Backpacking Canada: Yoho National Park

Backpacking Canada: Yoho National Park

Hello from Alaska! Catching up on our drive through Canada first …

When we found out we’d be driving up to Alaska again and going through the Banff/Jasper area, we knew we wanted to do more than stop at all the pull offs along the Icefields Parkway. I mean, don’t get me wrong, these roadside sites are not for sore eyes and worth it, but we really wanted to do a backpacking trip of some sorts.

A fellow Leave No Trace Traveling Team, Brice & Erin, suggested what now will stand in our books as our top 5 backpacking trips of all time: Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park.

Lake O’Hara at dusk

Before I swoon over what we saw and did, let me tell you the specifics.

To overnight in the Lake O’Hara area, you need to obtain a low-cost permit. They may be putting the system online going forward, but for us, we had to call 3 months in advance to the day. It took us 200 busy signals (remember those?) before we got through and snagged our permits for July 7. Apparently we are really lucky. About 17,000 people try to secure permits each year, and only 1,000 succeed.

I guess I should also explain that there is a 7-mile restricted road that takes you up to Lake O’Hara. So if you have a permit, you have reserved yourself a seat on the bus that takes you back & forth. People can hike up the road, but honestly, it’s not scenic and once you account for that 14-mile roundtrip, you might take one look at Lake O’Hara, but you’ll have little energy left for the trails spouting off into the mountains. Plus, I think Parks Canada would like to maintain a certain max quota of people, so utilizing the bus and permit system helps do that.

Also, I want to point out that we call this a backpacking trip, but the bus drops you off at the established Lake O’Hara campground, where there are pit toilets, 30 tent platforms, picnic tables, cooking areas and bear bins. So you need not fit everything in a backpack and it’s almost like car camping. You could have multiple duffels and even cook something besides a dehydrated backpacking meal (there are restrictions on what you can bring; no coolers for example). Do note, if you have much more money than we do, you could stay in the Lake O’Hara Lodge for $500/person; their cabins cost $1000/night (meals included, if that makes it a better deal?).

Either way, it’s a bit of logistical work to get yourself there, but let me tell you about the sweet rewards …

(1) The alpine lakes.

Canada is full of pristine blue-green-colored lakes, but the most popular ones (Lake Louise, Lake Moraine) have more people lined around them than trees. The main attraction in Yoho National Park is Lake O’Hara, and the quota system means it lacks crowds. Besides Lake O’Hara, we explored a dozen other alpine lakes, seemingly to ourselves. The mineral-rich waters look like mirror holes into another universe. Or a jade necklace strung together by waterfalls … Forget my fancy words to describe, just let the pictures blow your mind.

Lake O’Hara from above
Lake O’Hara from down low
Lakes from L to R: Oesa, Lefroy, Victoria, Yukness from Huber Ledges
Lakes (O’Hara, Mary) from Opabin Prospect

(2) The quiet and well-maintained trails.

Yoho National Park is much smaller than bordering Banff & Jasper NPs, which means fewer people. Lake O’Hara’s controlled permit system translates to a more pristine environment that protects its integrity from so much human impact.

(3) The wildflowers.

Most of Yoho’s forest is filled with evergreens, but one deciduous coniferous tree thrives: the larch tree. I’ve been wanting to explore somewhere with larches in the fall (much like the aspen trees whose leaves turn golden yellow, larch tree needles turn yellow). It was cool to be among the larches even if it wasn’t the fall season, but, nothing really beats wildflower season in the high country. Seriously, all the land was teeming with life and wildflowers I’ve never heard of or seen before (clematis, prairie crocus, valerian). Bloom baby, bloom.

I didn’t take any closeup pictures of the wildflowers … oops.

(4) The vistas of the Canadian Rockies.

Pretty much everywhere you turn, you’re in a cirque—a bowl with towering snow-capped mountains crowning the lakes. Of course, this also means all types of weather. I lost track of how many times we layered up and layered down. And since you are exposed on pretty much all the trails, we dodged hail & thunderstorms. But Mother Nature isn’t as scary as human nature, ya know, so just have the right gear.

Lake O’Hara
Lake McArthur
Opabin Lake
Morning Glory Lakes

(5) So many miles.

We originally booked one night (July 7), with plans to take the 10:30am shuttle up (it’s a 20-min bus ride) and the last shuttle out at 6:30pm the next day. This could be enough time to do all the connector trails with all the day light and if you are a strong hiker (the Wiwaxy Gap/Huber Ledges alone, for example, boasts 3,000 feet of elevation gain). But why not take your time & enjoy a second night in the wilderness? Luckily for us, there was a campground cancellation and we did score that second night!!

Our mileage added up to about 20 miles, when all was said and done. We didn’t get on the Yukness Ledges piece of the Alpine Circuit because it was still snowed in & avalanche-prone. We didn’t get to complete the Odaray Grandview Prospect because the quota only allows 4 parties at a time to protect the grizzlies (early birds get the worms; we are not early birds). And we didn’t make it out to Cathedral Lakes because we ran out of time. No wildlife sightings to report, but with 360-degree views, we really didn’t need wildlife!

Snow near Opabin Lake
Hidden Falls

It’s funny because we visited the famed Lake Louise last year (and were in awe among 1000s of other visitors), but I told Justin I really wanted to see Moraine Lake this year (8 miles east and supposedly less commercialized.) After seeing so many people-less lakes in Yoho, I realized I didn’t even need to add Moraine Lake to my list after all! It was pretty, but disappointing in comparison to the Yoho Lakes …

Moraine Lake

2 responses to “Backpacking Canada: Yoho National Park”

  1. Misti says:

    Wow! This is stunning! Alright, adding it to my ever expanding list of places to see! Glad y’all snagged a permit!

  2. Mary says:

    Those don’t even look real. In all my years of working in recreation, I’ve puzzled over how to let people appreciate the area but keep it pristine. I’m not sure I agree with strict restrictions but it does seem to be working there

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