Summer and winter in Canada are miles apart. In winter temperatures go far below zero, everything’s covered in snow and Lake O’Hara turns into a fairytale playground.
Lake O’Hara is probably one of the most famous places in the Canadian Rockies. Its big and beautiful blue lake, impressive mountains and wildlife are definitely a must-visit on your road trip in Canada. In winter it is a totally different sight than in summer. The lake is frozen and covered in snow and the mountains have a white coat on.
If you want to escape the crowd or if you couldn’t secure a camping spot in summer, then go for a visit in winter.
“But… it’s so cold.”
Worried about the cold? I see your point. It can get extremely cold in winter. Temperatures of -30C are no exception. But don’t worry, you can stay in the Elizabeth Parker Hut to warm up at the fire and to escape those freezing temperatures.
Hiking to Lake O’hara in Winter
In summer you can take a bus from the carpark to Lake Ohara, but in winter you don’t have that luxury. The buses usually drive until September or October. You can find the exact dates on the park website.
The road is groomed and easy to hike, snowshoe or (nordic) ski. I walked on snowshoes and my friends were skiing. The track to the lake is 11km and takes about 3 hours. Walking on an old fire road isn’t very exciting, but it is the only way you can reach Lake O’Hara in winter.
In case you’re going on a very cold day, I recommend to not take long breaks. A short stop to eat a cereal bar is fine, but if you stand still too long your sweat cools down and you’ll get cold. In cold conditions like that it is important to keep moving. But let’s be honest. A winter trip to Lake O’Hara isn’t about the hike in. That hike is pretty boring, following a long road with a few turns. It’s about the place itself and being immersed in nature by mighty mountains.
Elizabeth Parker Hut
Depending on what time of the year you stay at the Elizabeth Parker Hut, you might have to dig a path to the entrance. This hut is big, but without losing its cosiness.
The Elizabeth Parket hut has a fireplace (which is very appreciated in winter), a large kitchen and a huge bunk bed for up to 20 people. Next to the big hut there’s also the second, smaller Wiwaxy Cabin. This cabin also has a fire and is geared towards smaller groups.
Winter wonder photo land
My friends and me stayed two nights at the hut, giving us plenty of time to have a look around and to really take in this beautiful place – trust me, you’re going to love it!
The hut is located on a wide space, giving you views on many mountains. Take your camera out, follow some tracks and start snapping. Even right outside the hut you’ll get plenty of photo opportunities. The hut itself is also a beauty, especially if you find it halfway covered in snow. Add some gorgeous sunset light and you have to pinch yourself to know this is real.
Walk 15 minutes to the lake and enjoy the mountain views. The little cabins at the lake are quaint and adorable, but quite expensive. In winter they are closed, and make the perfect scenery for some photography.
There are plenty of walks in the area, which I highly recommend doing (depending on the weather). When we visited O’hara it was a bit too cold, so we didn’t do big expeditions. We stayed in the surroundings of the hut and the lake. We had already hiked the area in summer, so didn’t necessarily needed to do those again. When you deal with extreme temperatures, even the easiest hikes become difficult, so always be prepared if you decide to go out!
Important: wear snowshoes or skis when walk on the lake. The snow is often very soft, making you sink knee-deep in the snow (and that’s no fun!).
As I said, it’s cold in winter but there’s also an advantage: sunrise is late(r) and sunset is early. Perfect for the photography lovers under you.
Booking the Elizabeth Parker hut
Lake O’Hara is very popular. In summer it is overrun by tourists and it’s hard to find a spot on the campground. If you want to experience this place in a different and calmer setting: winter it is!
The campground is closed in winter and you have to book your place in the hut online. You can do that here. Usually it should be fine to book a bed in winter, but don’t wait until the last moment. There are a lot of sporty Canadians checking out Lake O’hara.
Note: it sometimes happens that the hut isn’t fully booked, although it says differently online. When we spent two nights at Elizabeth Parker, only half of the hut was filled, although online it was fully booked. Draw your own conclusions, but you might be lucky if you decide to go without a booking. Just know there might be a warden and that you’re obligated to pay a fee for your night at the hut.
Summer at Lake O’hara is a totally different story. An article with the coolest summer hikes and tips next is coming in spring.
Practical Information to visit Lake O’Hara in winter
Getting to Lake O’Hara
The trailhead is located in between Lake Louise and Field. It’s only a 10minute drive from Lake Louise to get to the car park. Leave your car and take the $15 shuttle bus (in summer) or hike in 11km. The trail follows an old fire road and goes slightly uphill. After 2,5-3 hours of walking you will see the campground to your right. Not much later you arrive at The Relais, a little café cabin where you can get a hot chocolate or a piece of their famous carrot cake. From there you can either go direction of the lake or direction of Elizabeth Parker hut.
Weather & clothing
The weather is a key factor when hiking to Lake O’Hara. Yoho National Park is known for its long, cold winters. You always have to be prepared for any condition, since the weather in the mountains is always unpredictable
When I was there, temperatures dropped to -27degrees Celsius. I was prepared and had the clothing and gear I needed. If you have never hiked in these conditions I recommend to start with some smaller walks to get used to the cold. Ready to go hiking in winter? Check out how to be prepared: winter in Canada.
In order of least expensive to most expensive you can either choose for a day walk, a night on the campground, the huts or the lodge. In winter the campground is closed, which leaves the Elizabeth Parket hut and the Lake O’Hara lodge. The hut is $40 for non- Alpine Club members in winter and $45 in summer.
A room in the lodge will cost $730, with food and afternoon tea included. The most luxurious lakeshore cabins are $1035 per night.
There are no bears in winter! Hurray! No need to worry about a possible bear encounter. In summer it is VERY important that you bring your bear spray and know how to act when bumping into one. Lynx’ – a wild cat – on the other hand don’t hibernate in winter. They are very shy, so the chance you’ll see one is therefore quite small.