Exploring Lake O’Hara: Canada’s Backcountry Jewel

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Written by Jennifer Fast on

Jennifer Fast is a published travel, landscape and lifestyle photographer from the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Canada. She is passionate about inspiring others to expand their horizons and explore as much of our beautiful world as possible. She loves the adventure that comes with finding unique photography locations, often hiking or traveling many miles to explore more remote territory. She is dedicated to experiencing as much natural beauty as possible and hopes that her unique imagery can help instill a heart of exploration in others.

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Banff National Park, with its towering mountain peaks and stunning cerulean-hued alpine lakes, is on every outdoor enthusiast’s bucket list. Classic spots to visit include Moraine Lake and Lake Louise, two massive lakes encircled by both jaw-dropping mountain peaks, and hordes of tourists. However, if you’re willing to venture off the beaten path, there’s a hiker’s paradise that borders Banff with the same caliber of views, but just a small fraction of the foot traffic.

Lake O’Hara is a lake and wilderness area located in British Columbia (close to the Alberta border) that feels like your own private mountain paradise. This is because Parks Canada restricts the amount of people allowed to visit the park. According to the Parks Canada Website : “To protect this sensitive alpine area and provide a wilderness experience, a quota system is in place to limit the number of visitors using the public bus service into Lake O'Hara.”

The current quota allows just under 40 visitors per day via bus, 11 commercially-guided day visitors, up to 90 campers, 48 guests at ACC huts and 60 lodge visitors. The outcome is a pristine wilderness playground that is well-maintained and a joy to explore.

Jen hiking

Activities at Lake O’Hara:

Lake O’Hara consists of 12 lakes, 25 well-maintained trails, and 5 glaciers. Optional activities include: hiking, mountain climbing, camping, fishing, canoeing, snowshoeing, skiing, and skating.

The most popular activity at Lake O’Hara is most definitely hiking (keep on scrolling to see some of the stunning views you can uncover and you’ll understand why!)

How to get to Lake O’Hara:

Most trips to Lake O'Hara begin with a reservations-required shuttle bus ride, though you can also hike up the 11km access road. The Lake O'Hara bus runs mid-June through the end of September (or early October, depending upon weather conditions).

You can view the bus schedule to Lake O’Hara here.

The 25-minute bus ride departs from the Lake O’Hara Parking Lot, 12 km west of Lake Louise, AB. You are not required to reserve a seat on the outbound bus and you can hop on whichever one you’d like, even if you have hiked in to Lake O’Hara. Dogs are not allowed on the bus but are permitted in Lake O’Hara (you must hike in and out with dogs).

How to book bus reservations: You can book your day use reservation of the Parks Canada Reservation System . Day use reservations for the Lake O'Hara shuttle bus for the 2019 season will open on April 20, 2019 at 8 a.m.

Where to stay:

If you wish to overnight at Lake O’Hara, there is a campground, a lodge, and a backcountry hut that you can make reservations at. Overnighting is a great idea if you wish to have plenty of time to explore the many trail systems.

Learn more on the Parks Canada website.

Best Time to Visit:

The best time for a hiking trip to Lake O’Hara is between July to September, after the snow has melted and the weather is warm.

view from hike

Best Views in Lake O’Hara:

Lake O'Hara Shoreline trail – 2.8 km circuit, minor elevation gain

Once you reach the O’Hara Warden Cabin, head east and cross a bridge over Cataract Brook. Follow along the north shore of the lake past the start of the Wixaxy Gap route on your left. Continue along the hillside and pass a massive outcropping of pink quatzite and some beautiful waterfalls, including Seven Veils Falls.

Opabin Plateau – 5.9 km circuit, 250 m elevation gain

This plateau consists of a rocky cliff area overtop a stunning valley with a view of multiple vibrant lakes below. There are two approaches – via West Opabin Trail or East Opabin Trail. By starting up either of these trails and returning via the other, a tour loop of the valley can be made.

Lake Oesa Trail – 3.2 km one way, 240 m elevation gain

The gorgeous trail begins on the Lake O'Hara Shoreline Trail near the east side of the lake. It climbs a number of switchbacks to reach the top of the cliff, then climbs over severall rocky outcrops and passes a number of small waterfalls before arriving at this beautiful alpine lake.

Click here for a full list of hiking trails at Lake O’Hara

What to bring:

For a day trip, you’ll want to bring along:

- A comfortable backpack (I hiked with the Eaglecreek 40L Wayfinder Backpack)

- Plenty of water in refillable water bottle(s)

- Snacks for the day (there is both food and water available for purchase with cash at a small shop near the bus stop)

- Sunscreen

- Bug spray

- Comfortable hiking shoes

- Hiking poles

- Layers of hiking clothing (weather in the Canadian Rockies can be unpredictable)

- Camera with lots of memory card space (you will need this!)