CAMPING & HIKING AT LAKE O’HARA IN YOHO NATIONAL PARK
During my road trip to Canada, I scored a last-minute permit to spend 4 days exploring the Lake O’Hara trail system in Yoho National Park which sits on the border of British Columbia and Alberta. It was both the highlight of my Canadian Rockies trip and one of the coolest trail networks I’ve hiked on.
If you are making a trip to the Canadian Rockies, I highly recommend trying to get a camping reservation and working a few days at Lake O’Hara into your itinerary.
While I got lucky with my permit, planning 3 months ahead is key due to the strict quota system. Here in this blog post I share everything you need to know to plan a successful hiking and camping trip to Lake O’Hara – from permits, to details on the campground, gear, and which trails to hike.
Where is Lake O’Hara
Lake O’Hara is located in Yoho National Park in eastern British Columbia. The campground and trail system are 12km up a dirt road that is closed to the public and can only be reached on foot or with a reservation on a Parks Canada bus (see the next section for details). The Lake O’Hara parking lot is a 2 hour drive from the Calgary International Airport, and a trip to Lake O’Hara can easily be combined with stops in Banff and Jasper National Park.
How to Make Camping Reservations at Lake O’Hara
Camping, as well as day-hiking, at Lake O’Hara is managed by a strict quota system in order to minimize the number of people on the trails at any given time. The permit process is competitive and you have the best chance is to try and get a reservation as soon as your dates are available. If you are unable to get a camping reservation, then the next best thing is going up for a day trip. Many of the trails are Lake O’Hara are short, and fast hikers could cover a lot of ground in a day. Here are the details of reservation process at Lake O’Hara.
Camping Reservations for Lake O’Hara
There are 30 campsites at Lake O’Hara. The reservation line opens at the beginning of April every year, and reservations can be booked three months in advance of your desired trip date. That means when the reservation line opens in April, you can book for all of June. According to Parks Canada, camping reservations are generally sold out by 10am the day they become available, and only a small fraction of people calling get past the busy signal and actually get through to a person on the other end to book.
If you are lucky enough to get through, you are allowed to book up to 3 nights, which I highly recommend in order to thoroughly explore the area. All of the trails offer something different, and I promise you won’t regret it. You are allowed to book a maximum of 2 sites (1 tent per site) and a total of 6 people.
Your camping reservation also includes a spot on the bus that transports campers 12 km from the parking lot up the forest road to the campground. In 2017, busses for campers depart the parking lot at 8:30, 10:30, 3:30 & 5:30. I recommend requesting the 8:30 bus. By arriving early, you’ll have a bigger selection of campsites and the whole day to explore.
You only need to sign up for a bus headed for Lake O’Hara when you make your reservation. Return buses leave Lake O’Hara for the parking lot everyday at 9:30, 11:30, 2:30, 4:30 & 6:30, and you can hop on whichever one you want.
In order to make a Lake O’Hara camping reservation, call 250-343-6433 as soon as your dates are available.
If you miss the boat on reservations, like I did, you have a small chance of getting a permit if someone cancels and you have flexible dates. You can check this page on the Park’s Canada website to see if there are any available dates. When I was in Canada, I checked that page and noticed there were some available dates the following week. I called, got through, and immediately booked a campsite and bus ticket.
Day Use / Bus Reservations for Lake O’Hara
If you don’t want to camp at Lake O’Hara or you are unable to get a camping reservation, it is still worth going up there for a day. Day-hikers wanting a bus reservation go through a completely different reservation process. Instead of calling, you’ll book your bus online.
Again I recommend the early bus as it gives you the whole day to explore.
To book a Lake O’Hara day hiking bus reservation, go to the Parks Canada website. Choose “Day Use (Guided Hikes, Lake O’Hara Bus)” > Yoho National Park and then look at the Availability Calendar. Enter the number of people and the bus time you want and cross your fingers that something is available.
Walking to the Trailhead
If you are unable to get a camping permit or a day-use reservation on the bus, your final option is to walk in. From the parking lot to the trailhead, it’s about 12km (7 miles). The road is slightly uphill, but nothing too crazy. That said, I only recommend this for fit hikers who will still have the energy to explore once you reach Lake O’Hara.
Those who do walk the road up to to the lake, can hop on any return bus in the afternoon. Bring $9.75 cash and pay the driver when you get on in the afternoon.
And one final note that biking is not allowed on the road.
The Lake O’Hara Campground Facilities
The Lake O’Hara Campground is a great facility, and I especially enjoyed it as solo hiker. There is a communal firepit and communal picnic tables which made it really easy to meet other travelers and folks to hike with. I met my tent neighbors on the first morning, and we ended up hiking together the rest of the trip.
The campground also has trash cans, clean toilets, and bear lockers to store your food and any other toiletries with a scent. If it’s raining or cold, they have two covered areas with wood fire stoves that you use to warm up after a day on the trail. There are two big sinks to do dishes, and there is potable water, so you don’t need to worry about filtering the water as long as you get it out of the sink (water from the lakes should be filtered).
Campsites are numbered and are picked on arrival. After the ranger gives their talk, you are free to wander around and pick the site you want. I ended up in Site #12 which I chose based on it having morning sun. The sites up top are a little more private, but I appreciated the proximity of my site to the bathrooms and the picnic tables.
The last piece of info is that there is a spot called the Relais Shelter just past the campground on the main road. Here you can buy coffee, DELICIOUS carrot cake (sells out everyday), and some basic snacks. So bring a bit of cash and treat yourself.
What to Pack for Lake O’Hara
You’ll want to pack for Lake O’Hara like you are going on a backpacking trip, but with the bus you can afford a few luxuries.
First off….the rules. No foldable camp chairs, no big hard sided coolers, instruments, or hammocks are allowed. You are permitted to bring your backpacking backpack, plus a day pack, on the bus.
For the basics, you’ll want a solid tent, a warm sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and a camp stove, like a pocket rocket or Jetboil.
For clothing, you’ll want lots of layers, including a insulated jacket, a hat, and gloves. In late June, we got everything from hot sun to rain to snow. Some days were quite warm and nights got into the 30s (F). I also highly suggest bringing rain gear, regardless of the forecast and carrying it with you on your day hikes. The weather can change drastically and quickly at Lake O’Hara, and it’s important that you are prepared.
Remember to be bear aware, and always carry your bear spray. The Parks suggest hiking in groups, and if you choose to hike alone, they recommend talking out loud (yes, to yourself) and clapping before you turn any corners. The worst thing you can do is surprise a bear on the trail.
Other essentials include sunscreen, bug spray, and a sun hat.
Trekking poles were very helpful on the steeper hikes. If you don’t have any, the campground has spares that you can borrow.
For full hiking apparel and camping gear checklists, see these posts:
Top Hikes in Lake O’Hara
I recommend picking up a map of the region at any of the local outfitters in Banff or Lake Louise before you head out to Lake O’Hara. Once you are there, there is also a map and a list of trail conditions at the campground. If you don’t have a map, at a minimum, take a picture of the map at the campground with your phone and bring it with you on all of your hikes.
All of the trails are well signed in terms of directions, but the signs don’t have information on distance or estimated times. For that you’ll need your map.
This is a 8km (5 mile) round trip hike with about 1000 feet of gain. Start your hike at the Le Relais Shelter and head towards Elizabeth Parker Hut. Once you pass the hut, you’ll begin your ascent through the forest reaching Shaffer Lake after 1 mile. As you continue further, following the signs, the views start to open up. Eventually you reach a junction where you can take either the High Route or the Low Route to Lake McArthur. As long as conditions permit, I recommend the high route. It’s shorter, the views are better, and you stay high, while the low route has more elevation loss and gain. The lake was frozen over when we were there, but you could see the blue shining through the ice and it was absolutely stunning. Perhaps it was the snow on the trail, but Lake McArthur seemed to see less foot traffic than the other trails.
We made a loop out of the Lake Oesa hike by taking the Wiwaxy Gap/Huber Ledges up to the lake and coming back down the Lake Oesa Trail. The Wiwaxy Gap/Huber Ledges Trail starts off on the north side of Lake O’Hara and immediately begins a climb up short and very steep switchbacks. Once you start to plateau, the trail narrows into a section referred to as the Huber Ledges. It’s quite exposed with incredible views of Lake O’Hara and Lake Oesa. Those who have a fear of heights may find this section challenging. You also need to asses conditions to decide if this approach to Lake Oesa is safe, since early on in the season there is a risk of avalanche and rock fall. As you get closer to Lake Oesa, the trail starts to descend dropping you down right at the foot of the Lake. Lake Oesa was also frozen when we were there in late June.
Returning down the Lake Oesa trail takes you past a series of bright blue ponds, a waterfall, and a braided river, depending on water flows, before leading you back to the shoreline of Lake O’Hara.
If you choose to do the loop and prefer steeper uphill and gradual downhill (like me), I highly recommend hiking in the clockwise direction we hiked.
Linda Lake / Cathedral Basin
Linda Lakes was one of the few that didn’t have ice on it during our late June trip. It was incredibly blue and would be a good choice for beginner hikers and those with kids since it requires very little elevation gain. It’s also a nice hike because you can make a loop out of it. We departed the Le Relais Shelter towards Elizabeth Parker Hut. At the Hut, we hung a right and hiked up to Morning Glory Lakes. Once at Linda Lake, we stayed left and skirted the south side of Linda Lake. Towards the end of the lake, you’ll have to navigate through a very short boulder section. Don’t be detoured…the best views of Linda Lake are coming at the Southwest tip of the Lake.
From Linda Lake, it took about 30 minutes until we reached Cathedral Lakes. Vera Lakes are right below, but the trail to them wasn’t maintained and had a lot of downed trees during our visit.
For those who are feeling adventurous, you can continue up to Cathedral Basin, where you’ll get views of Morning Glory, Linda Lakes, and widespread views of the valley. We ate lunch up here and thought it was well worth the effort. Getting here requires a steep ascent up short switchbacks and a little bit of route finding. Make sure to bring a topo map.
Opabin Prospect / Opabin Lake
This hike to Opabin Prospect led to my favorite lookout out of all of the trails I hiked at Lake O’Hara. The 4 mile (6.5 km) Opabin Plateau Circuit offers widespread alpine views, lush meadows, and a gorgeous glacial lake at the halfway point.
We took the West Opabin Trail up which has more open views than the East Opabin Trail. We figured it would be nice to have something to look at when we needed a break from the climb up. The trail starts on the Lake O’Hara shoreline trail. Head south from the Lake O’Hara Lodge until you get to the signed junction and take a right uphill through the forest. Soon after you’ll pass Lake Mary on the right, and then the real climb begins. Don’t worry though. The ascent is short, and in less than 1.2 miles, you’ll have most of the work done.
Once you start to level out, keep an eye for a fork to the left which leads to the Opabin Prospect, the lookout point I reference above. The short detour is well worth it. Some people choose to end their hike here, but if you have it in you, I recommend continuing on to the Lake. The trail from the Prospect to the Lake is mostly flat, except for the final (short) uphill push to the lake and travels through a gorgeous meadow and larch forest. This section of trail took us about an hour. The lake is a great place to stop and have lunch before turning around.
The hike down was quick. We took the East Opabin Trail which offered a different perspective of the plateau and a steep switchbacked descent through the forest back down to the lake.