One Saturday morning I was out hiking on the Lone Star Hiking Trail with a Meetup group I sometimes hike with and a woman and I had a conversation about places we’ve hiked. As part of this conversation, she said her and her daughter had gone to Banff and done some hiking. “Oh really, my daughter and I are going there in July”, I said. She continued to tell me about her trip and said there was a lake that they hiked to that was amazing. She said they have a bus that goes in, but it’s hard to get a ticket, BUT… You can hike in, about a 6 mile hike in, and when you reach the top you are greeted by this amazingly beautiful blue/green lake surrounded by mountains. She continued telling me that it was better than any of the other lakes they visited, including Lake Louise. She couldn’t remember the name of the lake, but promised to get back with me and let me know the name. A few days later I received a message that this lake was Lake O’Hara. I started doing some research and quickly found that it was somewhere my daughter and I should strongly consider while we were there.
In doing my research I found that you can purchase a bus pass when they go on sale in the spring and that they go VERY quick for the entire season, usually within minutes. Long story short, I didn’t get bus passes for us. 🙁
When my daughter and I discussed Lake O’Hara as a possible destination we should visit, we quickly both agreed it was going near the top of our list. Secluded, hidden, glorious amphitheater of mountains, picturesque, these were a few of the things said to describe it. And the fact there is only one way in, an 11km (6.8 mile) access road you either take by bus or hike it. A 6.8 mile hike isn’t too bad to get to something so amazing, but it’s enough that it culls a LOT of people out. And the fact that there are only 4 buses daily, there are not many people at the lake. Based on this, we knew we had to go.
Lake O’Hara is actually part of Yoho National Park, not Banff. So our plan was to go bright and early after a night at Emerald Lake Lodge (more on Emerald Lake in another post later). And so we did… well kinda, we slept a little later than planned. Still got there early enough to get a parking spot in the rather small parking area. Checked in with the bus drivers to see if they had any cancellations and found that they hadn’t, and in fact they already had a few people ahead of us if that were to happen. So with that, we set out on the road up to the lake. We weren’t the only ones hiking in, there were quite a few others doing the same. The road up was just a dirt road surrounded by forest on each side, not a terrible place to be walking, but certainly not that great. We had to step aside a few times for buses or park ranger vehicles, but otherwise it wasn’t a bad hike up.
When we reached the top and the lake area came into view, first thing I noticed was that there wasn’t a lot there and very few people around. That went along with what I read because most people hike the miles of trails around the lake. But still, I expected to see more people based on the crowds we had seen so far, so this was a pleasant reality. When we approached the lake and it came into view with the mountains surrounding it, I was in awe, just as it had been described, it was amazingly beautiful. One thing we noticed right away is that it was smaller than we expected, I think that was because we were at Emerald Lake just the day before. I know I said this before, but as we continued walking along the trail that hugged the lake, I couldn’t believe how beautiful, quiet, and peaceful it was there. I didn’t see anyone else at all. We walked along the trail until we came to some large rocks at the edge of the water where we decided to sit down and relax on. This was one of those places that if I were to die at that moment, I’d be ok with it, this was Mother Nature at her finest. As we continued the trail around the lake, we did pass a few other people, like 4. Did I mention my daughter and I prefer not to be around a lot of people? 🙂
We could see a storm brewing off in the distance, so we decided we should continue on the trail on the around lake. Along the way there was a trail up to a waterfall we decided to go check it out. While at the falls, we met a couple that we briefly chatted with and found that the gentleman was part of an organization that stewards the lake and found out that they had recently put in the stone landing that we were standing on. That was nice to meet and talk with him as well as thank him for his work that allowed us to enjoy such a beautiful place.
After the chat, we checked on the brewing storm and it was indeed getting worse, clouds getting larger and darker. We continued on our way and at about 3/4 of the way around the lake it started raining. Not too bad right away, so we made our way along the trail and back to where we began. There is a small building that has coffee, hot chocolate, and best of all in our current situation, a roof to get under and out of the rain because as we got there, it started pouring. That’s when we started seeing more and more people. So here’s another piece of information. Even if you hike in, you can pay cash and take the bus back down… IF it’s not full of people with a spot on the bus. At this time there were only 2 buses left to go back down, the one we were hoping to catch and the last one. The chances of getting back down by bus are good if you don’t wait until the last bus. The problem was becoming clear though, there were going to be a lot of people getting on the same bus we were hoping for if this rain continued. We discussed our options and came up with our plan, we either get on this 2nd to last bus, or we hike back down. Our reasoning was that there was no way of knowing how many people were out on trails that had a spot and would be waiting until that last bus. If we waited then didn’t get a spot, it would be very late by the time we got back down. So we waited as more and more people showed up. Finally two buses showed up to take people down, they had the extra since it was raining. We patiently waited in line as those with their tokens got on the buses. Then they announced, 4 spots left. We were fortunate enough to get 2 of the spots because we were 2 of the first to show up and wait for a spot. Soaked and cold, we were both very thankful to be sitting on that bus riding back down rather than hiking down the muddy road.
I am very grateful that we were able to see Lake O’Hara on our trip and I HIGHLY recommend going if you can. That said, I’d do things a little different if I do it again so we had more time to explore/hike. Now part of that was out of our hands because of the weather. I would definitely try harder to get a bus pass or even better, a reservation at the campsite. If that didn’t work out and I hiked in again, I’d do a better job of getting there very early to start the hike in much sooner. Certainly hope to go back again.