#3 – Canadian Rockies Day Hikes: Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit
- Location: Yoho National Park
- Trailhead: Lake O’Hara
- Type: Loop
- Rating: Strenuous
- Total Distance: 7.5 miles
- Trailhead Elevation: 6,625′
- Total Elevation Gain: 2,740′
- Recommended Time: Full-day
- Recommended Season: Early-July to Mid-September
- Reservations for the Lake O’Hara bus are needed. (Otherwise add 7 miles (one-way) to hike up the road.)
The Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit
The Lake O’Hara area of Yoho National Park has many beautiful hikes that made it onto our list of the best day hikes in the Canadian Rockies. On a whole, this area of Yoho National Park is one of the most beautiful in the Canadian Rockies and this Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit is its best day hike. The trail allows for several panoramic bird’s-eye views of the gorgeous Lake O’Hara as well as many other turquoise lakes that dot the landscape below the jagged, glaciated mountain peaks. This for many is the epitome and the pinnacle of a great Canadian Rockies trail.
Not for the Faint of Heart
While the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit is full of scenic wonder and beauty, it is unquestionably difficult with lots of elevation change and, at times, loose terrain. Being comfortable hiking along cliff edges is a prerequisite of this exquisite journey. However, for those who venture out onto these cliffs awaits some of the most surreal and picturesque mountain beauty in the world. Words can not fully express the jaw-dropping beauty found from this precarious trail.
This epic journey starts and ends on the shores of Lake O’Hara. So, which way do you travel? It is a steep and arduous journey regardless of the direction, but we recommend starting early and hiking clockwise. This way you take on the steep climb up to the Wiwaxy Gap first. The trail will keep you climbing in the shade for much of the day while illuminating the landscape opposite of your position.
The Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit can be a hard trail to follow as it passes over rocky terrain and intersects almost every other trail in the Lake O’Hara area. The park service has attempted to make navigation easier in the alpine areas by painting blue squares with two verticle yellow stripes on some of the rocks.
At just over 8,300′, the Wiwaxy Gap is the highest point on the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit. The trail descends from the Gap to the shores of Lake Oesa, then climbs up and crosses over the rocky Yukness Ledges. The path descends once again to the Opabin Plateau at Hungabee Lake and then crosses over the plateau before making the final ascent to the All Soul’s Prospect (the coolest name for a viewpoint ever). This final ascent remains in shadow for much of the day and as such can hold snow well into July. After the All Soul’s Prospect, hikers descend steeply to Schaffer Lake and return to Lake O’Hara via the Lake McArthur Trail.
The elevation gain and cliff exposure are the two main challenges of the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit. The relatively short distance is almost misleading. Beyond the truly spectacular views, the nice thing about this trail is the opportunity to also combine the journey with many other trails in the area. I do recommend this as there is much beauty to be discovered near Lake O’Hara. Be careful to not take on to much extra mileage as this journey has many ascents and descents. You want to conserve your energy to complete the overall trail.
Lake O’Hara Permits & Wildlife
To protect this amazing place the park service has instituted a daily quota system that allows a small number of visitors to journey into the Lake O’Hara area via a shuttle bus. Permits are highly coveted and hard to acquire. Last minute cancellations do happen though. Along with the seclusion, the limited number of visitors adds to the health of the environment here. Animals seem to be more abundant around Lake O’Hara, especially on the Alpine Circuit, then in other areas of the national parks. When out hiking make sure you carry bear spray but speak softly and keep your eyes open for all sorts of wildlife that call this place home. Start planning your trip to Lake O’Hara now.