V isiting Lake O’Hara isn’t exactly a wilderness experience. Many Yoho National Park hikers say it’s even better.
Access to the most coveted hiking destination in the Canadian Rockies is strictly regulated to keep the alpine slopes and meadows from being loved to death.
That has allowed this magnet of backcountry fame to remain one of the wildest and most scenic places a hiker can explore from a base camp at a developed campground, alpine hut or even a rustically luxurious lodge.
O’Hara is one of numerous lakes in alpine basins carved by glaciers northeast of Golden, British Columbia. It’s 2 miles from the border with adjacent Banff National Park, Alberta.
But O’Hara stands out from the crowd for the sum of the peaks, glaciers and more than 45 miles of trails linking other lakes, waterfalls, larch-studded plateaus and mountain passes.
This masterpiece of Rocky
Mountain landscape is routinely traversed by grizzly bears, mountain goats and wolverines.
A century ago, Canadian park stewards realized that a premium trail system would offer protection to the fragile lakeshores, tarns and alpine meadows.
This is hoary marmot and pika country, with a short growing season. Only hardy wildflowers make a living, including daisy fleabane, shaggy-headed western anemone and moss campion.
Trail makers have set boulders for steps on steep slopes to check erosion. Tons of large natural flat stones have been set to make walkways through meadows for hikers who rarely have to set boot soles on the greenery.
Most meadows are pristine despite the controlled barrage of visitors.
Hikers must squeeze their longings into the short season the lake enjoys at elevation 6,600 feet and surrounding peaks ranging to 11,450 feet.
The area is open to backcountry skiers through winter and spring, but buses don’t start running hikers up the access 7-mile access road until June. Snow doesn’t clear off the trails to upper lakes until sometime in July – or later.
This year, the area was smothered with snow by an Aug. 31 storm, although it soon melted to make way for the golden moment: Lake O’Hara is famous for the alpine larch that are peaking in their yellow autumn glory this week.
To reserve one of the 30 campsites (capacity 70) or a bunk in a hut (capacity 24) or accommodations at the lakeside lodge (capacity 30), one must plan months in advance.
Hikers feeling lucky can check in and hope there’s a cancellation opening at the trailhead, which is just off Trans-Canada Highway 1 about 9 miles northeast of Field, British Columbia, or 7 miles southwest of Lake Louise, Alberta. That’s iffy at best.
Hearty hikers can make reservations for the one-day option allowing 42 people to enter the area in the morning so they can hike their hearts out. But they have to leave on the last bus, which departs before sunset.
Other options include staying at the Alpine Club of Canada’s Elizabeth Parker Huts ($41 a night for nonmembers), situated in a meadow where climbing groups gathered as early as 1909. The buildings date back to 1926.
The high-end option is booking overnight accommodations at the Lake O’Hara Lodge, a handsomely inconspicuous luxury with rooms or cabins ranging from $580-$845 a night per couple.
My wife, Meredith, and I opted to take the budget route, making reservations the recommended three months in advance to stay in the campground in early September. Meredith has rarely stooped to the decadence of sleeping in a bed on a vacation since she married me 29 years ago today, so why spoil her now?
The campground is spiffy, with running water, a sink, vault toilets, eating tables, two covered shelters and metal food storage bins for each campsite to make it easy to avoid attracting bears.
A big fire ring forms the gathering place for campers to share experiences every night after dinner. Enforcement of the 10 a.m. quiet time isn’t a problem. The campers, while they might bring in gourmet food and wine for dinner, are clearly here to hike.
Morning is busy with people wearing daypacks branching onto the trail system. Hikes range from a nearly flat 45-minute waltz around Lake O’Hara to extensive alpine scrambling.
Most people enjoyed out-and-back hikes to lakes in the upper plateaus. A must-see is the turquoise Lake McArthur, with the Biddle Glacier receding above it. The lake is named for a surveyor and alpinist who made first ascents of the area’s peaks in 1887.
Although we didn’t see bears, they’d been foraging along the trail to McArthur the previous night. Gaping holes and mounds of dirt indicated bears had been digging for ground squirrels and marmots in a tundra-like landscape. I noted there wasn’t a tree big enough to climb.
I also noted that every hiker was carrying bear spray.
The classic hike is the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit, an 8-mile loop involving trails, ledges and talus slopes. The circuit ranges high for breathtaking views of the lakes below.
Meredith and I didn’t consider the minor exposure on some ledges to be a factor, but we noted one hiker crawling on all fours on a slope, making it clear that her spouse was in for trouble should she make it back down to Lake O’Hara alive.
The Alpine Circuit starts from the outlet bridge at Lake O’Hara before starting a relentless climb of 1,650 feet in 1.2-miles to Wiwaxy Gap. Author Graeme Pole says this is one of the steeper ascents among any of the routes he describes in his popular guidebook, “Classic Hikes in the Canadian Rockies.”
At the gap, you can see that O’Hara is the lowest in a chain of five lakes or ponds in a glacial basin flushed by a stream and waterfalls.
The route continues as a traverse across the Mount Huber Ledges, with a few more short stretches that beckon some hikers to come to grips with any latent fear of heights. Then the route eases you down to Lake Oesa, a popular destination for hikers who prefer to stay on standard trails.
Bask in the feeling of flatness briefly before crossing scree and around the talus of the Yukness Ledges, following the route blazed with painted blue squares and two yellow stripes.
The route descends on boulders to greenery again and then up a tundra-like basin to Opabin Lake. It loops back through a plateau of feathery larches to the Opabin Prospect – a head-lightening viewpoint from which you look down and see Lake O’Hara and your boots in the save view.
The Alpine Circuit leaves the main trail and again ascends through talus and scree on the All Soul’s Route, which leads to one last high overlook of Lake O’Hara from All Soul’s Prospect.
You can look back across the valley to the start of the hike, the trail you first climbed to Wiwaxy Gap and the route across the Huber Ledges. You’ll think to yourself, something like, “That look’s insane” or “I always thought I was good and now I know it.”
From here the route plunges down the hillside toward Schaffer Lake and out along the Big Larches trail to finish with an easy cool-down stroll along the south shore of Lake O’Hara.
You’ll return to camp tired but fulfilled and brimming with a mountain goat’s memory of classic Rockies scenery.
Having made reservations months in advance, you had time to plan appropriately for this moment.
Drop your pack in the campground, reach into the metal food locker and find the perfect beverage waiting to quench a Canadian Rockies thirst. After all, the weight of a beverage was not a factor since it came up into the mountains on a bus.
Like I said, Lake O’Hara is a lot like wilderness, only better.