Lake O’Hara can seem so out of reach with limitations on the number of campsites and seats on the access buses. But that is just an illusion if you are willing to make the extra 7 mile road walk. That’s all it takes to bring you to the sharp peaks and emerald lakes of Lake O’Hara wonderland.
This is the eleventh entry of our Canadian Rockies trip series covering our eleventh hike. You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.
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- name: Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit with road walk in
- type: loop
- distance: 14.3 miles (23.0 km)
- elevation change: 4651 ft. ascent (1418 m) & 3228 ft. descent (984 m)
- time: 8:23 hours (7:17 moving)
- location: Lake O’Hara parking lot, Yoho National Park, near Field, British Columbia, Canada (google map directions)
Since we weren’t fortunate enough to find any available shuttle space ahead of time or any last minute cancellations at the Lake O’Hara campgrounds, we made the 6.9 miles (11 km) hike in on the Lake O’Hara fire road. Fortunately, there were seats open on the 4:30pm bus out. We were hungry enough to pay the CAD$9.75 fee per person in cash to save a couple hours of hikings.
Below is the stats for the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit itself.
- name: Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit
- distance: 7.4 miles (11.9 km)
- elevation change: 3114 ft. (949 m)
- time: 6:12 hours (5:05 moving)
Our goal was to hike the Alpine Circuit and we followed the instructions published from the Alpine Club of Canada.
An awesome ranger at the Yoho station recommended it to us once she understood we were hikers. In fact, she was the one that said we should just walk in when we thought we would have to wait to the future to see Lake O’Hara.
If you are looking for alternative hikes in the area, Parks Canada provides a list of hikes along with trail closure information. The Alpine Club of Canada also provides a list of trails and alpine routes as well.
All reservation information regarding shuttle bus and reservations for Lake O’Hara Campgrounds are available on the Parks Canada webpage. At the time we visited in 2019, reservations for both the shuttle and campgrounds required calling in. However, Parks Canada finally changed the booking process to online for 2020 (CBC).
The 30 sites at Lake O’Hara campground is limited to a maximum of 3 nights with reservations openings online early in the calendar year, see Parks Canada for exact dates. No walk-ins are available at the campgrounds. Amenities at the campgrounds include Bear lockers, tent pads, restrooms, treated water, cooking shelters, and a fire pit. Shuttle is included for campers.
Alternative options are the Alpine Club of Canada‘s Elizabeth Parker Hut or Abbot Pass hut. Elizabeth Parker Hut is located near Lake O’Hara, but Abbot Pass requires hiking up a mountaineering route with a steep scree ascent (The World on My Necklace). Shuttle is included for hikers staying at the hut.
Lastly, there are the fancy Lake O’Hara Lodge. Lodge visitors have their own dedicated shuttle bus. One night is a hefty CAD$755 for two and CAD$545 for one.
For day hikers, there is a lottery for the daily bus shuttle (Parks Canada). There cost is CAD$10 nonrefundable lottery fee plus the CAD$15 roundtrip tickets. If you weren’t able to get tickets, you can wait at the parking lot before the 2 morning shuttles buses (8:30 am, 10:30 am) and see if there are any openings. A park ranger announces them if there are and the cost is CAD$10 one way. The last option is to road walk the 6.9 miles (11km) on the fire road to Lake O’Hara. There are more buses outbound from Lake O’Hara so there is a better chance to catch a ride out for CAD$10. This is what we did for our day hike.
Bicycling is not permitted on the Lake O’Hara fire road.
For up to date COVID-19 changes, refer to Parks Canada.
Having failed to secure a campsite at Lake O’Hara campgrounds or a spot in the shuttle bus, our plan was to walk the Lake O’Hara fire road. As described earlier, that adds 6.9 miles (11 km) one way to our total hike making it a long day. We planned a very early start getting to Lake O’Hara parking lot at around 7am. The reason for the early start was also planned for the possibility of catching the shuttle bus heading back from Lake O’Hara. There was a higher chance of open spots back since there is one more bus coming and no reservations. The bus times out were 2:30pm, 4:30pm, and 6:30pm during 2019 summer (all mountain time incase you were staying in B.C. like us), so we were aiming to be done with the Alpine Circuit by 6:30pm.
We pulled into the large Lake O’Hara parking lot around 7:20 am. There was a nice information sign well emphasizing the need to make a reservations. But the sign let you down easy by suggesting several of hikes in the area, which is also nice.
There is also a bus shelter, where you can try your luck for last minute cancellations or openings both with day hikes or camping spots. A ranger will typically be here in the morning.
So we began our road walk. According to gps maps and the sign at the parking lot, an alternative to the road is a trail through the forest on the other side of Cataract Brook, but it was longer at 8.6 miles (13.8 km). We chose the shorter path. The 6.9 miles (11km) road walk was pretty easy walking with 2 main uphills. The first was a short section at the start with the maximum incline of 11.3% grade and the second was about a 1.7 mile section starting at mile marker 4 with a 7.1% grade. There isn’t much to see along it other than an opening at Watch Tower Creek with a view of Watch Tower.
We kept a pretty swift pace powered by some sweet 80s roadtrip music (spotify) and arrived at Lake O’Hara at around 9:30am with a bathroom break when we past the campgrounds.
So we were finally at our trailhead heading starting our Alpine Circuit on the Lake O’Hara Circuit Trail as we decided to go clockwise as specified by the guide. A few step forward and we came to the stunning Lake O’Hara under the morning sun. Yukness Mountain is directly behind the lake.
Turning left on to the Lake O’Hara Circuit Trail, we would continue along the lake side for a quarter mile. Along the way we passed a couple junctions around the bridge over Cataract Brook draining Lake O’Hara.
It was hard not to just gawk at the different angles of Lake O’Hara between the sharp peaks as we went.
Pretty soon, our easy portion of the hike was over. The next junction for us is the Wiwaxy Gap Alpine Route, a quarter mile from the start of the Circuit.
For the first quarter of the mile, we were zigzaging up the mountain while still at a 40% average grade. The forest gave away quickly and we had our first view of Lake O’Hara from above with Mount Schaffer and Mount Biddle behind it.
Toward the end of the first quarter mile, it looked like we were heading into a gap, but the trail turn right just before it given us a quick reprieve from the uphills.
For the next 0.6 miles, we continued uphill at a milder 33.7% grade average. Along the way, we came to a really nice outcrop.
The trail after this was in the open, but our early start prevented us from burning up.
Nearing the top of top of the uphill, our vantage point gave us sneak peek of our hike to come with Lake Oesa, Lefroy Lake, Victoria Lake, and Yukness Lake in view now. Glacier Peak, Ringrose Peak, Hungabee Mountain, Yukness Mountain, and Mount Biddle are the peaks from left to right.
As we near the top, the trail can be a bit gravelly leaving your footing a little slippery. We were glad to have our hiking sticks on this one. Wiwaxy Gap was our highest point of the Alpine Circuit at 8307 ft. (2532 m).
The view down the other side was actually back down the Cataract Brook drainage where we had walked up the Lake O’Hara Fire Road. Apparently you can scramble or climb up to the East Wiwaxy Peak to the left here, but that will have to be a future adventure.
The overview of Lake O’Hara was pretty much visible the entire way up, though it was only a component of the mural here.
With the typical strong gusts at a pass, we didn’t stick around too long. Next came the 1.25 mile Huber Ledges Alpine Route heading downhills at about -12.8% grade toward Lake Oesa.
It looks worse than it is as the trail is decently wide and well upkepts. However, it might be a different story with snow or weather.
The worst part of this section was a little further on when we had to directly head downhill. But that also provided a different angled view of Lake O’Hara, now with Odaray Mountain in the backdrop.
Pretty soon we were closing in on rocky shores of the inviting Lake Oesa.
There was a couple of junction before we reached the lake, the first was the mountaineering Abbot Pass Alpine Route that leads to Abbot Hut then the junction for the Lake Oesa Trail coming up from Lake O’Hara, it is said to be the one must hike if you are limited in time or energy (LOTC). We would eventually continue straight for the Yukness Ledges Alpine Trail,
but first it was time to enjoy Lake Oesa. Forming the backdrop here are Glacier Peak and Ringrose Peak.
Perhaps I was just really hot from the sun at this point or perhaps it was because Lake Oesa looked so inviting, I thought a swim was a great idea. Maybe I’d even try to swim out to the rocks in the middle. Nope was the answer and Lake Oesa felt so much colder than the other alpine lakes I had jumped into on our trip. At least I would warm back up quickly as we relaxed on a rocky slab for lunch.
Even the drainage of Lake Oesa provided for a nice view of a small cascade over a few layers of rock.
The next portion on our hike was the Yukness Ledges Alpine Route. This was the one section recommend to us by another ranger as the one thing to do here at Lake O’Hara as the route mostly undulates above the lake. But first we pass Lefroy Lake.
Then the next quarter mile, the trail gains some elevation at roughly 8.9% grade over a rocky terrain to gain the ledge.
We climbed down a few big boulders and came to a junction with the Yukness Ledge/Victoria Lake Cut-Off continuing downhill connecting with the Oesa Lake Trail at Victoria Lake.
The trail continues to consist of mostly over boulders without much elevation change.
Over one ledge, we get a view of Yukness Lake.
As we continue along the ledge, there were a few more cliffs allowing for more views of Lake O’Hara from another vantage point. Mary Lake shifts into view now on our left and Cathedral Mountain shifts into the background on the right.
The trail took us around Yukness Ledge up against a wall
before dropping down toward Hungabee Lake
ending in a boulder field.
The Yukness Ledge Alpine Route end on the Opabin Plateau Circuits Trail, where we turned right before quickly turning left on the West Opabin Trail at the next junction.
We curved around a few lakes while on the West Opabin Trail and passed a few trail junctions. The main navigation is to stay on West Opabin and look for signs toward All Soul’s Prospect. The series of Lakes started with Hungabee Lake,
then Moor Lakes,
followed by the first of the Cascade Lakes,
and finally crossing at the stream running into another Cascade Lake, which I thought was the prettiest among them all.
As the West Opabin Trail started to head downhill off the plateau toward Lake O’Hara, we finally arrived at the junction we were looking for. It was the trail to the left for All Soul Alpine Trail.
The stream here is a good place to get water for the last big uphill. The immediate 0.1 miles was a 21.4% incline to gain a bluff. It seemed like a popular place for sunbathing and lunch breaks.
For the next 0.6 miles, the trail continued over the rocks and then curving to the right under Mount Schaffer with a grade of 19%.
At All Soul’s Prospect, we were treated a nice grand 270 degree view of Lake O’Hara to wrap up the loop.
The perspective of Lake O’Hara is now East Wiwaxy Peak, West Wiwaxy Peak, and Mount Huber in front of the Mount Victoria Motif.
It was before 2:30pm by the time we had reached the viewpoint meaning we missed the first shuttle out. Trying for the last to second shuttle seemed like a good idea giving us a couple of chances. So hung out here for about 20 minutes before starting to make our way back down toward Lake O’Hara.
We continued on the All Souls Alpine Trail heading toward Schaffer Lake. It was the steepest downhill of our hike at roughly a -30.6% grade.
The initial steps off the viewpoint were the most precarious of our entire hike because of the steep drop and loose gravel that tends to roll under your shoes. Care navigationally is also needed here as indicated by the Alpine Club guide, the route is northwesterly or slightly to the left if you are facing Lake O’Hara. Do not head down the gully further to the left.
Lake Schaffer was the last point of interest on our hike and I thought our view of it was better on our way down. The view was down the McArthur Pass and Creek drainage and Mount Owen in the distance.
All Souls Alpine Route ended on the Big Larches Route and we turned left to visit the shore of Lake Schaffer.
There is a side trip option to Odaray Grandview Prospect (Another Side of This Life), but it is seasonally restricted and we wouldn’t have the time on this hike.
The typical return back to the bus stop and Lake O’Hara on the circuit is the Alpine Meadow Trail passing Elizabeth Parker Hut. However, we accidentally didn’t pay attention to the directions at this point as we just followed the first sign we saw pointing to Lake O’Hara.
We were on the Big Larches Trail and it curved downhills through the forest for half a mile with a slight decline before turning on the edge of a boulder field and declining for another quarter mile at -21.5% grade.
The end of Big Larches trail junction onto the West Opabin Trail, I believe, followed by a few more junctions, We just paid attention to the direction for the the day hut, Le Relais and the bus stop. Effectively, we turned left, right and left.
We made it back to the Les Relais day shelter with about 40 minutes to spare. We celebrated with a couple pop and relaxed on the bench outside.
Once the bus rolled up, the rangers sorted out the number of hikers with tickets already and the number from the campgrounds. Luckily, there were seat available and we glad to paid the CAD$19.50 total to save our legs the 6.9 miles out, despite how easy it is, and get some food earlier.
final impressions & ratings
The rating below are based on an unevenly distributed scale of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). For full description of the ratings and the categories, see the explanation here.
views/experience: 4. Other than our road walk in, the views were nonstop on the Alpine Circuit. With our shifting perspectives, the view of Lake O’Hara was always new with a different mountain motif behind it.
Beyond that, it was lake after lake with their own unique shades of blue among other color combinations and mountain peaks.
I can understand why our friend Rick of Besthike.com ranks this as his 6th best day hike in the world.
difficulty: 3. The circuit has a good amount of elevation change and there isn’t much cover for the sun or elements on the Alpine Circuit. With incremental weather, I would have to reconsider doing the hike and probably a higher difficulty rating.
technical: 2. The trail is very well marked. There are some slight scrambling along the alpine circuit. There is also some ledges, but it’s the steep trail that can seem a little precarious at times. This is especially so when the trail is gravel and dirt mix making it easy for your foot to slide.
day 22 end in Banff
For our last two nights in the Canadian Rockies, we were finally spending some time in the town of Banff. I was able to use two Marriott Category 5 Free Night Award Certificates at the Delta Hotel in Banff, though it is no longer part of Marriott now (tripadvisor). This certificates cost me USD$95 annual fee from my Marriott Credit Cards. I was able to find two nights open last minute from cancellations, so I was happy to book them up.
We didn’t have much planned once we checked in as we had a pretty long day. It was burger time at The Beaver Bar (tripadvisor) located in a hostel nearby. It was surprising good and pretty cheap.
We would turn in early again for the night as our last full day involved an even earlier wake up time. It’s the only way to access the insanely popular Lake Moraine and Lake Louise without a long bus wait (details coming soon). I had to make an obligatory return the the place that had a tremendous effect on me and the direction of my subsequent travels.
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