Lake O’Hara is located in Yoho National Park in Eastern British Columbia, just over the border from Alberta and only a few kilometers from Lake Louise.
The lake and the surrounding valley are some of the most prized areas for natural beauty in the Canadian Rockies. At an elevation of 2,200 meters, the lake spends the majority of the year locked away in a sheet of ice.
In the summer months, thousands of hopeful campers scramble to secure reservations at the much sought-after campsite located near the lake. Those lucky enough to sleep on the shores of Lake O’Hara are treated to a resplendent landscape full of wildlife, glaciers, larch trees, and alpine lakes.
However, not everyone can get a camping reservation or bus ticket to take them to Lake O’ Hara. We’re going to break down all you need to know for visiting Lake O’ Hara this summer.
Intro to Lake O’Hara
Lake O’Hara most commonly refers to the area around the lake such as the campground, Elizabeth Parker ACC hut, and the Lake O’Hara Lodge that are 11km down a gravel road. The only way for the public to gain access to the area is by foot or reservations on the Parks Canada bus from the Lake O’Hara parking lot.
The parking lot for Lake O’Hara sits at the end of the old Great Divide highway about a 10-minute drive from the Lake Louise village, and 15 minutes from Field and 25 from Emerald Lake. It’s a great day or backcountry trip to combine with a larger trip to Banff.
The pristine natural area may take some work to reach, but the effort required and limited numbers ensure that human impact on the region is minimized. In all of our exploration of the Canadian Rockies, there is hardly a place that competes in terms of natural beauty. Landscape views around Lake O’Hara are sublime and feel as if they belong in a dream or movie.
How To Visit Lake O’Hara
There are a few options for getting to Lake O’Hara and enjoying it to it’s fullest. We’ll break each of them down here, but in short your options are:
- Scoring a campsite at Lake O’Hara (overnight option)
- Getting reservations for a seat on the Lake O’ Hara Bus (for day hikers)
- Walking the access road in (day hikers)
- Shelling out for the beautiful Lake O’ Hara Lodge (overnight option)
- Booking the Elizabeth Parker Hut (overnight option
Camping at Lake O’Hara
Lake O Hara Campground Fees
- Online Reservation Fee: $11.50 (non-refundable)
- Telephone Reservation Fee: $13.50 (non-refundable)
- Backcountry camping fees (in addition to the reservation fee): $10 per person, per night*
- Lake O’ Hara Bus fees: Included with campground reservation
- Yoho National Park Park Fee: $10 per adult, per day. It’s recommended to get a Discover Pass if in a group and spending multiple days in Banff and Yoho.
Campsites are very limited at Lake O’Hara and managed by Parks Canada to reduce human impact on the area. There are a total of 30 campsites at the Lake O’Hara Campground and reservations are highly sought-after. It’s so competitive that the best chance to secure a reservation is to book on the Parks Canada website as soon as reservations are released.
The reservation system for campsites at Lake O’Hara opens every year before the camping season begins. For 2021 you can book your reservation here in April 2021. (Tentative scheduled opening date is April 27th at 8am MDT.)
Visit the Parks Canada website earlier than 8am and be ready to book, as they have a virtual line for the booking process in order to stop the system from crashing. You can also book by phone by calling 1-877-737-3783, but the phone lines can be more of an issue than booking online
If you are able to book a reservation you are permitted up to three nights and two campsites. Each campsite can hold one tent and a maximum of six people per party. The campsite reservation includes a spot on the transportation bus that will drive campers 11km down a gravel road to the campsite.
Upon booking, campers will need to request their desired bus departure time. Buses for campers depart from the parking lot at 8:30 am, 10:30 am, 3:30 pm, and 5:30 pm. Reservations are only required for the inbound bus when you make your reservation. Bus times are not guaranteed, and you will receive an email to confirm your in-bound bus time within two weeks of your booking date.
If you miss the chance to book when the reservation system options, it is possible to score a reservation at any time of year as cancellations do occur. Of course, this means campers need flexible dates so it is best suited for locals to the region. Campers are treated to one of the nicest backcountry campgrounds operated by Parks Canada.
At the campsite, there are communal fire pits, picnic tables, and a kitchen area with sinks to wash dishes. There are also trash cans, long drop toilets, and bear lockers. The trash cans feel particularly luxurious as campers are not required to pack out their trash.
Two shelters also provide a dry place to relax, cook, and warm up next to one of the wood stoves. Potable water is also available at the campsite so no need for a water filter unless you need to water from the lakes on hikes.
Lake O’Hara Campground Rules
- Maximum stay of three nights
- One tent per campsite
- Maximum two campsites on the same reservation
- One large bag or two small bags per camper allowed on the bus. 25 kg max weight per passenger.
- No hard-sided cooler or plastic bins allowed
- No musical instruments, speakers, chairs, or hammocks are allowed
- Food must be stored in bear lockers
Day Hiking at Lake O’Hara
If you want to day hike around Lake O’Hara you have two options for getting to the lake, scoring a seat on the bus or hiking in on the access road.
Bus Reservations for a Day Trip to Lake O’ Hara
If hikers are not able to land a campsite reservation they are left with two options to visit Lake O’Hara. The next best option would be to book a reservation on the Parks Canada bus. Most of the trails around Lake O’Hara are short and it is possible to cover all of the highlights in a day or two. If you’re a fast hiker you can get quite a bit done in a long day.
Day hikers who wish to secure a bus reservation will need to submit an application in the month of April. Each application costs $10 CAD and allows for the selection of six different dates and/or times for up to six people. Applications are then drawn at random to fill the spots. If any spots are left unfulfilled the remainder will become available on a first-come-first-serve basis online.
Reservations earlier in the day are best as it allows for ample time to explore the area through the plethora of hiking trails. The bus drops off campers at the campground. It’s a short 500 meter walk to the Le Relais Day Shelter and Lake O’Hara.
To recap to secure a reservation on the Parks Canada bus for day use you must:
- Submit an online application to the Parks Canada Reservation system during the whole month of April 2021 to take the Lake O’Hara shuttle between June 18th-October 3rd, 2021.
- Pay $10 for the application and select up to six different bus days and times. You will also be able to select up to six seats for your part.
- There will be a lottery drawing at random for those who have submitted an application. Applicants will be notified and visitors will then confirm for booking.
- Spots that are not reserved will be available to book on a first come first serve basis so it’s important to pay attention to the Parks Canada website.
Lake O’Hara Shuttle Info
- Random Draw Application Fee: $10
- Reservation Fee for Successful Lottery Applicants: $4.50 per ticket or $11.50 for groups of 3 or more
- Day-use bus schedule for 2021 is: 8:30; 10:30 (ingoing) and 9:30; 11:30; 14:30; 16:30; 18:30 MDT (outgoing)
Lake O’ Hara Shuttle Costs:
- Round Trip Ticket: Adults – $14.70, Youth (6-16) – $7.30, Children (5 and under) – Free
- Outgoing bus online – Adults – $9.75, Youth (6-16) – $4.75, Children (5 and under) – Free
- Arrive at least 20 minutes prior to your scheduled departure time
Lake O’Hara Road Hike
If you are unable to secure bus reservations or reservations at the campground the final option would be to hike the access road. From the parking lot to the Lake O’Hara campground it’s around 11km (6.8 miles) and gains 500 meters (1,650 feet) in elevation.
It’s a gradual climb up the road, but it does eat at the psyche of hikers as it is extremely boring (don’t ask us how we know). The road takes two hours to walk at a constant pace with no breaks.
This option is best reserved for experienced hikers as they need to be prepared for a minimum of hiking 23 km that day. If there are plans to do the alpine circuit or any of the day hikes it is easy to reach a 30+ km day. It is possible to catch the bus in the evening for departure, but hikers are not guaranteed a spot. The one-way ticket costs $9.75 and can only be paid in cash. We personally hiked in one day, completed the Alpine circuit, and hiked our around 10pm. It was a long day, but so worth it.
Can You Cut Time and Bike the Lake O’Hara Road?
NO BIKING is allowed on the road and wardens regularly drive up and down the road and can/will issue fines. Pets are not allowed at the campground, ACC hut, bus, or lodge. However, they are permitted to be walked in on-leash — the dog will need to be comfortable covering at least 23 km.
We’ve done the road a few times and it does come with one big advantage for photographers. If you hike the road it means you can choose the day and time. So if you’re concerned about whether you can pick the best window and the bus schedule will not allow for sunset or sunrise.
Of course, either sunset or sunrise requires walking the road in the dark – early in the morning or late at night. But as the road is easy with no obstacles it can easily be walked in the day.
Overnight Options at Lake O’Hara
Stay Lake O’Hara Lodge
For those who do not feel like pitching a tent or walking down the long gravel road, then a stay at Lake O’Hara Lodge will be a sublime choice. The historic lodge is luxurious and has lakeside cabins that are beyond enviable.
Quite honestly they are maybe some of the most serene cabins in the world. Included in guest’s stay are all meals, a private shuttle bus, and use of the lodge canoes.
However, all of this comes at a steep price of $1,100 CAD a night in the cabins based on double occupancy, and this price does not deter people. Expect the lodge to book up quickly, sometimes more than a year in advance.
That being said, it surely a dream-worthy stay that should be envied by all hikers. The lodge is also open in the winter months when the area around Lake O’Hara turns backcountry/cross country skiers dream.
Stay at the Elizabeth Parker ACC Hut
Elizabeth Parker Hut is one of the most popular options to explore the Lake O’Hara area. It’s arguably the ACC’s most popular hut and in order to secure a summer, booking requires entering a lottery in October. The summer season occurs from mid-June to the first of October.
Inside the hut is enough room for 24 campers with bunk beds, wood stove, propane cookstoves, kitchen utensils, communal lounge, and outhouses. The hut is located 1 km from the bus stop and 500 meters from Lake O’Hara. If you love to cross country ski or backcountry ski consider making a visit to the hut in the winter when bookings are relatively easy.
If you’re able to secure a booking you’re able to book a spot on the shuttle bus with the ACC. Reservations are not transferable and there is a strict cancelation policy. During the summer the huts costs are $35 per person per night for ACC members and $45 pp/pn for non-members.
For more information, I’d check out the ACC’s website with COVID happening they were forced to change the reservation policy and it is ever changing.
Day Hikes Around Lake O’Hara
There is a wonderful network of trails around Lake O’Hara that is well signed. That being said, it’s a worthy investment in some sort of map or GPS map with the trail network before you reach Lake O’Hara. It should go without saying, but there is no cell phone service or internet connection and a Garmin In Reach could save a life. Upon arrival, you can find updated trail conditions posted at the campground and Le Relais Day Shelter.
Some of the trail work done by early members of the ACC make the hikes worthy visitations alone. A particular highlight for us is the stonework that leads past Lake Oesa to Abbot Pass. It’s possible to combine all of these hikes for large circuits.
Best Hikes Around Lake O’Hara
- Lake McArthur
- Lake Oesa
- Huber Ledges
- Opabin Plateau
- Alpine Circuit
- Cascade Lakes
- Wiwaxy Gap / Huber Ledges
- Yukness Ledges
- All Soul’s Prospect
- Abbot Pass
- Odaray Grandview*
** There are several alpine routes around Lake O’Hara marked by cairns and also marked by painted blue and yellow square symbols. They are harder hikes that may involve some scrambling and route finding. Because they are higher in elevation some of them involve hiking near avalanche chutes that can become dangerous if there is still snow lingering. For instance, we attempted the Yukness Ledges in early July and had to turn around due to snow. Alpine routes should only be attempted by experienced hikers who have experience hiking in the Canadian Rockies.
Lake O’ Hara Trail Descriptions
Lake O’Hara Shoreline trail
- Length: 2.8 km
- Elevation gain: minor up and down, mostly nothing to note
The Lake O’ Hara Shoreline is an easy trail that navigates around the entire lake. It’s best for families and people of limited mobility as there is very little elevation gain. You can start this shoreline hike at the O’Hara Warden Cabin and go across the Cataract Brook via the bridge. Go past the Huber Ledges/Wiwaxy Gap trail sights and continue along the lake.
Lake Oesa trail
- Easy to Moderate
- Length: 3.2 km to lake
- Elevation Gain: 240 meters
This is a quintessential Lake O’Hara hike that really begins near the eastern end of Lake O’ Hara. To reach Lake Oesa ascend the switchbacks to the top of the cliff. Once at the top there is a wide talus that is pretty straightforwardly, you’ll then get to the stone steps and notice the Lawrence Grassi plaque. Continue through the meadows and climb the grassy globe. You’ll then see a trail that will lead you to the tilted rock slabs and in front of you Lake Oesa. If you can only do one moderate hike near Lake O’ Hara make it this one.
Opabin Plateau Circuit
- Easy to Moderate
- Length: 5.9 km round trip
- Elevation Gain: 250 meters
This is a popular Lake O’Hara hike as the viewpoint is one of those Instagram photos you’ll get lots of likes for. It’s also fairly easy and a good short hike that you combine with a day of hiking into Lake O’Hara on the access road. Opabin Plateau is a hanging valley above Lake O Hara. You can start from either West Opabin Trail and East Opabin Trail and end in the opposite making it a full loop.
McArthur Pass, and Lake McArthur trails
- Length: 8 km round trip
- Elevation gain: 310 m
Another great trail if you had to day hike in and don’t have a ton of extra pep in your step for lots of hiking and elevation gain. This trail passes by Lake McArthur and provides epic vistas. The trail begins at the Relais Day Shetler and heads west from there. Pass the meadow where the Elizabeth Parker hut, you’ll pass plenty of larch trees and cross a bridge over Schaffer Creek before a junction. You’ll take that south and continue along the Lake McArthur circuit before reaching the summit of McArthur Pass. The trail forks and you’ll be able to get to Lake McArthur via the Low-Level Trail along a rock ledge.
- Length: 9.5 km
- Elevation Gain: 794 meters
The hike goes along the base of Yukness Mountain and opens up to jaw dropping vantage points back out over the valley, Lake O’Hara, and Mount Odaray. It is essentially a full look around all the main sights including Lake Oesa and Opabin Plateau. It’s a long day if you combine with the hike in and out on the access route, but it’s simply amazing and worth the cramped feet. A true highlight is to witness this area in September during the larch season.
Things to Know About Lake O’Hara
- We were pleasantly surprised with how well signposted the Lake O’Hara area was. Make sure to download the Parks Canada map before you venture back.
- AllTrails has extensive hike information for many of the hikes around Lake O’Hara. I would suggest downloading these maps to your phone after studying as there is no service to do so once at Lake O’Hara.
- Relais Shelter and Lake O’ Hara Campground also have a map and information about the hikes. Make sure you study it and that your phone is charged so you can take a photo of it and carry it with you.
Lake O’Hara Photo Point
The most well known photography location around Lake O’Hara is the Obapin Plateau. It’s a viewpoint and photograph that widely circles the internet and social media. Which makes it one of the most well known landscapes in the Canadian Rockies. Hiking up to the viewpoint is easy with 4km in distance and 200 meters of elevation gain.
Le Relais Day Shelter
The Le Relais Day Use Shelter is the primary hub at Lake O’Hara. It acts as the information desk, coffee shop, and gift shop. All of the proceeds at the day shelter go back to the Lake O’Hara Trail Club who maintains the trails around the region. Le Relais is open every day in the summer from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm. They only accept cash.
They offer for sale a number of food and drink options which includes coffee, tea, chocolate, ice cream, sandwich, snacks, and their famous carrot cake. The cake is well sought after and they regularly sell out every day so head there early if you have your sights set on the cake.
Best Time To Visit Lake O’Hara
We have seen it snow every month of the year in the Canadian Rockies so always be prepared for cold inclement weather. If you plan to visit in the shoulder months of June or September be prepared for cold weather. Typically the lake unthaws at the end of June or early July and remains ice-free until the end of September. The best time to visit would be August when snow is at a minimum, mid to late September can also be exceptional when the larch trees turn gold around Lake McArthur.
No matter the forecast I suggest coming prepared for snow, rain, sleet, sun, wind, and any combination of them all. On our first day it poured in the evening then shifted to snow at night as temperatures cooled. Or course, you should still be prepared for heat and sun exposure because hiking with a pack is laborious. Our best advice is to pack proper layers, a tarp, proper sleeping bag, and do not forget your rainfly if camping!
Can You Bring Dogs to Lake O’Hara?
Dogs sadly can not ride on the bus and are not allowed at the campsite or ACC hut. The only way for canines to visit Lake O’Hara is by walking down the gravel access road.
Wildlife Around Lake O’ Hara
Wildlife encounters are not something only newer hikers have to deal with. Everyone should be prepared to encounter wildlife in Banff. One should never go out without bear spray. And each person in the group should have their own bear spray, don’t rely on one bear spray for multiple people.
What to Wear On a Hike in the Rockies?
- Down Jacket: A down jacket is an essential in the Rockies. They pack down and fit easily in a backpack. However, despite their lightweight nature, they can offer a lot of warmth which is needed on almost every mountain summit.
- Hiking Pants: Good hiking pants are important in the Rockies as there is a lot of loose scree and rocks that can tear others pants easily. Our favorite hiking pants are the Fjallraven Kebs (Mens and Womens)
- Hiking Leggings: Hiking leggings are great for women in the Rockies. They provide awesome mobility and these ones from Arcteryx aren’t see through and are heavy duty.
- Windbreaker/Rainjacket: An important item to have while hiking is a windbreaker jacket. They come in especially handy on mountain summits when the wind is aboslutely whipping. Arc’teryx Windbreakers are our preferred jackets
- Sunglasses: Proper eye protection is important. Our favorite sunglasses brand is Smith.
- Scrambling Gloves: I don’t go on a hike or scramble in the Rockies witout a pair of rugged clothes to protect my hands. My favorites are from Outdoor Research.
- Trail Runners: Honestly I complete most hikes in trail runners so I can run or jog parts of the trail when I want. My go to trail runners are made by Salomon.
- Hiking Boots: On multi day hikes when I am carrying a large load I turn to proper hiking boots. The Salomon Outline boots are fantastic.
- Wool Socks: Don’t cheap out on your hiking socks. A proper pair of wool socks can make the difference between wet and dry feet.
- Hiking Underwear: The difference between hiking in normal underwear and actual moisture wicking underwear meant for outdoor actitivites is extreme. Yes they are more expensive but they last forever. My favorites are from Patagonia.
- Performance Shirt: The Outdoor Research Echo Series are the best hiking shirts for men and women.
- Hiking Poles: Can save your knees, especially on the descent of some of these steep hikes. Black Diamond is my preferred brand.
- Lightweight Backpack: You’ll need an awesome backpack for carrying all your gear. My favorite hiking backpacks are made by Camelbak.
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