How to visit Lake O'Hara in one day
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Do you want to visit the awe-inspiring Lake O’Hara but you only have one day (and possibly no bus reservation)? No problem, this article will teach you exactly how to make the best out of your day trip with information on getting there with and without a bus reservation, the best day hikes, what to bring, and how to travel responsibly in this fragile alpine landscape.
Lake O’Hara is located in Yoho National Park, to the west of Banff and Lake Louise Village. Largely protected by Parks Canada, Lake O’Hara perfectly demonstrates the pristine beauty of the Canadian Rockies. The area is home to turquoise lakes, rugged mountain peaks, lush forests, wildflower-filled meadows, and arguably Canada’s most beautiful lake view.
Not surprisingly, it is hard to obtain a permit that allows you to stay more than one day in the area. Reservations usually sell out within the first couple of minutes after they open to the public! Even though this makes it more challenging to get to Lake O’Hara, it also makes for a peaceful and authentic experience in this unspoiled nature once you get there.
We visited Lake O’Hara in one day without a reservation during the summer of 2019. Even though we wish we had spent more time there, we enjoyed this alpine wilderness to the fullest.
Make sure you are prepared before you go! Download our ultimate Rockies packing list complete with everything you need to stay safe in the wildest place in Canada.
Getting to Lake O’Hara
Getting to Lake O’Hara is not easy because the area cannot be reached by a public road. The nearest public road and parking lot are 11 km (6.8 mi) from the lake area itself. Use your Google Maps to navigate to the Lake O’Hara parking lot; which is about 15 minutes from Lake Louise and 55 minutes from the town of Banff right off the Trans-Canada Highway #1. From here, you will either take a shuttle bus or hike to get to the wilderness area.
Lake O’Hara Bus Reservation
If you want to get to Lake O’Hara by bus, you will need to make an all-day-use reservation for the Lake O’Hara shuttle bus. Parks Canada put a quota permit system in place which limits the bus service to only 42 visitors per day, including the overnight guests. These limited seats can only be booked through a random draw reservation system, so it is all about being lucky! In 2020, reservations will open for a one-month period starting February 1st until the 29th. You will need to submit an online application through the Parks Canada-Reservation Service. A $10 non-refundable reservation fee will be charged for each application, which allows you to select up to 6 seats on 6 different bus days and/or times. If you are one of the lucky ducks to get selected, you will need to pay an additional fee of $14.70 when getting on the bus (round-trip). Bus reservations are only required for the ingoing shuttle, as outgoing buses fill on demand.
The day-use bus schedule for the summer of 2020 (June 19 to October 4):
Lake O’Hara without a Bus Reservation
If you weren’t able to secure a seat on the bus, don’t worry! It is also possible to walk to Lake O’Hara along the bus route. This is the option we did. Your hike will take approximately 2 to 2.5 hours, adding an additional 11 km (6.8 mi) to your day (or 22 km if you are extremely unlucky and are not able to catch the bus back). The downside of hiking is that the road is not scenic or very entertaining. However, the bonus is that you don’t have to pay anything and the walking path is relatively easy with a gradual inclination.
We parked our car at 7:45 AM in the parking lot in the hope of getting the seat of a no-show or cancellation on the 8:30 bus. To our disappointment, the bus filled up fairly quickly and other travelers had already put down their names on the waiting list. Hence, we hiked the 11 km (6.8 mi) to the lake. Arriving at Lake O’Hara around 10:30 AM, we still had plenty of time to explore the idyllic landscapes. We were able to catch the bus back at 4:30 PM, as there is no reservation needed on outgoing buses. However, with the priority given to overnight guests and day-permit holders, it is not guaranteed that you will secure a spot!
Best Day Hikes in Lake O’Hara
With over 80 km of hiking trails winding through the rocky mountains and splendid surrounding nature, Lake O’Hara is a hiker’s paradise. There are multiple longer and shorter hiking trails to choose from, taking you to different corners of the area. We will be explaining our favorite ones that are doable within a day. The map below displays the wealth of lakes and mountain trails.
Opabin Plateau Circuit - Best Viewpoint
Length: 8.5km (5.28 mi) loop | Duration: 3-4 hours | Elevation Gain: 250m (820 ft)
The most scenic and Instagram-famous hike in Lake O’Hara is to the Opabin Prospect along the Opabin Plateau Circuit. There is no doubt that this is the best viewpoint of Lake O’Hara and arguably of the Canadian Rockies. The diversity of colors of what looks like 3 different lakes (in reality these are two: Mary Lake and Lake O’Hara) is what makes this place so picturesque.
The Opabin Plateau Circuit starts right at the shores of Lake O’Hara near the “Lake O’Hara Lodge”. From there, follow the Lake O’Hara shoreline to the right, marked as the West Opabin Trail. You will hike up a short but steep trail past the Mary Lakes to the Opabin Plateau, which looks like a giant rock face. The Opabin Plateau itself is gorgeous, filled with lush larch trees and alpine lakes. Marvel at the colorful lakes below you once you made it to the viewpoint. After a well-deserved break, continue along the alpine meadows trail which passes by several smaller lakes to the Opabin Lake and Glacier. From there, turn back and descend the East Opabin Trail to the other side of the valley and down to the shores of Lake O’Hara.
This trail is a perfect choice if you don’t have a bus reservation and you don’t have the energy left to do a steep and lengthy hike in the area. We combined the Opbain Plateau Circuit with the Lake O’Hara Shoreline Trail, which made a great day hike. As the trail is relatively short, you have plenty of time to relax and take in the all-time views of your surroundings while still having time to catch the bus back down to the main parking lot. We highly recommend this trail!
Lake O’Hara Shoreline Trail
Length: 3 km (1.86 mi) loop | Duration: 1-1.5 hours | Elevation Gain: Minimal
With minimal elevation gain, the Lake O’Hara Shoreline Trail is by far the easiest walk in the area. Offering spectacular views of the lake, this hike is best to be combined with other trails in the area. We combined this short 3 km loop with the Opabin Plateau Circuit hike.
If you are lucky to be visiting on a warm day under the blistering sun, take a quick dip in the ice-cold Lake O’Hara. There is a dock near the lodge which is perfect for jumping off as the water is deep and clear below. A truly rejuvenating experience it is!
Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit
Length: 12.5 km (7.76 mi) loop | Duration: 6.5-7 hours | Elevation Gain: 990m (3248 ft)
The Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit is the most popular day hike in the area! The route connects three gorgeous viewpoints high above the cliffs and Lake O’Hara. It is often considered the most beautiful hike in the region, but also one of the more challenging ones. The trail is only for experienced hikers who are not afraid of heights. Traversing steep ledges, it is undoubtedly a rewarding and thrilling hike!
This hike is only recommended if you are feeling energized and have the time to finish the entire route. Taking approximately 6.5 to 7 hours, the timing might be tight if you walked in and are planning to take the bus back. We were very excited about doing this hike, but unfortunately reconsidered after the long hike in due to the limited time.
The Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit starts at Lake O’Hara along the lakeshore trail to the left. Look for signs along the way, which will soon point you to the left up to the steep Wiwaxy Gap at 2,530 m. From there, continue to Lake Oesa and the Yukness Ledges until you reach Opabin Lake at the Opabin Plateau. If you want to cut the trail short, descend along the West Opabin Trail (and make sure to take a break at the Opabin Prospect viewpoint!). If you are up for another challenge, continue the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit trail from Opabin Lake up to the All Soul’s Prospect at 2,435 m. Finally, descend to Schaffer Lake and continue along the Alpine Meadows trail back to the Lake O’Hara Lodge.
Lake Oesa Trail
Distance: 6.5 km (4.04 mi) return | Duration: 2-2.5 hours | Elevation Gain: 240m (787 ft)
If the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit is too challenging or you simply don’t have enough time, then the Oesa trail is the perfect alternative. The jewel-blue Lake Oesa is one of the most gorgeous lakes in the area, surrounded by impressive mountains and glaciers.
Similarly to the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit, this hike starts along the lakeshore trail to the left. However, instead of turning left on the Wiwaxy Gap trail junction, this one continues to a second trail junction with signs for Lake Oesa. Steep switchbacks take you up the hill to the Victoria Falls and tiny Victoria Lake and finally to Lake Oesa. Enjoy a well-deserved break at the lake before you head back along either the same route or the Yukness Ledges to the Opabin Plateau.
This trail is your best choice if you are looking for a moderate day hike that combines the best scenery in the region. For the best experience, combine this trail with part of the Opabin Plateau and Opabin Prospect hike.
Day Packing List for Lake O’Hara
A day trip to Lake O’Hara ensures an authentic and isolated nature experience. It is therefore of utter importance that you are well-prepared. There is only one small store near the bus stop, meaning that you should carry your own backpack filled with water, food, and other necessary gear that make your day trip enjoyable. On the other side, you don’t want to end up with a heavy backpack especially considering the amount of hiking you are most likely going to undertake. The store is only stocked with small consumables such as apples, muffins, and coffee.
This packing list will guarantee that you only bring the essential gear for your day-trip to Lake O’Hara:
HIKING SHOES – The most important item on your day-packing list are comfortable hiking shoes! Having the right shoes will be the major contributor to your overall day-hiking experience. We prefer shoes that cover your ankles as they protect you against sprains along the rocky trails. I have a pair of Zamberlan hiking shoes, which are both durable and comfortable!
BEAR SPRAY – As you will soon realize, Lake O’Hara is home to a diversity of wildlife. Grizzly and black bears are commonly spotted in the area. Therefore, it is absolutely essential to carry bear spray on you at ALL TIMES. Make sure you know how to use it! Watch this YouTube video and try out yourself!
WATER PURIFIER or TABLETS – It is important to stay hydrated throughout the day. Especially when doing a long hike, you may want to carry enough water with you. If you don’t want to haul (heavy) bottles of waters, bring a water purifier or tablets. These will allow you to fill your water bottles in the lakes along the trails while making sure you won’t get sick. We recommend a lightweight water bottle if you are planning on multiple hikes in the Canadian Rockies, or the tablets if this day trip is a rare occasion.
FOOD – Bring enough snacks and a filling lunch for the day. To stay energized, bring healthy and nutritious foods such as SunRype fruit bars, nuts, bananas, a sandwich, and other fruits.
RAIN JACKET – Just like any other mountain region in the Canadian Rockies, the weather at Lake O’Hara is unpredictable. Make sure to pack a lightweight rain jacket that protects you both from cold winds and rain.
SUNSCREEN and SUN PROTECTION – The high altitudes may trick you!
FIRST AID KIT – Often forgotten by hikers, a first aid kit is an absolute must on ANY day hike. We usually bring hiking essentials (such as blister plasters or wound medication cream) as well as painkillers.
CAMERA and other electronics – We use a Canon EOS 80D and a Go Pro HERO 8 Black for all our travels. We also have a drone, but drones are not allowed in the Canadian Rockies (learn more about the best travel drones), there are plenty of elevated viewpoints with incredible views over the lakes and region.
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Lake O’Hara Responsible Travel
Knowing that Lake O’Hara is an extremely fragile and sensitive environment, it is important to obey the Parks Canada rules and travel responsibly at ALL TIMES. We encourage you to help protect and preserve these out-of-this-world natural landscapes.
The following guidelines apply to the Lake O’Hara region:
Respect wildlife - Do not feed or approach wildlife, and carry bear spray. Bear attacks do happen, but can easily be avoided when you use common sense and precautions.
Leave no trace – Don’t litter! There are no trash cans along the trails, so make sure to pack out all garbage including food waste, sanitary napkins and toilet paper.
Stay on the trails – The Lake O’Hara Trails are well-maintained and we would like to keep it this way! Staying on the trails helps protect the flora and fauna, and minimizes trampling and erosion.
Let it be - Please let nature be and leave historical objects in their natural setting so others can discover and enjoy.
Respect warnings, closures, and seasonal restrictions – Inform yourself beforehand about any warnings or closures, and do respect them! Lake O’Hara is home to grizzly bear habitat and is a regional wildlife corridor.
Be safe – Don’t take any risks that threaten your or others’ safety. There aren’t any fences that keep you from falling off the cliffs. BE SAFE AND GET TRAVEL INSURANCE.
If you want to learn more about the Canadian Rockies and its wonderful adventures, find inspiration in the following articles:
Hiking Mount Assiniboine (our favorite multi-day hike in the Canadian Rockies!)
Best Day Tours from Banff (Winter and Summer!)
Berg Lake Trail Hiking and Camping Guide (another one of our favorite hikes!)
Comment below if you have any questions, comments, or concerns regarding doing Lake O'Hara in One Day.
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