What is Lake O’Hara?
The Lake O’Hara Region, located in Yoho National Park, British Columbia, is not a place to be treated lightly or spontaneously. It’s protected from the hoards of tourists by an extremely limited bus and campground reservation system, but it’ll be hard to go back to the crowds of Lake Louise after experiencing this serene solitude just 45 minutes further west.
How Do I Get There?
Reservations must be made three months in advance via an archaic phone system which requires you to redial every 15 seconds in hopes of getting through – much like old-school radio contests. When the clock strikes 8 AM MST, you’d better start dialing – maybe even use two phones. The first time I tried to get in for the July long weekend and hit re-dial for an hour with no success; I tried a week later for the following weekend and got through after 20 minutes, and it really did feel like winning a contest. You’re allowed a spot in the campground for up to three consecutive nights, and the reservation comes with a bus reservation that takes you from the Lake O’Hara parking lot up the 12 km fire road to the campground – the easiest (and sanest) permitted way to enter the area.
You can book the bus without a campground reservation for a day visit to Lake O’Hara, but these reservations open up for the whole season at the end of April and sell out super fast. The other option is, of course, to hike up the 12 km fire road – but it’s a slog that’s not worth it unless you’re really into Sisyphean torture.
Where do you stay?
Campground facilities are limited – there are about 33 campsites, each site equipped with, well, a pad of dirt and nothing else. There is one communal fire pit for the campground to share, but fires aren’t allowed at the individual sites, and neither is food preparation. There are 8 uncovered picnic tables, as well as two shelters with two tables each for food preparation. Each site gets access to a bear proof food locker, and is allowed to store bags/belongings in an additional storage shed. The campground also has an outhouse (two stalls per gender) and potable water. The Le Relais day shelter is located a 10-15 minute walk away from the campground, and this sells maps, snacks, and carrot cake, but not much else. The information pamphlet you receive with the reservation appears to limit the amount of belongings you can bring with you, but we saw people bring far more than the allotted limit – as long as you didn’t bring a hard-sided food cooler, a bike or your dog, it’s all good. You can also stay in the Elizabeth Parker Hut if you’re an Alpine Club member (and make it through their lottery reservation system), or in the Lake O’Hara Lodge, if you’re not a poor pleb like me.
The limited amenities can seem off-putting, but you ARE in the back country. With only 45 days of growing season per year, the ecosystem of Lake O’Hara is incredibly fragile. So though the campground, lodge, and Alpine Club huts are fully booked on a daily basis, there are still far fewer people than you’d see otherwise in a National Park. We only ever saw 2-3 other groups while hiking and essentially had whole trails to ourselves, and the campsite stayed fairly quiet during the posted quiet hours (what a concept!)
Hiking in Lake O’Hara
The Lake O’Hara region is home to some of the most pristine hiking I’ve seen in the Canadian Rockies. Similar to Lake Louise, the several lakes that populate the region are filled with deep blue and aquamarine waters. Alpine meadows and delicate wildflowers are tucked between miles of thick forest, with a blanket of moss on the earth. To make the best of your time in Lake O’Hara, here are the top three hikes you should do (because this is a hiker’s paradise, and to come here and not hike would be a tragedy).
1. Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit
Length: 9 km circuit
Time: 6-7 hours
Elevation Gain: 545 m (500 of which is in the first two kilometers!)
Note: It is possible to make this trail longer to 12 km by continuing on the All Souls Prospect alpine route then descending to Lake O’Hara, but it was closed for avalanche warning when we visited so I cannot speak to that.
This trail begins at the Wiwaxy trailhead, which is located on the Lake O’Hara lakeshore. It’s a steep ascent of 500 m over 2 km, but the views of Lake O’Hara below are well worth it. Just make sure you don’t do what we did, and continue up a steep scree slope thinking it’s the continuation of the Wiwaxy trail – it is not.
There are plenty of gorgeous ledges for great photo ops along the Wiwaxy Trail, but watch your footing on the way up to the Wiwaxy Gap – you’re fully exposed, often on narrow trails with lots of loose rock. You’re rewarded with incredibly views of Lake O’Hara and the surrounding area at the top of the windy gap, making the steep slog worth it.
From the Wiwaxy Gap, descend down the Huber ledges (which are, again, very narrow and totally exposed) towards Lake Oesa, another of the region’s emerald-coloured lakes. Once at Lake Oesa, you can either descend down to Lake O’Hara, or continue to the Opabin Plateau via the Yukness Ledges, and then descend down to Lake O’Hara. If open, you can extend the day and amount of elevation gain even further by hiking the challenging All Souls Prospect.
2. Lake McArthur
Length: 6 km circuit
Time: 3-4 hours
Elevation Gain: 300 m
I’d say this hike offers the best “bang for your buck” in the region – that is, there’s a pretty easy-moderate degree of effort required to get up to Lake McArthur, and it’s beautiful. Photos cannot do justice of how blue this huge lake is, and it’s backed by a cool glacier as well.
You can ascend to Schaffer Lake via the McArthur Trail or the Big Larches Trail (if it’s the fall season, opt for the latter; we did the former since it was July). From Schaffer Lake, take the Lake McArthur High Circuit to the lake for the best views and least degree of effort, then the Low Circuit on the way back.
3. Odaray Grandview
Length: 8 km circuit
Time: 3-4 hours
Elevation Gain: 450 m
It is possible to combine the Odaray Grandview trail with Lake McArthur by doing Odaray first then descending back to McArthur Pass to continue on to Lake McArthur. But, the Odaray Grandview trail is limited to four groups per day, so ensure you rise early to be one of the first groups at the McArthur trail junction kiosk. Check the logbook – if four groups haven’t already registered for the day, then you’re good, otherwise, do not pass go and collect $200. It’s annoying that you have to hike so far to find out you can’t go on a trail, but at least you can still continue to Lake McArthur from this junction (which is what we did on our first day when we were too late for Odaray).
The McArthur Valley is a Grizzly Bear corridor, so the idea behind the restriction is to reduce encounters and preserve the Alpine habitat. From August 15-September 15, it’s even more limited to two groups per day, since bears come out to eat berries during that time. Respect the restrictions so hikers can continue to enjoy the trail, and make lots of noise to make bears aware of your presence.
The Odaray trail ascends past the remains of rock slides up the Odaray Mountain. Once at the top, you’ll have a great view of the Lake O’Hara region and Lake McArthur below, share some space with a big glacier, and see serrated peaks engulfed by cloud. It’s windy and cold, and if you’re up to it, you can scramble higher still up to the top of Little O, but this does require a degree of hiking experience and comfort in finding a good scramble path.
Is it worth the reservation headache and backcountry limitations?
Look at these photos! Of course it is! The lakes are beautiful, the landscapes awe-inspiring, and the lack of tourist hordes make for a peaceful getaway, perfect for a reset of even the most frantic mind. Happy trails!