Lake O’Hara, 14-17 Sep 2022

Opinion:

What can I say about Lake O’Hara that hasn’t already been said? It’s an absolutely stunning area with the most amazing trail network that threads over and through a very intimidating landscape. Three nights is absolutely required to see it all but with less time the priority has to be the Alpine Circuit, which still ranks as probably the best day hike I’ve ever done. On top of that, the camping is excellent with facilities that match or even beat some front-country campgrounds. The restriction on visitor numbers means that the trails are quiet, too. The main downside, of course, is the difficulty of getting a reservation but it’s always worth trying.

Fact

We got once-in-a-lifetime lucky with our booking as some friends and ourselves were able to book two tent pads for the same three nights. This meant we could invite four more friends to join us, which was great! Parks Canada allocated us a 10:30 am bus time – presumably to allow the day visitors to get a head start on the trails and to allow the exiting campers time to pack up. We chose our own departure bus time on the day we left. Don’t be late (in either direction)! The Parks Canada website has all the info you need to know.

All arriving campers get a few minutes to choose campsites, which can feel like a bit of a mad rush but it all worked out okay. We all got decent spots. I don’t think any were particularly bad, though I’d avoid ones that everyone has to walk past all the time. The campground had two cook shelters with wood stoves (and plenty of free wood), an open fire pit, and several picnic tables out in the open. Numbered metal lockers were provided for food storage – the number matches your campsite. Be aware that some of them leak and they can freeze shut when the skies clear after rain! The outhouses had TP and sanitizer and drinking water was available at two large washing up sinks.

The trails are really unparalleled and were all in – mostly – excellent shape. And where I say mostly, I mean that by the standards of the trails near Vancouver, they were pretty much perfect. There were a few muddy spots to deal with (try not to go around them as that widens the trail) and a few awkward sections on loose dirt/scree, but they were minor. The trails were marked with a painted blue square with two parallel yellow lines and were mostly well-spaced and easy to follow. There were a couple of places where we had to stop to check exactly where to go next, but for the most part the route was easy to follow as boulders have been cleared or carefully placed to create an obvious pathway through rocky sections. All trail junctions were signposted so it was easy to stay on the right path and to locate ourselves on the map. Speaking of which, I highly recommend picking up the GemTrek map of Lake O’Hara (or pick up the wider area if planning to hike near Lake Louise too). A huge thank-you to the Lake O’Hara Trails Club (LOTC) for maintaining the trails! The LOTC has detailed descriptions of the routes on its website.

Le Relais is a small store and day shelter near the lodge that is known for its superb carrot cake. It also sells hot drinks and other snacks, plus has lots of info about the area. There’s a logbook in which to record wildlife sightings – except for marmots and pikas as there are plenty of them about! That didn’t stop people from listing their marmot sightings though :-)

We were probably about a week early for the larches. Some were beginning to turn yellow and a few small trees and branches were almost completely golden but the overall impression was very much a still-green forest. A few flowers were hanging on, notably harebells and purple asters, with a handful of arnica, shrubby cinquefoil, and a couple of unidentified flowers here and there. We identified a new flower: white water-crowfoot at the edge of Lake O’Hara. We found a few berries too – raspberries (tasty!) and blackcurrants (not so tasty).

As mentioned above, we saw quite a few marmots and pikas and heard many more. Golden-mantled ground squirrels were also common. Our prize wildlife sighting was a mountain goat grazing a distant slope near Lake Oesa. The following day we saw it on the cliffs above the Yukness Ledges. Then there was the usual assortment of birds – Clark’s nutcrackers in particular, ravens, chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, whisky jacks, common mergansers (Lake McArthur), and a pair of unidentified ducks on Yukness Lake. Grizzly bears had been sighted a day or two on the slopes below Wiwaxy Gap before we hiked the Alpine Circuit but we saw no sign of them.

Distance: 47.5 km
Elevation gain: 2235 m
Time: 4 days

Key moments

  • πŸ˜€ The moment when the clouds cleared on the shuttle journey to reveal the mountains
  • πŸ˜€ Being entertained by the bus driver’s fitting choice of music on the return journey
  • πŸ˜€ Those first steps into the forest on the way towards Lake O’Hara had me bursting with the excitement of being here
  • πŸ˜€ Hiking the Alpine Circuit again was a joy from start to finish, even if the weather wasn’t great
  • πŸ˜€ Hiking part of the Alpine Circuit in the sunshine on our last day was sublime
  • πŸ˜€ Evenings in the shelters by a warm stove with friends and seeing their reactions to experiencing the area for the first time
  • πŸ˜€ The carrot cake from Le Relais… πŸ˜‹
  • πŸ™ The cold rain and snow at the Odaray Grandview robbed us of the spectacular view
  • πŸ™ An excessively loud and annoying group of hikers at Lake McArthur hogged the best spot by the lake (ruining everyone else’s photos in the process)

Summary

Three nights means four days of hiking, or at least four days on which we can hike. And hike we did, whatever the weather. We mostly revisited the trails we hiked back in 2013 but that didn’t matter – it was just so enjoyable!

  • Day 1: Bus shuttle to campground, select camp spot, hike to Lake Oesa
    11 km, 300 m, 5 h 50 m
    A good way to start the trip and a stunner of a lake to whet our appetites.
  • Day 2: Alpine Circuit
    13 km, 855 m, 8 h 15 m
    The pre-eminent trail in the area, it looks terrifying from a distance but actually has very little in the way of exposure.
  • Day 3: Odaray Grandview and Lake McArthur
    12.5 km, 700 m, 6 h 25 m
    A double header to a rainy viewpoint and the bluest of blue lakes you’ll ever see.
  • Day 4: Opabin Plateau and Yukness Ledges
    11 km, 380 m, 5 h 35 m
    Communing with the larches and revisiting part of the Alpine Circuit on our only sunny day.

The times do not accurately reflect the difficulty of these hikes – they’re much easier than that – because we stopped often for photos and to admire the views. How could we not? Personally I wanted to maximize my time in this place so I was quite happy to spend many hours on these trails, and there were many places to stop and sit awhile to take it all in. Likewise the distances reflect roughly where and how far we walked (starting at the campground) and will likely differ from official values.

As ever, I’ll get round to writing up each day eventually but I hope this has given you a taste of this glorious place.

4 thoughts on “Lake O’Hara, 14-17 Sep 2022

    1. It’s stunning, isn’t it? Just the most amazing blue, even on a cloudy day. Next time we want to do a hike that goes up one of the neighbouring peaks to get a view over the lake – that would be cool!

    1. It’s such an amazing colour, even on a cloudy day. It really is a spectacular place to hike – it really spoils you for hiking elsewhere!

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