Wandering is in my blood - Finding Larches in Yoho National Park

I read an article a several months ago that has really stuck with me, it was about our generation, how we are the wanderers and travellers, how misunderstood we are by our older generations... it was both an explanation and an apology. And I wholeheartedly disagreed with it. Admittedly, I do enjoy travelling, but I also believe that I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, my home is nestled in the middle of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. But I am not to take credit for that, my grandparents were the ones who packed all of their belongings into bags, hopped on ships and set out a for a new life, a new world... they took the plunge into the unknown. I come from a long line of travellers, of explorers and of risk takers. I am not a black sheep among my forefathers and mothers, I am not misunderstood - I am celebrated by them. I remember the day that I phoned my mom and told her that I was leaving my stable job (which I loved) to travel the world. I think I was half-hoping that she would talk me out of it (be my voice of reason if you will) but she didn't, she told me how excited she was for me. In that conversation I saw a side of my mother that I didn't recognize; I saw myself in her. I sat in my office and listened to her tell me about her plans when she was in her 20's to see the world - that somehow, somewhere between getting married, obtaining a professional designation, running  a couple of  businesses and raising five children that page in the plans got lost in the shuffle. So I don't feel misunderstood by my older generations; I feel as though I am part of a generation who have wandering in our blood and the support and hard work from our predecessors to take those leaps of faith and follow our dreams.

Last summer I made the decision to explore my own back yard.  After years of working hard in a corporate setting, saving money, and spending every vacation day a plane ride away,  I wanted to appreciate what it was that people travelled from around the world to see. I did the drive up spots, dozens of mountain peaks and several multi day backpacking trips. I was in awe of what I didn't know I didn't know. At the end of the summer of 2016 a few friends invited me to join them on an overnight trip to Lake O'Hara in Yoho National Park, BC.  At this point only a few photos were online so I was not entirely sure what I was in for.  t rained/snowed from the moment we arrived until long after we left. But that didn't stop us, we hiked around for three days straight and at the end of the trip I knew I needed to go back. Even in some of of the worst camping conditions I have had it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

This trip marks my sixth to Lake O'Hara (and not once have I been organized/lucky enough to get the golden bus tickets). I remember messaging Ryan and, as many of our conversations start, I said "so I've got this kind of crazy idea..." and the funny thing is that the more we hike together the less crazy my ideas seem. I wanted to watch the sunset from the Opabin Plateau above Lake O'Hara. This meant that since we didn't have bus tickets out (and would be coming home far too late to catch the bus home) we would be tacking on an extra 22km (13.7 miles) to whatever hikes we planned for the day. 

We made it to the parking lot (12 km west of Lake Louise, Alberta or 13 km east of Field, B.C) just before noon, made the final packing touches on our bag and started our way up the road. At the trailhead we were greeted by a park warden who checked our bags (ensuring we were not attempting to illegally camp or bivvy in the area) and made sure that we knew what we were in for. The 11km road (no bikes allowed) takes me about 2 hours to casually walk, 3 hours to cross country ski or just over an hour to run (I warned you guys - I was not lucky with the busses). Thankfully we made it to Le Relais Day Shelter just in time for their afternoon pan of Carrot Cake.  Parks Canada claims that it is the best carrot cake that you can find in the backcountry,  but I argue that it is the best carrot cake you can find, period(don't tell my grandmother I said that). Le Relais is a cash-only profit neutral day use area;  all of the money made goes into the upkeep and running of the shelter (tip: they have coffee/hot chocolate and a wood burning stove for those chillier days and offer an abundance of information about the area including trail maps). 

With bellies full of cake and a few hours before we needed to make our way up to the plateau for sunset we set off through the larch trees and past the Elizabeth Parker Hut and on towards MacArthur Lake. I remember my first time seeing this lake - I was in awe of it's colour and never wanted to leave. That feeling hasn't changed. We sat along the edge of the cobalt blue lake making coffee, taking photos and telling dad jokes. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in the middle of Larch Madness I could not believe that we shared the lake with only one other lonely hiker (rather a father avoiding his wife and three children at the campground who refused to join him on the hike). 

With so much to see and so little time to explore, we left the beautiful lakeside in search of the "big larches" - some of the only deciduous conifers in the world - Larch trees have needles that turn yellow and fall off in the autumn. With the long winter, short hot summer and impeding snowfall, the season for the larch trees was exceptionally short this year. Many of the trails in the Lake O'Hara region lead you back to the lakeside, and that is exactly where we found ourselves. Not to waste an opportunity, we made some soup and went for a walk around the lake engaging in the standard conversation about how great it would be to live in a lakeside cabin by the O'Hara Lodge. Once the sun crept a little bit lower in the sky and the light began to soften, we began the journey to the Opabin Plateau;  a relatively short hike weaving in the forest between Lake O'Hara and Mary Lakes and up a set of switchbacks along the face of the plateau. We made it to the top and explored the area a little bit, walking along the trails to the lookout point over the lakes and back to the tarns below Opabin Lake surrounded by larch trees. As the sun set and the sky lit up (I am being generous with that term today) the air chilled, the lakes laid perfectly still as to provide a reflection of the soft glow from the setting sun, and from there we enjoyed dinner overlooking one of the most beautiful places on earth. A valley filled with lakes of every shade of green and blue, fiercely protected by glacial capped peaks, golden larch trees and a minimum 11km buffer from mankind. We hiked back down to the lake in the residual glow from the sunset and then strapped on our headlamps for the road walk back to the parking lot. By the time we made it to the car the clock was creeping up on midnight.  We were cold, hungry and exhausted but absolutely buzzing from the high of the journey that we had embarked on. 

Thank you to Ryan Clennett for the beautiful images & company on this adventure.

The O'Hara region of Yolo National Park will always have a special place in my heart, not only for its abundance of incredible alpine lakes, beautiful peaks and some of the most picturesque lakeside cabins I have ever laid eyes on...but for the amount of education and stewardship that they pride themselves on. Below I have borrowed and supplemented some information about the park from the Parks Canada Website including how to be a good visitor, a few options for getting to this place (and where to stay if that's your plan) and I snuck in my packing list for this particular trip!  

Be responsible:

With its spectacular scenery, unique plants and wide variety of wildlife, Lake O'Hara is not only beautiful, but fragile and sensitive to our presence. To help protect Lake O'Hara, please follow these simple steps: 

  • Respect wildlife - Do not feed or approach wildlife, and please carry bear spray. Read the Bears and People brochure for more information about bear safety. 
  • Leave no trace - Be sure to pack out all garbage including food waste, diapers, tampons, sanitary napkins and toilet paper. 
  • Stay on the trails - This helps minimize trail braiding, trampling and erosion. 
  • Let it be - Please leave natural and historical objects in their natural setting for others to discover and enjoy.   
  • Respect these warnings, closures and seasonal restrictions. Research has identified important grizzly bear habitat and a regional wildlife corridor in the area
  • Be safe - As always, your safety is your responsibility.

How to get to Lake O'Hara:

Both day trips and overnight adventures are options when visiting Lake O'Hara. The Parks Canada’s Lake O'Hara bus runs mid-June through the end of September or early October. Reservations are required for the inbound journey (in pervious years walkups have been allowed on space permitting, unfortunately that is no longer the case).

  • Day use reservations for the Lake O'Hara shuttle bussed o For cancellations, check the Parks Canada Reservation Service or call 1-877-737-3783. Bus schedule
  • Camping and commercial reservations can be booked three months in advance. 
  • Pets are prohibited on the bus and at the campground but permitted on the road and in the park - the must be on leash at all times. 
  • Cycling is prohibited on the road.
  • Hiking the 11 km access road is permitted. A ride out on the bus is an option (bring $10 cash per person) but is not guaranteed. 
  • Cross Country skiing and snowshoeing the 11km access road is the only way in/out of Lake O'Hara in the winter(I highly recommend skiing).
Map courtesy of  Parks Canada

Map courtesy of Parks Canada

Staying at Lake O'Hara:

There are four options for staying the night at Lake O'Hara. he Lake O'Hara Campground, Elizabeth Parker Hut and the Lake O'Hara Lodge are located within 1km of the Lake. The Abbot Pass Hut is located a 4-5 hour hike including 950m elevation gain from Lake O'Hara shoreline. 

1. Campground

For those who wish to stay overnight(and are lucky enough to get campsites), the Lake O'Hara Campground is open mid-June through the end of September.  

  • The campground is 100% reservable, 3-months in advance. 
  • Maximum of 2 sites per party and 1 tent per site; 3 night limit. 
  • Tent pads (2.7 m x 2.7 m) are chosen upon arrival and designed for smaller backpacking tents, to a maximum size of one 4-person tent per campsite. 
  • Baggage is restricted to two small bags per person (max. weight: 25 kg / 55 lbs; max. length 97 cm / 38”). 
  • Bear-aware procedures for cooking and storing food and garbage must be observed. 
  • One medium-sized bear proof storage locker is assigned per campsite. 
  • Hard sided food coolers, storage bins, plastic bags, and loose items are not permitted on the bus. Please leave musical instruments, electronics, chairs and hammocks behind. 
  • Just a reminder that pets are not permitted in the campgrounds or on the busses.

Campground facilities: Be sure to bring a backpacking stove for cooking. The wood stoves and fire pits are best used for heat. 

  • two kitchen shelters with wood stoves 
  • one fire pit 
  • food and garbage storage 
  • grey water disposal 
  • outhouses 
  • firewood and a splitting maul 
  • treated well water (not always available early and late season) 
  • example packing list 

2. Elizabeth Parker Hut 

The Elizabeth Parker Hut offers rustic accommodation for overnight guests year-round. Reservations are required. Due to high demand, summer bookings for the Elizabeth Parker Hut are made by lottery the previous fall. More information about the lottery is available from the Alpine Club of Canada

3. Lake O'Hara Lodge 

Lake O'Hara Lodge offers magical meals and accommodation to guests on the shores of Lake O’Hara. The lodge is open mid-June until early October for summer and autumn escapes, and late January through early-April for winter adventures.

4. Abbot Pass Hut

The Abbot Pass Hut is the second highest structure in Canada and is a rewarding destination for both strong hikers and mountaineers alike. The hut is located on the Continental Divide - the provincial and National Park borders (Banff in Alberta and Yoho in British Columbia)run right down the middle of the structure. Availability, booking and more information about the hut is available from the Alpine Club of Canada

Packing for a day trip to Lake o'hara:

  • Backpack (30L)
  • Hiking boots
  • Wool socks
  • Tights
  • Rain jacket
  • Wind jacket
  • Long-sleeve shirt
  • Flannel shirt
  • Tank top
  • Down jacket (with hood)
  • Headband
  • Water-bottle
  • Water filtration system
  • Pocket stove, fuel & lighter
  • Coffee, tea, hot chocolate & soup
  • Spork & mugs
  • Emergency medical kit & hand warmers
  • Snacks
  • Lunch
  • Camera (with a spare battery)
Andrea Ference10 Comments