Nestled in a high bowl of lush alpine meadows, Lake O’Hara, 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) from the nearest road, is surrounded by dozens of smaller alpine lakes and framed by spectacular peaks permanently mantled in snow. As if that weren’t enough, the entire area is webbed by a network of hiking trails. What makes this destination all the more special is that a quota system limits the number of visitors.
Book the Bus
It’s possible to walk to Lake O’Hara, but most visitors take the shuttle bus along a road closed to the public. The departure point is a signed parking lot 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) east of Field and three kilometers (1.9 miles) west of the Continental Divide. Buses for day visitors depart at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., returning at 2:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m., and 6:30 p.m. mid-June–early October. The reservation fee is $12 per booking, and the bus fare is $15 per person round-trip.
To book a seat, call the dedicated reservations line (250/343-6433). Reservations are taken up to three months in advance, but as numbers are limited, you will need to call exactly three months prior to be assured of a seat; even then, you should call as early in the day as possible. All times—bus departures and reservation center hours—are mountain standard time (the same time zone as Banff).
The easiest trail is Lake O’Hara Shoreline (2.8 km/1.7 mi, 40 minutes), which loops around the picturesque lake, passing a waterfall and offering myriad perspectives on the surrounding peaks. Many of the region’s other hikes lead off the shoreline trail. Of these, the shortest is the Lake Oesa Trail (3 km/1.9 mi, one hour one-way), which leads up and into a rocky, water-filled cirque surrounded by talus slopes and 3,000-meter (10,000-foot) peaks.
In the adjacent cirque, Opabin Plateau (5.9 km/3.7 mi round-trip) can easily be reached in one hour, but it’s easy to spend an entire day enjoying the numerous lakes and scrambling around the surrounding slopes. On the edge of the cirque, Opabin Prospect is one the most magnificent trail-accessible lookouts in all of western Canada.
Other trails lead to Lake McArthur (3.5 km/2.2 mi, 80 minutes one-way), a stunning deep-blue body of water edged by colorful alpine meadows, and Cathedral Basin (7.5 km/4.7 mi, 2.5 hours one-way), which is a little farther and so receives fewer visitors.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition