Hiking the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit in Yoho National Park

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Hiking the Lake O’Hara Alpine circuit in Yoho National Park should be on every hiker’s bucket list.

You’ll be rewarded with sublime scenery from start to finish, turquoise coloured lakes and lichen covered rocks twisted into impossible shapes as well as challenging trails.

The route was designed by Lawrence Grassi – a man who wore many hats including that of park warden at Lake O’Hara, stonemason, miner and the person whom the Grassi Lakes above Canmore are named for. With great skill, he moved rocks to create a trail that defies imagination.

"Starting out at Lake O'Hara under cloudy skies"

Starting out at Lake O’Hara under cloudy skies

The Lake O’Hara alpine circuit is a loop so it’s easy to eliminate sections. If you hate exposure – ledges, cliffs and paths clinging to the mountains then perhaps you’d want to give the Wiwaxy Gap and Huber Ledges Alpine Route a pass; the same goes for the All Souls Alpine Route. The Yukness Ledges aren’t nearly as difficult or as airy as they appear from afar.

"views of Lake O'Hara from the alpine circuit"

The higher you go the better the views

The Route

You can hike the circuit in any direction. My daughter and I chose to do it in a clockwise direction to get the bulk of the climbing over early in the day.

Starting from the Lake O’Hara outlet bridge across from Le Relais day use shelter, hike just a few hundred meters on the trail until you see the sign for Wiwaxy Gap. Veer left and begin a stiff climb of close to 520 meters (1700 feet), at times on narrow ledges. You top out at a saddle – Wiwaxy Gap at 2703 meters (8868 feet).

"The start of the ledges"

The start of the ledges

"The saddle at Wiwaxy Gap"

The saddle at Wiwaxy Gap

"Looking down the other side of the saddle"

Looking down the other side of the saddle

The next two kilometers are challenging and as my daughter said – I hate this, I hate this…we could die if we trip.

So watch your footing very carefully. Concentrate, especially early on in the descent from the saddle. Take time to breathe and when you feel secure look around for mountain scenery doesn’t get much better than this. It’s very airy at times but very doable if you don’t have an extreme fear of heights and exposure. Otherwise give it a pass.

It took us an hour to descend to Lake Oesa – and the last 20 minutes were much less scary.

"Views from Lake O'Hara to Lake Oesa"

Views from Lake O’Hara to Lake Oesa

"Looking across to the Yukness Ledges"

Looking across to the Yukness Ledges

"Incredibly steep drop-offs on the Huber Ledges"

Incredibly steep drop-offs on the Huber Ledges

"The jaw dropping Lake Oesa"

The jaw dropping Lake Oesa

Lake Oesa is breathtaking but it’s popular and busy as there is an easy 3.2 kilometer trail to it from Lake O’Hara. You’ll find slabs of rock, perfect for stretching out on so plan to stop here for lunch. Keep an eye on the aggressive chipmunks as they’ll be in your knapsack or bag of food in seconds.

"Aggressive chipmunks will come after you at Lake Oesa"

Aggressive chipmunks will come after you at Lake Oesa

From Lake Oesa look for the sign pointing to the Yukness Ledges route. Descend, cross a small stream, then a boulder section and pass by the small lake in the photo below. In another few minutes reach a signed intersection. Stay left to continue on the alpine circuit or if you’ve had enough you can call it a day and descend to Lake O’Hara from here.

" Pass by a small lake near Lake Oesa on the way to the Yukness Ledges"

Pass by a small lake near Lake Oesa on the way to the Yukness Ledges

"Looking up at the hikers on the saddle at Wiwaxy Gap"

Looking up at the hikers on the saddle at Wiwaxy Gap

The Yukness Ledges are much wider and less airy feeling than the trail up and down from the Wiwaxy Gap. Kids in runners were hiking it with no problem.

Its 2.3 kilometers on the Yukness Ledges trail from Lake Oesa to the junction with the East Opabin Trail – one of your options to return to Lake O’Hara and the one we chose to do. Your other option is to hike 1.4 kilometers along the meadow filled Opabin Plateau to the West Opabin Trail and descend to Lake O’Hara from there. Eventually both trails meet up on the shores of Lake O’Hara. (Pick up a map for a donation at Le Relais day use shelter.)

"Me on the Yukness Ledge"

Me on the Yukness Ledges section of the alpine route

"The Opabin Plateau"

The Opabin Plateau

"Reflection in a small lake'

Hiking by this small lake on the East Opabin Trail

"It's back into the woods"

It’s back into the woods

"Back at Lake O'Hara - and just 20 minutes from the lodge"

Back at Lake O’Hara – and just 20 minutes from the lodge

"The circuit is complete"

The circuit is complete

We chose to descend on the East Opabin trail – steeply at times. In a short 0.8 kilometers you reach Lake O’Hara and from there it’s an easy one kilometer walk to Lake O’Hara Lodge. If you time it right – between 3 pm and 4 pm – you could stop in and have tea and goodies for $10 per person – if there’s space.

We hiked a total of 8.8 kilometers (5.5 miles) – not much by my hiking standards but when you have to concentrate on your footing for kilometers at a time it can be slow going. It took us 4½ hours to hike it plus another ½ hour for lunch at Lake Oesa.

Getting into Lake O’Hara is always an issue. You have to reserve a seat on a bus – or pick up a cancellation on the morning you plan to hike. You can make a reservation four months in advance. Most people come in for at least a night – to camp, stay at Lake O’Hara Lodge or at the Elizabeth Parker hut. However it is possible to walk the 11 kilometers up the road and do the hike. We met a couple who had done just that. Allow 2 ½ – 3 hours to get to Lake O’Hara and 4-6 hours to hike the alpine circuit. Then you can take the bus back down – as reservations aren’t required for that- just a fee. The buses leave at 2:30, 4:30 or 6:30 pm.

Make the effort to get to Lake O’Hara. Even if you don’t do the alpine circuit there are enough hikes to keep all levels of hikers happy.

Have you ever hiked the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit? Did you do the All Souls Route?

Leigh McAdam

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