Posted by: kerryl29 | December 29, 2015

Canadian Rockies Thematic Interruption: Lake O’Hara – A Retrospective

I’ve pulled no punches:  the single most important reason that I returned to the Canadian Rockies this past fall, after having spent roughly two weeks in the region during the autumn of 2014, was to rectify the disaster that was my one-day experience at Lake O’Hara.  If you read my account of that day in the rain, you’ll get a sense of my frustration:  I could see the incredible beauty of the area–in spite of the considerably less-than-optimal conditions–but I was unable to do it justice.  I was left, in effect, to merely wonder how spectacular the location might be under legitimately good conditions.

When it became clear to me that I was still wondering about this, more or less on a daily basis three months after the fact, I realized that I would do well to see if I could figure out a way to revisit the location.  It was that process that led to what ultimately turned into the trip I’ve been chronicling for the past few months.

Given the motivation, I thought it would make sense to reflect on the experience of scratching the itch, as I’ve put it in the title of the two entries covering my time earlier this year at Lake O’Hara.  (Those who have been paying particularly close attention will note that I had scheduled three days at Lake O’Hara during this trip but have described only two.  Spoiler alert:  the final day at Lake O’Hara, on Day 10,, was more or less a rerun of my 2014 experience–rain and wind and lots of both.  I’ll provide a few more details when I fully describe that day in the coming weeks, but suffice to say I nearly let my bus spot on Day 10 go and I did not spend an entire late morning/afternoon traipsing around in the rain this time.)

Hungabee Lake Outlet Stream, Opabin Plateau, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Hungabee Lake Outlet Stream, Opabin Plateau, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

As I’ve outlined in my descriptions of Day 6 and Day 7, I had some truly terrific weather for much of the first day and all of the second, which essentially validated my decision to return to the area.

My 2014 experience and a bit of extended research proved to me that scheduling a single day up at Lake O’Hara is a very dicey proposition at best.  Even though autumn is the driest time of year in the Canadian Rockies, it’s not particularly dry in Yoho National Park, in which Lake O’Hara and its environs lie.  The odds of getting a dry day in the second half of September–when the larches are at their most attractive–are no better than 50-50.  The odds of getting dry and something other than entirely or mostly cloudy and windless…while the larches are at their golden peak…well, those odds aren’t nearly that good.

Mary Lake and Cathedral Mountain from the West Opabin Trail, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Mary Lake and Cathedral Mountain from the West Opabin Trail, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

As a result, I deliberately reserved multiple days access to O’Hara this time around, under the theory that the odds of experiencing good–or, at least, not bad–weather conditions would be considerably improved.  I outlined the convoluted specifics of obtaining reservations in my write-up of Day 6.  To reiterate the key points:

This year, Parks Canada joined the 20th (if not the 21st) Century by establishing an on-line reservation system.  The only problems?  Parks Canada opened up every single day for the entire 2015 season (which runs from late June to the first weekend in October) at one time (9 AM, MDT, on April 20).  I didn’t learn of this new system until the day it debuted, about two hours after the site went public.  At that time, I wasn’t even sure that I was going to return to the Rockies this year.  By the time I was made aware of the site and checked it out, virtually the entire season was already sold out.  In a near panic, I managed to nab the final single spot on the 10:30 AM bus (the other departure time, 8:30 AM, was already completely sold out for every day in September) on three days–Sept. 21, 22 and 25.  By the time I had secured these spots, there were no more day trip access spots for any of the days in the month of September (the time I’d be going to the Rockies, if I went at all).  June, July and August were already gone before I even knew that the website existed; all that remained were a handful of spots on the final weekend of the season, in early October.

After obtaining those reservations, I went about the process of actually booking the rest of the trip.  I hadn’t planned on formally deciding whether to return to the Rockies until late May, but the experience with the reservation system in the second half of April pushed that decision up by five-odd weeks.

Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Lake O’Hara, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

The choice to reserve multiple days obviously paid off for me.  And the natural assumption is that if I had the chance to return, I’d jump on it.  And if someone I knew was planning a trip to the region, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to recommend Lake O’Hara as a “must do” part of any itinerary.  Well…

It’s not necessarily that simple or obvious.  The truth of the matter is, access to Lake O’Hara is so difficult to obtain and the regional weather conditions are so variable, any recommendation would be of the “if you don’t mind the following issues” variety.

Cascade Lakes and Mt. Huber, Opabin Plateau, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Cascade Lakes and Mt. Huber, Opabin Plateau, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Don’t get me wrong; the area around Lake O’Hara–and the Opabin Plateau in particular–is arguably the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life.  When the conditions are right, the scenery is truly of the jaw-dropping variety.  The problem with any recommendation, however, is essentially twofold and intertwined.

The first part, just to reiterate what I’ve noted above, surrounds the weather conditions.  You simply can’t assume, with any confidence, that you’re going to get favorable climatic circumstances up at Lake O’Hara.  Even in the short term the weather can turn, unexpectedly, in an instant.  Witness my Day 6 experience when a projected 0% precipitation day–with the prediction issued that morning–turned into an hour-long snow squall that very afternoon.

The second part?  Reservations need to be made so far in advance–many months–that guessing what the conditions will ultimately be like on the day of access is utterly absurd.  While in theory you can gain bus access to the lake each day, in practice, it almost certainly won’t happen.  And the long odds will get even longer on those days when the conditions are truly good.  (I’ve taken a bus up to Lake O’Hara four different times; exactly zero people without reservations hoping for an opening have been able to get on the bus on those four occasions, out of something like two dozen who have tried.)  Of course, you could hoof it up to the lake on a day when the weather looks good; there’s no restriction on the number of people who hike up to Lake O’Hara each day.  This assumes that you’re willing to haul yourself (and all of your gear, of course) roughly seven miles uphill…as a prelude to other long, generally grueling hikes once you actually get up there.  (Yes, this is the reason why there’s no need for a formal hike-in quota–not very many people do it.)

Hungabee Lake and Cathedral Mountain, Opabin Plateau, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Hungabee Lake and Cathedral Mountain, Opabin Plateau, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

If it sounds as though I’m complaining about the limitations placed on access to the Lake O’Hara area, I’m not.  I wish that the reservation system was implemented a bit differently, but by every description, the area itself was being “loved to death” before access restrictions were put into place.  By all accounts, the stress level on the plants and animals that inhabit the area have declined dramatically since the limitations were implemented.  So the rules are not only okay with me, I fully support them.

But the practical implications of these rules simply have to be taken into account.  The strict limitations on access to the area have to be considered on a practical level; the rules do significantly impact establishing an itinerary for a trip to the region.

Cascade Lakes Reflections, Opabin Plateau, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Cascade Lakes Reflections, Opabin Plateau, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

The key to a positive experience at Lake O’Hara is understanding what you’re dealing with.

  • If I only had a few days in the region, I’d think long and hard about setting aside time for a spot with conditions as variable and unpredictable as Lake O’Hara.
  • If I couldn’t secure access months in advance via the reservation system I definitely wouldn’t try to luck out on the bus unless I was prepared to hike up to the lake (and if I was prepared to hike up there, I don’t think I’d wait until the time of the first bus anyway; I’d head up slightly before first light, just to maximize daylight time while up there).
  • If I knew that I’d be in the area for at least five days I would almost certainly do what I did this year–reserve multiple days (as many as I could, to be honest, ideally on the 8:30 AM bus).
  • I would prepare to spend the entire day up there (i.e. not heading down until the 6:30 PM bus), which means having enough food and water to carry me through, as well as sufficient clothing–undergarments, outer garments, footwear–to deal with the changing weather.
  • I would be certain that I was in good enough physical shape to handle many miles of strenuous hiking at elevations that start at roughly 7000 feet above sea level.
Mary Lake and Lake O'Hara from the Opabin Prospect, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Mary Lake and Lake O’Hara from the Opabin Prospect, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

My few visits to the Lake O’Hara area of Yoho National Park in British Columbia have led me to conclude that its beauty is well worth the trouble it takes to experience as long as you understand the difficulties and limitations incumbent on securing access and as long as you’re properly prepared for the terrain and atmospheric conditions that are present when you get there.



  1. Woowww, fantastic!!
    Ciao, Pat

  2. Wow, the scenery and the photos there of certainly look as though they paid off your persistence in spades.

    • Thanks very much!

  3. This is truly beautiful

  4. Truly the gems of the Rockies-it sure paid off. I heard recently that you can book even further ahead for camping in the parks, though not sure that it includes the bus-great advice regarding booking transportation, thanks for that.That last photo is absolutely stunning!

    • Thanks, Jane.

      I’m not 100% certain how far in advance you can obtain a reservation for the Lake O’Hara campground (or the Elizabeth Parker hut–another way to do an overnight up at Lake O’Hara)–but I’m pretty sure that the campground reservation system goes on-line the same time the day reservation goes live each year.

  5. […] be the case.  This has happened with regard to the Canaan Valley of West Virginia; it was true of Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies; why on earth wouldn’t it be true of the […]

  6. […]… […]

  7. […] I have discussed my experiences around Lake O’Hara–which serves as the jumping-off point for exploration of the Opabin Plateau, and is a worthy photo destination in its own right–many times previously on this blog. My first trip to the area was among the most frustrating experiences I’ve ever had on a photo trip, due to the atrocious weather. But despite dealing with non-stop rain, I could see that the beauty of the place was absolutely transcendent. That experience lead to my return to the Canadian Rockies the following year and three more visits to the Lake O’Hara area, two of which included far nicer weather and immeasurably better explorations. […]

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