Canada celebrates its 150th birthday this year and Parks Canada is offering free admission into all national parks, marine conservation areas, and historic sites with free discovery passes. To quote Parks Canada, “There’s never been a better time to make your Parks Canada dream a reality!”
Most visitors to Canada wanting to plan a “winter national park vacation” will tend to focus their attention on Banff National Park in Alberta with its world-class ski resorts, accommodations, and dining. Meanwhile, neighboring Yoho National Park in British Columbia is highly overlooked despite the fact that its scenery certainly rivals that of other Rocky Mountain National Parks in Canada.
Where Yoho National Park may seem quiet and “off the beaten path,” it more than compensates with backcountry ski and snowshoe trails, rustic lodges, and pristine powder for exploring far into the wilderness away from the crowds of tourists you’ll find in other parks.
Background on Yoho National Park
Yoho National Park is located in the province of British Columbia and is accessed via a short 10 minute drive from Lake Louise in neighboring Alberta, or via the Town of Golden on the other side of the park. The small Town of Field is the “hub” for the park and offers simple accommodations in guest houses, hostels, or B&Bs. Nearby Emerald Lake Lodge offers lakeside accommodations with gourmet dining and trails on site for skiing or hiking.
International visitors can fly into Calgary and drive out to Field in a 2.5 hour drive (129 miles.) Driving from Calgary will also give you the opportunity to spend time in Banff and Lake Louise on your drive out or on your return trip.
Destination Spotlight: Emerald Lake
Emerald Lake is a popular destination for both day trips and overnight trips with lodging available at the luxurious Emerald Lake Lodge. Visitors to Emerald Lake Lodge enjoy ski or hike in/out lakeside cabins at a front country lodge you can access by vehicle. Think “backcountry lodge” that you can drive to.
A shuttle bus transports you and your luggage up to the main lodge from the guest parking lot. Once you arrive at the lodge, you’ll feel as if you have travelled back in time to an era where families planned winter ski vacations to the grand lodges of the Canadian Rockies, arriving by train or even wagon in the early days.
Before the automobile, access to the lake was by wagon or “tally ho.” The trip from Field took two hours with a stop to enjoy the natural bridge. (Information from lodge archives) By comparison, today it takes less than half an hour to drive from Field to Emerald Lake Lodge. I still find the “character” of the lodge has not changed much since it was built in 1902 and I appreciate that cars have to park down below the lodge, keeping the pathways clear for guests to walk between their room and the main lodge. The only “wheels” you’ll see rolling around the property belong to the shuttle bus dropping visitors off at the main lodge. Beyond the main lodge building, access to all guest rooms is on foot unless you’ve requested a ride with your luggage with the bell boys in one of their small carts.
The main lodge building is home to a gourmet restaurant where you can feast on local Rocky Mountain cuisine that rivals the menus at any of the decadent restaurants in Banff or Lake Louise. There’s also a casual lounge where you can order snacks and drinks while warming up by the fireplace after hiking around the lake. I personally could spend an entire weekend sitting by the fireplace playing games and drinking coffee.
Whether you’re staying at Emerald Lake Lodge or down in the Town of Field, I recommend making a reservation at the lodge for dinner one night, stopping in at the lounge after you day hike at the lake, or popping in for a weekend brunch. The brunch buffet is amazing and my child is a huge fan of their cinnamon pancakes.
Hiking and Touring around Emerald Lake
Visitors to Emerald Lake will definitely want to start with a hike around the lake on the 3.3 mile Emerald Lake Loop. It’s easiest to hike straight across the lake until you reach the far side (as long as the lake is well frozen) and then you can join the summer hiking trail for the remainder of the trip as you make your way back to the lodge completing your loop in a clockwise direction. If you tire of hiking through the trees at any point on your way back you can easily hop back out onto the lake and head back to where you started from.
Snowshoe and ski rentals are available at the lake and the circuit of the lake is easy on either cross country skis or on snowshoes.
If choosing to ski, you can continue past the end of the lake onto the Alluvial Fan Loop (2.7 miles in distance,) one of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever skied in the Canadian Rockies. Note that this is a “ski specific trail” so if you choose to snowshoe it, please respect the ski trail and stay well to the side of all tracks. The same should be said for snowshoeing across the lake or at the back of the lake when you will be paralleling the ski trail.
Another beautiful trail at Emerald Lake is the Hamilton Falls Trail which is approximately 1.4 miles return with a small amount of elevation gain. We chose to just hike the trail without snowshoes because it was well packed down and the climb up to the falls was easier without snowshoes on our feet. I wasn’t expecting “much” from the falls but was pleasantly surprised by these small waterfalls. They are now on my annual “winter ice chasing list” and the hike was a lot of fun as a family.
Follow this link for a full list of hikes, maps, and information on hiking in Yoho National Park.
Visiting Emerald Lake’s Natural Bridge
You’ll see a small pull out with a sign for the Natural Bridge as you drive up the road from the TransCanada Hwy to Emerald Lake. We’d never stopped here before, so decided to finally see what all the fuss was about on a recent visit. I was completely blown away and surprised by how amazing this “tourist site” is in winter. The Emerald River was frozen so we were able to descend down to the river and walk under the pedestrian summer bridge that you’d normally use for viewing the natural bridge. We even got to walk under the natural bridge which was surreal and definitely on our “must do again” list for future trips.
Destination Spotlight: Lake O’Hara
Where Emerald Lake offers a softer “front country” winter experience, Lake O’Hara counters with an off the grid backcountry experience to give you the full Rocky Mountain package. In winter there is only one way to reach the world famous Lake O’Hara area and that’s on foot via a 7.5 mile ski or hike (one way.)
Cross country skiers can easily make the round trip distance to O’Hara in a day and can even stop in at the Lake O’Hara Lodge for lunch if they get an early start. Hikers will want to spend the night though at either the lodge or the alpine club hut. Both are challenging to get reservations at so you’ll want to plan your overnight trip to O’Hara a year in advance at least.
Day Trips to Lake O’Hara
I’ve skied into Lake O’Hara many times for the day and I always like to visit the Lake O’Hara Lodge for lunch and a chance to warm up. The Lodge welcomes non-registered guests to visit on weekends during their operational season for a light lunch of soup, salad, dessert and coffee or tea. The lunch is served between noon and 2 PM and no reservations are required. Note that payment is with cash only and last I checked it was $22 per person. I also highly recommend checking their website to make sure the lodge is open before making the long ski in with no lunch in your backpack. (And yes, I learned that the hard way one year!)
Staying Overnight at the Lake O’Hara Lodge
Hikers or skiers wanting to spend a night or two at Lake O’Hara have two options. Staying at the Lake O’Hara Lodge is the more expensive option and will be out of reach for the average visitor. For those that can finance the trip though, know that you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.
I had the amazing opportunity to stay at the lodge last winter and you can read about my experience here: Winter at the Lake O’Hara Lodge: The Ultimate Canadian Rocky Mountain Lodge.
Staying Overnight at the Elizabeth Parker Hut
This is the budget-friendly backpackers way of staying overnight at Lake O’Hara. The Alpine Club of Canada maintains a small backcountry hut a short distance away from the lodge and it’s certainly more affordable (though no easier to get reservations at.) For $30 – $40 per person per night you can stay at this cozy facility which sleeps 20 people in winter. You’ll have to bring in your own sleeping bag and food but cooking facilities, supplies, and dishes are provided.
We spent Easter at the Elizabeth Parker Hut last year and booked most of the hut a year in advance to share with a great group of families. We skied in but brought snowshoes with us so that we could tour the Lake O’Hara area while at the hut. You can read about our adventures at the hut here: Easter at the Elizabeth Parker Hut, Lake O’Hara.
Visit the Alpine Club of Canada’s website for more information on how to make reservations at the Elizabeth Parker Hut and other huts across Alberta and BC.
Other Popular Winter Trails in Yoho National Park
Wapta Falls – An easy 5.3 mile return hike or ski to a beautiful set of frozen waterfalls. The first part of the trail follows a summer road, making it ideal for skiing, but then the trail becomes narrower and is easiest on snowshoes.
Sherbrook Lake – An intermediate 3.8 mile return hike to a beautiful backcountry lake that’s also popular with backcountry skiers. Note that it is not recommended to continue to the far end of the lake or you will be in avalanche terrain.
Ross Lake Circuit – An intermediate 6 mile circuit that uses a portion of the Lake O’Hara Road and the Great Divide ski trail. This trail is popular with backcountry skiers so be prepared to jump off the trail quickly if snowshoeing should you encounter a skier coming down a hill quickly towards you.
Parks Canada publishes a great winter guide to Yoho National Park which can be downloaded for more information on all hiking and skiing trails in the park.
Follow this link to order your free Discovery Pass for Canada’s National Parks.
Follow these links for more information on area tourism:
Disclaimer: I have received complimentary accommodations at both Emerald Lake Lodge and at the Lake O’Hara Lodge so that I could gather content for this and other stories. As always all opinions and words are my own and this story is not sponsored by any company or business featured.