Lake O’Hara in Canada is a very special place. The area is protected and well maintained due to its fragile terrain. There is a cap on the amount of people that can visit this location every year. I think what makes it so special is that it’s so remote and so little people truly get to experience it.
I have visited many peaks and glacier lakes, but something about this area is different. I have been to Lake McArther three times now and each time I have been alone. Imagine, for example, standing in front of Lake Louise alone – it’s simply unheard of. You really feel at peace and like you can truly be with nature in those moments (as cheesy as that might sound).
In this blog, I will be sharing my hiking experiences around Lake O’Hara so you can plan some of your own adventures there. Before I do so, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jenny and I’m 26. I grew up in a place called Steinbach, Manitoba – just another prairie girl in the mountains!
I didn’t have much of a passion for the outdoors until later in life. I spent the majority of my life in the dance studio as a competitive dancer and then later as a teacher. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I truly started wanting to be in the mountains. My brother was doing a winter season in Revelstoke and he took me snowboarding – this was a lot different than the Manitoba hills.
In 2018 I did my first summer as a seasonal worker in Lake Louise! I was hooked. I spent that summer hiking in bright pink Nikes – I knew nothing about hiking, camping or wildlife but I knew how it made me feel and that it was something I wanted to be a part of. I cried when I had to go back to finish my last year of university in Manitoba but I knew I would return.
Eight months later, one week after my graduation, I packed up all my stuff and moved to Jasper National Park with a brand-new pair of hiking boots! I ended up living there for a year and a half, and after a winter away at a ski resort I came back for another summer. I now love snowboarding, hiking, camping, etc. but I think backcountry camping has first place in my heart.
My Hiking Experiences at Lake O’Hara
The first time I saw Lake O’Hara was when a friend from Manitoba was visiting the Rockies and had read about it and wanted me to come do the hike with her. I fell in love. We hiked the Fire Road to Lake O’Hara and then to Lake McArther, and then took the shuttle bus back to the parking lot.
Later that summer I took my mom up (she had never hiked before). Although I am thankful that I got to experience this hike, walking in and then doing a day hike makes for a very long day of about 19km if you are lucky enough to take the bus out. I knew I had to come back one day for an overnight stay to truly experience more of this destination.
Finally in 2020, I made the trip happen. I booked a one-night stay at the campsite for four people. We took the morning bus into Lake O’Hara and spent the day hiking as well as the next day, before taking the bus out.
Various Hiking Trails around Lake O’Hara
The Lake O’Hara area is so vast and beautiful that I think you could spend weeks exploring and never get bored. Day one we decided to hike to Lake McArthur via McArthur Pass – an eight km circuit. I have done this trail three times. I believe you get to experience a little bit of everything here.
Starting in a valley then through a forest, hitting Schaffer Lake, to then get a rocky pass with endless views, before getting to see Lake McArthur. This is a beautiful lake with the prettiest blue color. When there is not a soul in sight you can really feel at peace here. That night we also walked around Lake O’Hara during sunset – a three km loop with very minor ups and downs (I did it in slides). It was such a perfect way to end the day!
On day two we explored an alpine circuit. We started on the trail to Lake Oesa where we ran into some smaller lakes, stopping to dip our feet in the amazing glacier lakes. Along the trail we also saw a couple of waterfalls. I swear every corner we turned we ran into something more beautiful!
After Lake Oesa we we still had energy to burn and I wanted to go up. We saw the alpine circuit of Wiwaxy Pass. Our group was all fairly confident hikers and we knew that we could achieve it, but please be prepared and do your research before heading off onto these alpine trails as the trails are quite a lot more technical including scrambles and steep terrain.
Lake O’Hara is so well maintained. I have never seen anything like it. Even though rocks pile up, they seemed to have built trails with flat rocks. Although the park is well maintained, they also do such a great job of protecting the nature of the area. This is something that you will want to help protect too by leaving no trace and following responsible hiking tips.
Taking a Refreshing Dip in Lake O’Hara
Like I said previously, there is a three km trail right around the shoreline of Lake O’Hara. I think one of the coolest things I have seen in glacier lakes happened that night, you could see hundreds of fish coming up to the surface to eat – jumping out of the water creating little rain circles all over.
We did jump into the water after our alpine hike. Even in the heat the water was freezing (one of those takes-your-breath-away types of cold). Lake O’Hara is a glacier fed lake so it’s cold but it has that amazing teal blue color that the lakes in the Rockies have. If you get the chance, I recommend taking a dip in the lake. It’s a refreshing and invigorating experience!
Campsites, Cabins & Lodges in the Area
Lake O’Hara is an 11km hike in from the main road. They have a campsite and a lodge. The campsite is very well maintained, although it feels like a backcountry camping experience because your location is set up like a nice front country campsite. Unlike other backcountry sites they have enclosed bathrooms and running water for dishes and washing up.
They have a fire going in the evening and many bear lockers for all of your food. There is also the Lake O’Hara Lodge. Here you have these tiny little cabins around the lake. I would love the chance to stay in one of these one day but currently it’s not within my budget. The lodge offers your stay, two meals a day plus afternoon tea – so it’s almost like a resort!
If you wanted to stay in the area and take the bus or hike in for a day trip, the closest towns are Field, British Columbia or Lake Louise. Both of these places are a 15 minute drive from the Lake O’Hara parking lot. You also have the option to go to lots of campsites within Yoho National Park.
Responsible Hiking in an Eco-Friendly Way
The best advice for hiking is: pack-in, pack-out. This is important for the wildlife, environment and for other people to enjoy it. Another vital thing is to avoid trampling. You can do this by staying on the trails. Lake O’Hara has a fragile terrain, so they request that you don’t walk on it.
Leaving it better than you found it, picking up garbage if you run into it and respecting the land around you goes a long way to helping preserve these areas so we can all continue to explore the beautiful places in Canada.
Need to Know Before you Go
There are only two ways to enter this area, either by foot or by bus. You can’t bike or drive. Booking is hard so you have to be prepared to book the day it opens which I believe is usually early February. You can book campsites (which automatically give you a bus ticket) and day bus tickets through Parks Canada. The lodge is booked separately through their own services.
Bring in food and water, they have a snack hut but you will be far away from restaurants. Although this snack hut has a must-try carrot cake! It’s amazing so bring cash. There is no service so be prepared to not be able to contact people during your stay. If you do decide to walk in (11km) they offer the chance to take the bus out if they have room. This is a $10 fee in cash.
Other Amazing Places near Lake O’Hara
Lake O’Hara is located in Yoho National Park, which is one of my favorite places in the Rockies. I think it’s so underrated and a lot of people don’t even bother making the trip. Yoho is home to two epic waterfalls: the first is Takakkaw Falls which is one of the highest in North America, and the other is Wapta Falls which is the largest waterfall on the Kicking Horse River.
Yoho is also home to Emerald Lake – a beautiful mountain lake, with the option of staying at the lake resort. Lastly, one of my favorite day hikes is in this area. Paget Peak is a nine and a half km hike rated as hard on Alltrails but I believe if you only want to hike to the old fire lookout this would be moderate. Beyond this is a scrabble to the peak which makes it a lot harder. The views from the top are so beautiful and worth the extra effort!