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Four Things I Learned Camping at Lake O'Hara
Could we be in for an early Larch season?! Is the March booking madness worth it?!
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Lake O’Hara (on the left) and Lake McArthur (on the right) are visible from the stunning Odaray Grandview Trail, which is limited to four groups per day before August 15 and two groups per day from August 16 to September 15.
Annalise recently spent two fabulous nights camping and hiking at Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park and brings us this dispatch.
Like many of our dear readers, I have tried unsuccessfully in the past to get either a camping site or spot on the day-trip shuttle to the famed Lake O’Hara.
Cailynn and I have been lucky enough to visit the stunning area twice before — in the summer of 2015 we stayed at Abbott Hut (RIP), which remains one of my favourite hikes and backcountry experiences of all time. And, in 2017, we did a spring ski trip to Elizabeth Parker Hut.
So, I was delighted when my husband and I lucked out during the March randomized booking madness and landed two nights at the Lake O’Hara backcountry campsite in August 2023.
For the uninitiated, access to Lake O’Hara is extremely limited by Parks Canada, “to provide high-quality and meaningful experiences for visitors and maintain Lake O’Hara’s unique alpine environment.”
Lake O’Hara is located 11 kilometres up a gravel road that is only open to a Parks Canada bus and Lake O’Hara Lodge bus, making access difficult. From Lake O’Hara itself, there are several stunning hikes (more on this below) and so much remote and not-full-of-people backcountry to explore.
There are five ways to visit Lake O’Hara and they range from physically taxing, to difficult to book, to very expensive. You can:
Snag a coveted spot on the day use shuttle which operates from June to early October and previously operated using a lottery system but switched to a “randomizer virtual queue system” in 2023
Snag a coveted spot at the popular backcountry Lake O’Hara Campground, which only has 30 sites and includes a bus trip
Book a spot in the the Alpine Club of Canada’s most popular hut, the Elizabeth Parker Hut, which is open year-round and includes a lottery for summer bookings due to popularity
Pay hundreds of dollars for meals and accommodation at the Lake O’Hara Lodge, which has eight rooms in the original 1926 lodge and then a handful of private cabins
Hike or run up (and then back down) the 11-kilometre road (so 22 kilometres with about 400 metres of elevation gain, in total). No bikes are allowed on the road!
Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park
Despite the stress of waking up early in the middle of winter and opening every device you have and cursing your computer and Parks’ online booking system to try and snag a spot at Lake O’Hara campground, I will say after spending two nights in this magical place, the booking madness is indeed worth it. It’s such a stunning part of our country and the fact it’s so hard to get to means you don’t have to fight crowds (or see much of anyone else) once your arrive. There’s a reason there’s so much hype around Lake O’Hara. It really is a special place.
Here are three other things I learned at Lake O’Hara.
We could be in for an early larch season!
Kudos to anyone who snagged a camping or day shuttle during larch season, as much of the hiking around Lake O’Hara is ripe with these stunning trees. Interestingly, I took this photo of a single larch tree starting to turn yellow on August 12, which felt very early to me. CBC spotted my tweet advising fellow larch lovers of what I saw, and interviewed a master arborist who expects “the larch season to reach its golden peak no later than mid-September this year.”
Trail runners are really on to something
On the short bus ride to and from the campsite, we saw several groups walking the (rather boring) gravel road. At 22 kilometres total, it’s not exactly a short day of hiking to get to just Lake O’Hara. And then if you want to check out any of the other trails while in the area, you’re looking at, the very least, another six kilometres of walking. We also saw a handful of trail runners both on the road and on the nearby trails, and as someone who enjoys running, I have to say I’m incredibly intrigued. Their packs were obviously much smaller, and they were able to cover much more distance than the hikers. I’ve since bookmarked this post from a friend and have exploring trail running on next summer’s to-do list.
There are so many stunning hikes near Lake O’Hara
You can’t go wrong when choosing a hike from Lake O’Hara. As mentioned, the hike to Lake Oesa and up Abbot Pass is an all-time fav (and only recommended for experienced hikers/scramblers). There are many shorter and easier hikes in the area.
On this trip, we did the 8-kilometre circuit to Lake McArthur, which offers a bit of a choose your own high trail or low trail adventure. We stuck to the high trail and spent a lovely afternoon at the stunning lake, which we had all to ourselves.
The next day, we hiked the Odaray Grandview Trail, which was a really fun trip with simply stunning views. The 8-kilometre trail is well marked and includes a fair bit of elevation gain, meaning it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. The large alpine bench offers amazing views. The trail is limited to just four groups per day before August 15 and two groups per day between from August 16 to September 15 because it’s a sensitive wildlife corridor. There’s a kiosk at the beginning of the route, with a logbook where visitors sign in.
Views from the Odaray Grandview Trail. Lake O’Hara is at left, and Lake McArthur at right.
We had a wonderful trip and highly recommend a visit to Lake O’Hara!