The Perfect Canadian Autumn Hike
“Get up and outside – you gotta see this!”, my friend shouted in the middle of the night. What could possibly be so interesting at this hour? A bear? A beautiful moon? This better be worth leaving my cozy sleeping bag! Excited I made my way to the wooden door. Everyone was already gathering outside, cameras out, eyes fixed to the sky. There – a flash of light danced across the firmament as a thick gray cloud moved to cover up the moon. Around us it was dark and the only source of light was a carpet of green mist in the sky – the Northern lights dropped by to say hello to us and the Canadian Rockies.
In this part of the world fall is the perfect season to get outdoorsy and take a hike: temperatures are reasonable, animals are distracted as they prepare for winter, it is nature at its finest and even first spottings of the Northern lights are possible. As luck would have it last fall I still had one month to travel Canada and could not get rid of the idea of spending these weeks in the Rocky Mountains.
My choice for a weekend trip fell onto Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park; due to its lower tourist frequency also known as ‘bear paradise’. Armed with sticks, bear bells and some well prepared hiking songs I set out from Elizabeth Parker Hut to explore the trails leading up and down the hills around Lake O’Hara.
The hut is a good homebase for hikers without back-country equipment. The area offers plenty of day hikes and in good weather conditions even a longer trip to Abbott Pass hut. The biggest advantages: the nearby lodge provides a shuttle bus to the hut and you won’t need a tent, cooking utensils or a sleeping mat; the disadvantage: the number of hiking permits is limited by the Canadian Alpine Association. In summer passes are given out by lottery, in low season it’s a ‘first come – first serve’ basis. You’ve read that correctly – you need permission to hike here.
Many trails on different levels are accessible from the hut so there’s a tour for everyone. The easiest hike path leads around the lake, but the view you’ll get from further up is definitely worth the additional struggle. Our day trips took us through the evergreen forest and yellow larch tree patches, over wide meadows and far up into the windy alpine zone.
Heads up, hiking in Canada can be tricky and it is crucial to prepare and inform yourself on how to deal with certain perils beforehand. Whenever you are in a popular hiking area you will find brochures and information panels at parking lots or visitor centers which will tell you how to avoid these dangers and how to react in an unsafe situation. Apart from typical hiking issues like bringing the right equipment and map material, finding reliable hiking partners and being conscious of sudden weather changes, the biggest threat in the Canadian mountains is wildlife – more specifically bears. Parks Canada gives some useful advice on bear encounters, however there are some strategies to avoid meeting one in the first place:
- Do not hike on your own, but bring along some friends – the more the merrier, and also louder. Your chatting and laughter will warn any bear nearby and it will avoid you.
- In case you have to go out on your own bring a big dog (always on a leash) or a bear bell. The bell has the same effect as the group, the dog would most probably protect you from any harm. Also hitting stones and trees with your hiking sticks produces noises that scare animals away.
- When camping stick to official campgrounds which are usually equipped with a safe outhouse, bear boxes and other bear-proof storage units. Keeping food or toiletries in your tent or hut is an open house invitation to surrounding bears.
Keep these rules in mind before you set out on a trail and report any sing of bears to the park authorities.
A good warm-up trail starts at the hut and brings you to Lake McArthur. If you do this on your first day, you’ll be hungry for more on the next. To get the most out of it walk both the high and the low level trail on your way there and back. Lake McArthur lies at 2251m and even though its deep blue water is too chilly for a dip (even for Canadians) it is the perfect place for your lunch break. Returning to Schäffer Lake you have three options to continue: you could of course take the same way back you came; but consider choosing Big Larch Trail instead – it leads you through the prettiest larch tree patches ever! If you’re still good to go, turn towards the All Souls’ Alpine Route which climbs up to 2435m and winds around the mighty Mt. Schäffer. To get back to the hut follow the valley of West Opabin and walk the shore of Lake Mary. Walking at reasonable speed and taking breaks for pictures (and catching breath) the long route took us about 9 hours.
A more challenging trip took us up and down the mountains surrounding Lake O’Hara. We started our adventure by climbing 500m of elevation on about 2km of trail – Wiwaxy Gap was ahead of us, or rather above us. Far above. Soon we left the tree line behind us and strong wind added to our struggle with the steep trail. Here and there we stopped to enjoy the amazing views over Lake O’Hara. After two hours of fighting we shared our lunch with some of the chipmunks at the top. From now on we went down again and took the Huber Ledges Alpine Trail to Lake Oesa. We turned down the idea of climbing Abott pass and walked yet another rocky alpine trail over to Opabin and Hungabee Lakes instead. Exhausted by the loose ground beneath our feet and stunned by the different shades of blue of the lakes we descended back down to Lake O’Hara through the East Opabin. Soon the rocks turned into trees and the gravel trails into mossy paths again.
Every hiking trip you plan asks for thorough preparation: make a list of useful things to pack, inform friends and park authorities about your plans and be aware of the things that could cross your way. Yoho National Park is a great start for inexperienced hikers as it offers infrastructure and facilities, trails on various levels and gorgeous views of the Canadian mountains. All you have to bring is food, a sleeping bag and a backpack full of excitement!
Whenever I think back of my trip to Lake O’Hara I remember these beautiful day hikes, the wonderful people we shared the hut with and jumping up and down like a 5-year-old on Christmas at the first sight of green lights on the sky. Thanks to my Canadian friend Don who helped me organizing this awesome trip!