Why it's worth hiking 11km to get to Lake O'Hara

I hadn't heard of Lake O'Hara before living in the Canadian Rockies. It was the locals who have been exploring the park for years who told me how spectacular it was. Everyone had nothing but amazing, rave-reviews about the area and told me its unmissable. 

After living in Yoho & Banff National Parks for more than six months, I had just two days left before leaving, with still so much to see and explore, including Lake O'Hara. I can confirm spending the whole day venturing out there was definitely worth the trip and I'm so happy we squeezed it in. It's without doubt, one of the top spots in the Rockies, if not Canada, and being so off-the-grid, it's a totally different experience. 

However, getting there isn't straightforward. Why? In order to protect this delicate alpine area, you cannot drive your own vehicle to Lake O'Hara.

Lake O'Hara lodge cabins

This leaves you with three options:

1. Bus

Taking the bus is a no-brainer at $15 for the round-trip. But the issue is inbound bus capacity is limited to 42 people each day with seats selling-out months in advance (2018 booking links are at the bottom of this article). 

If you miss out on securing a bus ticket online, you're not totally doomed. Apparently, spare seats due to cancellations open up each day, but with none to 3 or 4 at most, I think you're best dismissing this as a feasible option. 

 

2. Stay overnight

If you have reserved to stay at the Lake O’Hara campgrounds or Lake O'Hara Lodge then you’re guaranteed a bus ride in and out. As with the bus, the campgrounds and lodge sell out every season too. I looked up the lodge as an option of getting in to the area and loved the look of the remote, rustic lakeside cabins. But at CAD$525 (£300) for one-person and CAD$705 (£400) based on two sharing, we passed and opted for option 3... 

 

3. Walk

There is only one guaranteed option that will get you to Lake O'Hara - walking in. It's 11km (≈ 7 miles) and takes about 2 - 2.5 hours, depending on your pace. At this point, I thought hiring bikes would be a good idea, but no bikes are allowed. The trail begins from the car park, which is just off Highway 1, 12 km west of Lake Louise, Alberta or 13 km east of Field, British Columbia.

Before we set off, we were greeted by a Park Warden, checking we appeared capable of completing the walk in and out (as getting a ride on the outbound bus is not guaranteed) and are also that we were bear aware and had bear spray. 

The walk in takes you along the same gravel road the bus uses. You gain 400m in elevation, so it gradually winds uphill, but there are no steep sections. We went on a weekday in mid-August, setting off about 9am, and saw about 10-15 other people walking in. 

 

Arriving at Lake O'Hara

Once we reached Lake O'Hara it's clear we'd arrived in a true wilderness destination. The towering peaks, thousands of larch trees and picturesque lakeside cabins are spectacular. 

Being such a hard-to-reach gem, the whole area was peaceful and pristine. We sat on a cute, wooden bench on the edge of the shore, sharing the spot with just two other ladies and a very tame bird, who perched on the bench with us too. With the limited visitor numbers, everyone seemed grateful to just be there, whether they were one of the lucky ones who arrived by bus, or one of the determined ones who walked in, like us. 

Lake O'Hara lakeshore trail

 

Le Relais Day Shelter

Although it wasn't a hard walk-in, it was still 11km, so to be greeted by the freshly baked backcountry goodies at the lovely, rustic Le Relais Day Shelter was welcomed. We treated ourselves to a delicious slice of carrot cake and warming hot chocolate. Le Relais is a cash-only day use area with all the money made reinvested in the upkeep of the shelter. They have tonnes of books and trail maps to browse through, plus a wood burning stove for those chillier days. We still were not 100% sure which hike to go on, but the girl working in the shelter was more than happy to share her recommendations and favourites.

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Hiking

We ended up choosing the Opabin Plateau Circuit that takes you to Opabin Prospect clifftop, where you'll have undoubtedly the best vista looking down on Lake O'Hara. 

Altogether, the circuit is 5.9km (3.6 miles) and gains 250 meter (800 feet) of elevation. To reach the viewpoint via the most direct route its 1.5km (1 mile) via the well-marked West Opabin Trail route from Lake O'Hara lodge. 

Within the first 10 minutes, you pass a canoe dock and then hike uphill through the forest to reach Mary Lake. When the trees begin to clear, the trail becomes steeper and narrower, with some switchbacks and a small amount of scrambling. This is where you gain more than half the elevation. Once you reach the plateau, the trail flattens out and you follow the signs for the Opabin trail. This will take you to the cliff edge, where you'll have a a panoramic viewpoint of Lake O'Hara and Mary Lake, framed by the jagged peak that is Cathedral mountain. 

After enjoying the view, eating lunch, taking photos and lying in the sunshine, we chose the East Opabin Trail that would take us on a loop back to Lake O'Hara. This part is different to what I expected and really pretty, taking you across a creek and a bridge. You then descend 0.8km down a mix of steps and steep switchbacks, before you reach Lake O'Hara, where you follow the trail around the shore that takes you back to the lodge. 

View of Lake O'Hara and Cathedral Mountain from Opabin Prospect, on the Opabin Plateau Trail hike

 

The outbound bus

The bus for the outbound journey goes from the Le Relais Day Shelter and will cost you $10 cash per person. Thankfully the shuttle bus back had just enough seats for everyone, but I'm not so sure we would've got on otherwise. There's no real queue system for those without a reservation, and whilst some of us acknowledged there was a first-come, first served system going on, being pushy seemed a more realistic way to guarantee a spot - you've been warned!

 

Extra Information

Booking the shuttle bus for the 2018 season opens on 20th April 2018 at 8 a.m. MDT. You can access the Parks Canada Reservation Service here.  

 

Questions

If you have any questions about Lake O'Hara, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!