Yoho National Park is the smallest of the four national parks that surround the British Columbia/Alberta border and is Canada’s second oldest national park (after Banff). Because of its lack of media attention first time visitors to the area often overlook Yoho and end up spending most of their time in Banff…
..Don’t let that be you… Seriously…
Yoho may be small but it packs a big punch and absolutely mustn’t be missed. It has some of the most beautiful lakes, waterfalls and mountains of any of the national parks in Canada, and few places can boast so many amazing sights in such close proximity.
Here’s our list of the best spots in Yoho National Park. We’ll start with the easy stuff and gradually work towards the harder to access stuff. Make sure you cross off at least one or two while you’re here!
1. Emerald Lake
If there’s one place you’ll almost certainly have heard about, it’s Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park. Just a 10 minute drive from the Transcanada Highway will transport you to the absolutely stunning lake and Emerald Lake Lodge. It’s the biggest of the 61 ponds and lakes in Yoho National Park, and is well worth a paddle. Paddling on the lake is a completely bizarre and mystifying experience, as the water is such a deep and opaque green that you feel like you’re paddling through liquid glass.
Here’s a fun bit of trivia: Did you know that Lake Louise was actually the original ‘Emerald Lake’? Explorer Tom Wilson quickly reconsidered his choice of name when he came across the real Emerald Lake and realized how much more ’emerald’ it was than Lake Louise.
Canoe rentals are approx. $70 per hour and can be rented from the Lake shore.
Gear from Sporting Life Canada:
Where to Stay: Emerald Lake Lodge
If you’re looking for a great place to stay in Yoho, Emerald Lake Lodge is easily the most famous spot. The rooms aren’t overly luxurious, but they’re exactly what you’d expect from an extremely old, rustic, cabin-style hotel. There’s terrible phone signal and forget trying to watch the tv.. but that’s not why you’re here anyway right?
Rooms come with stocked fireplaces and amazing views of the forest or the lake. For us, the highlight is their large communal hot tub that’s perfect for those frosty winter evenings.
Aside from the hot tub, the best part of the hotel by far is the food. If you’re a meat lover, you’ll love their selection of Canadian meats (Bison, Caribou, Beef), and their gelato is mindblowing.
The downside? If you plan to do anything in Banff we wouldn’t recommend it as a base. It’s too far to commute each day so we’d recommend staying for a night and then either heading on towards Vancouver or heading back to Banff. The only time I’d recommend staying longer is if you’re looking for a complete detox from technology and hustle and bustle/plan to spend a few days exploring Yoho.
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2. Natural Bridge:
Fairly self explanatory really. It’s a natural bridge made of rock with a waterfall in the centre. The bridge looks a little dodgy to us, so fortunately there’s a man made bridge next to it for you to use instead. It’s a great vantage point to watch the gatorade coloured water as it cascades down the waterfall.
In winter you can actually wind your way down onto the frozen river (at your own risk) and walk inside the natural bridge where normally you’d be under several feet of water. Not recommended in summer!
It’s a really popular spot for tours because it’s only a few short steps from the parking lot and it’s on the way to Emerald Lake. There’s also an outhouse if you’re desperate!
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3. Wapta Falls
I only actually visited this for the first time fairly recently, and was completely blown away by it. I couldn’t believe something this big was so well hidden. The signage is barely visible along the transcanada and is easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Definitely one of Yoho’s hidden gems.
In summer the hike is 4km round trip, but in winter the road closes and the hike becomes 8km round trip. It’s one of the bigger waterfalls in the park and is absolutely breathtaking. For those of you that are looking for something relatively easy, Wapta Falls is the perfect hike. The elevation gain is extremely minimal and the trail gently undulates towards the falls. There’s a steep hike down for the last 100m or so. Check out our Wapta Falls blog post for more details.
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4. Lake O’Hara area
Lake O’Hara is the most difficult place to access in Yoho, although it’s the most special in our opinion. In fact, it was where we got engaged, so maybe we’re a little biased!
The reason Lake O’Hara is so difficult to access is because access is limited by Parks. The main Lake O’Hara area is at the end of an 11km road which is only accessible by Parks Canada bus or by foot. Spaces on the bus are extremely limited and can be obtained via the Parks Canada telephone line. We were told that around 1 in 100 people that call get a space on the bus, so expect to be frustrated! You can also book camp spots and spend 1 or more nights in the area.
You can walk in to Lake O’Hara at any time but as you can imagine, a 22km warm up hike doesn’t appeal to most people.
Once you’re in the Lake O’Hara area there are a number of fantastic hikes you can access. Our favourites are Opabin Plateau, Lake McArthur and the hike to Lake Oesa. Other great hikes include Wiwaxy ridge, the All Souls Trail and the Lake O’Hara loop. You can also hike up to Abbott Pass hut (the highest elevation permanent structure in Canada) and stay there if you’re a member of the Alpine club of Canada.
You can check out our guide to Lake O’Hara here.
Our preference (when we can get a spot) is to spend two days, one night, camping at the campsite. That way, you can have two days to explore and get the most out of all the hikes.
The limited number of people that have access to the area makes the hikes truly unique, and you honestly feel like you’re the only ones out there.
Lake O’Hara Lodge
For those looking for something a little more luxury and guaranteed access to Lake O’Hara (maybe you don’t want to waste hours on the phone), you can stay at the hotel at Emerald Lake Lodge. It’s pretty expensive but you get your very own waterfront log cabin!
Rates: $525 for one person cabin, $705 for a two person cabin (eesh). Check here for reservations.
5. Takkakaw Falls
Takkakaw is the second tallest free falling waterfall in Canada, and it is massivvvvee. It’s sheer size makes it visible for several kilometres, and it’s definitely a place worth checking out.
Once the road opens in summer, the drive is straightforward and you can almost drive right up to it. In fact, you can also virtually camp beneath it and that makes it one of the most popular camp sites in the entire area.
Takkakaw is also one of the most popular climbs in Yoho, as you can climb right alongside the waterfall and through a little cave at the top. If you’re a climber it should definitely be on your hit list.
It’s also the start of the Iceline trail, one of Canada’s most famous hikes. It’s a 17km hike up to the Emerald Glacier and is well worth a visit if you have the time.
6. Spiral Tunnels & Field
These are really just bonus spots and aren’t really worth spending too much time on other than a quick pit stop.
Spiral tunnels are (again) exactly what they sound like. They’re train tunnels that spiral around/through a mountain to allow a train to rapidly gain/lose elevation. With such long trains in Canada, it’s interesting to see two ends of a train travelling in two different directions and is a popular stopping point.
I must have driven past several dozen times and have yet to see a train passing through at that exact moment. It will almost certainly require you to wait for an unknown amount of time. It could be minutes, could be hours. I would recommend not bothering to stop unless you have a great deal of time, because there’s a strong chance that you won’t see anything.
Field is a tiny town in the Yoho Valley. There are one or two restaurants but we’d definitely recommend eating in Lake Louise or Golden where there are more choices. You might also want to stop in at the Yoho Visitor centre for more information on things to do/history of the area. Otherwise, I would recommend moving on relatively quickly unless you feel like checking out the absurdly odd dvd collection for sale at the Yoho Brothers gas station.
7. Burgess Shale
This is one for the achaeologists and biologists. The Burgess Shale is a site of immense significance to archaeologists and geologists as it’s home to one of the most pristine records of one of the earliest marine ecosystems. If you’re into Trilobites, this is going to be top of your list. You can book tours here.
Such is the importance of the area, access is limited to guided hikes. A parks Canada guide will escort you to the area on either a 7 or 11 hour hike and will teach you about the history and fossils in the area.
Louise has done this, and would suggest avoiding this unless you’re seriously into fossils. It’s a massive effort if it’s only kind-of interesting to you.
By the way, don’t even think about taking any momentos from your trip. Your guide will be watching you like a hawk and won’t hesitate to throw the book at you.
When to go to Yoho National Park
Our recommendation is to visit in Summer. Most areas are significantly harder to access in Winter, and things just generally look prettier when the weather’s good. Emerald Lake is one of the few spots that’s accessible all year round.
Additionally, the Takkakaw road is closed in Winter. Our recommendation is to try any time between June and October.
Getting to Yoho National Park
Yoho is incredibly easy to access, but you’ll need your own transport. Public transport will not allow you to reach the harder to reach spots (unless you’re on a bus tour).
To access Yoho National Park, head west from Lake Louise and you’ll be there within 20 minutes. All spots can be reached directly from turnoffs from the TransCanada Highway so you’ll barely need a map. Make sure you’ve planned your route prior to arriving though, as signal can be intermittent/non- existent in certain areas.