Lake O'Hara Alpine Circuit, Pt. 1
Parks Canada goes to great lengths to protect the fragile alpine environment in the Lake O'Hara region by restricting the number of visitors each year and thus the season's reservations typically fill up within a few minutes.
At 5:00 am on an April morning, we were logged on to the Parks Canada website desperately hitting refresh to try and secure a reservation. It was a mad scramble (picture mobs of people flooding into a store on Black Friday - but, in this case, it's under-caffeinated hikers bombarding online reservations). Miraculously, we booked the last possible Saturday left in the entire season. A friend told us that we were one of the lucky 'one percent', which meant we were part of the one percent of people who succeed in their attempt to see Lake O'Hara every year.
The luck we felt after hearing that statistic was magnified ten fold upon stepping off the bus. Our guidebook outlined a 12 km hike called the Alpine Circuit which seemed possible given our time constraint on our day-trip ticket (there are accommodation options to extend your stay including a campground and luxury lakeside lodge). The Alpine Circuit as the name suggests circles stunning Lake O'Hara passing several peripheral lakes along the way. We thought this would be the best way to see the area during our relatively short visit. To give you an idea of how short the day really was, we were dropped off at the lakeshore around 9:00 am and emerged off the trail with a mere 20 minutes to spare before catching the 6:30 pm bus back. Ten hours on a 12 km trail seems slightly turtle-paced, but this was largely due to the limitless photo opportunities we couldn't pass up. Another plausible explanation is that the 500-meter elevation gained over the initial 1.6 km that seemed far more gruelling than it should have been - but we prefer the first reason.
The first 500 meters of the hike leisurely hugs the shoreline and looks back onto the picturesque lodging cabins dotted along the lakeshore. In contrast to the initial lakeside stroll, the next 1.6km was the exact opposite. The trail headed straight up the mountainside twisting back and forth and at times left us feeling like mountain goats clinging to our footsteps. Whenever we would get the courage to look down (which was often due to the necessity of water breaks) we were astonished at how the colour of the lake was morphing from deep emerald green to a dazzling turquoise as our elevation increased.
The trail finally reached a remarkable viewpoint called Wiwaxy Gap which sits below Wiwaxy Peak and Mt. Huber. A panoramic view of the Lake O'Hara region including the peaks of the Kicking Horse Valley over the pass behind us was a fair reward for the long haul to the top. Unfortunately overcast skies (combined with lingering forest fire haze) made it difficult to capture the beauty of our surroundings in a picture. Fortunately, the sun crawled about shortly after starting our descent and we happily began snapping away.
We repeatedly kept seeing a blue marker with what we thought was the number eleven painted in yellow. It turns out it was a trail marker designed by the Lake O'Hara Alpine Club for visitors new to the area. We might still be on that mountainside if it were not for those unmistakeable blue and yellow markers. Huge props to the Alpine Club members for guiding us along the trails!
After the gruelling climb up to Wiwaxy Gap the trail gradually declined for 2km along the slopes of Mt. Huber. This narrow stretch of the trail, named the Huber Ledges, had us leap-frogging large rocks and crossing slippery snow-melt run offs. Though going up always seems like the hardest part, the trail's sharp drop off that left no room for error required even more muscle and might just to keep our nerves intact.
By the time we made it across the Huber Ledges, the sun had completely broken through the clouds and we sat like cats soaking in its glory over lunch at Lake Oesa. A true rocky mountain gem, Oesa's turquoise waters are surrounded by towering peaks of the Great Divide range which share their slopes with nearby Lake Louise. Earlier that morning our bus driver boasted how he had just come over the pass from Lake Louise the previous day. Sounds intriguing!
Lake Oesa is also a highly rated day hike that begins at the O'Hara Lodge and winds its way up to Oesa passing smaller gem coloured lakes along the way and returning along the same path.
Part two of this post will cover the second half of this circuit including the Yukness Ledges, Obapin Lake and Plateau with the dramatic conclusion at the All Soul's Prospect lookout. Apologies for ending this post with a cliff-hanger ;) Click here for part two!