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Published: September 17th 2009
My uncle, who traveled much around the world and was an avid hiker, described it as the "most beautiful place on earth". I found some support for the notion. Lonely Planet's "Blue List, 2006-07" for example, lists the Canadian Rockies as #1 in the world in the "Most spectacular natural attraction" category. And, within the Canadian Rockies, one could easily choose the Lake O'Hara area as it's crown jewel.
So, as a hiker, I'd long desired to go there and see for myself. For several years my brother Wes and I had chatted about it. This year we decided to do it.
Now, that's not as easy as it sounds. Lake O'Hara is 11 km. from the Trans Canada Highway, just west of the Alta/BC border (the Great Divide). You can either hike in the 11 km. (packing in your tent, sleeping bag, food, etc.) or take a bus from the parking lot. There is a limit of 42 bookings per day and you can book, by phone, starting 3 months in advance. Trouble is, you also have to book exactly on that day, because it'll probably be booked up by noon. You can book for
day hikes, a National Parks campsite, or space at the Alpine Club of Canada hut, which gives its members priority. Baggage and camping gear are quite restricted. (There is also the option of Lake O'Hara Lodge, which operates by its own rules and offers a high end experience, beginning at $550 a night, I'm told.)
Well, Wes and I successfully booked 3 days, 2 nights at the campsite for Aug. 31 - Sept 2. We met the night before at Kicking Horse campground near Takakkaw Falls (one of Canada's highest at 1250 ft. ), he coming from Winnipeg and me from Abbotsford. We caught the 8:30 a.m. bus at the O'Hara parking lot, immediately set up tent at the campsite, stored our food in the bear-proof lockers, and by 10 a.m. were on the trail. There are about twenty lakes in the area in four basins, all within an hour or two's hike from Lake O'Hara. All trails begin from the Lake O'Hara circuit. You can take high alpine routes or stay closer to the valley floors. For the first day, we chose the high alpine route from Lake O'Hara to Lake Oesa.
This was probably the
most spectacular route. We rose steadily for 1.5 km, rising over 500 m. to the Wiwaxy Gap, a col between the Wiwaxy Peaks and Mt. Huber. This was a fairly tough stretch but well worth it. Many others were on the trail. From the Gap, we followed the Huber Ledges, descending gradually to Lake Oesa. Along the way we looked down on four other small lakes between Oesa and O'Hara, the classic stair-step lakes, as they descend from Oesa to O'Hara. I was enthralled with Lake Oesa, one of the most beautiful lakes I've seen. High above Oesa is Abbot Pass and the Abbot Pass Hut (also ACC).
Some other hikers chose to spend their day climbing the scree slope behind Oesa to the hut. We moved on to the Yukeness Ledges Alpine route, skirting rocky slopes high on Yukeness Mountain toward Opabin Lake, the second of the four basins. It was a very rocky, but well laid out trail (as are all the trails in the area). We descended the Ledges to Hungabee Lake, next down the valley from Opabin. Opabin Lake is at the head of a plateau with two benches, containing the Moor Lakes and the
Cascade Lakes. After spending a little time at Hungabee Lake, we headed down valley, passing the Moor Lakes, then down a steep slope back to the camp.
The camp itself was a one of the nicest I've ever seen. The central area contains a bunch of picnic tables, washrooms, lockers, and a central fire pit. The individual camping spots in the woods around contain tent pads only. So everyone cooks together (but individually). The first night we ended up sharing a table with a German couple. Then in the evening we sat around the central firepit and swapped stories for hours with fellow Canadians, mostly from Alberta and BC, as well as Europeans from Finland, Germany and the Netherlands. I should also mention that, although it was Aug. 31 and we were at 6600 ft. (2000m) elevation, the weather was almost perfect, reaching a high of around 28* C. during the day. It did cool off quite much at night, but stayed above freezing.
The second day we began with another high alpine route, climbing up to All Souls Prospect, again for spectacular views of Lake O'Hara and the surrounding lakes and mountain peaks, many of them outlining
the Great Divide and lending credence to their monicker "Rocky" Mountains. From the "Prospect" (simply a term for a high viewpoint), we descended gradually to the Opabin Plateau and the Opabin Prospect (a sheer drop to Lake O"Hara and Mary Lake), then followed the Cascade Lakes and Highline Trail up to Opabin Lake (like Oesa and McArthur, at the foot of alpine glaciers). We descended from there back to Lake O'Hara by way of different trail from the previous day. Circling part way around the lake, we found an old trail leading up to the amazing Seven Veils Falls that drain the Lake Oesa Valley into Lake O'Hara. After enjoying close-up views of the falls, we crossed over to the main trail from Lake O'Hara to Lake Oesa (not the high alpine one we'd done the previous day), intending to go back to Lake Oesa and possibly take a dip in its glacial waters.
Nearing the Lake, we met and chatted with a 68-yr-old diabetic who'd just trekked through the great divide from Lake Louise (over several days), and was quite proud of his accomplishment. While chatting with him, an anxious woman came hurrying from above, informing us that
along the Oderay Prospect trail
there was a man on the Yukeness ledges trail who'd broken his arm, and she was heading down to the lodge to get help, and we were the first people she'd met and could we go help him. His wife was with him. We agreed, and the elderly diabetic gave us his duct tape, so that we could make a splint. We headed for the Yukeness ledges, and eventually came upon the man and his wife, who had just begun making their way down. Other hikers, coming from the other direction, had already encountered them, and had made a make-shift splint and sling. They seemed to be okay, but slow on the very rocky trail, and we stayed with them, a fact that seemed to comfort them.
Just as we reached the main trail back from the Ledges, we met a guide from the lodge (already responding to the earlier woman's request for help), who informed us that a helicopter was on its way from Banff, to airlift the injured hiker to Banff Hospital. This surprised us, as no one expected a helicopter rescue for a broken arm, but I guess that's what you get when you spend the
It was cold; you see the glacier in the background.
big bucks for the lodge. A second guide soon arrived and stayed with the injured man, while the first guide led his wife (and us) back down to the lake.
As we arrived at the campsite, weather began moving in and we had to cook our steaks in the picnic shelter rather than in the great outdoors. Intermittent showers through the evening prevented campfire lie-swapping, but there was a presentation at the day shelter on the "Spiral tunnels," which is an interesting story in itself, but a topic for another day. It rained a bunch that night.
The third day (Sept. 2) we woke up to a fairly clear sky, though, had breakfast, and packed up our gear, then headed off to the third major Prospect, the Odaray Grand Prospect. This trail was voluntarily limited to 2 groups per day, as it passed through a major game corridor. At the check-in station, we found we were already the second group, so we waited for awhile for others to join us (it didn't matter how large the group was). After perhaps a half hour another couple came by, so we then departed together for the Prospect, another challenging but
spectacular climb. From this prospect we could see both the other two basins (Cathedral and McArthur) that we hadn't yet explored, as well as the Oesa basin (which was still partially shrouded in cloud) and a bit of the Opabin basin. Again the alpine grandeur was spectacular.
On the way down, we spotted several mountain goats on the rocky slope above us and watched them for awhile. Then we headed over to the McArthur basin, taking the highline trail, another fabulous route. McArthur lake is another gorgeous lake, the largest in the region. We were determined, this time, to take a skinny dip in the frigid waters and did so immediately upon arrival (sorry, no pics, lol). We lay around in the sun for awhile. It was just an absolutely beautiful day, and it was with regret that we finally had to leave. Arriving back at the campsite, we gathered our things, then caught the 4:30 bus back out.
But our adventure was not yet over. We'd decided to climb a mountain on the next day. Wes, who is much more familiar with Rocky Mountain hikes and scrambles, had wanted to do a double summit of Mts. Niblock
and Whyte, twin peaks behind the Agnes Lake tea house above Lake Louise. Niblock would be a 4100-ft. climb, then we'd have to descend about 600 ft back to the col between them, then ascend back that 600 ft. to the Mt. Whyte summit. We stayed the night at a hotel in Lake Louise, then began our climb early, to attempt to beat a weather forecast that was not exactly favorable.
After Lake Agnes, the climb got steep and tough. Several rock ledges had to be climbed using both hands, as well as our feet. Then, at the end, we were on a precarious rocky ledge. Although labeled only a "moderate" scramble, (Whyte being a "tough"), Wes said it was perhaps the toughest scramble he'd done (although he's done a "tough" one before). But we did successfully summit Niblock, from where we took more fabulous photos. And, as a bonus, we were able to see the Abbot Pass hut from there (the one above Oesa Lake). With dark clouds moving in and having had enough challenge for one day, we abandoned the plan to do Mt. Whyte, and headed back the way we'd come.
About a half hour
A typical trail
on the Opabin Plateau
before reaching the Lake Agnes teahouse, but after descending all the challenging stuff, the heavens opened, and we were drenched. Along with many other hikers, we waited out the rain in the teahouse, had some refreshments, then headed back down the last third of the way to the vehicle. All, in all, a very satisfying day, and a satisfying end to four great days in the Rocky Mountains.
Is Lake O'Hara the most beautiful place on earth? Who's to say? In part, it depends on what you like. I've also heard Bora Bora labeled as the most beautiful place on earth. I can say that I have no evidence that Lake O'Hara isn't. It trumped all other such spots for both Wes and me (His previous was Moraine Lake and mine was Black Tusk above Garibaldi Lake). And certainly the consensus of the (biased) hikers we encountered there supported this. Admittedly, it is much nicer than the photos you will see, coming from someone who is certainly not among the world's best photographers.
What do you think? I'd love to hear your nominations for the world's most beautiful place.
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