In the Spring of 2015, I decided that my next photography trip would be to the Canadian Rockies. I wasn’t sure who would be going with me, but I decided that I wasn’t getting any younger and that if I was going to go off hiking in Canada, I would need to get on the stick. So I threw the idea out to some of my photography buddies and fortunately, three of them said yes. I immediately began scouting for shots online. I also began trying to choose the ideal September weekend. If I went too early, many of the larch trees would not be turning yet, but if I went too late, some of the locations would no longer be accessible due to snow and the larch trees would be bare. But if I waited another couple of weeks, the moon would be gone and we might have a chance of shooting the aurora. After seeing some amazing photos from the renowned Paul Zizka (resident of Banff), I purchased his book and then sent him an email asking if he had any suggestions as to when the ideal weekend might be. He told me that there was definitely some variation on which weeks the trees turned every year, but generally the last two weeks of September would be a safe bet. I also snooped around on a couple of photography tour websites to see when their workshops would be taking place, and many of them were also taking place during the last couple weeks of September.
One of Paul’s photos really jumped out at me while I was scouting around. It was a shot from the Odaray Grandview and it was just spectacular. The funny thing was that after I googled it, I could only find a handful of shots taken from this location. I also found some spectacular shots of taken from the Opabin Plateau, but again, not that many photos were available, especially those taken during September. Where were all the photos of the Odaray Grandview and the Opabin Prospect?
After some investigating, I found that these spots are only available to those willing to make a trip up to Lake O’hara in Yoho National Park. But there was a catch. The camping spots available in Lake O’hara are very limited and usually are booked 3 months in advance. If you somehow manage to get a campsite reservation or if you book a room in the fairly expensive lodge, you can catch a bus which will take you up a 7 mile access road to the campsite area adjacent to the lake. If you don’t have a seat on that bus, you can just add seven miles onto whatever else you wanted to hike to in that incredible area surrounding the Lake.
The more I investigated, the more began to realize that I HAD to find a way to get to this location. Lake O’hara is surrounded by a series of trails known as the Alpine Circuit, and the Alpine Circuit offers some of the most stunning views to be found in the Canadian Rockies, including views from both the Opabin Prospect and the Odaray Grandview. So three months to the day, I picked up the phone with hopes of getting a couple of campsites for the Thursday night that we would be up there. And somehow, I got right through and booked two sites.
Fast forward to our arrival in Calgary on September 23, 2015. We had plenty of spots that we were planning to get to between Banff, Jasper and Yoho, and Lake O’hara would only take up one of the four days that we would be shooting. As we didn’t want to camp the entire time we were up there, we decided to make reservations in hotels on all nights except for Thursday. (I’ll get to the other aspects of our incredible trip in future blog posts and focus just on Lake O’hara in this installment.) In order to pull this off, we needed to rent camping gear to take with us on our trip up to Lake O’hara. We found a great deal at a store called Bactrax in Banff which outfitted us with tents, sleeping bags, mats and cooking gear. The bus that would be taking us up from the parking area in Yoho only allowed two bags per person, so we had to re-pack and take only what we needed for that night and the next morning.
By 2 PM we were in the parking area waiting for our bus and by 3 we were bouncing along in the bus on the 7 mile trip up the access road. When we arrived, we quickly set up our tents, re-packed our backpacks to take just our photo gear, water and snacks, and immediately set off for the Opabin Prospect, hoping to arrive before sunset. From the campsite, the trail takes you along the beautiful shores of Lake O’hara before it climbs steeply up to the plateau. As Lake O’hara is pretty close to 7000 feet in elevation, I found myself getting out of breath fairly quickly when we began our hike up the trail. We immediately regretted trying to rush to fit everything into our schedule as Lake O’hara was stunning from just about every angle, but the clock was ticking and we weren’t sure how long it would take to hike up. So after a few quick shots, we forced ourselves to keep moving.
The trail up wasn’t as steep as some of the others that I’ve been on lately, but it still kicked my butt. I’m going to go ahead and blame it on the thin mountain air, but I definitely felt less manly as we came upon an elderly couple making their way down the trail. I’m going to guess they were in their 80’s. After we passed them, I quit stopping every 50 yards, and just sucked it up. It wasn’t long before the view began to open up behind us:
We finally raced up to the edge of the Prospect with about 45 minutes to spare. As the four of us arrived, we just stood for a few moments with our mouths open. The view looking out over Lake O’hara and Mary Lake is easily one of the finest in the Canadian Rockies.
As we arrived at the top of the plateau, we were surprised to find that we were going to have to pass up more gorgeous scenery if we were going to make it to the overlook in time. After shooting for a while at the rim, we finally caved in and ran back to grab some shots of the larch trees which were now lit up in brilliant yellow surrounding the lake further up the Opabin Plateau:
After shooting for only a short while we raced back to the edge of the plateau, but the epic sky we were hoping for never quite showed up as the clouds were quickly disappearing. We decided to head back down before it got too dark, but we were distracted again by the moon which had come out over the larches behind us:
After taking some final shots of the moon, we picked our way down the trail with our headlamps. Todd was in pretty bad shape as he had some severe blisters to deal with. We didn’t really eat much as we all grumpily headed into our tents to grab some sleep. I discovered in a hurry that I’m way too old to sleep on the weenie little mats that Bactrax had outfitted us with. I took turns between shivering my butt off, tossing and turning on the hard ground, and sliding of the stupid pad every 5 minutes. We were also camped on a bit of an angle so that didn’t help either. I think I MAY have gotten about an hours worth of sleep that night. I finally gave up trying to sleep around 3:30 AM and snuck out to see if there was any hint of the aurora in the sky, but no dice. At 4 AM, Tom and Mark were up and raring to head off on our morning hike to the Odaray Grandview. Todd elected to sleep in as he was still hurting.
It’s worth noting that some of the trails around Yoho National park were CLOSED as of late August due to bear activity. The trail to the Odaray Grandview wasn’t closed, but it was extremely restricted. There was a sign in book near the trail head and they were asking hikers to limit their activity on this trail to no more than two parties a day. We didn’t see any bears on our way up, but we were surprised at how serious the Canadians were about limiting potential contact between hikers and bears.
We hiked for about 90 minutes or so before it began to grow light. As we headed up the steep trail, we noticed that a winter storm was moving in. (only 40 percent chance of rain that morning, but apparently it got there much faster than they were anticipating.). We also noticed that the “trail” was starting to get smaller….and smaller…until it disappeared altogether as we arrived at one the steepest sections of the mountain. Tom and Mark thought they could make out some cairns and some occasional blue paint, but as we arrived in this one particular location, everything disappeared. We stopped and evaluated our situation: The trail had disappeared….the wind was now howling…it was beginning to snow….and the sun was nowhere to be seen. It was clear that even if we pressed on, it would all be for naught as there would be no sunrise that morning. We decided to punt, but I hung on for a few more moments behind Tom and Mark. The sun finally managed to squeak out some faint color before we hustled back down to break camp and to catch the first bus out. Even though we didn’t make it up to the top of the actual “Grandview”, the view was VERY grand from where we were. We felt again that we had come within INCHES of an epic shot, but we were glad to be able to grab at least a couple of shots from the trail before heading down.
We caught the first bus out as we had to return our camping gear and make it to Maligne Lake in Jasper hopefully before the rain moved up there. We were definitely frustrated that we didn’t have more time, but we had all agreed that we would cover as much ground as possible while we were up there and it was time to move on. I think you can make reservations up there for a full week, especially if you stay in one of the lodges on the lake, and it became evident very quickly that we could have easily spent a week up there and would still have more shots to take. As it was, we only had a few hours, but we tried to make the best of it. I will definitely be making another trip back to Lake O’hara in the future, and on the next trip, I hope to spend at least a couple days rather than a few hours.
Thanks so much for reading. Please check back over the next couple of weeks for the next installment of our adventures in the Canadian Rockies.