The spectacular scenery surrounding Lake O’Hara, British Columbia makes it one of the top hiking destinations in Canada (which probably also makes it one of the best in the world). Sure, the mountains aren’t quite as big as Nepal or as famous as the Alps, but you’d be hard pressed to find a place that combines so many picturesque peaks with just as many beautiful lakes, all within an area that is small enough to explore in 2 or 3 days.
Not to mention very strict policies regarding the number of people allowed in, helping retain its beauty, nature and serenity. We were told that, including staff, campers, and people staying in the lodge, there are only about 240 people there each night.
With steep, jagged mountains jutting up around it, luminescent blue water and several hanging valleys and high plateaus (each with its own collection of smaller lakes), the Lake O’Hara hiking views are unbelievable every step of the way.
There are dozens of different trails and many variations that can be combined into everything from short, scenic jaunts to nearby lakes and viewpoints to strenuous all-day circuits. All in all, it is some of the best hiking the Canadian Rockies have to offer.
While there are endless ways to plan your Lake O’Hara hiking adventure, we have tried to narrow it down to a handful of the very best routes to maximize your time in this Yoho National Park gem. But first, a few important planning details.
Is Lake O’Hara in BC or Alberta?
Lake O’Hara is located in BC in the Yoho National Park about halfway between Field, British Columbia and Lake Louise, Alberta (about a 10-minute drive from both). The park borders the Banff National Park and according to the Yoho Park park rangers many people don’t realize that they are no longer in Banff and have changed parks.
How do you get to Lake O’Hara?
From the highway it is 11 kilometres uphill on a small, paved road to the lake, campground and lodge. There is no public transportation to Lake O’Hara.
However, there’s a catch. One of the reasons that Lake O’Hara has remained such a pristine hiking wonderland is because access is extremely limited. No cars or bikes are allowed up the access road so all visitors have to either nab a coveted spot on one of the shuttles or walk all the way in.
The shuttles go up every day at 8:30 and 10:30, and go down at 9:30, 11:30, 14:30, 16:30 and 18:30. The 8:30 inbound shuttle is normally reserved for day hikers (to give them as much time as possible) and most campers will end up on the 10:30 bus.
However, the buses out are kind of a free for all. You don’t have to reserve, just show up 15 minutes ahead and if there is room you get on. If not, you wait for the next one. They assured us that with so many outgoing shuttles, people rarely have to wait and that they make sure everyone gets down eventually.
And if you happen to show up last minute for a popular outbound shuttle and have to wait a couple hours, well, that means 2 more hours at Lake O’Hara. It could be worse.
How can I visit Lake O’Hara?
There are 5 options for visiting Lake O’Hara:
Lake O’Hara Campground
Book a campsite in the Lake O’Hara campground (max 3 nights) online at the Parks Canada Reservation Service website or by calling 1-877-737-3783 (within North America) / 519-826-5391 (outside North America).
Sounds simple enough, but every year as soon as sites open up for reservations thousands of eager beavers flood the website and phone lines, making it extremely difficult to get through. One year I redialed 500 (!) times and still walked away empty handed. We have friends, though, who managed to get a site booked over the phone for this fall.
Meanwhile, this year I spent over an hour frantically navigating the reservations website, repeatedly finding an available day only to have it disappear before I could get to the end of the stuttering, spooling and occasionally crashing website. Then, suddenly, once it just worked. You just never know.
Elizabeth Parker Hut
Book a bed in the Elizabeth Parker Hut. These have to be reserved through the Alpine Club of Canada. We did not try because while, normally, you can book a single bed, in 2021 (COVID-19 again) you have to book the whole place ($1100/night). However, we have been told it can be just as difficult as booking campsites. Sometimes they have used a lottery system but this year you can book directly.
Lake O’Hara Shuttle Bus
Take the shuttle bus in for a day visit. In order to get one of these sought-after reservations you have to enter a random lottery draw and then just hope for the best. The draw usually takes place after the campground bookings open up.
Even if you don’t get a shuttle bus reservation you still have some hope. Spots do become available as people cancel or don’t confirm their reservation. Keep an eye on the website to see if anything become available.
It is theoretically possible to simply go to the parking lot at 8 am and if someone doesn’t show up you may get to take their spot. However, our national park guide at Lake O’Hara assured us that this almost never happens anymore.
She gave it about a 1% chance of success and asked us to let people know as it used to much more likely as there were spots saved for an alpine climbing outfitter that frequently needed to cancel due to weather and there would suddenly be 5 spots open up. But that isn’t a thing anymore. Maybe if you showed up in horrible weather there would be a chance.
When you have a reservation it is important to arrive at the bus 20 minutes prior to the scheduled bus departure time to be checked in by Parks Canada staff
When you use the shuttle bus, including when you are camping, you are given a token for your return trip. If you lose it you will have to pay again and take the bus on standby. So don’t lose it. Even if it seems like an archaic system.
Lake O’Hara Lodge
Book a room at the Lake O’Hara Lodge. This is by far the most expensive option, with rooms going for $770/night and cabins $1,095/night per room (up to 2 people). At least that price includes all meals, although there is also a 2-night minimum.
And despite those outrageous prices they aren’t exactly luxurious. But, oh my, the location. Most of the Lake O’Hara cabins have cute little decks just a few metres from the shoreline, enjoying fabulous scenery and sublime tranquility. These also tend to book up fairly quickly. The lodge has its own shuttle bus to bring guests to and from the lake and you can use their canoes.
Walk In to Lake O’Hara
While it probably sounds absurd to all but the hardiest hikers to commit to 22 total kilometres of road walking just to get to and from Lake O’Hara, not even counting all the hiking you are probably hoping to do once you get there, people do it, virtually every day. We saw 8 people (from the comfort of the bus) walking up the road the day we went in. Apparently in high season on a weekend up to 100 people walk in and out.
Now, there is a potential reprieve, although not one you can absolutely count on. While no extra people are allowed on the buses in, they will give walkers a spot on the outbound buses if there is room.
Since neither campers nor shuttle bus passengers are required to commit to a return bus, and there are more outgoing buses than incoming, sometimes they aren’t full. If this is the case, and you get there before another tired walker does, and you have $9.25 per person in cash (they do not take cards at Lake O’Hara due to the lack of cell service), you might not have to walk the 11 kilometres out.
Consider it a potentially nice bonus, but you better be mentally prepared to walk the entire distance just in case. We were also told about how there is room on the bus but the people didn’t have cash and were told they had to walk out.
Apparently it’s a regular occurrence. No exceptions are made. They are also not made if you are too tired to walk out. Although they can call an ambulance if you are injured. Basically, the staff has to tell people ‘no’ every day and are steeled to any kind of sob story.
Best Lake O’Hara Hikes
So you’ve made it to Lake O’Hara. Now you need to figure out how to best see this amazing area. So here is out list of the best Lake O’Hara hikes.
Which is sort of like saying “Best Mint-Flavoured Toothpastes” – we all have our favourites but realistically they are all pretty great. However, there is such impressive variety among the Lake O’Hara trails that we can try to narrow them down to the best ones for specific goals and timelines.
Best Lake O’Hara Hike to See it All
Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit
10.5 km / 5 hrs / 880 m elevation gain
This is the big one, the one everyone adds to the end of the sentence, “If you only have time for one hike in Lake O’Hara…” It is fairly long and quite hard (that’s what she said) but hits almost all of the top viewpoints and takes you almost all the way around Lake O’Hara (albeit many hundreds of metres above it). We did the entire Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit, plus a few other highlights, but spread over two days. The circuit itself is certainly manageable in a day, especially for fit hikers, but you’d be hard-pressed to add in much else.
From the Le Relais day shelter / snack shop you follow the shoreline around to the north. Enjoy this flat part, it is one of the last you’ll see all day. Soon you head straight up the mountain, switchbacking up 500 metres of elevation gain to the Wiwaxy (wi-WAX-ee) Gap, the highest point along the circuit at 2,550 metres above sea level.
This saddle, naturally, has amazing views in both directions. Then you follow the Huber Ledges (more incredible views) down to Lake Oesa (oh-EE-sa), which, in our opinion, runs neck and neck with Lake McArthur for second-most scenic lake in the area (behind O’Hara, of course).
From Oesa, you head down a bit farther past a series of terrific waterfalls and smaller lakes until you reach Yukness Ledges. You follow this rocky escarpment around a peak, the trail looming high above Lake O’Hara the whole way.
Eventually you reach the Opabin (oh-PAY-bin) Plateau, filled with yet more great lakes and expansive valley views. Here the Alpine Circuit cuts straight across the plateau. Instead we went up to Opabin Lake and explored more of the plateau, before returning down West Opabin trail and tackling the rest of the circuit the following day.
From West Opabin, the All Souls’ Route offers arguably the most scenic stretch of the entire Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit. It involves a long uphill traverse along a steep, rocky ridge and there was even a short stretch of snow left to navigate in mid-July. When you reach the unbelievable summit at All Souls Prospect, take your time and enjoy it, because this is where it gets a bit nasty. The trail down the far side is steep, rocky, sometimes slippery and occasionally treacherous. Take care and only attempt this if you are very comfortable navigating steep slopes.
From there, some versions take you across to Odaray Grandview Prospect, another tough climb with a popular viewpoint. However, that trail is often closed to protect the environment and was not open when we visited. Most of the time this will be where you start heading back down to the lake either via the Alpine Meadows trail or Big Larches trail. You can probably guess how these compare to each other. Both bring you out at Le Relais, the snack and drink shop.
Best Easy Hike
3 km / 1 hr / flat
Every visitor needs to make time to walk entirely around the lake at least once. This flat, easy, well-maintained trail makes for a great leg-stretcher or twilight walk. Most of the other hikes end up including at least a portion of the Lakeshore Trail. And, if you happen to join up with it at the end of a long, hot day like we did, you may even be foolish enough to jump in. I was. It was cold. Very cold.
Best Easy Viewpoint
6 km / 2.5 hrs / 250m
If you’re looking for the quickest route to one of the classic photos of Lake O’Hara and Mary Lake, Opabin Prospect is your best bet. You follow the southern shoreline to East Opabin and climb the hour from here to the plateau.
After crossing a small, scenic log bridge you venture back lakeward to the point of the plateau and some phenomenal views. Afterward you exit the plateau on the other side and descend along West Opabin trail back to Lake O’Hara. We recommend this direction because the views coming down West Opabin are far superior to those on East Opabin so you don’t want them at your back the whole way.
Best Lake That Isn’t Lake O’Hara
It’s a tie. While that may sound like cheating, this is our blog and we make the rules, and we say it’s allowed. We discussed it at length and simply couldn’t decide between Lake Oesa and Lake McArthur.
4.5 km / 2 hrs / 250m
The main trail to Oesa follows the north shore of Lake O’Hara before heading steeply up past some terrific waterfalls, small lakes and, eventually, stunning views back over O’Hara. Lake Oesa itself is surrounded by tall peaks and steep, rocky ridges. Some other hikers felt it was the perfect spot to cool off with a dip, although their shocked screams (and later description of “numbing cold”) made us comfortable with our decision to remain clothed and not so, well, numb.
While the main Lake Oesa trail is an out and back, we would recommend following the Yukness Ledges trail from the south side of the lake for a short distance before taking the connector trail back to the main route. Some of our favourite photos came looking back from Yukness Ledges toward Lake Oesa with Lefroy Lake in the foreground.
7 km / 2 hrs / 300m
This massive lake is also, unsurprisingly, surrounded by majestic mountains that highlight its fantastic blue water. There are essentially three small loops leading up to Lake McArthur so, even though it looks like an out-and-back, it can easily be turned into a version of a loop.
We went up Alpine Meadows, took the low route from Schaffer Lake to McArthur Pass and then the Lake McArthur High-Level circuit to get to the lake. Then we went down via the Low-Level Circuit and the high route to Schaffer Lake. From there we veered off to climb the All Souls’ route but you could return to the shoreline trail via the Big Larches trail to maximize the variety.
As with most lakes here, McArthur Lake is beautiful from above and the trail gently winds down to it from the High-Level circuit making it a great way to approach it. There are lots of rocks to relax on by the waters edge.
We started relatively early, around 8:30, and had the trail and lake to ourselves. We passed a few people on their way up as we worked our way back down as this seems to be the most popular hike for the second day of hiking for campers. We would recommend trying to get away before the first bus and your fellow campers as well to enjoy the solitude.
Most Adventurous Viewpoint
All Souls Prospect
6 km / 3.5 hrs / 400m
At 2,435 metres above sea level, the All Souls’ Prospect may be slightly lower than the Wiwaxy Gap (by a mere hundred metres) but, in our opinion, it is the best viewpoint of Lake O’Hara.
Don’t worry, you can’t go wrong with any of the others, but we were truly blown away by the All Souls’ Alpine Route, which is saying something considering it was one of the last things we did. As mentioned earlier, though, be aware that this is a very difficult trail and should not be attempted by anyone who has a problem with heights, scrambling or balance.
Another important consideration is that, even though the All Souls’ route is part of the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit which is normally done in a clockwise direction, we would strongly recommend doing the All Souls’ Route from west to east (from Schaffer Lake toward the Opabin Plateau).
Doing it in this direction means you will be going uphill on the steepest, slipperiest and most difficult section (between Schaffer Lake and All Souls Prospect). From All Souls Prospect down to Opabin Plateau it is much more gradual and makes for a much easier (and safer) descent.
People do it everyday in both directions, though, so if you are confident in your ability to descend on difficult terrain don’t let this recommendation mess up your other plans. The figures for this hike include going up on the Alpine Meadows route, crossing the All Souls’ Route from west to east, then going down on West Opabin trail.
This combination provides a relatively easy ascent to Schaffer Lake, a difficult but manageable climb to All Souls Prospect, a reasonably gradual descent to Opabin Plateau and the most scenic way down to the shoreline from there.
Take your time at the viewpoint to enjoy it. It worked out perfectly for our lunch break so we could enjoy the changing colours as the sun came and went.
Best Easy Fall Hike
Schaffer Lake Loop
3.5 km / 1 hr / 150m
This entails going up on the Alpine Meadows trail and down Big Larches trail (or vice versa). While this has already been described as part of the McArthur Lake circuit, you can cut it much shorter and still enjoy some pretty amazing scenery.
And this section is particularly attractive in the fall when “larch season” hits and these wildly photogenic trees change from their standard green to a fantastic bright yellow that adds a whole new layer to the already outrageous Lake O’Hara scenery. Larch season tends to last 2 weeks and is usually somewhere in the end of September to the beginning of October.
Apparently Laynni loves larches during larch season, although she is also willing to pet the needles while they are still green while whispering ‘so soft’. She searched out larch hikes during our month of hiking around Banff and Kananaskis and even wrote a list of the Best Larch Hikes.
Best Off the Beaten Path Hike
Cathedral Prospect via Linda Lake
12 km / 5.5 hrs / 430m
Most Lake O’Hara visitors only make it to the Linda Lake / Cathedral Lake area once they’ve already explored the trails closer to Lake O’Hara. Which means there is a pretty good chance you’ll have this one all to yourself. The scenery is equally superb and offers an even greater feeling of seclusion.
If you want to check out this area but have less time (or just want something less demanding) you can cut it shorter by stopping at Cathedral Lake, reducing it to 9 km / 3.5 hrs / 200m.
Lake O’Hara Camping
There are 30 very basic campsites in the Lake O’Hara campground ($20/night per site + $15/person for the return bus ticket), each one consisting of a raised square of gravel and… well, that’s about it. But it’s a cheap, quiet and friendly place to sleep at one of the nicest lakes in the Rockies.
Unfortunately, the campground is not right on the lake but is actually about a kilometre away. You can either do the 15-minute walk along the road or there are a pair of nice, rooty forest trails on either side of cute little creek.
Even though the sites are very basic, there are some decent facilities for common use. There is plenty of potable treated well water, about 10 picnic tables, two cooking shelters with wood stoves and a communal fire pit where you can sit around at night and discuss your aches and pains, adventures and misadventures. The bathroom has pit toilets, which were surprisingly pleasant smelling, and a pair of outdoor sinks for washing dishes.
Every campsite is assigned a bear locker for storing food (and any other scented items). It is possible to secure them if you have your own lock, although I can’t imagine ever having any problems with theft at Lake O’Hara. There is a storage shed where you can keep anything that won’t fit in your tent or its vestibule.
This is more important in the rain than the perfect weather we enjoyed. Most people also spend the whole day at Lake O’Hara the day they check out of the campground, so you can leave behind everything you don’t need on the trail, as well.
The nice thing is that since you come in on a bus you can bring a little more than you would if you were having to hike in but there are restrictions. One large bag or two small bags per person (maximum weight 25 kg/55 lbs; maximum length 97 cm/38 inches). A soft-sided cooler counts as one of your bags. No hard-sided coolers. Bring a backpacking stove to cook on.
Something to consider is that if you are planning a longer hike the day you leave you will need to pack everything up and store it in the storage shed. Make sure to have a big enough bag to pack everything up and still have a day pack for hiking.
Another option is to book a bed in the Elizabeth Parker Hut, located just a few minutes walk up the Alpine Meadows Trail in behind the Le Relais shop. Thanks to COVID-19, in 2021 it is only open to groups willing to book the entire hut ($1,100/night) but, normally, each bed can be reserved individually.
If you can get a spot here (they are usually available by lottery) it will save you bringing a tent, plus provide better protection from rain. Not to mention a gorgeous location in a flowery meadow surrounded by mountains. If you’re into that sort of thing.
Le Relais Day Use Shelter: Snacks and Drinks
Le Relais Day Use Shelter is an info center, event space, snack/drink/gift shop all rolled into one. It is a nice option to have in case you want to top up what you brought with you or have a treat. They open at 8:30 a.m. so you can grab something on your way out to a hike or when you are finishing up as they stay open til 6:30.
They are known for their famous carrot cake and tend to run out early. A couple of fellow hikers were disappointed the afternoon before so showed up at 8:30 to grab some for their hike so as to not be disappointed again. They even came prepared with a Tupperware container.
They also have coffee, tea, pop, ice cream treats, chips, granola bars, baked goods, chocolate bars and trail mix. They were unfortunately out of beer when we were there but usually have Kicking Horse Cold Brews for $5.
They also have posted trail conditions, weather forecasts, and other useful information. Remember to bring cash if you want to purchase anything. They do not take cards. It is at the end of the Lake O’Hara road across from the warden cabin, just before the Lake O’Hara Lodge and about a five-minute walk from the campground.
Best Time to Go to Lake O’Hara
The answer to this might simply be when you are able to get in. But if you have options, Lake O’Hara is best mid-July to early September. At other times the high trails may be covered in snow and there can be avalanche concerns. There may also be ice on the lakes. The park staff will tell you which of the hikes are closed or need extra caution when you arrive.
When we went in mid-July the ice was gone off all the lakes, it was warm and sunny, there were some mosquitoes, the alpine wildflowers were blooming and there was only the one patch of snow on the Alpine Circuit. However, the summer forest fires had just kicked in so it was a bit hazy.
It tends to start snowing again mid to late September but if you come then the larches you might be lucky enough to see the larches in their full yellow glory.
No matter when you go be prepared for anything and pack accordingly. You can easily get rain, sun, and snow all in the same day.
Fishing on Lake O’Hara
If you are a fishing enthusiast you can try your luck on a couple of the lakes in the Lake O’Hara area. Lake O’Hara itself is fairly well known for west slope cutthroat fish that can be 50 cm and larger though its hard to find an open spot for casting because of the trees lining the shore.
Lake McArthur and Lake Oesa both have brook trout that can be up to 30 cm and have wide open shores that makes it easy to fish. You will get quiet times between the hikers at both lakes.
If you are planning to fish at Lake O’Hara you will also need a Parks Canada Fishing License that is valid in Jasper, Banff, Yoho and Kootenay ($10/daily or $35/annual).
Lake O’Hara in the Winter
Lake O’Hara is not only accessible in the summer. You can also visit in the winter if you are up to skiing or snowshoeing up the road (making the way back out a really enjoyable downhill ski).
If you ski or snowshoe up you can stay at the ACC Huts (the campgrounds are closed). We know someone who did this and said it was a beautiful and peaceful time of the year to visit. The Lake O’Hara Lodge sets ski tracks to help you explore the area.
The Lake O’Hara Lodge is also open in the winter so if you book a room or cabin there you’ll get a free shuttle and won’t have to ski in.
How to Help Preserve Lake O’Hara
- Stay on the trail or on rocks. Don’t step on anything that is green or growing. The season is short and conditions are harsh for plants so give them a chance to reach their full potential.
- Don’t feed the animals, including the birds and marmots. We were told that the birds are have gotten used to being fed and can be aggressive at the campground but didn’t experience that ourselves.
- Don’t pick the flowers, leave them for the next person to enjoy.
- Don’t litter and pick up any litter you see. There are bear proof garbage containers at the campground. We were happy to see that people have been following this as we didn’t see a single piece of litter during our two days of hiking.
Lake O’Hara Tips and Advice
- There is no cell service up there so get caught up on your internet errands ahead of time and make sure no one is expecting periodic check-ins.
- Download AllTrails maps for offline use. The trails are very well-marked but it can still helpful to see exactly where you are on the map. We also had a traditional paper map for the first time in ages and it came in handy helping us understand the overall layout of the area.
- If you are a person who uses trekking poles then you will definitely want them here. There are many steep ascents and, wouldn’t you know it, just as many steep descents. There are a few rockfall areas where the poles are more of an annoyance than a help, but overall we were glad to have them.
- Bring bug spray. There are lots of mosquitoes and a surprising number of small, biting flies.
- Bring bear spray. There are lots of bears and a surprising number of small, biting cubs. Only partially kidding, grizzlies do frequent the area.
- Bring some cash with you – Le Relais only accepts cash so if you’re hoping to top up your supplies with some snacks or drinks, bring a little bit of old school money. You also need cash for the bus if you are walking in and hoping to catch a ride back down.
- If you visit early or late in the season you may encounter snow so it might be a good idea to bring micro-spikes or crampons. We carried some because of the snow patch on the All Souls’ Route but didn’t actually need them. However, it was good to know they were there in case it turned out to be more difficult.
- Make sure you have a Yoho National Park or Discover Pass for your vehicle that you leave in the Lake O’Hara parking lot. And leave it displayed. They will check and give tickets to anyone who doesn’t have one. Some people forget that they aren’t in Banff National Park and don’t have the right pass.
- If you come early or late in the season be prepared for it to be cold at night. Bring enough layers and a warm sleeping bag if you are camping.
- Always carry the essentials while day hiking.
After all the time and effort we spent trying to get a reservation at Lake O’Hara we were concerned it wouldn’t live up to the high expectations. Not to worry, it was even more amazing than we had imagined. The scenery, the trails, the wildlife and the lack of crowds – Lake O’Hara truly deserves to be ranked among the very best hiking destinations we’ve seen around the world. If you are an avid hiker or even just want to get a glimpse of this immaculate area, it is well worth doing your best to find a way in.
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