The Canadian Rockies are among the most breathtakingly beautiful place I’ve seen. And, while there is more than enough spectacular scenery to go around, the area around Lake O’Hara in Canada’s Yoho National Park is particularly gorgeous.
A hike along Lake O’Hara
Our hike along Lake O’Hara begins with an early morning ride on an orange school bus.
It’s a short ride. However, the narrow road through the forest ends a stunningly beautiful lakeshore far away from almost everyone else visiting the Rockies this summer.
It’s only a few steps from the bus to the trail that circles Lake O’Hara. Not sure which direction we should go, we follow the majority of other hikers toward the west end of the lake.
Soon they have dispersed, hurrying off on whatever trail they have planned for the day.
The Lake O’Hara trail
We are almost alone on a bright, sunny morning in one of the most beautiful places I can imagine. (Although we are on the wrong end of the lake for morning photography, as the sun rises on the opposite end of the lake!)
Despite being in the wrong spot for photography, it’s unbelievably beautiful!
The first part of our hike is an easy amble along the lakeshore on the Lake O’Hara Trail. The scenery around the lake is stunning, but the boulders and plants along the lake’s edge have their own beauty.
On the Lake Oesa Trail
About halfway around the lake, we leave the shoreline to take the Lake Oesa Trail. A trail that starts to climb almost immediately!
Although a little steep, it’s still an easy trail. It’s a well-worn, shady path that winds up through the trees crowding the cliffs above the lake.
Eventually we climb above the treeline.
The boulder field isn’t as intimidating as it looks at first glance. The trail is relatively easy to follow and doesn’t require a lot of boulder-hopping or other fancy footwork.
And the view is stunning!
We take a lunch break in a bit of shade amid the boulders.
After lunch we continue on, passing another small lake along the way.
However, just past the lake, the boulders become a broad slope of scree. We are probably still well-over a mile from Lake Osea, with no idea of what the rest of the trail is like.
We’ve crossed some small patches like this already. However, this seemingly endless field of it is pretty intimidating.
The sun is high and hot. However, clouds are building in the west. A sign perhaps, of the afternoon rains promised in the morning weather forecast?
We ponder a bit, consult our (not very detailed) trail map, and step tentatively out onto the scree.
It doesn’t take long to decide that crossing it in dry weather is bad enough – there is no way we want to come back across in the rain.
We turn around and head back down the mountain to continue along Lake O’Hara via the shore trail.
We get to enjoy all the scenery we saw going up from the other direction!
Back on the Lake O’Hara trail
Once we get back to the shore, the rest of the trail turns out to be a relaxing jaunt. The scenery is nice (if not as spectacular as it is above the lake) and there are lots of plants, mosses, cool rocks, and waterfalls to enjoy along the way.
As we walk, the sky fills with unhappy grey clouds, but there is no rain.
Maybe we should have tackled that scree . . .
Plan your visit to Lake O’Hara
The Lake O’Hara area has special restrictions, including daily quotas for visitors using the public bus that serves the area. This helps protect the park’s fragile alpine areas and provides visitors with more of a wilderness experience. However, it also requires significant advance planning.
Pick your favorite season
Lake O’Hara is a lovely place to hike in summer and fall. The lakeshore trail is suitable for just about everyone. Some of the Alpine trails should be left to experienced hikers. Some trails may be closed at any given time due to trail conditions or wildlife.
The Lake O’Hara Trails Club has links to PDF files that describe each of the Lake O’Hara trails.
In winter, cross-country skiers can explore the park. The ski into the park is said to be easy, but trails within are more challenging – and some areas are prone to avalanches and best avoided completely. There is no bus in winter, so all skiers – including guests at Lake O’Hara lodge, must ski the seven miles into and out of the park along the fire road.
In all seasons, be prepared for almost any type of weather. We got really lucky – it would be hard to imagine more perfect weather than we had. Still, with a forecast that called for afternoon showers, we packed rain gear and an extra layer with our sunscreen and insect repellent.
Summer shuttle buses serve Lake O’Hara between mid-June and October. This is also when the campground is open.
Privately operated Lake O’Hara Lodge is open from mid-June until early October and from late-January through early April. During winter, the lodge offers guided ski adventures.
The Alpine Club of Canada also operates the Elizabeth Parker Hut in the park. It is open year-round.
Make a reservation
There is no limit on the number of visitors allowed to walk the seven miles along the fire road to the lake.
However, only 42 day-use visitors are allowed on the Lake O’Hara shuttle bus. The only others on the bus are the overnight visitors staying at the 30-site campground or one of the Alpine Club hiking huts. (Guests at Lake O’Hara lodge have their own shuttle.) Bikes are not allowed on the road or in the park.
For most of us, those limits mean that advance planning and reservations are essential to visit Lake O’Hara.
There are separate reservation lines for day use visitors and campers. Be sure to use the correct one.
Likewise, reservations for the Lake O’Hara Lodge are handled by the lodge and reservations for the Elizabeth Parker Hut are handled by the Alpine Club.
Thoroughly review the information on the Yoho National Park website before attempting to make your reservation. That includes the park’s season-specific PDFs (linked on the website), since they are a lot easier to understand then the website itself.
Day use visitors
As of 2015, day-use visitors can make a reservation for any time during the season as soon as the reservation line opens in April. (It used to be limited to three months in advance.) Reservations can also be booked online now.
You’ll be asked to choose between the 8:30 and 10:30 buses and you need to be there for that bus or risk losing your spot. However, reservations for a specific bus are only required for the trip to the lake. Several buses make the return trip, and day use visitors can choose whichever is most convenient when they are ready to leave. Those walking into Lake O’Hara may be able to get a ride out on one of the shuttle buses, but only if there is extra space.
This reservation process allows visitors to plan further ahead. However, it probably makes it even harder to get a reservation. There is probably very little likelihood of getting a reservation later in the season, so book as early as you can.
If you don’t get a reservation, keep an eye out for cancellations as your desired date gets closer.
The bus is roughly $15 round-trip. Return-only tickets (for those who walk to the lake) are available for about $10 when the bus isn’t full. That has to be paid in cash to the driver before boarding.
The Lake O’Hara campground has 30 spots for small tents. It has a small cooking shelter, food lockers, storage room, and other basic facilities. Fees are about $35-$45 total (campground, bus, wilderness permit, etc.) for one person for one night.
Campground reservations can only be made by phone. The earliest you can book is three months in advance of the date you plan to visit. Campers can stay for a maximum of three nights per stay.
The Lake O’Hara campground is very popular, but it isn’t very big. If you want to stay there, do the following:
- Identify when you want to visit. If possible, identify alternate dates as well.
- Figure out what date is three months earlier, and mark that date on your calendar.
- At 8 a.m. MDT (Mountain daylight time) exactly three months before you want to visit, call the reservation line.
- When you don’t get through on the first call, hang up and call again. And again. And again, if necessary.
Campground sites are usually fully-booked by 10 a.m. three months in advance.
Elizabeth Parker Alpine Hut
The Alpine Club of Canada operates the Elizabeth Parker Alpine Hut near the shore of Lake O’Hara. This hostel-style dorm has sleeping quarters, a kitchen, and sitting area.
The Elizabeth Parker Hut is open year-round.
Because it too is extremely popular in summer, summer reservations are made through a lottery in the fall. Participants are charged $10 per entry and can enter as many times as they like. All lottery winners must be members of the Alpine Club or join to finalize their booking. (You don’t have to be a member to enter the lottery, only if you win.)
Alpine Club members can make reservations for other seasons up to 12 months in advance. Non-members can book 30 days in advance.
Rates start at $30 per night.
Lake O’Hara Lodge
The Lake O’Hara Lodge offers a variety of lodge rooms and cabins along the lakeshore. Accommodations are all-inclusive and include meals in a gorgeous dining room.
For those who can afford it (starting at $700 per night in summer for a double room, with a two-night minimum), a couple of nights at the lodge seems like the ultimate wilderness indulgence. Prices do drop during the winter, but only basic lodge rooms are available at that time.
Despite the price, the lodge is usually fully-booked far in advance.
Get to the park
Lake O’Hara is located near the city of Field, British Columbia.
Vehicle access to Lake O’Hara is strictly controlled. While anyone can hike the seven miles in to the lake along the fire road, the only vehicle access is via the Lake O’Hara shuttle bus. As explained above, advance reservations for the bus are required. They can be made as part of your campground or Alpine Hut reservation if you are staying in the park. Lake O’Hara Lodge runs its own shuttle.
There are only 42 spaces for day visitors and those spots go quickly.
The bus leaves from a parking lot located about halfway between Lake Louise, Alberta, and Field, British Columbia.
Keep in mind that you must present your confirmation letter when you check-in for the bus.
Pets and bikes are prohibited on the bus or anywhere at Lake O’Hara. Hard-sided coolers, large stoves, and similar large gear is also prohibited.
Take better pictures
As a photographer, I screwed up. We wanted plenty of time to try to hike to Lake Oesa, so we just started off on the closest trail (around the west end of Lake O’Hara) that would take us there. That left me looking into the sun pretty much the entire time it was visible.
For the best photos, get to the lake as early as you can and follow the shore trail to the right through the lodge toward the east end of the lake. As you get near the end of the lake you’ll have a couple trail options, or you can continue on around the lake to the Lake Oesa Trail. You’ll have beautiful light on the lake and surrounding mountains the whole way out and, if you do take the Lake Oesa Trail, you’ll also have beautiful light when you get to the west end of the lake on your return later in the day.
Bring a meal
Bring all your own food unless you are staying at Lake O’Hara Lodge.
Lake O’Hara Lodge used to allow day use visitors and campers to have afternoon tea or, sometimes, an early evening dinner. We knew we would be out hiking too long to do tea, so we planned to do an early dinner at the lodge. However, when we arrived we were informed that they couldn’t take dinner guests until all their regular guests had eaten so they knew how much food they had left. They also make it pretty clear that their well-heeled clientele didn’t want to see day use visitors hanging around.
We got the message and left.
Apparently the policy has been clarified since our 2014 visit – meals, including beverages and tea service, are NOT available to anyone who isn’t a guest at the lodge.
Lodging away from the lake
If you can’t stay right along the lake, there is lodging near Field, British Columbia, or Lake Louise, Alberta. There aren’t a lot of options, but there are options. Book as far in advance as possible to have the widest range of choices and prices.
We stayed at the Great Divide Lodge in Field. It’s a really good choice for the price and the location is very convenient.
Parks Canada’s information on Lake O’Hara is a bit hidden. From the Yoho National Park homepage, go to “things to do” and then “hiking” to bring up the Lake O’Hara page. Once there, the information includes links for just about anything you would need to know.
Canadian writer and outdoorswoman extraordinaire Leigh McAdam’s website Hike Bike Travel has a number of posts on Lake O’Hara, including one on the trail to Lake Oesa. For those who prefer paper or who want more options across Canada, her book Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures includes a couple of hikes in the Lake O’Hara area. (It’s also available as a ridiculously cheap e-book.)
The Bear Foot Theory blog has a detailed post on camping at Lake O’Hara.
The Lightscapes Nature Photography blog has a detailed post (with lovely pictures) on hiking the Opabin Plateau trail. It also includes general information on Lake O’Hara’s trails and information on trip planning.
Although I didn’t have a copy when I visited Lake O’Hara, I’d highly recommend Darwin Wiggett and Samantha Chrysanthou’s Guide to Yoho National Park. This is part of their How to Photograph the Canadian Rockies e-book series. These books are absolutely essential for if you want the best chance of returning from your vacation with stunning images. I used the Icefields Parkway book while I was traveling, and it had everything I needed to find good locations at the right time of day. It also included tips on lenses and techniques to use. These are fabulous photo guides and they are as beautiful as they are useful. I’ll have the whole series with me the next time I head to the Canadian Rocky Mountain parks.