Lake O'Hara: A Hiker's Paradise

Words can not describe Lake O'Hara but perhaps Kathy & Craig Copeland, the authors of Don't Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies, describe it best:
"Magic mushrooms. Cannabis. Tequila. Lake O'Hara. 
All will get you high. 

All are controlled substances. 

The difference:
limitations on
Lake O'Hara
protect it,
not you."
After reading a description like this, it's hard not to put on the hiking boots right here and now!

To protect this sensitive alpine area and maintain a wilderness experience, Parks Canada has a quota system in place to limit the number of visitors using the public bus service into Lake O'Hara. The daily quota allows 42 day users, along with overnight visitors staying at the park's 30-site campground, two Alpine Club of Canada huts, and a small, private lodge.

As soon I found this out, I was on the phone trying to reserve a spot of the shuttle bus. An hour and a half later, I finally got through. And yes, they had one last spot on the bus for me!  Lucky me as Parks Canada recommends booking three months in advance..  Doesn't that sound familiar...

Of course, you can walk (but not bike) the 11km restricted access road to the Lake but who really wants to do that boring trek?

Despite the fact that it was late June, it was a late spring, and the trail reports didn't paint a rosy picture: deep snow, avalanche warnings, closed trails. But who knows when I will have another chance of doing this so off I went.

After everyone boarded the first bus of the morning, the Parks Canada employee welcomed everyone on board and warned off the trail conditions and limited hiking opportunities around the Lake and to Lake Oesa. Upon hearing about the deep snow conditions, one of the flip-flop wearing tourists raised their hand and asked, "Umm, when's the first bus scheduled to come back?" Sweet! Yes, I'll admit it. I was selfish. I cherished the thought of even fewer people hanging around the lake that day. If you're not prepared for the weather and trail conditions, you might as well go back home folks! 

After the twenty-five minute bumpy bus ride up the access road, it was time to get out and take in this natural wonder. Out of curiosity, I first popped into the Lake O'Hara Trail Club Day Shelter for a quick look. There was a drum full of walking sticks you can borrow. Having never used a man-made walking stick, I borrowed one for the day.  While I still have some doubts about their claimed practicality, I'm sure glad I used one that day. I'm still not 100% convinced that they are as good as all the marketing hype suggests but I digress...

It was time to head out on the trail. Before even hitting the lake, it started to drizzle but it wasn't anything too dramatic. I must admit that my first impression wasn't too favourable as there was this rumbling sound coming from across the lake. After traveling all this way, are we really that close to another highway?

But no need to fear. As I walked a little farther along the lakeshore, I soon realized those sounds were not from a neighbouring highway but a series of waterfalls at the far end of the lake. That I can appreciate.

According to the trail report, the Lake O'Hara Trail was the only trail in relatively fair spring-time condition with some snow patches so it was the first trail of the day. It's a pleasant and easy loop around the lake that provides commanding views of the mountains around the lake but this is not what Lake O'Hara is renowned for.

Rather it is the Lake O'Hara Alpine Circuit that makes serious hikers grin from ear to ear. According to
Kathy & Craig Copeland,
"Actually it's not a trail. It's a route.
An acrophobe's nightmare.
Catwalks, ledges and paths linked to create a loop.
Mostly above treeline.
Often clinging to the walls of skyscraping mountains."
So no more waiting around. The drizzle had stopped. According to the trail reports, the Circuit was still snow covered and the Parks Canada official warned of very deep snow up to Wiwaxy Gap. Nevertheless, I had to at least give it a shot. The Wiwaxy Gap Trail starts with a steep climb up a narrow trail. There still were snow sections on the trail, which made the climb a bit more treacherous but not as difficult as the rock scree higher up. At least snow compresses to provide decent footing. As I continued climbing up, I started thinking that this is ridiculous. Here I am, all alone, going up this side of the mountain in a canyon filled with loose rock with no clear path, on a trail that was unofficially closed with no evidence that anyone walked this way this year. What if something happens to me? Who's going to help me? No one knows I'm up here. My cell phone has no reception. As I continued my way slowly up, I thought to myself that this can't possibly be the trail and seeing how it seems to look like this all the way up the mountain, I decided to turn back. 

On the way down, I came across my first hoary marmot.  As I went for my camera, the shy marmot quickly ran into the trees.

I walked in a bit closer and I saw what could be a little snow covered pathway along the cliff. Yes, I found it. Thank you Mr. Marmot!

Yes, that is the trail!  As I continued past some interesting ledges, rock slides, avalanche paths, and streams, I soon lost the trail again. Oh well, at least, I can enjoy the scenery. 

Retracing my steps, a ground squirrel pops up nearby so I take a photo and rediscover the path a bit upstream. Thank you Mr. Squirrel!

So once again, I'm hiking along the official trail, and now the small yellow and blue painted trail markers are becoming a little more frequent along the ledges and switchbacks but then I'm off the trail again, and this time, I think there's nowhere else to go.

Time to turn back but then, and I'm not making this up, I notice yet another ground squirrel pop up right next to what appears to be the continuation of the trail, and sure enough it is. Thanks again Mr. Squirrel! (or is it Mrs. Squirrel and Mrs. Marmot?).

The path starts going up even further. That's bad news because there's only snow up there. Looking at the trail map, it doesn't look promising. It looks as though the trail for the foreseeable distance is covered in deep snow. Darren lent me his microspikes for extra traction on any icy ledges I might came across but they'd be of little use in deep snow. Plus I was alone. I didn't pass anyone on the trail, and there's no path to follow in the snow. Time to head back and tackle the Gap another time.

From up here, the trail to Lake Oesa looks interesting. Time to check it out.


  1. Great summary of your experience here!! Have been wanting to do this for years, and was able to get camping reservations this year but only for opening weekend (mid-June). Worried that a lot of the trails won't be accessible yet and the lakes will still be frozen. Debating cancelling our camping reservations if we can get our hands on day passes the first week of July when we'll be back in the area. Thoughts?

    1. Thanks!
      Camping here would be surreal. Personally, I would take advantage of the camping reservation (since you were lucky enough to get one) and try my luck on the day passes as well


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