by Leanne Guenther
I’m sitting on the porch of a little log cabin watching trout splash up out of the water to catch bugs for dinner. The emerald blue water is like glass right now, reflecting the surrounding mountains and tall, green fir trees perfectly.
A grey bird with long legs and a snow white belly walks confidently over the black stone that lines the shore, looking for his own gourmet meal of insects. From the other side of the lake we can hear the roar of a glacier fed waterfall.
It’s stunningly beautiful. Darren and I have connected over the past two days in ways that bring tears to our eyes. Becoming “empty nesters” has brought... a feeling of emptiness... and freedom and sadness and elation that we both are still wrapping our souls around. Here, in this place and in this moment, we are content.
This is Lake O’Hara and with some luck, we’ve managed to snag one of their eleven lakeshore cabins for the August long weekend here in the Canadian Rockies.
Coming up to hike, camp or stay in the cabins requires reservations (Mountain Standard Time) as Parks Canada restricts the numbers of visitors to protect the alpine ecosystem. This is a place where they try to let visitors enjoy nature without overwhelming it. As a result, the animals are plentiful and, aside from the well marked, single file trails maintained by Parks Canada, the beauty of the area is undisturbed.
Aside from the beauty (which anyone who has been here will gush over for hours), the best thing about the Lake O’Hara area are the hiking trails.
Guests include small children, elderly couples and hardcore, fit, experienced mountain hikers. There are trails here for a variety of skill levels and information provided to make sure everyone knows what they’re getting into. Visitors do need to be fit enough to climb a flight of stairs and walk on uneven trails.
This year, we’ve chosen the Opabin Lake Loop (up the west side and down the east). It took us about 5 hours to enjoy the 6.4 km loop (about 250 meters elevation). Some parts were a bit scrambly and I was glad I had hiking poles to help me keep my balance as I hopped along chunks of purple and orange boulders that had been loosely arranged by park staff to form a path. Other parts were breathtakingly serene meadows of grass and wildflowers with a backdrop of glacier covered mountains... the need to simply stop and stare the only thing slowing me down.
We shared a rather lengthy picnic beside Lake Opabin which added about an hour and a half to our trip. I think most people do the loop in 3 or 4 hours, but we’re not experienced alpine hikers and we like picnics so we took our time with it.
We arrived back at the Lodge in time for tea, a perfect way to wind down after a hike. Tea is free to Lodge guests and available for $14 per person to anyone else who stops by between 3 and 4 in the afternoon.
The food at the Lodge is wonderful, plentiful and included in the price. We especially enjoyed the trail lunches they provided for us to take along on hikes. Selection is limited, but they make allowances for people with dietary restrictions.
Mostly, you’ll see squirrels, pikas, voles, gophers, chipmunks, marmots and some birds (our favourites were the loons). But there are also wolverine, black bears and grizzly bears in the area though you’re less likely to see them.
Don’t feed any of the animals. Stay on the trails so you don’t destroy their habitat.
The Lodge offers canoes and rowboats (included in the price of your stay).
Catch and release fishing for trout is allowed in Lake O’Hara with a proper fishing permit.
There are evening information sessions about wildlife offered most Saturdays at Le Relais (the main day use area).
Ok... it’s tough to find a “bad” thing to say about Lake O’Hara or Lake O’Hara Lodge but there are a few challenges I’d like to share.
The first is that you are definitely “off the grid”. There’s no cell service, no wifi, no hotel internet you can sign up for, no phone in your cabin, no tv on the wall. There is a payphone that may or may not work depending on how many mice have been chewing on the wires. For us, this is part of the pleasure of visiting, but it’s definitely something you want to be aware of ahead of time so you can plan accordingly.
The second challenge is just getting here. Since space is restricted, getting in can be quite a hurdle.
Option 1: The Lodge
If you’d like to stay at the Lake O’Hara Lodge (or cabins) then contact them the summer before to express your interest. Just be aware that you likely won’t get in right away.
Option 2: The Campground
There are 30 campsites available (tents only). To reserve one, call three months prior to the first day you want to stay. Maximum length of stay is 4 days. This isn’t really much more difficult than other campsites that are reservation based. The only big difference is you have to arrive in time for your bus up to the site. The campsites are a ten minute scenic walk from the day use area and trailheads so are quite private.
Option 3: The Daytrip
This is the least expensive option and most of the trails can be tackled in half a day or so. Call three months prior to your desired visit to try to reserve a space on the bus up to Lake O’Hara. You can also call at other times to see if they’ve had any cancellations. This works especially well if you don’t mind a bit of bad weather (some people cancel if it’s overcast). Mountain weather changes quickly so checking for possible cancellations on a dreary morning can net you a sun soaked afternoon surrounded by beautiful scenery.
You cannot drive your own car up to the lake. You must use the buses provided by the Lodge, campground and daytrips and you must get on the one you have a reserved seat on.
Bring lots of layers that you don’t mind carrying with you for the day, including something warm and something waterproof, a hat, a water bottle and good hiking boots. Bug spray, a day pack, wool socks and hiking poles will also be welcome.
The Easiest Trail
There is a fairly easy trail around Lake O’Hara. It’s about 3km long and doesn’t have very much elevation though there are a few rock stairs here and there. You can combine it with a walk in and back to Mary Lake for an adventure that is slightly longer (about 5 km) but still on the easy side. This is great for daytrippers with limited time or for people staying awhile who need a quieter day.
Lake Oessa, Opabin Lake and MacArthur Lake are what I would consider to be the three most popular mid range challenges. These are the adventures we find suit us the best. Each are between 6 and 7 km with a few options to make them longer and each is about a 250m elevation change. For many, climbing down is more challenging than going up due to sore joints so make sure you remember that you have to get back out too! Hiking poles can help take some of the pressure off knees when descending. The Lodge actually provides some for guests to borrow if they don’t have their own.
The Alpine circuit is the toughest hike. You get a pin for completing it. We’ve never done it and I doubt we will.
Thankfully, you can do pieces of it if you want to test yourself a bit before tackling the whole thing. The circuit is steep and long. It’s a full day alpine hike that isn’t intended for novices.
Morning over Lake O'Hara
Note: We weren’t given anything for writing this article nor did we stay for free or at a discounted rate. No one was even aware we were planning to write about are stay. Our opinions are solely our own.
Sunset on a glassy Lake O'Hara
About the Lodge
Lake O’Hara Lodge was built in the 1920’s by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The CPR was the only way for tourists to travel into the Canadian Rocky Mountains and so the railway set about building a number of lodges and hotels for their guests to enjoy.
Some of their properties, like The Banff Springs Hotel, catered to the masses while others appealed to more adventurous travellers. Lake O’Hara Lodge was one of a number of back country lodges that targeted visitors looking for a more challenging stay in the alpine wilderness of the Canadian Rockies.
In 1953, the Lodge was sold by the CPR to a partnership of the Brewster and Ford families of Alberta. Although the Brewsters remained active in Alberta tourism, they sold their share of Lake O’Hara Lodge to the Fords in the 1950’s. The Fords continued to run the lodge until the mid 1970’s when they retired and sold it to a partnership headed by the Laub family.
The lodge continues to be owned by this partnership, though day to day operations are now headed by the Millar family (also partners). Bruce and Allison Millar are the managers of the Lodge and are very active, personable hosts.
The lodge accommodates up to 60 guests during the summer hiking season which lasts from mid-June to early October. During the winter cross country skiing and snow shoeing season, only 16 spaces are available.
The turquoise waters of Lake O'Hara are stunning.
More information about the history of the area can be obtained from the book, "Great Lodges of the Canadian Rockies" by Christina Barnes.
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All photos in this blog post are copyright Leanne Guenther.
Wife, mom and the woman behind the scenes of the DLTK's Crafts for Kids websites. The websites are a terrific hobby -- run by (me) Leanne, a mom with two girls as my official craft testers and my husband as my technical support. DLTK are the first initials of each of the people in my family (I'm the L!). Whenever we send out little cards or whatnot, we sign 'love DLTK' ... when I started the website I used the initials. Had I known the website would get actual strangers visiting it, I would have picked a less mysterious name but we're all stuck with it now!
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