Photographing Lake O'hara in Yoho National Park, BC
by Dr. Robert Berdan
July 1, 2011
Lake O'hara, Seven Sisters Waterfalls and Mt Lefroy in the background (4 x 5 camera, Velvia ISO 40 film, F45, 1 sec)
The first time I visited the Lake O'hara region my pulse rate rose sharply as I stepped off the bus because I had never seen a place where in every direction I looked there was this incredible scenery. It is a heaven for nature photographers. I quickly ran over to the edge of the lake, set up my tripod and started shooting. It took me 45 minutes and several rolls of film before I calmed down. I still get the shivers when I go back and visit this place.
To get to lake O'hara you need to drive about 3 km west of the Alberta border on highway 1 and turn south onto highway 1A, It's about a 2.5 hour drive from Calgary. After crossing the railway tracks turn right and follow the road to the nearby parking lot. To get to the lake you can either hike (or ski) the 11.2 km road up the mountain or take a bus ride. Bikes and other vehicles are not allowed on the road. It takes about 3 hours to walk , but most folks will want to take the bus and save their energy for hiking in the alpine meadows and plateaus. Getting on the bus requires reservations and it's a good idea to book at least a month in advance. Parks Canada controls the number of people allowed into this area which in part is why it's so special. The bus leaves at 8:30 and 10:30 in the morning and comes back at 3:30 and 6:30 - but check as times may change.
There is a beautiful lodge on the lake where you can have lunch and a small store where you can have coffee, tea and other snacks such as carrot cake. There are also a few cabins around the lake, but the last time I inquired (about 10 years ago) they cost over $450\night! There is a tent campground that is open between June 19 and September 30 with 30 sites. There is also an Alpine Canada cabin where you can share accommodations on a reservation basis. On my last visit I lost track of time and missed the last outgoing bus. After a full day of hiking with a 40 pound back pack full of camera gear I wasn't up to hiking out and thankfully a park ranger drove me back to the parking lot.
Cathedral Mountain from Lake Ohara looking north - photographed with neutral density grad filters. The clarity of the
water is amazing and the lake contains cutthroat trout.
Yoho Park Rangers have controlled the number of visitors allowed into the area since 1976. If you can't make a reservation , sometimes during the week you can show up at the parking lot and if folks with reservations don't show up, you might be able to substitute and take their place. The cost per person the last time I went was $30.00 - see the bottom of the page for the reservation phone line. Due to the altitude the road is only open to the buses between the middle of June to about the end of September. The area boasts more then 80 km of scenic hiking trails and you can can't see them all in one day. I recommend a good pair of hiking boots and hiking poles if you plan to walk along some of the steeper trails. Bringing a camera along, any kind of camera, is a must.
Lake O'hara from above on the Yukness Ledge trail (20-35 mm zoom lens on tripod, F16, Velvia ISO 40)
For photographers visiting the area I would recommend a wide angle lens (e.g. 16-35 mm), and a medium telephoto lens 70-200 mm for wildlife. An 18-200 mm zoom lens is ideal if you can only bring one lens. If you want high quality images bring along a lightweight carbon fiber tripod. For filters I recommend a polarizing filter and a 2 - stop Neutral density hard edge grad filter will come in handy.
All hikers should bring a rain jacket, bottle of drinking water. and bear spray. Some of the trails can be steep and coming down puts pressure on the front of your knees. Walking poles can take some of the pressure off your knees and make hiking in the mountains more comfortable. You should always dress in layers and bring extra clothing in case it decides to snow or rain. Some folks just hike around Lake O'hara, but some of the most beautiful vistas can only be seen by hiking up higher onto the plateaus such as the Opapin plateau and theYukness Ledge (see below).
Lake Ohara and several smaller lakes from Yukness Ledge trail, Cathedral Mountain is at the top of the picture
Hiker (my Dad) looks out over the Opapin Plateau towards Cathedral Mountain on the top right and Mt. Odaray is visible
at the top left of the picture. If you are going to include a hiker in the picture a red or other brightly coloured jacket is ideal.
In July you will encounter numerous alpine wildflowers on the Plateau. (White heather)
During a thunderstorm I ducked under a rock ledge for protection and noticed numerous small ferns and orange lichen (Xanthoria). Photographed with a 20-35 mm Zoom lens, F16, on Velvia, ISO 40 using a tripod.
In July you can expect to see snow patches and wildflowers on the plateau. Cotton grass is common around some of the ponds. In September the larches, the only conifers to lose its leaves, turn orange in colour (see below).
Unnamed pond on the Opapin Plateau in July (20-35 mm Wide angle zoom lens, F16, Velvia ISO 40).
Unnamed pond on the Opapin Plateau in September - the larches turn yellow and lose their needles.
(20-35 mm zoom lens, F16, Velvia, ISO 40).
Wildlife you might encounter in the Lake O'hara area
Pikas are small mouse like rodents that are found along the trails feeding on grasses - you will probably hear their
call before you see them - their call is a sharp "peek, peek, peek". 300 mm F2.8 lens.
Hoary Marmots are widespread and abundant on the upper plateau and easily approached, you may see them sunning themselves or even wrestling with their neighbours over territory. They have a shrill whistle (see link below to hear their sound) and hibernate for 7 months of the year. The live in rock slides alongside grassy meadows at altitudes of 2000-2500 m. Around the Opapin plateau is one of the best places to see and photograph these ground hog sized rodents. (70-200 mm Zoom lens, F2.8).
Mountain Goats can be seen on some of the ledges at higher elevation (70-200 mm lens, F2.8).
Grizzlies travel through the valleys and can be encountered in the area so make noise and bring along bear spray
if you plan to hike back to Lake McArthur. Also beware and read the trail warnings and avoid closed areas - see
downloadable map PDF below. (300 mm F2.8 lens).
Painter in front of Lake O'hara. This region was an inspiration to several members of the Canadian Group of Seven painters.
On the right is a small waterfall and stream that follows the trail up to the Opapin Plateau.
Run off from melting snow and glaciers on the Opapin Plateau
in July. (20-35 mm Zoom lens, F16, tripod).
In September ice begins to form on the streams and the larches turn brilliant orange and yellow in colour.
As I finish writing this article on Canada Day I can't help thinking how lucky I am in to live in Canada and live so close to such incredible beauty. All of the photographs in this article were taken using slide film on both a 35 mm camera and a 4 x 5 view camera about 10 years ago and it's time I revisit the area again and bring along my digital cameras and also capture some video. If you are looking for a special place to visit and photograph without crowds - Lake O'hara is one of the most beautiful places in the Canadian Rockies if not the planet. RB
Links & Resources
Lake O'Hara Reservation Line: 250-343-6433
The Alpine Club of Canada’s historic Elizabeth Parker Hut accommodates 24 people in a rustic, dorm-style cabin. For information and bookings contact the Alpine Club of Canada at 403 678-3200.
Best Guide Book: The Wonder of Yoho by Don Beers (1989), Rocky Mountain Books Calgary, AB includes detailed descriptions of trails, excellent photographs and historical information. ISBN 9-780921-102298. Out of print, but still available in some mountain stores, online and some libraries.
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