visit location.
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