Lake O’Hara is one of the most sought after alpine destinations in the Canadian Rockies. It’s towering mountains, turquoise lakes and beautiful trails draw people from all over the world. It also happens to be one of more easily accessible high alpine destinations in the Rockies, making it an ideal location for families who want to explore the alpine backcountry.
Making a Reservation at Lake O’Hara
Not so long ago, Lake O’Hara was overrun by tourists, and all those tromping feet were causing serious damage to the delicate alpine trails. In an effort to protect this area, Parks Canada has clamped down on the number of visitors entering park. Now the only way to get into Lake O’Hara is through advanced reservation (or by hiking in 11 km).
For families, the best way to experience Lake O’Hara is to book a campsite for two or three nights. Getting those reservations; however, can be a real headache. There are only thirty campsites and booking a site requires you to call the reservation number three months to the day in advance of your trip. For example, if you want to camp July 21st to 24th you need to make the reservations on April 21st. Usually all the campsites are completely reserved by mid-morning – crazy!
You may be wondering how we managed to get our camping spots. The secret is perseverance. A couple days prior to booking our sites I called the reservation line and chatted with the lady to make sure I had all the details figured out. I started dialing the reservation number at 8 am MDT (7 am PT) with two phones. After an hour and over 200 dials, I finally got through.
The campsites are limited to a four person tent, which might be a problem for larger families. However, when you make a reservation you can book two sites at once. We booked two sites and invited my sister and her husband to join us, and off-loaded one child into their tent. You will also need to reserve a spot on the bus going into Lake O’Hara, unless you’d prefer to hike 11 km into the campsite.
More Information: Yoho National Park – Lake O’Hara: Reserve an Overnight Stay
Packing for Lake O’Hara
Lake O’Hara is backcountry camping with some forecountry luxuries. The campsite pads are sized for no bigger than a four-man tent, so leave the big tent at home. The common area of the campsite has two warming huts with wood stoves, a large fire-ring, picnic tables, bear bins, garbage and recycling bins, a wash area, pit toilets and an area for storing gear. The water was potable when we visited, but apparently this is not always the case. It would be wise to bring a water filtration system, especially for refilling your water while hiking.
All food, food related items (stove, dishes, utensils), and toiletries must be locked up in a bear bin (metal box) that gets assigned to you on arrival. The bear bins are a moderately sized but not big enough for things like large coolers and big stoves, which is why these aren’t permitted. And don’t forget, Lake O’Hara is in the alpine. It can be quite cold up there, and the weather can change very quickly, even in July or August. When we were there (mid-July) it dipped below 0°C every night.
Family Packing List (must haves):
*each person can only pack in one large or two small bags
- Tent (max. four man tent)
- Sleeping bags (min. warm to 0°C) and mats
- Warm clothing (DON’T SKIMP! Bring down sweaters, fleece coats, fleece jammies, long sleeved wool shirts, pants, long-johns, socks, toques + mitts)
- Rain coats
- Hiking boots
- Hats and Sunscreen
- Bug spray and bear spray
- First aid kit (blister bandaids/moleskin are a must)
- Cash (to buy treats at Le Relais shelter)
- A single-burner cook stove and matches
- Pots, dishes, cups and utensils
- Water packs and bottles
- Water purifying system
- Food that does not perish quickly (e.g. oatmeal, nuts, dried fruit, bagels, peanut butter, honey, dried sausage, apples, hard cheese, dehydrate meals)
Camping with Kids at Lake O’Hara
With reservations out of the way and packing done, the fun finally begins. Getting up to Lake O’Hara is easy, just hop on the bus, but make sure you’ve booked a spot. I can’t imagine hiking in 11 km with all our gear and three kids, maybe in another year or two. Plus, it’s important to save the excitement and energy for the Lake O’Hara hikes.
When we first arrived at the campsite everyone was out hiking but by the time our tent was up the campground was bustling. My kids were thrilled to discover that there were other children at the campground. All the kids came together to chop wood, make a fort, cook marshmallows and go crazy. It was so great to meet other adventuring families and chat over the evening fire.
Hiking with Kids at Lake O’Hara
There are many trails at Lake O’Hara. The challenge can be choosing which ones to explore. We explored the Lake McArthur Trails, Lake O’Hara Shoreline Trail and the Lake Oesa Trail. My two older kids (7 and 9) had no problem with these trails while my youngest (5) needed a little bit of help every now and again.
Lake McArthur Trails
The first hike we did was the Lake McArthur trails. The trail starts right next to Le Relais shelter and is 8 km long with a 310 m elevation gain. Keep in mind that hiking from the campground to the trailhead adds a kilometer or so.
The trail passes by an open field and the Elizabeth Parker Hut, then climbs up along McArthur Pass through beautiful forest up to Schaffer Lake. There was still snow near Schaffer Lake on our hike through, along with evidence that an avalanche came through not so long ago. The McArthur Cut Off trail continues up and onward and eventually forks into two trail: the McArthur Highline trail and Lower Lever McArthur trail. I highly recommend taking the McArthur Highline trail up to the lake if your kids a confident hikers the loop back along the Lower Lever McArthur trail. On the way back we took the Big Larch trail back to the shelter.
Hiking through dense forests, sprawling boulder fields, near rocky ledges and alpine flowers rendered me speechless (and breathless!). Around every bend was a surprise, a delicate flower or a stunning view. My children would stop and admire discoveries along trail and were convinced that magical creatures live in this special place.
Lake O’Hara Shoreline Trail
The Lake O’Hara Shoreline Trail is a 2.8 km loop around Lake O’Hara that can be accessed at various points. We completed the loop right after our hike to McArther Lake and stopped to admire Seven Veils Falls and all the pretty pink quartzite along the way. Combining the Lake McArthur Trail and Lake O’Hara Trail made for a long day of hiking (12 km) but everyone seemed to have ample energy on our first day of hiking.
Lake Oesa Trail
The Lake Oesa Trail is 3.2 km (one way) and starts along the Lake O’Hara Shoreline Trail, about 1 km from the campground. The entire trail, from the campground and back is almost 8 km. The trail climbs up, up and up through large boulder fields and eventually passes by several small lakes, over beautiful stone steps and up to Lake Oesa. Going up is hard work, but worth it. We enjoyed lunch by the beautiful Lake Oesa, explored the shoreline and then took in the gorgeous views the whole way back.