The Ultimate Guide to Hiking and Camping at Lake O’Hara (2020 Reservation Update!)

Welcome to the Ultimate Guide to Hiking and Camping at Lake O’Hara:

Lake O’Hara is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. On top of the numerous breathtaking trails, this area feels like you’ve got access to your own private paradise as access is restricted to public traffic. Your only way in is through the Lake O’Hara shuttle buses run by Parks Canada (OR by hiking 11km in AND out!)

There are shuttles in twice a day for day use and trust me when I say these spots are SUPER difficult to get (AND IT JUST GOT HARDER IN 2020 – SEE BELOW). We’ve done our best to visit every year for the last few years, so here’s everything you need to know! 

Jump straight to step 5 if you can’t wait to see the photos!

Step 1: Are you Camping or hiking?

It’s important to differentiate which activity you’re looking to do. There are different buses for day hikers than there are for campers.

Regardless, the Lake O’Hara shuttle bus runs in each day at:

8:30 am
10:30 am
*3:30 pm
*5:30 pm

*only for overnight campers

The shuttles out are at:

9:30 am
11:30 am
2:30 pm
4:30 pm
6:30 pm

Here’s a link to the bus timetable. Note: visitors must arrive 20 minutes prior to departure for check-in and briefing.

Just a quick look at the trail map will tell you that reserving a spot on the day hike bus doesn’t give you much time to explore the area.

Our recommendation with Lake O’Hara is to always camp (if you can). You’ll enjoy the area a lot more this way, see more and actually be able to relax and take in the peaceful surroundings. We’ve always met the best people while camping at Lake O’Hara as well – there are plenty of interesting conversations that happen around the communal fire pit and the lack of cell service makes everyone surprisingly chatty.


Step 2: Enter the Lottery (Updated for 2020!!)  

Decided you’d like to visit Lake O’Hara? Great!

Entry into Lake O’Hara in 2020 will no longer be via the phone-in system, but rather via a lottery system run by Parks Canada! This is in response to complaints over the years that the reservation system was unfair. The aim with the lottery is to give everyone an equal chance of securing a place. 

To enter the lottery, purchase a $10 (non-refundable) ticket for your desired date via the online reservation system between Feb 1 and Feb 29, 2020. You can book your tickets here

When you purchase your lottery ticket, you can select up to 6 dates that would potentially work for you.

Once the purchasing window has closed, tickets will be randomly drawn for spots on the bus. If there are still unclaimed spaces left at the end of that draw, they’ll be available on a first come- first served basis).

In the past, perseverance was our ally, and many hours spent redialling the parks Canada hotline would eventually get us a place, but now it’s going to all be down to luck (or your budget – you can submit multiple applications if you’re really desperate to get up there. How much is visiting Lake O’Hara worth to you?). 

If you manage to secure a reservation… CONGRATULATIONS! It’s time to get packing!

How much does Lake O’Hara cost?

Random lottery ticket: $10 per application

Bus ticket (round trip): $14.70 for adults, $7.30 for children (6-16), 0-6: free

Bus ticket (one way): $9.75 for adults, $4.75 for children (6-16), 0-6: free

You may be wondering why you would get a one way ticket to Lake O’Hara? It’s because anyone is allowed to walk the 11km in to the Lake O’Hara area along the main road.

Many people hike that 11km in, hike around Lake O’Hara and then realize suddenly that they still have another 11km left to hike back out at the end of the day. Suddenly that bus out seems pretty appealing!

If you’re planning to do this on the way out, or if you lose your token (more on this below), payments are cash only. 

Step 3: Packing for Lake O’Hara

Pack for your typical day hike or BACKCOUNTRY camping trip (see our blog post on how to pack for the backcountry). Do not pack as if you’re car camping, even though you’re essentially driving right up to the campground. Lake O’Hara restricts the number of bags and their weight brought into the campsite so don’t expect to be hauling in your car camping stove + a crate of beers. Specifically, the restrictions are: one large or two small bags per person (max weight 25 kg/55 lbs; max length 97cm/38 inches)

 Other restrictions:

-No hard-sided food coolers and storage bins (everything goes into lockers)

-No musical instruments, electronics, chairs and hammocks – plenty of seating around the campfire!

 It’s important to note that last time we were up at O’Hara we got it all: wind, rain, snow and sunshine. Typical Rocky Mountain weather but if you’re not from the area, be prepared!

Trails can be super muddy or even snow covered at higher elevations.
Here’s a basic Lake O’Hara checklist:

-Extra clothing, sunscreen, hat, gloves, rain gear

-Sturdy shoes or hiking boots

-Valid National Park pass

-Bus and/or camping confirmations from the Lake O’Hara office

– A change of clothes if you’re camping and you get drenched while hiking

Along with the usual gear remember to bring:

-Cash for Le Relais Day Shelter (they sell carrot cake there that is to die for and it’s usually gone by lunch)

-A waterproof GemTrek map if you’re planning on doing the Alpine Routes or more advanced trails OR a GPS device (read our review of the Garmin InReach)with a portable battery charger to last you the duration of your trip

-Lots and lots of food if you’re camping – a jetboil or other compact backcountry stove is required for cooking. We’re usually pretty lazy when it comes to making dinner after a long hike, so we’d recommend bringing some dehydrated meals along too.

-A camera! 


Step 4: Getting on the bus

Even though you have a reservation, make sure you arrive at least 15-20 minutes before your booking so that you have time to check-in and make sure you’re getting on the right bus.

You’ll see someone (usually dressed in Parks Canada green) holding a clipboard. This is who you want to check-in with.

Once you’re on the bus you’ll be given a poker chip to hold onto, this is for your return journey.

DON’T LOSE THIS.

It’ll cost you an extra $10 if you do and they only take cash.


Step 5: Exploring the trails at Lake O’Hara

Now for the best part… the HIKING.

(For this section, the trail descriptions have been quoted straight from those experts at Parks Canada, although all the photos are ours!)

Lake O’Hara Shoreline Trail

Length : 2.8 km circuit 
Elevation gain : minor up and down

From the O’Hara Warden Cabin, go east across a bridge over Cataract Brook, and follow the north shore of the lake past the start of the Wiwaxy Gap/Huber Ledges Alpine Route on the left. Continue along a steep hillside and across several gullies above the lake. At the eastern end of the lake, the trail passes the Lake Oesa Trail junction before passing below a huge outcropping of pink quartzite and Seven Veils Falls.

Lake Oesa Trail

Length : 3.2 km one way 
Elevation Gain : 240 metres

The trail begins on the Lake O’Hara Shoreline Trail near the eastern end of the lake and ascends a number of switchbacks to the top of a cliff at the end of the lake. Above the cliff, cross wide talus and scree slopes swept clear by avalanches every year. After passing through a stunted forest, climb over several steep, rocky outcrops on stone steps built by Lawrence Grassi. Just past the top of the steps is the trailhead for the Yukness Ledge Alpine Route, and Lake Victoria.

The Lake Oesa Trail continues from this junction through delicate meadows enclosed by copper-coloured quartzite cliffs and at several points along the way, tiny pools of Oesa Creek are visible below to the right. Finally, after climbing to the top of a short grassy slope, the trail passes through a trough cut in solid bedrock to the tilted rock slabs which contain Lake Oesa. The Wiwaxy Gap/Huber Ledges Alpine Route joins the trail from the north just before the lake.

Check out our hiking experience on this trail here.

Opabin Plateau Circuit

Length : 5.9 km circuit 
Elevation Gain : 250 metres

Opabin Plateau is a beautiful hanging valley atop a rocky headband cliff above Lake O’Hara. West Opabin Trail and East Opabin Trail climb to the head of the valley from both sides of the cliff. By starting up either of these arms of the circuit and returning via the other, a tour of the valley can be made. (With insane views of Lake O’Hara)

Via West Opabin:

A sign on the southwest end of Lake O’Hara marks the beginning of the west arm of Opabin Plateau Circuit. The trails climbs quickly to Mary Lake, follows the shore and then climbs steeply up an open talus slope for approximately 120 vertical metres until it mounts a grassy cleft onto the rolling terrain of Opabin Plateau. At this point, the All Soul’s Prospect Alpine Route joins the circuit from the west. Another small path travels east back out to the head of the cliff, a point called Opabin Prospect.

Engagement Lake O'Hara
Fun Fact, this is where we got engaged! Lake O’Hara will always be one of our most treasured places.

The Opabin Plateau Circuit continues into the little valley of Opabin Creek. It crosses a bridge over the creek and travels upstream, passing southwest of Hungabee Lake. (Here’s a sneak peak of those incredible larches)

lake O'hara larches

Climbing over a knoll through more talus, the circuit arrives at Opabin Lake. A glacier about 800 metres long lies at the foot of Opabin Pass – the narrow gap in the peaks at the end of the lake. Hikers are warned to stay off the glacier because of dangerous crevasses.
Opabin Plateau Highline connects East Opabin and West Opabin trails on the plateau.

The return arm of the circuit begins on the east shore of Opabin Lake. The trail descends back along the plateau past Hungabee Lake and follows the foot of the slope of Yukness Mountain, where the Yukness Ledge Alpine Route to Lake Oesa begins. Continue through grassy meadows back to the brink of the valley and a 0.8 km series of switchbacks that drop to the shores of Lake O’Hara.

McArthur Pass, and Lake McArthur Trails

Length : 8 km circuit
Elevation gain : 310 m

The trail begins at Le Relais Day Shelter and heads west, bearing right at the junction of the Big Larch Trail which is part of the return arm of this circuit. Past the junction, the circuit then enters an alpine meadow where the Elizabeth Parker Hut and the junction of the Linda Lake Circuit are located. The Lake McArthur circuit travels southwest, climbing through larch forests for 800 metres before encountering a junction with the south end of the Big Larch Trail. The trail then crosses a bridge over Schäffer Creek and a short distance further, encounters a junction with the Lake McArthur Trail which leads off to the south.

The Lake McArthur circuit continues straight ahead at this junction through McArthur Meadows to a junction with the Odaray Highline Trail to the west. A short distance beyond the junction, the Lake McArthur circuit reaches the summit of McArthur Pass where the trail forks. The west branch travels to Lake McArthur via the McArthur Low Level Trail along a rock ledge and through an open meadow to the north shore of Lake McArthur.

Return to Schäffer Lake on the McArthur Highline Trail. At the end of the bridge across Schäffer Creek, follow the Big Larch Trail. Just east of the junction, the All Soul’s Prospect Alpine Route heads off the circuit to the south. The circuit continues its return by traveling northeast beyond the junction, descends steeply to the Devil’s Rockpile and then levels off in the alpine meadow and the trail back to Le Relais.

Linda Lake Circuit and Morning Glory Lakes

Distance : 3.5 km one way
Elevation Gain : 140 metres
Trailhead : Elizabeth Parker Hut

The Linda Lake Circuit follows the Lower Morning Glory Lake Trail to Lower Morning Glory Lake, then proceeds to Linda Lake, makes a circuit of the lake and descends to connect with the Cataract Brook Trail, eventually ending at Lake O’Hara Campground.

From the Elizabeth Parker Hut, the trail passes through the meadow and enters the forest. It maintains its level through the forest and after 1.6 kilometres, rounds the end of a long ridge separating the O’Hara valley from Duchesnay Basin. The trail travels a short distance to a junction with a cut-off trail leading north past Lower Morning Glory Lake and a short return to the campground.

The Linda Lake Beeline continues northwest and climbs steeply for the next 300 metres. Linda Lake is at the top of the slope. To complete the round trip, continue around the west end of the lake, where the Duchesnay Basin Trail heads west. The circuit continues along the shoreline of Linda Lake to a junction with the Linda Lake Trail, the first leg of the return portion of the circuit. Descend gradual switchbacks to a junction with the Lower Morning Glory Trail or continue on the trail, which ends at the Lake O’Hara campground.

Duchesnay Basin Trail

Length : 3.2 km one way
Elevation Gain : 230 m

Beginning at the west end of Linda Lake, the trail climbs gently through several meadows heading northwest for about 1.1 km to Cathedral Lakes. The northeast ridge of Odaray Mountain, a 900 metre rock buttress, towers over the south side of Duchesnay Valley.

Crossing a bridge over the lake’s outlet, Vera Lake can be seen downstream. Most of the lakes in the area are known as kettle ponds and were formed after chunks of glacial ice melted, leaving poorly drained depressions in the glacial debris.

Follow the north shore of Cathedral Lake for 50 metres, then climb along a creek before crossing into the woods on the left. Following a wet meadow, the trail ascends a small hill and comes to an end as it encounters the Cathedral Basin Alpine Route branching sharply to the right.

Odaray Highline Trail to Odaray Grandview

Distance : 1.2 km
Elevation Gain : 90 metres
Trailhead : McArthur Pass Trail

Just before McArthur Pass, turn right onto the Odaray Highline trail. The trail passes along the lower slopes of Mt. Odaray. Odaray Grandview Trail is an alpine route which travels west of Odaray Highline to Grandview Prospect. Note: A voluntary program is in place to limit use of the Odaray Highline Trail. Please hike other trails first to help protect a vital wildlife corridor.

For the best up to date trail conditions, click here.


Step 6: Enjoy the Lake O’Hara camping experience!

For any other questions, feel free to shoot us an email, and hey, if you liked this post, why not pin it!

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The ultimate hiking and camping guide to Lake O'hara
lake O'Hara 2020 booking

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5 Comments

  1. Kassandra Lemle

    Hi there, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar one and i was just curious if you get a lot of spam comments? If so how do you protect against it, any plugin or anything you can recommend? I get so much lately it’s driving me crazy so any support is very much appreciated.

    Reply
    • Robin Tuck

      Hey, I use Akismet plugin and it’s generally pretty good. I recently transferred our blog and noticed a big uptick in spam comments prior to reinstalling the plugin. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  2. Mahesh Kavia

    I am hoeing to get a spot for camping on Friday the 13 th September and a bus ride for a day or 2

    Reply
  3. David Heinrich

    Hi there. Excellent post! Do you know if there are any backcountry campsites? Can you backpack in and stay somewhere other than the one designated campground? We have a small dog and are trying to see if we can still do a couple nights there, but she’s not allowed in the main campground. I also see on CalTopo that there’s a trail on the west side of the road. Not sure if that’s an actual trail or if it’s more of a social trail.

    Reply
    • Robin

      Hi David thanks for your comment! As far as I’m aware there’s only one campground in Lake O’Hara. I would suggest booking an Alpine Club of Canada hut (Elizabeth Parker) but I believe they also don’t allow dogs. You may have to simply make do with a day visit if leaving the dog at home isn’t possible. Only downside is that dogs aren’t allowed on the bus either, so you’d have to walk 22km in/out in addition to hiking in the area.

      You may have luck if you stayed at Lake O’Hara Lodge, but I’m afraid I don’t know what their pet policy is.

      I believe there is a trail that runs parallel to the road which you can use, but most people walk down the road to get to the area.

      Sorry I can’t be more help!

      Reply

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