Day 106-108 of our Journey

There are a lot of things that are really wonderful about traveling with no plan or itinerary. If we love a place, we can stay for as long as we like. If we don’t love a place, we can move on. If we get a hot tip about something to see or do that wasn’t even on our radar, we can go check it out on a whim. That’s how we ended up at Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park in Canada.

The pricey cabins of Lake O’Hara Lodge on the shore of Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park in Canada.

Getting to Lake O’Hara

The only bad thing about such spontaneous wandering is that we can’t plan ahead and Lake O’Hara normally needs lots of planning ahead. This is a popular spot with restricted acccess and permits are necessary. And, so, we found ourselves on the phone at 8 am praying to get lucky enough to snag one of the precious camping site permits that Parks Canada sets aside for a small number of last-minute hopefuls, such as ourselves, who failed to book their sites in advance.

But we are far from the only ones after these permits. In fact, Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park, which is part of a group of parks designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is so popular that Parks Canada turned it into a restricted access, permit-only area to reduce human impact on the place. We’d already explored some of Yoho National Park, but now we really wanted to get to Lake O’Hara as well.

The beauty of Lake O’Hara is legendary.

The first morning that we called the permit lottery line we got through to the automated machine and were put on hold to speak to an operator. Then we got disconnected and spend the next 40 minutes frantically hitting re-dial in vain. The following morning we got smart and began calling on both of our cell phones, but neither of us got through at all— just a solid hour of busy signals. Finally, on the third morning, we got through and got permits for the bus transport into Lake O’Hara and a campsite permit. We were in!

The campground had two comfortable cooking/eating shelters with roaring wood stoves, handy food lockers, plus a storage room for larger items, a bonfire pit, clean toilets, and a sink/washing area. The sites themselves were raised tent pads and, though they were close together, there were enough trees to create a little privacy.

Karen on the hike up to Wiwaxi Gap, the beginning of Lake O’Hara’s famous Alpine Circuit, is a steep slog that gains more than 1,700 feet (518 meters) in less than a mile.

Hiking the Alpine Circuit Trail in Yoho National Park

But it’s not like we’re going to be hanging out at the campsite all day because the whole point of getting into Lake O’Hara was to hit the trail. The mother of all of the area hikes is the Alpine Circuit which is really a series of trails strung together—some of them literally carved and coaxed into the rocky sides of the glacial valley. According to Kathy and Craig Copeland—authors of Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies: An Opinionated Hiking Guide to Help You Get the Most from This Magnificent Wilderness—the Alpine Circuit just isn’t complete if you don’t start by ascending to the Wiwaxi Gap. Did we say ascend? We meant scramble straight up on all fours.

Beautiful Lake O’Hara from the Alpine Circuit Trail.

After a deceptively languid little stroll around the shore of lovely Lake O’Hara, the trail up to Wiwaxi Gap gets down to business, eventually gaining more than 1,700 feet (518 meters) in less than a mile, at times on narrow ledges. You top out at Wiwaxy Gap at 8,868 feet (2,703 meters). This got us sufficiently warmed up for the next distinct section of the Alpine Circuit, the Huber Ledges, a vertiginous trail dreamt up by a bunch of engineers and stonemasons. Really. The thing is scratched into the sheer side of the rocky valley wall and, in places, would give a mountain goat pause.

Lake Oesa beneath Abbot Pass and Mount Victoria on the Alpine Circuit Trail.

Then it was down off the ledges and over boulders the size of small cars toward the valley floor, then back up onto another slightly saner section of ledges that skirts along the other valley wall. It’s a heart pumper alright.

Sections of the Alpine Circuit Trail travel across sheer rock faces and were crafted by European stone masons. This is not Karen’s favorite terrain.

Hoary Marmots hibernate for much of their lives. The rest of their time is spent eating and making the strangest whistling noise.

Back at camp we had that satisfyingly tired feeling—a well-earned fatigue that is just shy of exhaustion. No rest for the wicked, however, since we had to get up with the sun and head to the Grand View Trail. A restricted area within the larger Lake O’Hara restricted area, the Grand View trail bisects one of the main animal migration corridors in the area so it’s only open to the first four groups that sign in each day.

One of many high altitude lakes in the meadows above Lake O’Hara.

Hiking the Grand View Trail in Yoho National Park

We hit the trail where it begins alongside the Le Relais Day Shelter warming hut, hiked past the Elizabeth Parker Hut and just outpaced a large group of Japanese hikers to reach the Grand View Trail cut off where we signed in as group number one of the day.

Despite its promising name, we got only fleeting glimpse of of McArthur Lake (which we were hoping to hike to later in the afternoon) and Victoria Peak before clouds rolled in and a light rain began to fall. By the time we get our jackets and our Mountainsmith packs back on, the rain has upgraded to a pounding, relentless hail of ever-increasing size.

View over the Lake O’Hara area from the Grand View Trail before the weather really turned foul.

The final quarter mile to the summit was steep and slippery on the way up even before the hail started and the rapidly accumulating white balls made the descent positively treacherous. Concentrating on getting down this perilous section then through the rest of the trail kept our minds off our soaked pants, which we attempted to dry by staying close to the wood stove back down in the Le Relais Day Shelter warming hut where we sat out the rest of the stormy afternoon (along with two dozen other steaming, pungent, soaked hikers).

Here’s more about travel in Canada


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