Lake O’Hara is an elusive spot that every Canadian has heard of, but only a few lucky ones were able to see it.
Getting a spot to visit Lake O’Hara is like trying to book a ticket for the Glastonbury festival. Unless you are sneaky, well-prepared, and internet savvy, then move on and pick another backpacking experience in the Rockies.
This guide has hints and tips on the best way to make reservations, the types of accommodation available at Lake O’Hara, and useful information on the many hiking trails and photography spots in the area.
Hopefully, thanks to this guide you can be one of those lucky ones, who like me, gets to witness the beauty of Lake O’Hara region with their own eyes.
Where is Lake O’Hara?
Lake O’Hara is the hidden gem of Yoho National Park, one of the top National Parks in Western Canada. Together with the adjacent Banff National Park, they belong to the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Yoho National Park lies in the Canadian Province of British Columbia, just on the border with Alberta, and was established in 1886, making it the second oldest National Park in Canada.
Why is the Lake O’Hara area so special?
Have you seen pictures of this place?
The trip to Lake O’Hara is the most sought-after backcountry outing in all of Western Canada. Why you may ask? Personally, I think it’s a matter of easy accessibility.
Lake O’Hara is the only backcountry experience in the Canadian Rockies, that I know of, where it’s possible to go by cheap motorized transport.
In other backcountry campsites like Mount Assiniboine or the Berg Lake Trail, there is a shuttle in form of an expensive helicopter flight, but unless you have a few hundred of dollars to spare, you are destined to hike with your heavy gear.
Compare this with a 15$ shuttle bus ride to Lake O’Hara campground and you start to understand why it is so popular. The other, fairly obvious reason is the stunning views and plethora of epic hiking trails.
Combine the above two reasons with the cheap and well-maintained campsite accommodation and you’ve got a world-class backpacking experience at very little effort and cost!
When to visit Lake O’Hara?
The official camping season at Lake O’Hara runs from the third week of June until the start of October each year, however many of the high Alpine routes, like the famous Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit are still snowbound in June with avalanche hazards.
If you want to take advantage of all hiking trails in the Lake O’Hara area, it’s best to plan your visit between the second week of July and the end of September.
What’s the best way to see Lake O’Hara?
1. On a day trip
The daily bus shuttle service operates between June 17th and October 2nd. Due to the extreme popularity of Lake O’Hara paired with capped visitor numbers, nowadays there is a random draw reservation system in place.
It assigns bus reservations to those who entered an application within specific times. I will get to the details later.
2. On an overnight camping trip
If you have time, I highly recommend camping at Lake O’Hara. You can book a tent pad for a maximum of 3 nights. Read on to learn all about camping in Lake O’Hara.
3. Staying at the Elizabeth Parker Hut
One of the most accessible and at the same most popular backcountry huts in Canada, the Elizabeth Parker Hut is operated by the Alpine Club of Canada.
4. Staying at the Lake O’Hara Lodge
By far the most luxurious option but also the most expensive. Lake O’Hara backcountry lodge consists of rooms and lakeshore cabins. The true definition of a mountain retreat.
There are two choices when contemplating visiting Lake O’Hara in the summer: hiking in or taking the bus. Choosing the latter is an obvious pick for me.
The 22km round trip hike to the base of Lake O’Hara isn’t particularly strenuous but walking along the old fire road through the forest isn’t exciting either.
Taking the bus
“Welcome to the most exclusive and hard to get to bus ride in British Columbia”. That’s what the Parks Canada officer told us when we finally settled in our seats. He wasn’t joking!
Due to overwhelming interest, in previous years when the reservations for the bus opened, the phone lines were flooded for days.
Unless you called persistently for a few hours straight you wouldn’t get through.
The bus leaves near the Lake O’Hara parking lot, where you can leave your car for the day or overnight depending on your reservation.
How to make a bus reservation for a day visit to Lake O’Hara
In March 2023 a new reservation system for backcountry camping will be introduced on the Parks Canada website. Stay tuned for more information.
If you are not planning on staying overnight, you can catch an inward shuttle daily at either 8:30 am (20 seats) or 10:30 am (11 seats).
Outward buses leaving the park are available at 9:30, 11:30, 14:30, 16:30, and 18:30.
Hiking to Lake O’Hara
To walk to Lake O’Hara you do not need a reservation. The trailhead lies 100m away from the Trans Canada Highway in between the towns of Lake Louise and Field.
The 11km slightly uphill hike is generally uneventful with the occasional glimpse of beautiful peaks as you wind through the trees. A quick walker can get to Lake O’Hara in 2 hours from the car park.
I have done it in the winter when the shuttle wasn’t operating. Taking the bus takes a lot more sense. You want to preserve your energy to be able to complete at least one of the many day hikes in the Lake O’Hara region.
Accommodation options at Lake O’Hara
The campsite at Lake O’Hara requires an advance reservation and you guessed it. The booking is hard to get!
The campsite has 30 individual sites, running potable water, cooking shelters, daily cleaned toilets, individual bear lockers, and evening activities. It’s honestly the best backcountry campground I’ve ever been to.
How to book the campground at Lake O’Hara for the summer season of 2023
You can make a booking over the phone by calling 1-877-737-3783. Good luck with reaching anyone though! The line is notoriously difficult to get through.
Instead, I highly recommend setting up an account with Parks Canada and booking through their online reservation system. A new system will be introduced on March 2nd, 2023 to replace the old and very user-unfriendly one. Stay tuned for more information.
You can book for a maximum of 3 nights, up to two tent sites (one tent per site), and a maximum of 4 people per tent. A seat on a shuttle bus will automatically be added to your campsite booking!
The cost of staying overnight at Lake O’Hara campground in the summer season of 2023
There are four different costs involved in staying overnight at the Lake O’Hara campground:
- Reservation fee: $11.96 per reservation,
- Wilderness pass: $10.02/person/night,
- Bus fee: $14.70/person for the return trip (youth 6-16 years: $7.30; Children 5 and under travel for free),
- National Park entry fee: $10/person/day
For the latter consider purchasing an annual Parks Canada Discovery Pass, especially if you will be visiting any national park in Canada for more than 7 days in one year. Group and family options are also available.
Campground facilities and rules
- There are two cooking shelters, a fire pit, food and garbage storage, grey water disposal, outhouses (with flushing water!), and treated well water. Quite the luxury!
- Tent pads are 2.7 x 2.7 meters wide and can hold 1 small backpacking tent with a maximum of 4 people inside
- You can bring max. two small bags per person with a maximum combined weight of 25kg
- Don’t bring any loose items or hard-sided coolers with you on the bus
- You will have a storage locker assigned to your tent pad number. You need to store your food and any scented items in your locker, away from the reach of wildlife. You can bring a padlock for it.
The Elizabeth Parker Hut
Elizabeth Parker hut is operated by the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) and is located a 10-minute walk away from the bus stop near Lake O’Hara
How to make a reservation for summer 2023 in Elizabeth Parker Hut
According to ACC, Elizabeth Parker Hut will be open for the public to book on (TBA). Reservations are made through an online booking request form directly on the ACC website. You can book the bus whilst requesting the reservation for the hut.
The cost of staying at the Elizabeth Parker Hut in the summer of 2023
|Per night rates||ACC Member||Non-Member|
|Summer high-season (mid-June to Thanksgiving)||$55||$65|
Elizabeth Parker Hut amenities
- The hut can hold up to 24 people in the summer
- There are two bunk beds with mattresses, but you must bring your own sleeping bag
- There is access to a propane stove with fuel supplied.
- The kitchen is fully equipped with pots, pans, and cutlery
- There is a basic outhouse in a separate building from the hut
- Woodstove with firewood provided (you might have to chop it outside)
- Water comes from snowmelt in the winter or creek in the summer and should be treated.
All ACC huts are user-maintained which means the work is done by those who stay there. Make sure that you leave the hut clean, chop the firewood, or shovel the snow.
Read the complete Hut Etiquette here.
The Lake O’Hara Lodge
By far the most luxurious accommodation option at Lake O’Hara. The lodge has several different styles of accommodation: the shore cabins which, as the name indicates, lie on the shore of Lake O’Hara; the lodge rooms that are around 50 m away and the guide’s cabins on a nearby grassy knoll.
Lake O’Hara Lodge 2023 rates
Food, afternoon tea, the bus trip, access to canoes, guided excursions, and all taxes and gratuities are included in the booking.
Lodge rooms cost $860/per night/2 people.
The cheapest option is the guide cabins which cost $ 1215 for 4 people. This may sound expensive in comparison with the campground or the Elizabeth Parker Hut but you get a lot in return.
Incredible gourmet experiences with some of the best chefs in Canada, tours with certified international mountain guides, and most importantly, a proper comfy bed and a real toilet!
How to make a reservation at the Lake O’Hara Lodge
Call 1-250-343-6418 between Monday to Wednesday from 9 AM to 2 PM MST. You will be asked to pay a deposit upon your booking.
Best hikes and photography spots around Lake O’Hara
There are viewpoints that are of indescribable beauty, some of which are a 10-minute stroll, some of which are a full day’s work.
If you want to combine many of them, then consider doing the entire Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit – one of my favorite day hikes in the Canadian Rockies.
The trail is marked by a blue square with two vertical yellow lines that you’ll see painted on the rocks and trees on the trail.
Although trails are well marked and easy to follow I highly recommend getting a map of the trails prior to visiting Lake O’Hara.
1. The Wiwaxy Gap and the Hüber Ledges
Distance: 4.8 km one way to Lake Oesa
Elevation gain: 520 m
Duration: 2-3 h one way; 4-5 hours return via Lake Oesa trail
The route up from the Lake Shore to the Wiwaxy Gap is a steep but beautiful hike. As it switchbacks sharply through the bush you’ll soon be above the tree line looking down at Lake O’Hara with the Schäffer Ridge in the background.
Once you’ve made it to the Wiwaxy Gap, the highest point of the Alpine Circuit, the descent on the Huber Ledges to Lake Oesa is a great, albeit strenuous, introduction to hiking at Lake O’Hara.
2. The Lake Oesa Trail
Distance: 3.2 km one way
Elevation gain: 240 meters
Duration: 3-hour return
The Lake Oesa Trail is the less serious version of the Wiwaxy Gap and the Huber Ledges. It takes a more gradual ascent through the forest and passes Victoria Falls, Victoria Lake and Lefroy Lake on its way.
3. The Yukness Ledges
Distance: 2.3km between Lake Oesa and Opabin Plateau
The elevation difference between Lake Oesa and Opabin Plateau: <50 m
The duration between Lake Oesa and the Opabin Plateau: 1 hour
The Yukness Ledges connect Lake Oesa with the Opabin Plateau and are a prominent feature of the entire Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit. They are 2.3km in length and mostly flat as they navigate around Yukness Mountain.
4. The Opabin Plateau
Elevation gain: 200 m
Distance one way: 2.8 km to Prospect, 4.7 km to Opabin Lake
duration: 2 hours return to Prospect, 3-4 hours to Opabin Lake
The Opabin Plateau is home to a multitude of small tarns and larger alpine lakes. The Cascade Lakes, Moor Lakes, Hungabee Lake, and the largest Opabin Lake all call the plateau home.
In the summer sun, they all shimmer with a variety of blues, aquamarines, and emerald greens but for me, the highlight of the plateau is the Opabin Prospect.
The Opabin Prospect is a rocky outcrop that looks west over Lake O’Hara and the adjacent Mary Lake. It holds a special place in my heart as it’s where I got engaged!!!
5. Schäffer Lake and Lake McArthur
Distance: 2 km to Schäffer Lake; 4.2 km to Lake McArthur
Elevation gain: 241 m
Duration: 3 – 4.5 hour return to Lake McArthur
Schäffer Lake is a small alpine tarn less than 1km away from The Elizabeth Parker Hut.
From the campsite, it marks the halfway point to the much grander Lake McArthur, which is the largest lake in the area.
The easy-to-follow trail is mostly uphill from the campsite and is really rewarding.
6. Mount Schäffer
Distance: 6 km
Elevation Gain: 682m
Duration: 2 hours to Lake McArthur, 3.5 hours to Mount Schäffer Summit, 4.5 – 6 hour return
A bit of a nerve-wracking scramble to the summit of Mount Schäffer offers views of both Lake O’Hara to the north and Lake McArthur to the south.
The not-for-the-faint-hearted trail ascends from Lake McArthur a further approximately 1.5 hours. Not an easy achievement but one with great reward. Scrambling is involved so be prepared.
7. The Lake O’Hara Lower Circuit
Distance: 2.8 km
Elevation Gain: Minimal
Duration: 1 – 2 hours
The easiest hike in the park is the lower route around Lake O’Hara. Throughout July until the middle of August, different blooming wildflowers brilliantly decorate the well-maintained path.
Visitor Tips for Lake O’Hara
Last minute cancellations
If you weren’t lucky enough not to know about Lake O’Hara or you’ve only just discovered this awesome guide and all the bookings in the campsite, ACC huts, and Lodge are gone then fear not. Not all is lost.
Because people are forced to make bookings so far in advance, many simply cannot stick to their original arrangements, don’t turn up or for example book for 3 nights but end up leaving after 2. Cancellations do happen.
There’s no harm in phoning the reservation office and asking if there are any upcoming free spots. You just have to be prepared to be flexible and possibly leave at a moment’s notice!
Yoho National Park lies within the subarctic zone, where the winters are long and cold and summers are short but warm.
The weather in the mountains is highly unpredictable. Chinook winds, which sometimes occur in this region can raise the temperature by over 30 degrees celsius in a day!!!
When I was there in August, the smoke from nearby wildfires created a thick haze but overnight temperatures were close to freezing, even in the height of summer.
As long as you come prepared for the elements then you will be fine!
A few packing essentials
If you’re getting the bus, remember that each guest is limited to one bag. The weight of this bag has no restrictions so fill it with whatever you’d like.
No need to worry about bringing only rice and pasta for once!
Moreover, I’ve never seen the “one bag rule” being enforced. I’ve seen many people bringing in several huge wheelie suitcases and big BBQ grills!!! A bit excessive if you ask me, but each to their own.
When I first tried this backpack on I had no idea how its anti-gravity harness system will positively influence each backpacking experience, I’ve had since. The lid transforms into a day pack, perfect for day excursions around lake O’Hara! Guys following my site you should check out the men’s version.
Getting a good night’s rest after hiking with a heavy load the whole day is essential. This sleeping pad will not only keep you insulated from the ground, but it will keep you comfy too. My advice is to go with the larger size!
I’ve had this tent for years now and used it for 3 weeks in Iceland, where it was tested against some crazy winds, as well as for every single backpacking trip I did in the Rockies. So far I have no tears and all the poles are still intact. Grab a tent footprint too, to prolong the life of your tent.
I recently left my pair in a parking lot after the hike and drove off. When I noticed my mistake it was too late to go back. I couldn’t get over it for a whole week, so I ordered a second pair without any hesitation. At 300 grams a pair, their weight is hard to beat.
Le Relais Shelter
Le Relais is a quaint little lodge situated centrally between the campsite, the ACC huts, and the lodge.
Le Relais Day Shelter offers a warm welcome and a valuable information source for visitors to Lake O’Hara.
The shelter is located near the end of Lake O’Hara road (approximately 11 km from the Lake O’Hara parking lot trailhead). Le Relais should be your first stop at Lake O’Hara for the most up-to-date information on trail conditions and wildlife sightings.
You can ask the staff about trails suited to your interests and hiking ability. You can also purchase trail maps, hot and cold beverages, and light snacks: hot chocolate, tea, coffee, ice cream, noodles, chocolate, and their famous carrot cake.
It’s cash only, US dollars are accepted at par and all profits from sales are used to maintain and improve trails in the Lake O’Hara area.
Le Relais is open daily from mid-June to early October, 8:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.
During the summer months, the Lake O’Hara bus stops at the shelter
Lake O’Hara area and Yoho National Park are prime grizzly bear habitats.
DO NOT GO WITHOUT BEAR SPRAY. Sing songs, make noise, and keep your eyes open for tracks and other signs of bears. Upon encountering a bear DO NOT RUN, make the bear aware of your presence and speak calmly.
If it retreats proceed with caution never getting too close, if it aggresses (which is highly unlikely, as bears are very shy animals) then stand your ground and be ready with your spray.
Don’t worry, bears are more scared of you than you are of them.
On my last day at Lake O’Hara, I was lucky enough to see a Wolverine, a small but vicious creature and a very rare endangered species. There’s a login book at Le Relais shelter, which you can check, to see where the most recent sightings were.
Good luck with your reservations! I hope you too get to experience Lake O’Hara. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.
If you are planning a road trip across the Canadian Rockies then make sure to check out my guide where you can find custom itineraries, day hiking, backpacking, and photography guides.