Hiking the Lake O’Hara Alpine circuit in Yoho National Park should be on every hiker’s bucket list. You’ll be rewarded with sublime scenery from start to finish, turquoise coloured lakes and lichen covered rocks twisted into impossible shapes as well as challenging trails.
The route was designed by Lawrence Grassi – a man who wore many hats including that of park warden at Lake O’Hara, stonemason, miner and the person whom the Grassi Lakes above Canmore are named for. With great skill, he moved rocks to create a trail that defies imagination.
What the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit hike looks like
The Lake O’Hara alpine circuit is a loop so it’s easy to eliminate sections. If you hate exposure – ledges, cliffs and paths clinging to the mountains then perhaps you’d want to give the Wiwaxy Gap and Huber Ledges Alpine Route a pass; the same goes for the All Souls Alpine Route. The Yukness Ledges aren’t nearly as difficult or as airy as they appear from afar.
Clockwise or Counter-clockwise
You can hike the circuit in any direction. My daughter and I chose to do it in a clockwise direction to get the bulk of the climbing over early in the day.
Starting from the Lake O’Hara outlet bridge across from Le Relais day use shelter, hike just a few hundred metres on the trail until you see the sign for Wiwaxy Gap. Veer left and begin a stiff climb of close to 520 metres (1700 feet), at times on narrow ledges. You top out at a saddle – Wiwaxy Gap at 2703 metres (8868 feet).
The next two kilometres are challenging and as my daughter said – I hate this, I hate this…we could die if we trip.
So watch your footing very carefully. Concentrate, especially early on in the descent from the saddle. Take time to breathe and when you feel secure look around for mountain scenery doesn’t get much better than this. It’s very airy at times but very doable if you don’t have an extreme fear of heights and exposure. Otherwise give it a pass. It took us an hour to descend to Lake Oesa – and the last 20 minutes were much less scary.
Lake Oesa is breathtaking but it’s popular and busy as there is an easy 3.2 kilometre trail to it from Lake O’Hara. You’ll find slabs of rock, perfect for stretching out on so plan to stop here for lunch. Keep an eye on the aggressive chipmunks as they’ll be in your knapsack or bag of food in seconds.
From Lake Oesa look for the sign pointing to the Yukness Ledges route. Descend, cross a small stream, then a boulder section and pass by the small lake in the photo below. In another few minutes reach a signed intersection. Stay left to continue on the alpine circuit or if you’ve had enough you can call it a day and descend to Lake O’Hara from here.
The Yukness Ledges are much wider and less airy feeling than the trail up and down from the Wiwaxy Gap. Kids in runners were hiking it with no problem.
Its 2.3 kilometres on the Yukness Ledges trail from Lake Oesa to the junction with the East Opabin Trail – one of your options to return to Lake O’Hara and the one we chose to do. Your other option is to hike 1.4 kilometres along the meadow filled Opabin Plateau to the West Opabin Trail and descend to Lake O’Hara from there. Eventually both trails meet up on the shores of Lake O’Hara. (Pick up a map for a donation at Le Relais day use shelter.)
We chose to descend on the East Opabin trail – steeply at times. In a short 0.8 kilometres you reach Lake O’Hara and from there it’s an easy one kilometre walk to Lake O’Hara Lodge. If you time it right – between 3 PM and 4 PM – you could stop in and have tea and goodies for $10 per person – if there’s space.
We hiked a total of 8.8 kilometres (5.5 miles) – not much by my hiking standards but when you have to concentrate on your footing for kilometers at a time it can be slow going. It took us 4.5 hours to hike it plus another ½ hour for lunch at Lake Oesa.
Getting into Lake O’Hara is always an issue.
You have to reserve a seat on a bus – or pick up a cancellation on the morning you plan to hike. You can make a reservation four months in advance. Most people come in for at least a night – to camp, stay at Lake O’Hara Lodge or at the Elizabeth Parker hut. However it is possible to walk the 11 kilometres up the road and do the hike. We met a couple who had done just that. Allow 2 ½ – 3 hours to get to Lake O’Hara and 4 – 6 hours to hike the alpine circuit. Then you can take the bus back down – as reservations aren’t required for that- just a fee. The buses leave at 2:30, 4:30 or 6:30 pm.
Make the effort to get to Lake O’Hara. Even if you don’t do the alpine circuit there are enough hikes to keep all levels of hikers happy.
Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta
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