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Lake O’Hara has been called the most spectacular place in the Canadian Rockies. It is pristine. The views are indescribable. In every direction sheer mountain walls rise heavenward to a deep blue sky. It is a place where the Rockies are like they were a hundred years ago. Few people venture here, not because they don’t want to, but because Parks Canada severely limits the number of people who can visit Lake O’Hara and the surrounding area.
Lake O’Hara sits at an elevation of 2,035 metres (6,676 feet). You get there by way of an 11 kilometre hike from the highway, or by a rugged bus which will take you and one packsack to the lake. That is, if you are one of the lucky ones who managed to get one of the few campsite reservations which have to be made three months before your planned trip. We were lucky, and managed to get reservations to spend three nights at the Lake.
It was pouring rain as we headed towards Lake O’Hara. By the time we arrived the rain had stopped but the sky was a mainly solid overcast. Once in a while a shower fell to remind us that we were right on the western side of the continental divide. We pitched our hiking tent and after lunch went for our first walk around the lake. We began with the one kilometre walk from the campsite to the lake, then the exquisite joy of seeing this jewel set among the towering peaks. The afternoon gave us a mix of overcast, sun and showers, but none of it mattered as we gazed upon the magnificence around us.
We dawdled, walked around the lake, took picture and enjoyed the day. There were a few showers, but who cared. All was peaceful, there were few people around, not even a breeze to ripple the water. We slowly made our way back to the campsite and began cooking an early dinner. Afterwards we sat around the campfire and talked to the others who were camped around us.The following morning we had a leisurely breakfast and began our day’s hiking about 10:00 am. It was really cold when we got up in the morning, near freezing, and not much warmer as we began hiking. We walked to Lake O’Hara and along the eastern shoreline to the beginning of the trail which led very steeply up the mountainside to Wiwaxy Gap. Did I mention it was steep? We went from the lake at 2,035 metres (6,676 feet) up to 2,530 metres (8,300 feet) in under 2 kilometres on the Wiwaxy Gap Alpine Route. It took 55 minutes and we were very thankful for the cool morning temperatures to keep us from overheating.
We kept moving, descending along the Huber Ledges Alpine Route to Lake Oesa. We stopped for lunch half way along the trail, at a spot with spectacular views of mountains, lakes and waterfalls. There were very few people with us on the high trails, but we could see some people on the lower trails far below us.
Lake Oesa was a turquoise gem nestled among the towering peaks. The lake sits just above the tree line so vegetation was sparse, a bit of grass, mainly rock and glaciers. We walked past the lake, took a couple of pictures and headed upwards again onto the Yukness Ledges Alpine Route. More climbing, more cliffs and sheer drops below the trail, but also more incredible, breathtaking vistas. The day was changing from one of mainly overcast with a few sunny breaks to one of mainly sun with some cloudy periods. We were high enough now that it didn’t matter much. The temperature was cool, perfect for hiking.
The Yukness Ledges took us to Opabin Lake, just at the tree line. Again it was grass, rock and glaciers, but there were a few small trees here and there. A few pictures andwe off again. We followed the West Opabin Trail until we got to the All Souls Alpine Route, a trail that once againled steeply up the mountainside. It wasn’t quite 3:00 in the afternoon so we decided to climb upwards once again. Thiswas another really steep climb, but once at the top, All Souls Prospect, the view that greeted us was spectacular.Lake O’Hara, Opabin Lake, Lake Oesa and several other smaller lakes were all in view. And the mountains,towering walls seemingly falling vertically from the deep blue sky. And everywhere there were glaciers and snow pack hanging on the high rock walls. The view took your breath away. We took a ten minute rest as we gazed and snapped pictures. Trail mix gave us some energy to begin our descent.
The trip down to Lake O’Hara was very steep, the steepest of any trail we had been on that day. We were glad to be descending it instead of walking up. It was 5:00 pm when we wearily arrived at Lake O’Hara. We stopped at the Le Relais Day Shelter operated by the Lake O'Hara Trails Club. Inside we were able to buy an ice cream bar to cool us down. It seemed absolutely crazy that up here, high in the mountains far from anything, a tiny shelter sold ice cream bars! The power for the little freezer came from solar panels. Refreshed by the ice cream, we walked the kilometre back to the campsite.
We made and ate our dinner, sitting with four other people at a picnic table. We talked about the day’s hiking and found out that we had made a loop that few people do in a day. Our weariness confirmed that it had been a bit strenuous. After dinner we sat around the communal campfire, then were early to bed.
Lake O’Hara camp is a pretty quiet place, so you don’t wake up too early. We rose, made breakfast and were off on our day of hiking by about 10:00 am. Sandra decided she wanted more high elevation hiking (I had suggested some easy valley hikes!) so we headed up to the last of the high trails that make up the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit. We walked up the Alpine Meadow trail to the Lake McArthur trail and then headed up the Odaray Grandview Prospect Route. The last one was steep. It is a limited access trail, only a few groups per day are supposed to use it. Luckily we were early enough that we were able to continue on.
We climbed and climbed and climbed some more. We passed the tree line and kept going up. It was about noon when we arrived at the top of the trail, Odaray Grandview Prospect, and the view was grand. We were even higher than we had been the day before. The view was just as spectacular as what we had seen on the other hikes. In front of us we could see all the lakes and routes we had taken yesterday, plus we could see Lake McArthur to the southwest of us. It is even bigger than Lake O’Hara. Right behind us was the Odaray Glacier hanging on the face of Mt. Odaray.
As with the other high alpine routes, there were not many people around. One other couple was eating lunch as we arrived. Another person arrived a few minutes later, but that was it. We ate our lunch seated on a rock looking at the spectacular view. Behind us was the Odaray Glacier, in front of us valleys, lakes and towering peaks. Your senses are overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of it all. Rock and ice around us, beautiful green and turquoise blue below us in the valleys.
After lunch we began our descent. First we descended the steep Odaray Grandview Prospect Route. Then, instead of going back to Lake O’Hara, we decided to go upwards once again and hiked into Lake McArthur. It too is magnificent, an indescribable blue. It sits right at the tree line, so there are only a few small trees scattered here and there as you approach the lake through open meadows. After a swing past the lake and more pictures, we began our trip back to Lake O’Hara.
What a spectacular day we had, what an incredible three days! Our last night we slept soundly after a great meal cooked at the campsite. Next morning we were on our way back to civilization by 9:00 am.
Lake O’Hara? One of the most spectacular places in the Canadian Rockies. We’ll be back.
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