Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017
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I prescribe... Yoho National Park

On a grand scale: A psychiatrist, a GP and their daughter hike the stunning and secluded trails of Yoho National Park

Nestled in the Rockies west of Banff, Yoho National Park is one of the jewels of Canadian hiking. Its centerpiece, Lake O'Hara, and the surrounding region of more than two dozen lakes and 80 kilometres of trails is a treasure that keeps us coming back year after year.

Less touristed than the neighbouring national parks, this beautiful oasis offers spectacular views and pristine lakes for every level of hiker to enjoy. And the experience can be had on almost any budget.

As the area is only accessible by a 12-kilometre hike from the main road or a 45-minute trip on a bus with daily passenger limits, Lake O'Hara is one of the least-crowded hiking areas in the Canadian Rockies. Once there, you can check into the Lake O'Hara Lodge for a few days of luxury or set up camp at one of the 30 rustic tent sites along Lower O'Hara Lake.

Guests at the lodge have the choice between the gorgeous rooms of this large log cabin or a small separate cabin all their own. A stay here includes wonderful gourmet meals, packed lunches for day hikes, afternoon tea and the bus ride in and out.

Due to limited space and the beautiful, secluded environment, Lake O'Hara Lodge is always booked well in advance; reservations are a must. The lodge is also open during the winter months for guided cross-country ski holidays.

Those with families or a more limited budget may choose tent sites along the lake which are available at the same rates as other campgrounds in the National Parks. These are accessible by bus from the main road or by hiking in along Cataract Brook. Sites can be reserved in advance and some are set aside on a first-come, first-served basis.

This attraction-packed region includes 25 lakes within five kilometres of the lodge as well as some of the most picturesque alpine meadows and rugged mountains in the range. All of these are accessible on an extremely well-maintained trail system developed over several decades.

In fact, the area was first mapped in 1887 by a railway surveyor named J.J. McArthur. Lieutenant Colonel Robert O'Hara visited the area shortly afterward and loved it so much that he returned many times to explore the surrounding lakes and mountains.

By the early 1900s, the area was already a popular mountain destination and a small lodge was built for visiting hikers. Its popularity has only increased since then.

Aside from the stunning beauty, part of the appeal of this area is its accessibility: hikers can easily return each evening to base camp or the lodge. There are hikes of many lengths and levels of difficulty -- ranging from a short stroll around the lake to challenging alpine trails for experienced hikers.

Familiar Paths
Lake O'Hara shares a similar backdrop with Lake Louise. Mounts Victoria and Lefroy rise between the two lakes, creating an impressive vista on each side. However, even with a similar view, the hiking at Lake O'Hara is unique. The region has five main hiking areas, which each warrant at least a full day of exploration and can be visited many times without losing their allure.

We return each summer to hike our favourite trails and try new ones. On the first day we check into the lodge, pickup a packed lunch and start the holiday with our traditional first hike to Lake Oesa.

 

This is a relatively short hike that can easily be completed in half a day. Much of the trail consists of carefully placed stones laid decades ago by trail developers Dr George Link, Carson Simpson and Lawrence Grassi. It is a round trip of about six kilometres and begins at the northwest corner of Lake O'Hara. From here the trail follows the shoreline for a short distance and passes Seven Veils Falls before climbing a short but steep section to the top of a band of rock on the eastern side of the lake.

From this band of rock, there is a gorgeous view of the lake below and the path you have travelled. Further, the trail levels somewhat and passes Yukeness Lake and a cascading stream with delicate waterfalls. You'll pass Victoria and Lefroy Lakes as the trail climbs rock steps to Lake Oesa. Along the trail, wildflowers including yellow columbine, are common as are marmots and ground squirrels that make their homes in this rocky environment.

Lake Oesa is a serene, turquoise lake surrounded by majestic peaks and glaciers and a wonderful place to stop for a picnic lunch. Although you can return along the same trail, we followed the Yukeness Ledge back to Hungabee Lake and then took the East Opabin Trail back to Lake O'Hara and the lodge where a fantastic gourmet dinner is served each night at 6:30pm.

After dinner in the lodge, guests often gather in the living room to socialize or peruse the collection of books about the area, field guides or newspapers. Saturday nights the staff put on a very entertaining variety show.

Thunder and Hiking
On the second day of our stay we did another classic Lake O'Hara hike, the Odaray Highline Trail. This fairly short and steep trail rewards hikers with some of the finest views the area has to offer. The area is a wildlife corridor, so visitor access is restricted: only four groups of hikers are allowed through each day. >From the ledge of Odaray Grandview are wonderful vistas of Lake O'Hara, Lake McArthur and Linda Lake.

As this is another half-day hike, we ate our lunch on the plateau and then retraced our steps to connect with the trail to Lake McArthur in the afternoon. This trail is a high, scenic route past cliffs and fields of boulders.

We encountered a thunderstorm while stopping at Lake McArthur and had to don our wet-weather gear for the return hike. Thunder, lightening and rain added an element of adventure on the way back to the lodge.

The following day, we headed for the area around Linda and Cathedral Lakes on one of the longest and least-populated day hikes in the area. This is an excellent opportunity to pass through beautiful alpine meadows filled with wildflowers. They were out in abundance in mid-July but can be seen throughout the summer months.

From Cathedral Platform, and at various high points along the hike, there are spectacular views which helped to make this outstanding trail our favourite. Along the way, we found subalpine lakes --including the picturesque Morning Glory lakes -- and lots of great places to see wildlife and take pictures.

We followed the Duchesnay Basin trail to Last Larch Prospect for an inspiring view and returned to the lodge along the Campground trail after completing the circuit of Linda Lake. During our return trip we spotted a moose between Cathedral and Linda Lakes -- an unusual sighting for the area.

Other classic hikes in the area include the half-day excursion to Opabin Lake along an elongated loop trail with excellent views of Hungabee Mountain and Opabin glacier and peak. Part of the trail passes through flower-filled meadows and skirts Hungabee Lake. The 12-kilometre Alpine Circuit is a trail for experienced hikers and promises a day of challenging climbing to reach spectacular mountain views taking in Oesa, Opabin and Schaffer lakes.

Indeed, the entire Lake O'Hara hiking region is filled with outstanding views, pristine lakes, majestic peaks, delicate flowers and plenty of wildlife. Truly, the area offers something for everyone and is a must-see for those with a taste for the outdoors.

 

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