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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

HikeBikeTravel
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Author Hike Bike Travel

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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Join the discussion 36 Comments

  • jill says:

    We wanted to do this when we were up in the area last week. But we didn’t know about the reservation system until we got there :( Such a beautiful area I can see why it’s so popular that they need to do that.

  • I know I’m repeating myself, but I really admire you photographic skills and especially the colours.

  • Angela says:

    Beautiful pictures. I have plans on going to Banff, but now you are making me want to do two trips just to try hiking Yoho!

  • How did you get that little chipmunk to pose like that? The photos are fantastic! Great place and way to spend quality time with your daughter — even though your lives were apparently in danger at some points. :)

    • @Cathy The chipmunks were falling all over themselves trying to get to people. It was a great place to spend time with Kristen – and she ended up loving the sense of accomplishment you get when doing something difficult.

  • Wow the pictures really are stunning. We are visiting Canada next year and have been looking for scenic hikes, I think we just found one! The waters look so blue, can you swim in them?

    • @Kelly You can swim – but you’d have to want to enter glacial waters – so you’d need to be prepared to have your breath taken away. Count on being in for no more than a minute or two – but you would feel refreshed afterwards. And the hike is truly phenomenal.

  • Did you see any other wildlife besides the pesky chipmunks. Look like another beautiful place to hike in British Columbia.

    • @Ted I did see several marmots and a few birds but that was it. We did pass fresh looking bear poop – and scratching in the dirt (claw marks very visible)but didn’t see any bears.

  • Magnificent! Thank you for completing this amazing hike and bringing back such wonderful photos. Yep, those chipmunks sure are aggressive – but cute. I’ll have to build up to being able to handle that hike, but it will be worth it.

    • @Roberta If you’re a lover of Rocky Mountain scenery than I think this is one of the highlights in the whole of the Canadian Rockies. There really are trails for all levels too.

  • Oh my gosh Leigh, you always find such super spectacular hike! Can any get scenic than this? I can’t take my eyes off from the image of those beautiful lakes. And the mountain view is just incredible. Thanks for taking me on a virtual hike; I really enjoyed it. Very lovely photos.

  • Such a pretty spot. I’m due for some good hiking (and I don’t mean in Ohio).

    • @Stephanie The Rockies definitely have the views and the grandeur – and the crowds though the Lake O’Hara area doesn’t get too crowded as the numbers are kept to a minimum.

  • Freya says:

    Those photos are absolutely stunning, I love hiking and I so want to go there.
    I’m definitely going to try to get there next year.

  • Jenn says:

    This has got to be one of the most beautiful looking hikes I have ever seen. It sounds challenging, but looks oh so worth it. I can’t even begin to imagine hiking such an outstanding place. Thanks so much for sharing all the details!

  • The landscape here with the water and the mountains is just incredible! Picture perfect as they say. This is a definitely a hike to put on the bucket list for the scenery alone :)

  • Andra says:

    I am very fortunate in that I got to visit Lake O’Hara 3 times. The first time was a few years back on the first day of the season for the bus to run. I hiked the full Alpine Circuit under blue sky, sunshine and very warm temperatures. The second time was the following year on the last day the bus ran for the season. I did most of the Alpine Circuit under very light snow flurries, it was fresh and cool, the ground had a very small amount of snow on it and it was oh so beautiful. The third visit was the best of all. It was mid August a couple of years ago and I got to spend two nights at Elizabeth Parker Hut. I hiked many different trails, and it was a wonderful place to be for sunrise and sunset.

  • JodyR says:

    I’ve always wanted to do this hike. Your images are fantastic and inspiring. Especially love the one of Lake Oesa. Can’t wait to get out there!

    • @Jody Lake Oesa in the sunshine is remarkable and so beautiful. It’s possible to see it in a day without spending the night if you can get a bus reservation or don’y mind walking in 11 kms to the start point.

  • Dennis says:

    Sublime views of the Candian Rockies I have yet to visit! Been to Banff with family but this hike you did is one killer for the knees. Awesome!

  • Linny says:

    Hi! Those are beautiful pictures and thank you for sharing such details about the hike! I’m planning a trip in July and I have a few questions:

    1) How long would it take me to get from Lake Louise to Lake O’Hara?
    2) If camping reservations don’t go thru, would I be able to do this as a day hike coming from Lake Louise in the morning?

    We don’t mind walking 11 Km up the road to begin the hike, but do we need reservations to take the bus back out?

    Any tips would be great as it’s my first time in this area. Thanks!

    • @Linny Lake Louise Village to Lake O’Hara parking lot is about 20 minutes. Yes you could do it as a day hike – longer but if you’re in shape very doable. You may luck out on a last minute cancellation and get a seat. You DO NOT need a reservation for the bus ride out.

  • Danny says:

    Great post. Really enjoyed. Did Huber Ledges to Lake Oesa a couple of years ago and going back this July. Question for you if you don’t mind. This coming trip I am taking my wife with me to Lake O’Hara. I know that the Huber Ledges would be far to scary for her, but what about the Yukness Ledges? From what I have read, it seems like the Yukness Ledges would be less so. No? Could you explain if possible? Thanks!!!

  • Hank Vlietstra says:

    Astounding photos in this one, Leigh!!

    I haven’t done the full alpine circuit yet, but I brought two of my kids up there for one of their first-ever backpacking trips! My brother brought two kids up also – it was great!!

  • Meg & Omer says:

    Hi! Thank you for your informative post and photos. We were able to secure reservations on the bus and had a few questions we were hoping you’d be able to help us with:
    1. If we embark on the 10:30am bus, what time would we arrive to Lake O’hara?
    2. Where is the trail head starting from? We saw you wrote that its near the Le Relais (how far is that from where the bus drops you off?)
    3. Is there a map we can find of the particular loop you’ve done (the 8.5km)

    Thank you so much for your help!

    • @Meg & Omer That’s great you got a reservation. You’ll be at the TH by Le Relais in about 25 minutes tops. The trail starts across the street from there and you can buy a map at Le Relais. The loop we did should be on it. These trails are VERY WELL signed.

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