Yoho National Park day-hikes(The Iceline Trail and Lake O'Hara Circuit)

Getting There

Our accommodation in Yoho was the Whiskey Jack Wilderness Hostel, ideally situated in the Yoho River Valley within view (and earshot) of the 255m Takkakaw Falls. We arrived late afternoon, unloaded and then wandered across the valley to check out the falls at close range, as the glacier meltwater tumbled down from a gap in the orange-splashed cliffs, in a series of massive leaps.

Takkakaw Falls and the Yoho River

Whiskey Jack Wilderness Hostel

A whiskeyjack at Whiskey Jack

Whiskey Jacks is a comfortable place. Running on propane gas, it offers heating, hot showers and a place to cook and keep your beers cold. Sitting on the deck in the evening after a filling meal, sipping a red wine and looking out at the long ribbon of the Takkakaw Falls was a great way to start our time in a new National Park. It got even better when Sasha, our congenial hostel manager, decided to light up a camp fire – time I finished writing and went out to join the fair Nello around it. The attraction to fire is a very primal urge.


The Iceline Trail (21km - 910m ascent – 910m descent)

Looking up from these scribblings on the deck of Whiskey Jacks on a crisp but pleasant evening, the Takkakaw Falls are thundering more loudly from across the valley.  Today was quite a bit warmer than yesterday and, with the increased melt up on the Daley Glacier, the volume of water making the 255 m drop from cliff top to valley bottom has increased.

Today we walked the Iceline Trail, one of the signature hikes of Yoho. We walked it with Col, a fellow traveller from down under, who we met at the hostel and who takes as many photos as I do. The ice was still coating the car windscreens, when we set out at 8.30am, still in the shade of the Waputik Mountains across the valley. This didn't really matter, as the first part of our hike was a big climb, up through the forest to the open slopes of the President Range above.

It was actually much easier climbing than we had anticipated, as we followed a series of switchbacks steadily up through the spruce and fir. Across the valley, the Takkakaw Falls were a thin silver ribbon against the dark shaded cliffs. As we gained elevation, the forest thinned and the sun rose above the valley to bathe the landscape in a warm light – it was tee-shirt walking time.

The magnificent Takkakaw Falls

Silver thread of Takkakaw Falls (255m)
below the face of the Daley Glacier

On the climb up to the Iceline

Within the hour we broke out of the forest on to the rocky upper slopes for our first glimpse of what the Iceline Trail has to offer - we liked it. Across the valley, the Daley Glacier, the source of the falls, flowed down from the Waputik Icefield, while mountain and glacier stretched away toward the north.

Above the tree-line - view across the valley to the Waputik Range and Mt Niles (2972m)

On our side, we found ourselves on the flank of the President Range, surrounded by the barren beauty of a rocky slope that reached up towards the heights of Michael Peak and The Vice President. Stretched along the base of these peaks, the glistening white of a narrow band of glaciers clinging to the steep rock sides of the mountains. The origins of the name of this trail were becoming clear.

Panorama from the Iceline Trail - The President Range and its fringe of hanging glaciers

The track continued on an upwards traverse, sometimes dropping down to cross the old glacial bed, where in colder times the moving ice had polished the rocks smooth and etched them with lines before retreating to its present limits.

View north towards Yoho Peak, the Yoho Glacier and Wapta Icefield

A glacier-polished section of the trail

Looking up to the hanging glaciers

Nello and Col crossing the old glacial debris

The pattern of up and down the old lateral moraines continued, sometimes passing small glacial lakes, mirrors of the mountains when the air was still or bright turquoise when the wind disturbed the surface.

The clear waters of a glacial pond

Reflections of Mt McArthur, Glacier des Poilus and Isolated Peak

The Iceline = glistening white glaciers and turquoise lakes

Ridgeline of The Vice President

View over the Yoho Valley

As we followed the ice line, our perspective of these glaciers changed continuously. As we traversed the orange and tan rocks of this wonderfully desolate landscape, the views of the mountains across the valley, behind and ahead, changed as part of a magnificent rolling panorama.

Looking back to the silhouette of Cathedral Mountain

Face of a hanging glacier

Sharp-edged moraine and the distant Daley Glacier

The rocks of The Iceline

On reaching the high point of the trail, we were exposed to a cold westerly wind, forcing us to add an extra layer, but as soon as we started to descend the huge mounds of gravel, we were back in the shelter and back in tee-shorts. All these ridges, moraines and massive piles of gravel barged into place by the moving ice – the power of a glacier remains long after the ice has gone.

Once were glaciers - the barren surface of a retreated glacier with Glacier des Poilus and Whaleback Mountain in the background

Twisted strata of Mt Pollinger (2816m)

The descent continued as we curved westward - we next passed an exquisite turquoise lake beneath the snowy peak of The Vice President, before rounding a large moraine and following it down to the tree line.

The Vice President and Emerald Glacier frame a turquoise lake

Stunted spruce on the moraine

We were now looking directly up The Little Yoho Valley, framed by the twisted strata of tan-rock mountains. Despite the beauty of these barren glacial landscapes it was good to see the green of alpine meadow and forest tree again.

An orphaned lateral moraine piercing the forest

Heading back into the forest of Little Yoho Valley

The descent became steeper as we entered the forest, passing an orphaned moraine and eventually emerging onto a flat meadow through which flowed the Little Yoho Creek. On the other side was the picturesque log-built Stanley Mitchell Hut, the perfect place for lunch.

We crossed the grey-green waters of the creek on a wooden bridge and settled down in the sunshine to relax and enjoy the views of the peaceful meadow and impressive glacier-fronted peaks of the Vice-President and The (previously hidden) President. A ground-squirrel popped out of its burrow from time to time to check us out.

The Little Yoho Valley flats backed by the Vice President (3063m) and The President (3124m)

Looking up the Little Yoho River to Kiwetinok Pass


Stanley Mitchell Hut

It was a place you could stay for a long time, but we still had a long way to go. Pushing on, we started the descent of the Little Yoho Valley, following the track alongside the rushing creek through lovely open forest and meadow. High above, The Vice President loomed icily white, backlit by the sun.

View over the forest of Little Yoho

Following the Little Yoho River Trail ....

... beneath the tall trees ...

... and beside a small ravine

The fungi of Yoho

The forest of fir and spruce became thicker and taller as we lost elevation, its floor a soft dimpled mat of moss and assorted fungi. We soon found ourselves high above a narrow ravine, down which the Little Yoho raced to meet the Big Yoho River. As we neared the main valley, it was now our turn to drop steeply down a set of short switch backs which brought us to the Yoho Valley floor and the impressive powerful Laughing Falls. Here the Little Yoho made its final plunge before joining its bigger brother. We stopped for a break here with the ground squirrels and chipmunks.

Little Yoho River rushing down

Bridge over the ravine

A fallen forest giant

Laughing Falls

Chipmunk snack time

From here, there was a 5km walk down the Yoho Valley, starting off near the river and an impressive set of cascades as it cut its way through a narrow rock constriction, then heading back into the forest before finally regaining the edge of the milky green fast-flowing Yoho River.

The last few kilometres were on  wide manicured path that seemed not to end, as often happens at the last stage of a good walk when there are no highlights left. Not quite true, we had one more – the thundering sound of falling water signalled our arrival back at Takkakaw Falls, even more impressive than yesterday.

The milky green waters of the Yoho River

A section of cascades in the Yoho River

Wide path down the Yoho Valley

A pretty bend in the river

Home again - Takkakaw Falls re-appear

A short distance later and we were back on the deck of Whiskey Jacks, cold beer in hand, reminiscing on the incredible and very different scenery we had passed through. For us, the stay at this wilderness lodge, full of character and good company, was integral to our superb Iceline experience.

Lake O'Hara Circuit (13km - 480m ascent – 480m descent)

Lake O'Hara is arguably the most scenic part of the Canadian Rockies. It is also the most difficult part to visit and this is because it has a quota system on the number of people who can stay there. There are three places to stay at Lake O'Hara; the luxurious Lake O'Hara Lodge for which there is a one year waiting period, the Canada Alpine Club Lodge, which conducts a lottery each year for places, and the campground, which is open for bookings three months in advance and whose places fill within an hour of that time. Failing all of the above, you can walk the 11 km down a dusty road to get there, but you cannot stay.

Thus three months ago to the date, I sat up until 1am to telephone the Yoho National Park Service on the dot of office opening hour and locked in our place. Our luck has held – at 10.30am on a perfect blue sky autumn day, we found ourselves heading down the road in the old yellow school bus to Lake O'Hara. We were dropped off at the well-appointed campsite and quickly set up our tent, eager to explore and discover for ourselves what this region has to offer.

Path from the campground to the lake

The campsite itself was tucked away in the forest, so we followed the access track down through the mossy understorey beneath fir and spruce. We took the route along the eastern side of Cataract Brook, passing a small shallow green lake that reflected the mountain tops above the forest canopy – our appetites were being whetted already.

The pond on Cataract Brook

The Opabin Plateau and Schaeffer Ridge

Shortly after, we emerged at the shallow green-tinted northern end of Lake O'Hara and had our first view. It was indeed impressive. The waters were mirror still, reflecting the jagged outline of the Schaeffer Ridge and the Opabin Plateau below it, fringed golden with the autumn colours of larch.

Arrival at Lake O'Hara - wow!!!

Odaray Mountain (3159m) reflected in the still blue water of Lake O'Hara

A pefect O'Hara reflection

Victoria Falls

We wandered slowly around the lake shore, looking for a place to enjoy our lunch – a hard choice as all along was spectacular. We finally settled for a spot, where we could see a cliff-face rising directly out of the lake, backed by the enormous bulk of Yukness Mountain.

Opabin Plateau fringed with golden larch

Looking across Lake O'Hara to Mt Schaeffer (2692m)

In this deeper part of the lake, the water was a rich blue colour and, on its still surface, the larch fringe of Opabin Plateau reflected like a golden thread. It was the first of many places we didn't want to leave. When we did, we soon started a short but steep climb up to the top of the lake-edge cliffs, passing marmots at play and squirrels stocking up on food supplies for the coming winter. Towering above us to our left were the impressively banded and strangely sculpted tops of Mt Huber, separated from the more jagged top of the Wiwaxy Peaks by Wiwaxy Gap. Below the lake shimmered a brilliant blue against its backdrop of mountain peaks. It was pure chocolate box.

The rugged slopes of Mt Huber (3368m)

Once at the cliff-top, the route ahead seemed multi-tiered. We crossed a large jumble of boulders above the small pale green Yukness Lake, where another short and steady climb followed, to take us up to the next level, past a tumbling waterfall.

Close-up of the sculpted ramparts of Mt Huber

View past the Yukness Ledges towards Odaray Mountain

Emerging at this  level, we were again blown away by the view that greeted us – as we stepped out above the foaming white of the falls, there was Victoria Lake, fringed with golden larch and backed by the dark backlit walls of Yukness Mountain. This image was reflected perfectly in its still waters.

View over Victoria Lake to Odaray Mountain

Yukness Mountain reflected in the clear green water of Victoria Lake

The beautiful shoreline of Victoria Lake

The track now headed up to the next tier and here lay Lefroy Lake, clear blue and reflecting the magnificent cirque of glacier-capped Mt Lefroy, Glacier Peak and Ringrose Peak. At the rear of the lake, a small rock-face formed the next tier. We climbed up the track to it and there was Oesa Lake, directly beneath the 1000m walls of this superb alpine cirque. It was definitely a place to stop and take in the majesty of these mountains.

Zen garden at Oesa

Lake Oesa backed by Mt Lefroy (3423m), Glacier Peak(3283m) and Ringrose Peak (3281m)

Our meditation was distracted by some movement on the scree slope at the base of Yukness Mountain to our right – a small white spot was crossing its face. It was a mountain goat. I hurriedly put on my pack and dropped down on to the scree, following the path across as quietly as I could. When I crossed a small rise, there it was - not 50m away grazing impassively on a patch of alpine herbs. Mountain goats are magnificent creatures.

View back over mountain goat country ....

.... et voila!!

Small trees or giant boulders?

A bird's-eye view of the Lake O'Hara shoreline

We now pushed on, dropping down a rocky outcrop to pick up the path round the Yukness Ledges. This sometimes narrow track beneath the sheer cliffs of the mountain and high above the lake offered some of the most exhilarating views of the walk, taking in the lake and the superb peaks that frame it.

The far end of the lake (and the lodge)

Profile of the Wiwaxy Peaks and Mt Huber

Nello takes in the panorama from the Yukness Ledges

Panorama from the Yukness Ledges - the beauty of Lake O'Hara in autumn

Looking out across the Opabin Plateau to the Schaeffer Ridge

The pikas piped our passing as we worked our way around the ledges to head southwards, now high above the golden larches on the Opabin Plateau. Across the valley to the west, the jagged outline of the Schaeffer Ridge formed the horizon, its face now darkly shadowed from the late afternoon sun.

On the Yukness Ledges high above Opabin ....

... and the view back towards Lake O'Hara

We continued our high ledge route around the face of Yukness Mountain, now looking down on the pale green Moor Lakes, fringed by sunlit larches. Ahead, the pointed silhouette of Mount Biddle began to dominate our view as we walked deeper into the valley.

Moor Lakes framed in gold

Descending from the Ledges to Hungabee

The green waters of Mary Lake

Heading towards Mt Biddle (3319m)

The shadows start to creep out on Hungabee Lake

The track now dropped through the boulders to the bright green waters of Hungabee Lake, where it joined up with the East Opabin Trail. The trees around it glowed like golden candles in the late afternoon light, but already the shadows were starting to creep out from the base of the Schaeffer Ridge and across the valley floor.

Opabin Plateau landscape

Hungabee Lake - luminous green in its basin

We hurried on, climbing a grassy slope to the bowl of Opabin Lake at the head of the valley – yet another beautiful glacial lake backed by rugged peaks and the remnants of the mighty glaciers that once carved these valleys. It was time for another stop to meditate on the power of mountains and watch the pikas scurrying about their rocky habitat.

Opabin Lake backed by a fragmented glacier, Hungabee Mountain (3493m) and Mt Biddle (3319m)

Time was moving on and the shadows of the Schaeffer Ridge were lengthening across the plateau. We headed off, stopping at the top of a rock-face to admire the sun reflecting on the larches at the far end of the plateau. Then, descending, we wound our away around the rocky outcrops and lakes and through the luminous larch forest of Opabin.

View down Opabin towards Odaray and Cathedral Mountains

The beautiful but increasingly shady setting of Hungabee Lake

Cathedral Mountain and the Wiwaxy Peaks reflected in Lake Hungabee

On golden pond

Track across the Opabin Ridge

More beautiful reflections in Hungabee Lake and Cascade Lakes followed, before we crossed the tumbling mountain stream and headed out towards the Opabin Prospect at the cliff-tops that marked the end of the plateau.

The Wiwaxy Peaks and Mt Huber behind Cascade Lake

The view from the Opabin Prospect is considered one of the finest of the area and it was magnificent - out over the forest encircling the green of Mary Lake and blue of Lake O'Hara to the cliffs and peaks that framed this scene.

Golden larch lighting up the shaded path

The glorious panorama from Opabin Prospect

The shadows had caught us now, so we hurried on, dropping off the plateau to follow first a small rocky ravine, then a steep goat-track beneath the Opabin cliffs that brought us out into the fir forest surrounding Mary Lake. It was but a quick walk around the lake shore and across to Lake O'Hara, where we followed the Lakeshore Trail back past the Lodge and to Le Relais (the day shelter). Here we bought a “near-beer” to celebrate our walk and watch the evening shadows settle over magnificent Lake O'Hara.

Steep drop-off to Mary Lake

The route down from Opabin Plateau

Back into the spruce and fir

Moss lined outlet from Mary Lake

With the shadows came the mountain cold, so we quickly followed the track along the eastern side of Cataract Brook back to the campsite, where we were soon well-fed and snuggled in to our sleeping bags. I mentioned that Lake O'Hara is arguably the most scenic part of the Canadian Rockies. For us there is no argument – this small area is the jewel in the crown of these magnificent mountains.

Shadow-play on Mt Biddle

Late afternoon at Lake O'Hara

A photographer plies his trade at The Lodge

We had original planned another short walk before heading off tomorrow for other parts of Canada, but we decided not to do it. Today's walk had been as close to perfect as you could get, with so much packed into a relatively short distance, and there was no better way to end our Rocky Mountain experience.

Leaving the Rockies

The river plunges under a natural stone bridge

The following morning we packed up our tent as the fine mountain weather continued. As a symbolic end to our hiking time in the Rockies, we gave our bear-spray to a couple of friendly Australians that we had met at the Lake O'Hara camp – may it never be used!

The tranquil beauty of Emerald Lake

Kicking Horse River

Then we drove off, had one last mountain lunch on the shores of beautiful Lake Emerald, another must-see on the Rockies tourist trail, and headed for Vancouver. Our time in the west was over and we had a plane to catch for Montreal.