Lake O’Hara really is the crown jewel of the Canadian Rockies. With pristine turquoise lakes, cascading waterfalls, soaring mountain peaks, giant glaciers, hanging valleys and more (!), Lake O’Hara has it all.
All this beauty is accessible via an expansive network of hiking trails and protected by strict daily visitor allowances. If you only have time to explore just one place in the Canadian Rockies, Lake O’Hara would be an excellent choice. It is necessary, however, to plan ahead.
This post will tell you everything you need to know about the hiker’s paradise that is Lake O’Hara, including how to get there, how to reserve a campsite, which are the best hiking trails, essential items to bring, how to be safe while exploring and more!
Please note that the Lake O’Hara reservation system (for both the campground and bus service) have changed a lot over the last couple of years. The following information is correct at the time of writing (late December 2020).
Where is Lake O’Hara?
Lake O’Hara is situated in Yoho National Park in British Columbia, Canada. It is most easily accessible via a 11km gated unpaved road.
The parking lot for the access road is located just off Highway 1 and is approximately 10 minutes drive (14km) east of Field. The village of Lake Louise is 15 minutes drive (19km) in the other distance.
There is no public transportation to the Lake O’Hara parking lot, so you’ll need your own wheels to get there.
There are five ways to reach Lake O’Hara from the parking lot:
- Visit for the day by bus – Reserve a seat on the Parks Canada Shuttle Bus
- Visit for the day by foot – Hike in 11km and then try to secure a bus seat out or hike 11km back
- Camp for up to three nights – Reserve a tent site at the Lake O’Hara campground, bus in and out
- Stay at the Lake O’Hara Lodge – Reserve a cabin or lodge room at this historic lodge situated right on the shores of Lake O’Hara
- Stay at the Elizabeth Parker Hut – Reserve a bed* at this rustic backcountry hut near Lake O’Hara
*For winter 2020/2021, reservations are only available for the hut as a whole (potentially will continue for summer 2021 as well)
Why is Lake O’Hara so special?
The uniqueness of Lake O’Hara goes beyond the spectacular vistas of alpine lakes, glaciers and mountain peaks. It’s more than the remote location too, or the chance to see bears, marmots, elk or pikas in their native habitats.
For me, it comes down to two factors – an incredible trail system and strictly controlled access.
Lake O’Hara’s extensive trail system is simply unparalleled in British Columbia, with more than a dozen hiking trails intersecting this wonderous landscape.
Moreover, the trails are incredibly well constructed and regularly maintained. I have never seen anything quite like it in the backcountry anywhere. Much credit and thanks is owed to Lawrence Grassi and the other early trail builders as well as the more recent volunteer teams.
The second factor that makes Lake O’Hara so unique is the strictly controlled access. Restrictions have been in place for years, ensuring that Lake O’Hara remains just as beautiful and pristine.
On most summer days, there are only around 200-300 people in the vicinity of the lake, which leaves plenty of room to breathe and enjoy the spectacular views the fullest.
Lake O’Hara is located within the traditional territory of the Ktunaxa and Shuswap First Nations.
Our 2020 Lake O’Hara experience
Lake O’Hara was something of a legendary backcountry destination to me for a long time. I’d never looked too deeply into visiting, however, as I knew that reservations could only be made via a frustrating sounding phone system.
Cut to early 2020 and I read that Parks Canada was going to allow online reservations for the first time. So I thought I’d have a go. January 24th arrived and I secured a three night stay in mid July. Yahoo!
But then….everything happened. Initially we thought our trip would not go ahead.
Instead, Parks Canada decided that Lake O’Hara was to be hike in/out only and therefore only accessible on foot. The bus service was not running and Lake O’Hara Lodge was closed for the summer season.
International reservations for the campground were cancelled. Some groups decided against hiking in and cancelled their reservations as well. Parks Canada did not allow any new campground reservations to be made.
In short, we had a very unusual Lake O’Hara experience. Our first night, there were only 37 people staying overnight in the campground. Add in a dozen people who hiked in for the day and there was still less than 50 people in the Lake O’Hara vicinity. We hardly saw a soul on the trails!
All in all, though, it worked out to be pretty special and I’m grateful for it.
When to visit Lake O’Hara
Lake O’Hara’s summer hiking season is generally considered to coincide with the operation dates of the campground and shuttle bus service – 18th June to 2nd October in 2021, for example.
The elevation of Lake O’Hara is 2115m, however. Consequently, weather conditions here are remarkably cooler and more changeable than places closer to sea level.
The winter snow pack varies from year to year, sometimes lingering much later than expected. Snow can come early, or indeed, fall at any time of year.
The winter of 2020, for example, featured more snow than usual. Lower than average temperatures were experienced throughout spring. By the time we arrived in mid July, higher elevation trails (over 2200m) still had snow. Some trails, such as the Alpine Circuit, had avalanche warnings. Temperatures were still hovering around 5c during the day, -3/4c at night.
If being able to hike all the trails at Lake O’Hara are a priority for you, I’d recommend planning a trip for August. September can also be a good option, but be aware that winter conditions can sometimes arrive early
How to reach Lake O’Hara
The Lake O’Hara access road can only be used by:
- Lake O’Hara Shuttle bus
- Lake O’Hara Lodge bus
- Visitors travelling on foot, skis or snowshoes
Hiking to Lake O’Hara via the access road
It is possible to hike (or, in winter, ski or snowshoe) the 11km access road to Lake O’Hara. It is a wide, dirt fire road with 430m elevation gain. There are kilometer markers along the route so you can count down the distance along the way.
How easy is it to hike the Lake O’Hara access road?
The first half of the hike is fairly flat, with low rolling hills. The second half climbs steadily to the campground. While the terrain is not challenging, it is the 11km distance that makes the experience tiring.
If you decide to visit Lake O’Hara on a day trip without a bus reservation, you have two choices to get back to the parking lot – try your luck with a return bus trip (first come, first serve, more info below) or hike the 11km fire road again
We hiked the access road to Lake O’Hara in 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’s important to note that we were carrying our full camping backpacks, as the shuttle bus was not running. So if you’re a regular hiker, you can probably complete the one way trip within 2 hours.
The hike itself is reasonably scenic, with the wide road offering views of distinctive peaks such as the Watchtower and Cathedral Mountain. Forest lines the path almost the entire way, with glimpses of the adjacent river here and there.
Once at the campground, you’re only a very short walk (5-8 minutes) away from Lake O’Hara. Close to the shore is the Le Relais Shelter, with picnic tables and outhouses. In the afternoon, you can usually pay cash for cake here!
Although the overall time (2-3 hours each way) to hike the Lake O’Hara access road may seem reasonable at first glance, be aware that it is energy sapping. Lake O’Hara itself is stunning but the experience is even better beyond the lakeshore. The 11km (potentially 22km return) journey just to get there will reduce your ability to see as much as you may like
The Lake O’Hara Bus
Parks Canada, in partnership with First Student Canada, operates a shuttle bus service on the Lake O’Hara road for day visitors, overnight campers and hut users. The buses are classic yellow school buses.
Passengers must have reservations for the inbound journey to Lake O’Hara, with no exceptions.
Day visitors without a reservation can try to secure a seat on outbound services back to the parking lot on a first come, first serve basis with no guarantees. Fees (see below)must be paid in cash.
The Lake O’Hara bus schedule
Inbound buses heading to Lake O’Hara stop first at the campground and then the Le Relais day use shelter.
The inbound buses to Lake O’Hara depart the parking lot at:
Outbound buses returning from Lake O’Hara campground run daily at:
- 9:30 a.m
- 11:30 a.m
- 2:30 p.m
- 4:30 p.m
- 6:30 p.m
All times mentioned are Mountain Daylight Time (MDT), the same time zone used in Golden, Banff and Calgary. If driving to the Lake O’Hara parking lot from anywhere further west than Golden, remember to consider the time change so you don’t miss the bus!
Day use reservation system
New for 2020 (though the shuttle bus did not end up running that year), Parks Canada introduced a lottery system for bus reservations for day visitors to Lake O’Hara.
The 2021 process (at the time of writing) as is follows:
- Visitors will have a one month period (1st-30th April 2021) to submit an online application using the online Parks Canada Reservation Service
- Each application ($10) will allow applicants to select up to 6 different bus days and/or times and up to 6 seats
- Applications will be drawn at random and have temporary reservations assigned. The visitor will then confirm the booking
- Any spots not reserved or confirmed will later become publicly available to book on a first come, first served system
Overnight campers bus reservation system
At the time of reservation, campers are asked to select a morning or afternoon preference for their inbound shuttle bus. The time will then be assigned and confirmed within two weeks of the reservation.
Those making a last minute camping reservation will have their inbound shuttle bus time confirmed by 4pm the day prior to arrival.
Campers can choose any bus any return bus back to the parking lot and can store gear in the storage shed in the campground until then.
Lake O’Hara bus fees
- Round trip bus ticket – Adults $14.70, Youth (6-16) $7.30, Children (5 and under) go free
- Outgoing bus ticket (one way) – Adults $9.75, Youth (6-16) $4.75, Children (5 and under) go free
- Random draw entry fee (per application*) – $10.00
- Reservation Fee (for successful lottery applicants) – $4.50 per ticket if booked online or $6.25 per ticket if booked by phone. Flat rate of $11.50 for groups of 3 or more if booked online, $13.50 if booked by phone
The above rates are based on 2020 prices and are subject to change for the 2021 season
- Arrive at the bus 20 minutes prior to the scheduled bus departure time to be checked in by Parks Canada staff
- Passengers are allowed to bring one large bag or two smaller bags
- Maximum weight of luggage is 25 kg/55 lbs and length 97 cm/38 inches
- Hard-sided food coolers, hard sided storage bins, hockey bags items stored in plastic bags, and loose items are not permitted
- Small soft-sided coolers with a maximum volume of 9600 cm3 are OK but count towards the allowance
- Chairs, hammocks, electronic and musical instruments are not permitted on the bus (or the campground)
Staying overnight at Lake O’Hara
There are three options for staying in the Lake O’Hara area overnight:
- Lake O’Hara backcountry campground (cheapest)
- Elizabeth Parker Hut
- Lake O’Hara Lodge (most expensive)
The Abbot Pass Hut is currently closed due to soil erosion issues
Lake O’Hara backcountry campground
Backcountry meets frontcountry at the Lake O’Hara campground – it’s a surprisingly luxurious! Located approximately 600m from Lake O’Hara itself, the campground is set into a forest with limited views. It only takes 6-8 minutes to walk to the lakeshore, however.
The campground is open mid June to early October each year. In 2021, the operating dates are 18th June to 3rd October.
There are 30 semi private, numbered tent pads set into a forest next to the communal cooking area.
The impressively well equipped cooking area features outhouses (four total), sinks with running water (!), two cooking shelters with wood stoves, a large communal campfire pit, storage shelter, garbage bins, storage lockers (one for each tent pad) and a number of picnic tables.
The Lake O’Hara campground is well maintained, with daily visitation from Park Canada rangers. There is an information board with check-in information as well as maps and recent trail conditions.
Lake O’Hara camping reservations
Campsites at the Lake O’Hara campground must be made in advance via the Parks Canada Reservation System, online or by phone. All of the available spots are usually snapped up within minutes of the reservation system opening.
Usually, Lake O’Hara campground reservations open the third week of January for the following summer. In 2020, the date and time was January 24th at 8am MST.
The Lake O’Hara campground reservation system is scheduled to open again on 27th April 2021 at 8am MDT.
- It is only possible to reserve a maximum of three nights at the Lake O’Hara campground. Consecutive reservations are not permitted
- Cancellations are occasionally seen, due to the booking window being so far ahead of the actual camping season
- If you don’t already have a Parks Canada account/login, I’d highly recommend creating one prior to the reservation system opening date
- I’d also suggest getting familiar with the reservation system, as you’ll need to complete your request as quickly as possible to get a space.
- Choose a campsite number in advance, have your preferred dates to hand, have a credit card ready
Lake O’Hara campground fees
Online Reservation Fee: $11.50 (non-refundable)
Telephone Reservation Fee: $13.50 (non-refundable)
Backcountry camping fees: $10.02 per person, per night*
Bus fees: $14.70 return trip per person
Yoho National Park admission fee: $10 per adult, per day
All fees are in Canadian dollar and are subject to a 5% Goods and Services Tax (GST).
*Since it is only possible to reserve up to three nights at the Lake O’Hara campground, the maximum backcountry camping fee is $30.06 per person ($60.12 for a couple, for example).
Our online reservation for three nights, two people at the Lake O’Hara campground was $101.02. We already had a Discovery Pass.
Choosing a campsite at the Lake O’Hara campground
New for 2020, campers choose their campsite number during the reservation process. Be sure to bring your printed reservation confirmation to the campground.
Each campsite has the same style of tent pad – a rectangle of raised dirt, framed with wood. There is framed tent number on each pad.
One of the biggest considerations for me when choosing a backcountry campsite is distance to other campers.
The lay-out of the tenting area is definitely a tale of two halves (see map below).
- Campsites 1 to 14 are situated close to one another, with most of the tent pads being on the same level as the cooking area
- Sites 15 to 29 are on varying levels behind the cooking area and are spaced quite a bit further apart
- Site 30 is an outlier, being located right by the communal campfire pit
We stayed at Site 23 for three nights and were very happy with our choice. It backs onto forest and the nearest neighbours were reasonable distance away. We also had peek through views of the mountain peaks above.
Backcountry huts around Lake O’Hara
The Elizabeth Parker Hut, operated by the Alpine Club of Canada, is located in a tranquil subalpine meadow just 500m from Lake O’Hara. Reservations are required as it is much in demand.
The hut has a fully equipped kitchen (propane stove and oven), dining area and two bunk areas for sleeping, as well as a separate sleeping cabin (Wiwaxy).
Usually, the Elizabeth Parker Hut runs on a communal basis, with individuals and groups reserving bed spots and sharing the space. At the moment, reservations can only be made for the entire hut rental.
Located high above Lake Oesa, right on the Continental Divide itself, the Abbot Pass hut is the second highest permanent structure in Canada (2926m elevation). Unfortunately, this historic hut remains closed at his time due to soil erosion issues.
Lake O’Hara Lodge
Built in 1926, Lake O’Hara Lodge is the only accommodation situated on beautiful Lake O’Hara itself.
As well as eight rooms (with shared bathrooms) in the historic lodge, there are a collection of one bedroom cabins right on the lakeshore and four larger ‘Guide’ cabins a short walk away.
All meals are included in the nightly accommodation rate, plus afternoon tea and a round trip bus trip on the Lodge’s own shuttle service.
In 2020, Lake O’Hara Lodge was closed for the summer season. Usually, the lodge is open in winter and the cabins and lodge in summer and autumn.
The best Lake O’Hara hikes
Even just from the end of the access road, the views of Lake O’Hara and surrounding mountains are spectacular. But they get even better once you start hiking!
Lake O’Hara has an incredible trail system featuring easy, moderate and more challenging routes. Many cross and interlink, allowing multiple trails to be combined and covered the same day.
Here’s a taste of some of the amazing hiking trails around Lake O’Hara.
Lake O’Hara Shoreline Trail
Length: 2.8 km circuit
Elevation: minor changes only
Offering an easy introduction to this subalpine paradise, this trail circumnavigates Lake O’Hara. The route close to the shore the entire way. A highlight is Seven Veils Falls, where there is a couple of different viewpoints to watch the impressive cascades.
If you plan to hike some of the longer trails (such as the Opabin Plateau or Lake Oesa), you will walking sections of the Shoreline Trail to access them.
The Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit
Length: 11km circuit
Elevation: 866m gain
The eponymous Lake O’Hara hiking experience is the Alpine Circuit. Like the Shoreline Trail, it also circles the lake but at a higher elevation. An alpine route, hikers must be comfortable with traversing and navigating challenging terrain, with exposed areas.
The Alpine Circuit can be divided into four sections, each individually accessible:
- Wiwaxy Gap
- Huber Ledges
- Yukness Ledges
- All Soul’s Alpine Route
Each part of the Alpine Circuit features magnificent yet unique panoramas of the Lake O’Hara area. As mentioned, each section is individually accessible so you don’t neccescarily have to hike the entire Alpine Circuit in one go.
My good friend Leigh from HikeBikeTravel started at the Wiwaxy Gap, traversed both the Huber and Yukness Ledges on the Alpine Circuit before descending back down to Lake O’Hara from the Opabin Plateau.
With lingering snow and avalanche warnings during our mid July visit, we were not comfortable with attempting the Alpine Circuit. We did, however, start hiking the Wiwaxy section (returning the same way) and were rewarded with stunning views of the lake below. I’d recommend doing this if you have the same issue or do not want to traverse the notoriously ‘airy’ Huber Ledges.
The Opabin Plateau Circuit via the Opabin Prospect
Length: 5.9 km circuit
Elevation: 250m gain
If you only have time to hike one area of Lake O’Hara, I would suggest heading to the Opabin Plateau. Truly wonderful views await from the Opabin Prospect, a rocky cliff above Lake O’Hara. Behind this, a hanging valley reveals gorgeous streams, ponds and lakes. There’s even a glacier to admire at the end.
Being a circuit, there are two ways to approach the Opabin Plateau – East and West. The two trails are joined in the middle by the Opabin Highline Trail.
We hiked up to the Plateau via the West Opabin Trail, which follows the shore of Mary Lake before steeply climbing up an open talus slope (look for marmots!) The circular detour to the Prospect lookout was easy to find from this direction.
The East Opabin Trail is largely in forest and features many switchbacks. It’s harder on the knees going down but I think I would have found the ascent a bit tedious.
Length: 3.2 km circuit
Elevation: 240m gain
The hike to Lake Oesa is a varied one, starting with switchbacks (some with rock steps) leading away from Lake O’Hara. Above the trees, the views start to open up exponentially.
The trail skirts around and occasionally through impressive talus slopes as it steadily climbs towards Lake Oesa, passing by three other small aquamarine lakes on the way (Yukness, Victoria and Lefroy). There are a couple of very short, steep sections.
Lake Oesa sits in an amphitheater of mountains, at the end of a grassy slope, scattered with giant rock slabs. In mid July, the vibrant lake was still partially frozen.
Avalanche activity changes the appearance and difficulty of this trail every year. During our visit, we discovered that lots of large rocks and small trees had recently been swept down the slopes of the mountains above.
McArthur Pass and Lake McArthur
Length: 8 km circuit
Elevation: 310 m gain
Pretty alpine meadows, boulder fields and larch trees are all on the agenda for this half day hike. The finale is Lake McArthur, a glorious sapphire blue coloured lake backdropped by a line of mountains and a glacier.
We chose not to venture to Lake McArthur due to long snow sections, but did hike portions of this trail to Schaffer Lake and back through the Big Larches. The latter would be incredible in autumn, when the larch needles turn golden yellow.
For more photos and trail details, head to HikeBikeTravel’s Lake MacArthur post.
Odaray Highline trail to Odaray Grandview
Just before McArthur Pass, it is possible to turn onto the Odaray Highline trail. This short alpine route has a voluntary program is in place to reduce human usage and avoid disturbing wildlife. Please read this guidance before venturing onto the trail.
Linda Lake Circuit and Morning Glory Lakes
Length: 3.5 km one way
Elevation: 140m gain
While still beautiful, this circuit is a good option if you have a ‘spare’ day or snow prevents other trail usage. I say this mostly due to the amount of time spent in the forest with limited views.
Starting at the Elizabeth Parker Hut (500m from the Relais Shelter), this trail first takes in a pristine alpine meadow before entering the forest. After a long flat section, the path descends to the very pretty Morning Glory Lakes.
From here, you three options – return the way you came, complete a circuit back to the Lake O’Hara campground or continue on to Linda Lake. The latter is a gorgeous turquoise colour. The route out is again, in forest and can be muddy.
How to navigate in the Lake O’Hara area
Thanks to the work of Lawrence Grassi and other trailbuilders and volunteers, the hiking trails around Lake O’Hara are very well defined. They are also regularly maintained in the peak summer season. As well as trailhead signage with distances, there are multiple signs en-route with directional arrows as well as distance updates.
Lake O’Hara’s alpine routes are less defined, but are marked with painted blue and yellow symbols. Cairns (mounds of stones) are also used to indicate the routes. Parks Canada suggests that hikers venturing onto the alpine routes should be “comfortable with route finding.”
- Parks Canada has a downloadable (and printable) overview map of the Lake O’Hara area. This is best used for planning purposes
- There are similar maps posted in the Relais Shelter and Lake O’Hara campground too
- If you like topographic maps, Lake O’Hara is the 082N039 tile on GeoBC.
- The Maps.me app features all of the hiking trails surrounding Lake O’Hara with surprisingly precise accuracy. We used this to keep track of where we were as well as the elevation gains ahead and distance remaining. There is no signal at Lake O’Hara but you can use Maps.me offline after downloading the relevant maps
What to bring to Lake O’Hara
Lake O’Hara is an isolated alpine wilderness area. Visitors need to be self sufficient and prepared to encounter changeable (and sometimes extreme) weather conditions as well as wildlife and challenging terrain. As per Parks Canada, we need to be responsible for our own safety while exploring Yoho National Park.
It’s also important to follow Leave No Trace ethics. This helps keep Lake O’Hara as wild and beautiful as it is today! Leave No Trace includes packing out everything you brought in with you (even things like orange peel), not feeding wildlife and staying on designated trails.
Finally, remember to tell a trusted person exactly where you are going and when you plan to be back.
This section contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I may receive a small percentage of the total sale at no extra cost to you.
The 10 Essentials
Every visitor to Lake O’Hara should be carrying the 10 Essentials with them while hiking. Having these items will help prevent small issues turning into emergencies. In the worst case scenario, they can even aid survival.
The 10 Essentials are:
- Insulation (extra clothing for warmth)
- Sun protection (hat, sunglasses, sunscreen)
- Navigation tools (a map, at a minimum)
- Nutrition (food, including snacks and extra in case of delay)
- Hydration (water, method to purify water)
- First aid supplies (to treat minor and major inquiries)
- Fire starter (waterproof matches, lighter)
- Illumination (headlamp)
- Shelter (emergency blanket, bivvy)
Read more about the 10 Essentials, including specific item recommendations here.
The right clothing
Besides the 10 Essentials, it is important to be wearing clothing appropriate to changeable alpine conditions.
- Avoid cotton – instead choose poly materials or wool
- Bring a waterproof jacket and pants
- Have at least one warm layer, preferably two
- Wear worn in hiking boots
- Use wool hiking socks
Hiking poles are great for stability. They also help to reduce pressure on the knees when descending. I almost religiously use (and love) Black Diamond’s Distance Carbon Z poles – they are foldable and incredibly lightweight
Lake O’Hara is home to a wide array of animals, including elk, deer, moose, lynx, marmots, ground squirrels, chipmunks, pikas, mountain goats and more. There’s also a healthy black bear and grizzly bear population in the area.
- Give wildlife space
- Don’t feed animals
- Be careful when eating to make sure you don’t leave any food behind
- Make noise to let wildlife know you’re there
If you’re staying overnight at the Lake O’Hara campground, there are a few more items to pack.
- A lightweight stove – if you’re planning to eat mainly dehydrated or freeze dried meals for dinner, I’d recommend a Jetboil
- A backpacking tent – the tent pads at Lake O’Hara measure approximately 2.7 m x 2.7 m, only one tent is allowed on each pad (max 4 person size). We use a MSR Freelite 2
- A comfortable sleeping mat – with Lake O’Hara being an alpine destination, I’d suggest going for a three season version with a R-value of 2+ (our double Exped is a 3.3)
- A cosy sleeping bag – again, go for something warmer than a ‘summer’ sleeping bag unless you run hot
Each tent pad has use of an allocated locker for safe storage of food and smelly items (such as toiletries). Parks Canada lists the size of the lockers as 60 cm/24 inches deep, 50/20 high, 60/24 wide. As you can see in the photo below, however, some of the lockers were bigger than others.
There is also running potable water with a sink next to the outhouses – not need to filter water for dinner or coffee here!
- The Lake O’Hara parking lot has parking for 100+ vehicles, two outhouses and information boards
- Dogs can be walked into Lake O’Hara on a leash, but are not permitted to be in the campground or on the shuttle bus
- It is not possible to cycle the access road to Lake O’Hara
- Be careful not to leave any valuables in your vehicle at the Lake O’Hara parking lot
- There is limited cell phone signal in the parking lot and none at all after travelling approximately 2km along the access road
- Bring cash to buy afternoon tea at the Relais Shelter (closed in 2020, but I am hopeful for 2021!)
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