My husband, David and I have enjoyed exploring Canada’s five star national parks many times over the years. I was sure we had absorbed every bit of the magic of the Canadian Rocky Mountains until a place called Lake O’Hara popped up on my radar. The Lake O’Hara trail system with sweeping views from the doorstep of a rustic lodge built in 1926 by the Canadian Pacific Railway was like a Shangri-La for day hikers. Unlike the touristy honeypots of Chateau Lake Louise and the Banff Springs Hotel, it’s not the five-star accommodations that make Lake O’Hara Lodge so exclusive, it’s the controlled access to its prized location in the inner sanctuary of Yoho National Park. Reservations at this historic eight-room, 11-cabin lodge were scarce because the summer season was short (late June to late September) and regular guests had the first dibs. Day hikers were welcome if they could get a shuttle reservation to the national park or muster the enthusiasm to walk 7 miles down the dirt road just to reach the edge of the lake.
I was hooked and an experience at Lake O’Hara Lodge occupied the top spot on my bucket list for several years while waiting for a lucky confirmation letter or cancellation call. One evening last August, while David and I were touring Iceland, Lake O’Hara Lodge called with a four night late September cancellation up for grabs. That was great news, except we were on a fall foliage road trip and should have been in Maine at the time. Driven by a “want to do it all” impulse, I said yes to a non-refundable deposit.
Two weeks later, barely unpacked from a month in Scandinavia, we jumped into a 25ft Cruise America rental motorhome and headed to Maine with a detour through the Canadian Rockies. We kicked off the six-day journey with a 400-mile push to Humboldt County.
The next morning’s spectacular cliff walk in Patrick’s Point State Park, recently renamed “Sue-meg”, its native yurok name, energized us for a few hours until an invigorating swim break in the crystal clear waters of the Wild and Scenic Smith River. We chased the sunset along the Columbia River Gorge to Cascade Locks for the night.
On day three and 350 miles closer to the Canadian border, the tourist enclave of Coeur D’Alene surprised us with an idyllic riverside campsite and a Tubbs Hill hiking trail overlooking beautiful lakeside parkland. from the city.
We arrived at the Canadian border with passports, COVID vaccination books and our dog Gem’s health certificate. The border agent clicked a few computer keys, peeked into the RV for potential stowaways, and waved us through with a smile. We finally exhaled and slowed down to the pace of the tour.
The Canyon RV Resort at Radium Hot Springs in Kootenay National Park was a pot of gold at the end of our 1,100 mile rainbow. This meticulously landscaped campground on Sinclair Creek, shadowed by the peaks of the Purcell Mountains and the Rocky Mountains, was so dreamy that we spent an extra day hiking the spectacular Sinclair Canyon and Falls.
We endured the crowds in fabulous Banff and breathtaking Lake Louise on the final stretch of Yoho National Park for our Lake O’Hara Lodge shuttle pick-up at a designated parking lot next to the Trans-Canada Highway. Once cheerful driver Maddie loaded our packs, the outside world was eclipsed behind the drape of forest and peaks as we climbed the 7-mile dirt road into the pristine seclusion of Lake O’Hara.
The Lodge was everything I imagined it should be. The main building was a rustic two-story Douglas fir cabin and a large deck dressed in cascading hanging pots with bright red geranium flowers. Massive logs in a stone fireplace warmed the light and bright dining room and living room while the young and friendly staff buzzed in cheerfully welcoming guests. Our cozy room was one of eight quirky little twin rooms with shared bathroom and shower down the hall on the mezzanine level. Both the men’s and women’s bathrooms had clawfoot tubs for a private luxury soak after the hike.
Meals made with local, seasonal ingredients were deliciously satisfying for vegans as well as carnivores. A dish of the day highlighted the hearty traditional breakfasts while fruit and energy snacks complemented the trail bag lunches. Afternoon tea by the fire crowned with a cornucopia of freshly baked biscuits and bread cakes became an addictive ritual at the end of each adventure.
We started our first day with the most strenuous and adrenaline-pumping hike right out of the starting gate at a 55 minute pace for the first two miles. The 5 mile alpine circuit up Lake Oesa to the Wiwaxy Gap trail and the Huber Ledges precipices was a slow slog, incredibly scenic and downright scary at times. Later in the afternoon, we capped off our exhilarating day on the trail with a leisurely canoe paddle on Lake O’Hara.
The second day tempted us with an even tougher alpine circuit, but wisdom prevailed and the climb to Opabin Prospect viewpoint in a beautiful hanging valley before the long, shaky descent down an embankment slope was just the right dose strong feelings.
The brooding mist of Mother Nature escaped on our last day, revealing every ridge and peak etched against the blue dome. The gentle trail through the alpine meadow passed the Elizabeth Parker Hut, striding rapidly up the high rock-cut road before dropping into the deep blue bosom of Lake McArthur. We lingered in the granite bowl to enjoy our last O’Hara picnic bites basking in beauty and bliss.
Our short stay in one of the most sublime mountain kingdoms David and I have ever experienced was pure ecstasy. The nature pilgrimage of Lake O’Hara has rewarded us with physical challenges and profound spiritual moments. The only way to ease my sadness at having to extricate myself from this sanctuary was to hope for a welcome return from the lodge next January.
Linda B. Mullally and her husband David share their passion for travel, outdoor recreation and dogs through articles, hiking books and photography on www.lindabmullally.com, Falcon.com and Facebook.