The Alpine Circuit trail in Lake O’Hara is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful and exciting trails in the Canadian Rockies. For me, the challenging climb, the rewarding landscape, and the feel of immersion in nature separate this hiking routes from others. It is undeniably the most memorable day hike during our 2017 Canada road trip.
Before you go, check these quick facts for better preparation of your trip.
1- The Alpine Circuit route starts and finishes at Lake O’Hara and can be completed from either direction, though most travelers hike clockwise, putting the hardest climb in the first section.
2- This hiking is challenging, however, there are multiple exit points along the trail in case you decide to end the hike early. We omitted the Opabin Lake portion, ending with a 13km trail length and ~890m elevation gain and loss.
3- To get to Lake O’Hara, you can take the park bus (reservation needed) or walk 11km starting from the parking lot.
4- If you decide to spend a night at Lake O’Hara, the Lake O’Hara campsite is a very popular choice, and you are recommended to book 3 months in advance. As park buses and campsite operations end in the fall season (exact dates vary each year), make sure you check the website of Yoho National Park well ahead of time.
5- Sudden weather changes are very common. Night temperature could easily drop below 0 celsius even in summer months.
Our hiking experience
Tammy and I chose to spend a night camping at the Lake O’Hara campsite, and we were lucky to grab a spot on Sep. 28th 2017 ( credit Tammy for phoning to reserve the campsite the moment it was reservable). We took the 10:30am bus to the campsite where we spent some time setting up our tent and locked up our food. It is notable that all food and scented items ( cosmetics, lotions, toothpaste etc. ) must be secured in the food lockers.
We started our hike from the campsite at 12:15 noon. After several hundred meters of easy walk, we arrived at Lake O’Hara. Everything was refreshed by the snow a couple of days before we arrived, what a lucky day. We took the clockwise routes, climbing the Wiwaxy Gap trail as the first section of our Alpine circuit hike.
Although I was aware of the difficulty of the Wiwaxy hike on paper, which was a 500-meter climb-up in 1.5km distance, I underestimated the burden of my backpack. I was carrying my 75L Baltoro backpack for my camera gear, tripod, food, water and some other stuff that I never used, weighing a total of 30+ lbs. As I ground through the alpine forests, and then the scree slope, I was torn apart. I don’t even remember how many times I took a rest during the 1.5km climb until we reached the gap. That was when I took a look back down, amazed by the stunning scenery – sharp cliffs guarding the true gem of the Rockies. After a satisfying meal, we regained energy, and the spirit was as high as the altitude.
We pushed on our hike. The rest of the hike was generally a downhill walk, much more enjoyable, with the elevation fluctuated mildly. And the treat for the eyes began. Along the Huber Ledges, which was the section right after Wiwaxy gap till Lake Oesa, we finally got some time for selfies. You can’t miss this perfectly placed protruding rock which will allow you to feel the pride as if you are on top of the world.
Although the trail had less climb, it was nothing easy. Steep and narrow passes were the theme of the route. So be prepared to use your hands when necessary.
Lake Oesa lies quietly in the shadow of the big mountains. The slabs were nice resting places, and we were not the only couple who sat down and took some time digesting the beauty of pure nature.
From Lake Oesa, you can choose to exit the Alpine Circuit and follow Lake O’Hara trail back to the starting point. Or you are like us who needed more exercises. Walking onto the Yukness Ledges, the early section of the trail became very rocky and there was no clear-cut road to follow. In several cases, we stopped and looked around for the yellow trail marks to find we were straying away from the main trail.
Within the next couple of kilometers, there were multiple excellent photography locations to show off the environment, the scale of the mountains and the panoramic view of the Lake O’Hara.
As we continued the walk downhill, the sun started to set. After a short discussion, we decided to skip the Opabin Lake so we don’t have to hike back in the darkness. We followed the Opabin Highline and the east Opabin route which were elegantly decorated with the fall colors. The curved shape of the pebble road added another layer to a casual photo.
Finally, we got back to Lake O’Hara before it turned dark. The last touch of sunshine lingered around the peaks. A long day of physical torture appeared so insignificant compared to the feast to the eyes and the refreshment of the soul.
As a technical wrap up, we spent a total of 7h 54min on the trail hiking a total of 12.97 km. We climbed up a total of 887m and of course, walked down the same elevation. It seemed a long hike, however, the track time was 4h :24min. We spent almost half of the time either resting or taking photos! Here is the GPS track recording (GPX file) in case you need a reference for your trip.
Update: after publishing this blog, I realized that I didn’t mention the incredible people who designed and built the trail. George K.K. (Tommy) Link was a professor of Botany at the University of Chicago, who spent many summers in Lake O’Hara with his wife Adeline. They laid out the trail during the World War II with the help of Swiss guide Walter Feuz and Philadelphia lawyer Carson Simpson. Lawrence Grassi, the legendary climber of the Canadain Rockies, also contributed to the maintenance and rerouting of the trail. For more details, please see the book – Lawrence Grassi: From Piedmont to the Rocky Mountains by Elio Costa, Gabriele Scardellato