I love this little park, tucked away just inside the Eastern border of British Columbia. It’s not anywhere near as huge as Banff or Jasper National Parks, but it packs a few hard-hitting punches with beautiful, scenic hikes and well-maintained trails.
These are my personal faves in Yoho National Park. The best bang-for-your-buck hikes, where the rewards surpass (or at least match) your efforts. The times and difficulty levels are approximative; I’m in moderate shape and I exercise on a regular basis, so don’t take any of it for gospel. Just strap on your boots and get hiking!
Oh, carry bear spray and know how to use it!
Lake O’Hara Region
1. Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit 5-6 hours (or 2 days), 12 kms
2. Lake McArthur and Big Larches Loop 3 hours, 7 kms
This stunning district offers hiking options ranging from easy strolls to a challenging, full-day hike along exposed mountain ridges. A visit here is best honoured with a multi-night stop, but take whatever you can get here, as booking an overnight stay (or even a seat on the shuttle bus) can be difficult.
The Alpine Circuit is the crown jewel of the Lake O’Hara region, but there are shorter hikes if you’re not up for the slog or if you’re limited in time.
The Alpine Trail becomes hazardous in stormy weather or snowy conditions; even in good weather, certain spots allow no room whatsoever for missteps.
1. Lake O'Hara Alpine Circuit (2-day trek described below)
Overview: At 10:30am, I took the first shuttle bus into Lake O’Hara (from the parking lot), and dropped off my backpack at Elizabeth Parker Hut, where I would stay for one night before taking the shuttle bus back the following afternoon.
I started the Alpine Circuit on Day 1 around noon and walked the northeast loop: Up Wiwaxy Gap, onward to Lake Oesa, and back via the East Opabin Trail (in blue).
My intended Day 2 hike would have taken me up the West Opabin Trail, around the All Souls’ Alpine Route, then finally to Lake McArthur before catching the last bus back to my parked car (intended route in orange). With only 2 half-days and one night’s stay, this seemed like the most efficient way to walk as many trails as possible.
However, foul weather ensured I would only hike part of Day 2's route (in yellow).
Day 1 Loop: Wiwaxy Gap, Lake Oesa and East Opabin Plateau (5 hours, fairly challenging)
As mentioned, there are a few rocky ledges to traverse on your way up to Wiwaxy Gap. All are manageable in good weather if you're not squeamish about heights or exposure (which I actually am), but proceed with caution in bad weather. The path is wide enough to walk comfortably, but there isn't a ton of room for error. Be mindful of your walking poles or any backpack straps snagging on rocks and causing unbalance.
The first 2 kms of hiking, between the Lake O'Hara Lodge and Wiwaxy Gap, provide great cardiovascular training and the views are astounding - as good as views get in the Canadian Rockies.
Once you've made your way up to Wiwaxy Gap, know that the toughest part of the hike is behind (and literally, below) you. From here, you'll slowly make your way down a scree traverse to Lake Oesa, pictured below.
After Lake Oesa, you'll swing around the Yukness Ledge, strewn with large boulders. This rocky traverse is steep and will demand your full attention, and will eventually drop you onto the beautiful, green, lake-dotted Opabin Plateau, your reward for your hard work. If there is one hike in the Rockies that is worth the hard work, the Alpine Circuit is it!
As it was getting late, I headed down the East Opabin Plateau trail and back to Elizabeth Parker Hut via the Lakeshore Trail. I had completed the «northeast loop» (refer to map above) and was hoping to hike the «southwest loop» the following day.
Day 2 loop: Lake McArthur and Big Larches Trail (3 hours, 7 kms)
Hampered by uncooperative weather, I wasn't willing to sacrifice myself to the mountain gods by attempting All Souls' Trail in the thick fog and rain, which would make navigation trickier and obstruct views of the Lake O'Hara Basin, which was principally why I was there. So a quick jaunt to Lake McArthur via the High Route became my plan for the day (the Low Route is another option, but it does offer less stellar views).
Lake McArthur ended up being quite the beauty. Even though I certainly wasn't the only one there, I managed to find a very quiet spot to enjoy both my lunch and the views spread out before me.
I returned from Lake McArthur via the Big Larches Trail, which was lovely (in yellow on map). But I had really enjoyed the Opabin Plateau and its beautiful lakes the previous day; I had been looking forward to hiking its Western trail, as well as the All Souls’ Alpine route. Which is why I’ll be returning to Lake O'Hara one day.
Book some time at Lake O’Hara!
Quotas limit the amount of visitors to the Lake O'Hara region, and most of that quota is met by hikers with reservations at the following three accommodations:
Campground: A Wilderness Pass is required (as well as bus service) and must be reserved months ahead of time. Campground is located 0.6 km north of the lake. 403.343.6433 Parks Canada Campground info
Elizabeth Parker Hut: Year-round backcountry hut accommodations, managed by the Alpine Club of Canada. Reservations needed. 403.678.3200 www.alpineclubofcanada.ca
Lake O’Hara Lodge: Seasonal high-end accommodations, reservations needed.
403.343.6418 (in-season), 403.678.4110 (off-season) www.lakeohara.com
2. Iceline Trail
* Day hikes: Lower Loop via Celeste Lake (12 kms, moderate) or Higher Loop via Little Yoho Valley (21 kms, moderate)
* Overnight hike: Stay at Little Yoho Campground or Stanley Mitchell hut, with possible add-ons the following day (Twin Falls and/or Whaleback Mountain)
Regardless of which option you choose, you’ll have a decent slug up some switchbacks until you reach Emerald Glacier. Then at the 5.7km junction, the Lower and Upper Trails will fork off. The Lower Trail veers right and descends toward Lake Celeste; it boasts less elevation and will be easier on the heart and legs, but consequently won’t offer as many fabulous views. The High Trail veers left at the junction and gains more elevation over the Iceline Summit. It will take you through Little Yoho Valley, veer right at Laughing Falls, and pass Lake Duchesne before looping back down to your starting point.
For the overnight hike to Little Yoho Campground, take the Higher Trail to Little Yoho Valley and you’ll eventually run into Stanley Mitchell Hut. Little Yoho Campground is not far, just a bit further left of the hut.
As mentioned, the steep switchbacks lead up to a plateau dominated by the beautiful Emerald Glacier. Once you get past the treeline onto this plateau, it’s mostly smooth sailing.
Bombardment by dazzling sights is a natural pain reliever. Kathy and Craig Copeland
This well-loved copy of Kathy and Craig Copeland's book, Don't Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies, is my hiking bible. Not only is it well-written and dotted with beautiful photographs, I trust their taste and opinions implicitly.
I do not receive money from them and in fact have never met them, even though they supposedly live nearby. I'm just a big fan that strongly recommends this awesome resource.