The Lake O’Hara alpine hike 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. Traverse mountains on narrow trails and via ledges while enjoying a variety of views of Lake O’Hara from above along with Yoho National Park’s spectacular mountain landscape.
The Lake O’Hara alpine 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. I think you’ll find some of Canada’s most beautiful mountain scenery on the Lake O’Hara alpine hike.
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Lake O’Hara Alpine hike summary
Distance: 8 km (5.0 miles) loop via East Opabin; 12.4 km (7.7 miles) if you include the All Souls Alpine Route coming out on the Alpine Meadow Trail
Elevation gain: Approximately 495 m (1,625 feet) and 886 m (2,907 feet) if you include the All Souls Alpine Route.
Time needed: 6-7 hours for the whole route including All Souls Prospect; 4 -6 hours coming out on East Opabin
Level of difficulty: Moderate though some airy sections many people won’t like on the Wiwaxy Gap section
Best time to hike: Mid-July after the snow has gone to early October, depending on when the snow starts to fly.
Dogs allowed: You can walk into Lake O’Hara with your dog but they are not allowed on the shuttle bus or in the campground.
Weather: Except in mid summer be prepared for chilly, wetter weather than Banff
Trailhead: Get to the Lake O’Hara parking lot (no public transportation here so you will need a car). Start hiking at the Relais Shelter where the bus lets you off.
Issues: You will need to book a bus reservation (details at the bottom of the post) or nab a campsite, hut or Lake O’Hara Lodge reservation to hike here unless you’re up for a 11 km walk up the road at the start of the day
To get to the Lake O’Hara parking lot you must first cross train tracks. This is a busy trail corridor so give yourself extra time so you don’t miss the bus because of the train.
Trailhead for the Lake O’Hara hike
The Lake O’Hara parking lot is just 15 minutes west of Lake Louise off the Trans-Canada Highway and 15 minutes east of the town of Field in Yoho National Park. You’ll catch the bus from the parking lot to Lake O’Hara where you will start hiking.
Lake O’Hara alpine hike description
The Lake O’Hara alpine hike 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 on the Lake O’Hara Alpine Hike?
You can hike the Lake O’Hara alpine hike 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 m (1,700 feet), at times on narrow ledges.
You top out at a saddle – Wiwaxy Gap at 2,703 m (8,868 feet) where you can enjoy some incredible mountain views.
The challenging part on the Lake O’Hara Alpine Hike
The next 2 km 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 km 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.
To the Yukness Ledges
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
The Yukness Ledge 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 km 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 km 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.)
East Opabin Trail
We chose to descend on the East Opabin trail – steeply at times. In a short 0.8 km you reach Lake O’Hara and from there it’s an easy 1 km 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 clocked a total of 8.8 km (5.5 miles) on the Lake O’Hara alpine hike – not much by my hiking standards but when you have to concentrate on your footing for kilometres 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.
However it is possible to walk the 11 km up the road and do the hike. We met a couple who had done just that. Allow 2.5 – 3 hours to get to Lake O’Hara and 4 – 6 hours to hike the Lake O’Hara 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 on a first come, first served basis.
Planning the Lake O’Hara Alpine hike??
Doing any hike at all in the Lake O’Hara region takes some planning. If you’re thinking about camping the following is important as the rules have changed.
All camping reservations at Lake O’Hara will now be offered on the Parks Canada Reservation Service beginning March 28, 2023 at 8 AM MST. Camping is possible from June 18, 2023 through until October 2, 2023. You should know that it can snow at any time. Nights can be very cold – early and late in the season.
The Parks Canada website also says you can call one of these two numbers. To save time they recommend creating an account beforehand. Reservations are usually booked completely on opening day. To up your chances get everyone that is on the trip to log onto the reservation website up to 30 minutes before the 8 AM opening so you are all put into a queue. Whoever gets the best dates can keep them and the rest of you release them. If you don’t get a reservation check back frequently for cancellations.
How to get a seat on the bus to Lake O’Hara (if you want to do a day hike)
The rules for booking buses have changed in Yoho National Park.
If you just want to do the Lake O’Hara alpine hike as a day trip
The Lake O’Hara shuttle takes hikers 11 km up the road to Lake O’Hara. The bus leaves from the Lake O’Hara parking lot, 12 km west of Lake Louise or 13 km east of Field, B.C.
The bus will operate from June 18 – October 3, 2023. Reservations for seats on the bus open on April 12, 2023 at 8 AM MST. You need to create a new user profile to be able to access the newest reservation system. You can reserve a seat online.
Buses leave in the morning for Lake O’Hara at 8:30 AM (20 seats) and 10:30 AM (11 seats).
They depart from Lake O’Hara at 11:30 AM, 2:40 PM, 4:30 PM and 6:30 PM. You can’t reserve a space on the outgoing bus. It’s first come, first served.
Pricing for ages 6 – 99 is $17.14 per person. There is probably a booking fee too.
If Lady Luck is on your side
On occasion there are no-shows for the bus ride into Lake O’Hara. You can take your chances (especially on less than sunny days) and show up at the Lake O’Hara parking lot. If people haven’t checked in 10 minutes before the bus leaves, then the park ranger is able to sell open spots – for cash – to walk-ups. Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky few!
Costs for visiting and hiking the Lake O’Hara area
Allow for the following costs.
$11.96 reservation fee
$12.50 per person per night camping fee, maximum 4 people per campsite
$17.14 for a return bus ride
$10.00 per day National Park Pass fee – but if you have an annual pass you won’t incur more fees.
Where to stay the night before
In a perfect world it would be close to the Lake O’Hara parking lot so you don’t have a hefty drive at the start of your hiking day.
You can camp in Banff and Yoho National Parks. The Monarch Campground is a first come-first served campsite on the road to Takakkaw Falls near Cathedral Mountain Lodge in Yoho National Park.
In Lake Louise there is both a tent campground – open from June 1 – September 24, 2023 and an RV or hard-sided campground that is open year round but can be reserved from May 19 – October 1, 2023. Johnston Canyon Campground is open from May 25 – September 24, 2023. You can make online reservations.
If you want a room in Lake Louise consider the following options.