Tuesday, April 11, 2023

The BEST of Lake O'Hara in a Day

Maybe you finally won the lottery and got that "golden ticket" in the form of an email confirming that you were successful in scoring a tent site at Lake O'Hara this summer. If not, I have every finger and toe crossed for you to be successful getting spots on a day use bus to O'Hara.

I was one of the lucky ones last summer when I managed to get a campsite at Lake O'Hara for a night in September. We enjoyed two glorious days hiking most of the popular trails around the lake, and even climbed a mountain on our second day. We were blessed with perfect weather, a warm weekend, and no bugs (thank you autumn!)

Looking down on gorgeous Lake O'Hara from the Alpine Circuit hike

** The first few sections below focus on providing an introduction to the area, access, camping, etc. To read about hiking at O'Hara skip ahead to where I've outlined the number one hike for the area. **

Lake O'Hara is a world-famous hiking destination in the Canadian Rockies 

An Introduction to Lake O'Hara (and how to access the area)

Lake O'Hara is located in Yoho National Park, British Columbia, and a short drive from Lake Louise.
"This sensitive alpine environment is home to exquisite hanging valleys, jewel-blue lakes and breathtaking vistas. An excellent trail network for the region is maintained by the Lake O’Hara Trails Club and Parks Canada.
Access to this area is limited to provide high-quality and meaningful experiences for visitors and maintain Lake O’Hara’s unique alpine environment." - Parks Canada

Reservations are required to take a bus to Lake O’Hara for day use visits and camping from mid-June to early October. Before/after this period, you must walk the access road to reach the lake (a distance of 11 km one way.) In winter you can also ski to the lake, and the road is often groomed and trackset for Nordic Skiing.

You can walk the access road any time of the year (including through the summer season) but you can not bike the road nor can you drive it with your own vehicle.

Enjoying a glorious autumn day from the Opabin Prospect at O'Hara 

There are four main ways to access Lake O'Hara for a day (assuming you don't want to endure the 22 km hike in and out on the road.)

  1. Visit for a day by taking one of the Parks Canada shuttle busses to the lake. Reservations are required and can be made online.

  2. Camp for up to three nights at the backcountry campground located a short walk from the lake. Reservations are required and include the bus ride to/from the campground.

  3. Stay at the Elizabeth Parker Hut, a short walk from the lake, and operated by the Alpine Club of Canada (and equally challenging to get space at.) Spots at the hut also include the bus ride.

  4. Stay at the Lake O'Hara Lodge (the priciest option) which is perched on the shore of the lake. Stays at the lodge include all meals and transportation to/from the lodge.

Visit the Lake O'Hara website for information on visiting the lake, making reservations on the bus or at the campground, and planning your trip.

The Elizabeth Parker Hut at Lake O'Hara

The Best Time to Visit Lake O'Hara 

I wouldn't plan a visit before mid-July because it takes a while for the snow to melt. It would be disappointing to discover the lakes still frozen or the trails too icy to hike.

Late July through the end of August is the most popular time to visit and where the weather promises to be the most stable. This is also the best time for camping at the lake when temperatures are warmer.

Personally, I prefer autumn for crisp clear skies, cooler temperatures for comfortable hiking, and no bugs. There's usually less risk for forest fire smoke as well. Camping can be chilly though with temperatures dropping below zero overnight, so make sure you're prepared for that aspect if you want to camp in the fall.

September also brings early snow on occasion but I've had good luck with fall hiking at Lake O'Hara on several occasions over the years.

Finally, if you want to time your visit to see the golden larch trees, you'll want to aim for the third week of September. It's not an exact science, but anytime after the 20th is generally a safe bet.

The Opabin Plateau is a beautiful place to hike in larch season

Visiting Lake O'Hara for a Day 

If you've secured bus tickets, make sure you arrive at least half an hour early. If you are late, your seats can be given away to stand by guests who show up early hoping somebody doesn't show up.

The bus ride takes approximately 20 minutes at most and there are two options for ingoing times (8:30 and 10:30 am.) Personally, I always choose 8:30am so that I have the full day to hike, and I don't feel rushed.

If you are not a morning person, or you are planning a shorter hike, choose the 10:30 bus time. This could be a smart option in fall as well when mornings are very chilly.

Pets are not allowed on the bus or at the campground. If you need to bring Fido with you, your only option is to hike the road (knowing that you can not camp anywhere else outside the official campground.) I recommend leaving your pup at home.

Outgoing bus times are 2:30, 4:30, and 6:30 in the afternoon. Arrive early to ensure you get a seat on the bus of your choice. (And don't lose the return bus token they'll give you when you arrive.)

More information is available on the Lake O'Hara website

Lake Oesa is a great short hike at O'Hara

Last Minute Bus Spots:

If you want to get a last minute spot on the bus, make sure you are very early!! You want to be first in line for any no-shows or cancellations. You'll also want to plan to hang out for the entire duration between the 8:30 and 10:30 departure times in case you don't make it on the first bus.

I also recommend checking the Parks Canada reservation website often for cancelations (especially if the weather is looking less than ideal.)

Dressing for  Lake O'Hara:

The temperature can easily start below zero in the parking lot or by the lake when you first start hiking. Bring your gloves, a toque, warm coats, and layers. Last September I started out dressed for winter, and had stripped down to my sports bra by mid afternoon (failing to wear a tank top.) By late afternoon I was back in my puffy jacket.

Be prepared for all weather conditions when you visit Lake O'Hara (even if it's going to be 30C in Calgary!)

Le Relais Day Shelter:

And... don't forget the world-famous carrot cake that you can purchase from Le Relais Day Use Shelter by the bus stop at the lake!! They only take cash so plan ahead, and they sell out early in the day. You can also get trail information here and buy a hot drink.

And pro-tip: Bring a fork if you plan to buy the carrot cake. You'll thank me for this.

Lake McArthur is another great short hike at O'Hara 

Camping at Lake O'Hara

There are 30 campsites at Lake O'Hara and you must make a reservation online. Competition is intense and I encourage you to check the website for cancelations regularly.

The maximum stay is 3 nights and you can fit up to 4 people on one tent pad (which is challenging if you have more than two children.)

The Lake O'Hara Campground is open from mid June through the beginning of October.
The inbound buses to Lake O'Hara depart the parking lot at 8:30 and 10:30 in the morning, and 3:30 or 5:30 in the afternoon.

If you plan on hiking after setting up your campsite, you'll want an 8:30am bus. If you're coming out after work or after a long drive, the 5:30pm bus time is convenient.

This is a backcountry campground and as such there is no electricity, and the bathrooms are simple pit toilets.  It's one of the more "comfortable" backcountry campgrounds you'll ever find though.

Plan to pack for your trip much like you would with a normal backcountry trip

Expect to find:
  • Well separated tent pads for privacy

  • A large cooking area with one food locker per campsite, several picnic tables, two cook shelters with wood stoves, a large communal fire pit, firewood, and potable water for cooking/drinking. There is a large dish washing area as well.

    Make sure you bring your own backpacking stove for cooking. The wood stoves are intended for heat. (A full packing list is available on the Lake O'Hara website.)

  • A storage shed that you can use for your camping gear if you want to go hiking before setting up camp, or if you want to store your gear on your last day while you explore the area before taking your return bus home. - Note the shed isn't locked, so don't leave valuables.

    The shed is also not animal-proof so leave all food in a locker.

Each campsite has a simple tent pad designed for a backpacking tent

How it works with checking in / departing from the campground:

The bus will stop at the campground to let campers off before taking day users up to the lake. A staff member will give you an orientation to the campground, and then you are welcome to go choose a campsite.

I encourage you to quickly set up your tent, put your food in your locker, and then prepare your day packs for your hike. After this you can walk up to the lake. We took the 8:30am bus and were up at the lake to hike by 10:00am.

On your last day, pack up your tent site, leave your food in your locker, and store everything that you don't need for your hike in the storage shed. Walk up the lake for your hike, and then walk back down to the campground to grab your overnight gear.

The bus will pick you up from the campground so you don't have to walk back up to the lake. - and make sure you're at the campground early for your trip home! They'll count how many campers are waiting for the bus as they drive up to the lake, and will save that many spots on the bus.

Departing bus times are 9:30 and 11:30 in the morning if you don't want to stay to hike, and 2:30, 4:30, and 6:30 in the afternoon. 

Visit the Lake O'Hara website for more information on how to pack, tent pad sizes, how to make a reservation, and to read more about the campground.

Set up your tent and then hit the trails for a magical day of hiking at Lake O'Hara 

The best Day Hike at Lake O'Hara (for a perfect one-day visit)

The number one "must do" hike is the Lake O'Hara Alpine Circuit! (link to the All Trails website.)

The full loop is 11 km with just under 900 metres of height gain. You don't have to do the full loop though, and it can be customized.

The Alpine Circuit combines three alpine routes in the basin above the lake. They are intended for intermediate/advanced hikers, but most novice hikers will do fine in a group with a strong leader to coach them through difficult sections.
"There are five alpine routes above the O'Hara basin for experienced hikers who are comfortable with route finding, heights and traversing exposed terrain. 
Alpine routes are often shown by cairns, and may involve scrambling on scree slopes or over boulder fields where the way is marked by painted blue and yellow symbols. Expect early season closures on the alpine routes due to avalanche hazard. Hikers must be aware of avalanche conditions year round and follow protocols for travelling in avalanche terrain." - Parks Canada 
The Alpine Routes definitely get narrow in spots with mild exposure

As long as you visit Lake O'Hara when the Alpine Circuit is dry and snow free, the trail is always easy to follow as long as you watch for the painted blue and yellow symbols on the rocks. There is no scrambling on the Alpine Circuit that I am describing below and only a few short sections with scree or loose rock. 

The loop is very steep in places and is not recommended for hikers who prefer hiking on flat ground. There are also a few narrow sections where a fear of heights might not be your best friend for this trail. I've included photos below with optional bypass routes for any exposed section of the loop.

Watch for the blue and yellow painted markers and you'll never get lost on the Alpine Circuit

Hiking the Lake O'Hara Alpine Circuit

Alpine Route: Wiwaxy Gap and the Huber Ledges - Distance: 2 km to Wiwaxy Gap with 500 metres of height gain. This will be the biggest, steepest, climb of the day, and novice hikers will definitely feel as if they just climbed a mountain. Even experienced hikers will be huffing and puffing their way up the switchbacks to the top of the viewpoint (so take it slow!)

The trail is generally easy to follow with wide switchbacks and only a few narrow spots

Photo breaks will help you make it up the steep trail here

After you reach the top, the hiking becomes much more pleasant as you enjoy the views and pleasant traversing above the lake.

We usually have a good break here before starting on the narrow ledge system, the Huber ledges. This next section of trail is much flatter, and you'll actually lose 300 metres of height as you descend to Lake Oesa over a distance of 2 km.

Looking back at the Wiwaxy Gap and the faint trail across the Huber Ledges

The trail is a tad narrow along the Huber Ledges and some may find it exposed 

Lake Oesa is the reward for making it across the Huber Ledges

Easy bypass option: Lake Oesa Trail - Skip the Alpine Route by taking the Lake Oesa Trail instead. This trail starts from the Lake O'Hara Shoreline Trail and is only 3 km (one way) with less than 300 metres of climbing. 

This is a good half day hiking option as well which can be combined with the full Shoreline Trail Loop (a relatively flat 3km loop.)

Lake Oesa is a small lake that sits in a basin above Lake O'Hara

Taking the direct route to Lake Oesa is also a great option for hikers who want to do the Alpine Circuit without the climb to Wiwaxy Gap. Continue on from Lake Oeasa across the Yukness Ledges to Opabin Lake. From here you can hike around the Opabin Plateau before descending on either the East or West Opabin Trail. This loop is approximately 5-6 km with no more than 400 metres of height gain total.

If you're undecided on which trail to take to reach Lake Oesa, look at the photo of the Huber Ledges route below. It's fairly alarming to think that there's a hiking trail across this cliff face!

The Wiwaxy Gap is at the left in the photo below, and Lake Oesa is at the bottom right.

The trail across the Huber Ledges crosses this giant cliff face from the Wiwaxy Gap

Alpine Route: Lake Oesa to Opabin Lake via the Yukness Ledges - Distance: 3 km and maybe 30 metres of climbing total! It's relatively flat as you traverse between Lake Oesa and the Opabin Plateau.

There are a few sections along this route with scree and loose rock, and you'll have to watch for the markers carefully as you pass through boulders high above Lake O'Hara. As long as you make it to the Opabin Plateau though, this is the end of the Alpine Circuit for many hikers who choose to descend directly back to Lake O'Hara.

There are several rocky sections along the Yukness Ledges

The Yukness Ledges are narrow, but very doable when dry and snow-free

Easy day hike option: The Opabin Plateau Loop - For hikers who don't like exposed ledges, a great loop can be made around the Opabin Plateau using the East and West Opabin Trails from the Lakeshore Circuit. This is one of my favourite hikes in late September for golden larch trees. (You won't see many larch trees on the Alpine route sections.)

The Opabin Plateau will make you feel as if you were hiking in the Alps

The loop is approximately 6 km with 250 metres of climbing. There are a few steep sections on the West Opabin Trail so hiking poles are recommended.

Opabin Lake is a very small glacial lake at the back of the Opabin Plateau

Must-do add on Viewpoint: The Opabin Prospect - Whether you take the Alpine Circuit to reach the Opabin Plateau or you hike directly up to the basin, you need to visit the Opabin Prospect Viewpoint which looks over the entire Lake O'Hara area below. You can perch on giant boulders over the lake for the perfect photo that will get you all that Instagram fame you're after (or at the very least, get you a good Christmas card photo.)

From the Opabin Prospect you will get an amazing view down over Lake O'Hara and Mary Lake (which looks like three separate lakes.)

The Opabin Prospect is the best viewpoint in the O'Hara region

It should be mentioned that you'll want to keep a close eye on young children here!! You are perched at the top of a giant cliff overlooking the lake. You do not want to fall here.

There is very little distance or height gain required to reach the viewpoint once you're at the Opabin Plateau.

If you do ONE easy hike at Lake O'Hara, this should be it!

Alpine Route: All Souls' Prospect - Distance: 2.8 km to the top of the All Souls' Prospect viewpoint with 200 metres of height gain.

This is where we called it quits after completing the rest of the circuit and looping around the Opabin Plateau to the Opabin Prospect. We hiked down the Opabin West Trail straight back to the lakeshore and to our campground (and got the last piece of carrot cake at Le Relais!)

For those that want to continue, there's one final viewpoint (usually in the shade by this point in the day) and then there is a gigantic (very steep) descent down the other side. 

You'll lose 300 metres of height over a kilometre as you descend from the Prospect to Schaffer Lake. From this small lake it's another kilometre back to the front side of Lake O'Hara where the bus stop is located.

In total, you'll hike 5 km from the Opabin Plateau if you choose to hike over the All Souls' Prospect. Or you can go back the short way along the West Opabin Trail (3 km in length, and all downhill.)

In the photo below, the Opabin Prospect viewpoint is the small bump at the back of the lake. That's where you get the best viewpoint over Lake O'Hara and Mary Lake. The All Soul's Prospect viewpoint is at the far right end of  Mt. Schaffer in the background.  (It's a low point along the cliffs, not the top of the mountain.)

And if you want to climb Mt. Schaffer, keep reading where I've described the route below.

Looking back at Mt. Schaffer and the All Soul's Prospect

Shorter day hikes at Lake O'Hara for a day hike or multi-day visit

For a shorter day hike, many of the options above will be very enjoyable. The trail to Lake Oesa is very beautiful as is the East/West Opabin Loop.

Another option is the trail to Lake McArthur which is approximately 7 km in length (return) with 370 metres of height gain. This is a very beautiful alpine lake and I highly recommend either adding the hike on to the Alpine Circuit (skipping the All Souls' part) or visiting the lake on your second day at O'Hara before you leave - which is what we did.

All links go to the All Trails website. Note that if you don't have a premium subscription you won't be able to navigate using the app while hiking at Lake O'Hara where there is no cell coverage. I recommend buying a trail map before you go or stopping in at Le Relais Day Use Shelter for a map. I also like my "Classic Hikes in the Canadian Rockies" Guide Book.

Lake McArthur is a great half day hike 

Climbing Mt. Schaffer at Lake O'Hara 

There are a few moderate scrambles in the Lake O'Hara area, but the one we enjoyed was the ascent of Mt. Schaffer from Lake McArthur.

A. We got to visit the beautiful Lake McArthur
B. It's a FUN scramble (not just gross scree and loose rock)
C. The views are gorgeous looking down on Lake McArthur

This is also a very short scramble so you can easily tackle it on your second day at the lake before taking a return bus home.

And, if you only make it to the top of the rounded bump in the photo below, you'll still get a fabulous view down over all of Lake McArthur.

From Lake McArthur start hiking above the lake aiming for this rounded bump

From the top of the rounded bump above, this is your view. You're heading for the top of the ridge!

I'm not going to describe the scramble in detail because it is a moderate/advanced scramble. I recommend helmets and you'll need solid route finding skills! This is a moderate scramble with hands-on sections, and not just walking up steep terrain. You also might want to bring a short length of rope if you have children with you (though I don't really recommend this one for kids.)

The scree was shockingly firm on this route and easy to hike up!

We did not have helmets (and felt comfortable with the risk,) and our son has significant scrambling experience, so this was a piece of cake for him.

The blocky terrain was actually a LOT of fun on this route!

Mt. Schaffer was one of the most enjoyable scrambles we did all summer!

I did a LOT of research for this scramble and I believe the route on All Trails is actually the best route for this hike. You can see the All Trails Route for Mt. Schaffer here. 

The route certainly had its mildly exposed moments

You probably won't want to take young children up this route!

Advice for the route finding:
  • Start from Lake McArthur and NOT from Schaffer Lake. The route from McArthur is pleasant and follows a ridge up rather than bashing your way up scree.

  • Descend back the same way you came!! We descended the steep short way to Schaffer Lake and I was not a fan of the loose scree. I much preferred the easy ridge walk up from McArthur.

  • Use All Trails to HELP you, not to GUIDE you. It is a great app for hiking. It fails at scrambling. My husband is amazing at route finding and he kept running ahead the entire time to choose the best path up. You can't just follow a dot on your phone. There are cliff bands on this route and you have to look around to choose the path of least resistance. Our All Trails app helped us find the beginning of the route. That was about it.

  • If you don't like exposure, don't even think about this trip.

  • If you get scared or find that the trip is too difficult, turn around and return the way you came up. There are great views along the lower ridge, even if you don't make the summit. 

Poles were VERY helpful on this route!

This photo alone should tell you if this scramble is something you'd enjoy

You need a healthy enjoyment of mild exposure for this route

And if you complete this scramble, you definitely don't need to do the All Souls' part of the Alpine Circuit. You'll be in the same area, but much much higher!! 

Most of the hands on scrambling was in the final traverse along the summit ridge

You'll know you've reached the summit when you find the register 

Mt. Schaffer summit with Lake O'Hara below (Wiwaxy Gap in the background)

Descending Mt. Schaffer with Lake McArthur below

We descended the rubble slope directly to Schaffer Lake (which I don't recommend)

A sightseeing Guide to Lake O'Hara for Non-hikers

So, a family member wants to come along, but they don't really hike. A friend wants to come, but doesn't like steep trails... You get the idea. Is there a point in going to Lake O'Hara if you aren't a strong hiker?

My answer in a nutshell, you should be able to hike at least 6 km, climb at least 300 metres, and handle some steep terrain. If not, you might as well hike around Emerald Lake for the SAME experience. Both are beautiful lakes and both have lakeshore circuits. Emerald Lake however does not require an expensive shuttle bus booking or incredible luck to even get a bus seat.

If you can hike the East/West Opabin Loop or hike to Lake Oesa, then yes, Lake O'Hara is a fabulous destination, even for a short day hike.

The other challenge with Lake O'Hara for non-hikers, is that there is no coffee shop, no restaurant, no "retreat" where you can go hang out while you wait for others that are hiking. You pretty much have to sit outside by the lake and wait.

Visitors to Lake O'Hara should be able to hike at least 6 km with 300 metres of climbing (Opabin Plateau)

So you didn't get a campsite or bus seats... Now what??

Check the Parks Canada website often for  cancelations. Other than that, the good news is that there are MANY other beautiful hikes in the Canadian Rockies. 

10 other Recommended Day Hikes for strong hikers in Banff/Yoho National Parks

  1. The Iceline Trail, Yoho National Park (21 km, 1000 metres height gain)
    - Read my blog post

  2. Paget Lookout and Sherbrook Lake, Yoho National Park (10 km, 580 metres height gain)

  3. Emerald Lake Triangle, Yoho National Park (19.5 km, 900 metres height gain)

  4. Saddleback Pass and Fairview Mt., Lake Louise (9.7 km, 1000 metres height gain)
    - Read my blog post 

  5. Lake Agnes and Mt. St. Piran, Lake Louise (13 km, 900 metres height gain)
    - Read my blog post 

  6. Lake Agnes and The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House Traverse, Lake Louise (10 km, 650 metres height gain)

  7. Sentinel Pass, Moraine Lake - Shuttle bus required (11 km, 800 metres height gain)

  8. Moraine Lake to Lake Louise Traverse over Sentinel and Saddleback Passes, Lake Louise - Shuttle bus required (23 km, 1200 metres height gain)

  9. Aylmer Lookout,  Lake Minnewanka, Banff (23 km, 1000 metres height gain)

  10. Helen Lake, Icefields Parkway, Banff (11 km, 500 metres height gain)

Check your favourite guide book for information on each hike above or visit the All Trails website/app.

While Lake O'Hara is beautiful, there are many other premier hikes across the Canadian Rockies

Recommended Reading 

A Local's Guide to Exploring the Best of Banff and Jasper 

Family Guide to Banff National Park - Top 10 Places to Explore with the Kids 

A Family Guide to the BEST Adventures on the Icefields Parkway (Lake Louise to Jasper)

The BEST of Summer in the Canadian Rockies 

First Summits for Families in the Canadian Rockies

2023 Campsite Reservation Guide for Alberta and BC

1 comment:

  1. Exploring this natural gem not only delights my eyes but also nourishes my soul. Lake O'Hara is a true natural paradise. 🏞️✨