There are things that you try once, enjoy immensely, and where you’ll then take great satisfaction in checking the experience off of your bucket list. Then there are things you try for the first time that get their hooks into you, and you know you’ll never be satisfied with just doing it “one time” to check it off a list. You catch the bug for this new experience or activity– and you’re never quite the same again.
Skiing or snowshoeing into a backcountry lodge in the Canadian Rockies is one of those bucket list experiences that you’ll want to try at least once in your lifetime, hopefully multiple times and to a number of different lodges for variety. But what happens when you visit the ultimate lodge that firmly roots you, draws you in, and pulls you back year after year? That is the Lake O’Hara Lodge for many people who return time after time to the same lodge, some making it an annual pilgrimage for upwards of 50 years.
On a recent trip to the Lake O’Hara Lodge I was fascinated by the guests and their stories. I listened as one older gentleman, and former lodge manager, told me about how he first worked at Lake O’Hara as a dishwasher in 1969. Close to fifty years later, he still visits the lodge every summer and winter with his wife, and is now a partner in the business. Talking to his wife, she shared her favourite memory of how she came in to the lodge by ski-doo with their two week old baby when they were working as managers. This baby, now grown in to a lovely young lady, works at the lodge following in her parents’ footsteps alongside her sister. Both daughters have been working at the lodge for 4-5 years and I have no doubt this is only the beginning of a lifelong relationship with the Lake O’Hara Lodge for both girls.
What draws guests to the same lodge for 30 to 50 years?
The story above is not an isolated one based on privileges afforded to a family who has chosen to partner in the business of the Lake O’Hara Lodge. I talked with another couple who have been visiting the lodge for 30+ years, the gentleman now 81 years old. They make the trek to the Rockies from Seattle every winter, and now enjoy snowshoeing from the lodge during their stay. I loved hearing about their transition from skiing at the lodge to snowshoeing and think it’s amazing that this couple can return year after year, even after backcountry skiing ceases to be an option for their age or ability.
I joined the couple above for a guided snowshoe tour into the backcountry terrain above Lake O’Hara and was pleasantly surprised to see that the skiers and snowshoers all got to enjoy the same experience at the lodge. We started our day together, skied or hiked to the same viewpoint, and then had lunch as a group. From there, the skiers hung around to enjoy some turns while those of us on snowshoes continued back to the lodge in a longer loop to find more great views. This is great for older individuals who can no longer ski but still want the same classic experience they have enjoyed for decades at Lake O’Hara. Nobody is “suffering” at Lake O’Hara if they can no longer ski or choose not to for whatever reason.
Highlights that create Lifelong Relationships with Lake O’Hara Lodge
I talked with a group of men that have been visiting Lake O’Hara for 20+ years and their story is similar to everybody else I chatted with.
- Lake O’Hara is the most beautiful place we could ever find
- We love the easy access with no helicopter. We hike in, borrowing backcountry skis from the lodge, and it’s easy to catch flights back to Toronto or Vancouver
- Lake O’Hara is unspoiled. There’s no cat skiing or helicopters because of the location in a national park
- The quality of the stay is unparalleled
- I love interacting with the lodge guests. With only 16 guests in winter at one time, you meet everybody and I’ve met a lot of people I’d invite over for dinner
- There’s no TV, no newspapers, no email, no internet – just snow and the great outdoors
- You just lose all thoughts of work and get to focus just on what’s around the next corner
Other highlights involved a shirts and skins hockey game against the staff out on the lake under a full moon, skiing across the lake at night while howling at the full moon, and backcountry ski touring with the guides to incredible locations each day. One guest also expressed that you don’t need to be a double black resort skier to ski at Lake O’Hara. The guides take you to safe places every day and if you can downhill ski, you can ski at O’Hara. The guides give you basic instruction on techniques and know the best places to go to get into the premier spots.
Why Snowshoe at a Backcountry Ski Lodge?
Many of the guests I talked with return year after year for the backcountry skiing but I experienced for myself how you don’t have to be a skier to enjoy Lake O’Hara. This is perhaps one of the few backcountry lodges in the Canadian Rockies that caters to both skiers and hikers, and even challenges both groups equally. When I was told that I was going to go on a guided snowshoe tour, I was honestly expecting a “cute little hike” to a nearby lake or perhaps a walk around the lakeshore near the lodge. I never expected to be following the backcountry skiers into the same rugged terrain and to the same high viewpoint overlooking the entire Lake O’Hara area. I didn’t expect the epic backcountry experience that I received – and I would return to the lodge in a heartbeat to go snowshoeing. Just hearing about the other great locations the guests could visit left me longing for a repeat visit!
If you’ve ever thought that snowshoeing might perhaps be a bit “boring” compared to backcountry skiing, a visit to Lake O’Hara will quickly change your mind. One doesn’t follow an official packed or groomed snowshoe trail here. This is backcountry touring at its finest and you’ll get up close to glaciers, hike up to viewpoints that are not even accessible in summer, and reach destinations I could never fathom seeing in winter.
As a summer hiker at Lake O’Hara I was beyond astonished when I was told we’d be snowshoeing up the Odaray Plateau. Not only is the area closed in summer due to wildlife concerns, it’s also a big hike – and not without a bit of height gain! Snowshoeing at Lake O’Hara will give you a workout and leave your muscles ready for the sauna back at the lodge. Snowshoeing at Lake O’Hara is no “walk in the park” and you might even want to train a bit before you visit with some stair climbing or cardio conditioning.
The Ultimate Luxury Lodge in the Backcountry
Lest you think you’ll be “roughing it” back at the lodge, this is not that kind of lodge! The Lake O’Hara Lodge has both electricity and indoor plumbing. Yes, you can charge your phone at night if you’ve been using it to take photos, and you can definitely take a shower after your day of skiing or hiking.
The lodge has a sauna for tired muscles and is perhaps only missing a hot tub. (Though it does have claw foot tubs for soaking in.) What it lacks in a hot tub, it more than makes up for in gourmet 5-star meals. With glassware and linens that you’d expect from one of the finest restaurants in your nearest city, the lodge serves up a four course meal for dinner that ranks as high in presentation as it does in taste. This is no buffet and you will be served individually at the long table you’ll share with the other guests. I lucked out on my night at the lodge with rack of lamb being served, paired with the most amazing mint salsa. Needless to say, it was pretty hard to ski out the next afternoon, a few hours before dinner, knowing I’d be dining on a burger from McDonald’s on the way home.
All stays are the Lake O’Hara Lodge include breakfast, a packed lunch for your day’s adventures, afternoon snacks and tea, and the four course dinner (including dessert of course.) Alcohol can also be purchased at the lodge and I appreciated that their collection featured the best spirits available across the province of British Columbia, focusing on local beers and wines.
The main Lodge has eight bedrooms and this is where you’ll be sleeping in winter. Most rooms have two twin beds, with two large bathrooms shared amongst the lodge guests. In summer, there are also cabins available for lodge guests.
When not skiing, eating, or sleeping, it’s very pleasant just hanging out in the main lodge by the fireplace with a cup of tea or coffee, chatting with other guests, and adding to your “must visit…” bucket list. I talked with guests who had cycled all over the world, who had hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, and who had visited more countries in the last year than I have in my life. Bring a notebook and be prepared to take some serious notes if you have a sense of wanderlust as I do!
What Would Attract a New Generation of Users to this Lodge?
A woman in my forties, I was definitely the youngest guest at the lodge. Unfortunately, staying at a backcountry luxury lodge that can boast of electricity, indoor plumbing, and professional guides just doesn’t fit the budget for most young people. If you are a young lady, my best advice would be to marry a lawyer as there was no shortage of men from that profession at the lodge during my stay. Otherwise, young people will have to work their way up to the top, starting in the kitchen, and then progressing from there. (Fortunately the lodge does require a large amount of staff each summer season)
For younger folks that can’t quite finance such a luxury stay, you can still visit the lodge as a day trip. It’s a 6.8 mile ski or hike up to the lodge where you can enjoy a decadent lunch of homemade soup, fresh bread, salad, and dessert for an affordable fee of $22 per person. Lunch is served from 12-2pm Saturdays and Sundays while the lodge is open for guests. If you skied in, you can sometimes make it out in an hour when conditions are right since it is mostly downhill on the way back to the parking lot. Snowshoers will want to get an early start and bring a headlamp, but it’s still doable for a day trip in a 6 to 7 hours round trip hiking time.
Adventurers on a budget can also stay at the Alpine Club of Canada’s backcountry hut (bring your own sleeping bag and food) or can stay at the campground year round. We met many families and young people on their way to and from both the hut and campground on our recent visit.
Finally, in summer, one can take a bus to Lake O’Hara, saving one the 7 mile walk, and enjoy day hiking around the beautiful area.
Logistics, Planning a Visit to the Lake O’Hara Lodge, and Other Things you’ll want to Know
The Lake O’Hara Lodge is located in Yoho National Park, British Columbia, and is best accessed from Calgary, Alberta. It is a 2.5 hour drive to the parking lot at the base of the Lake O’Hara Road. You’ll pass by Lake Louise before continuing into British Columbia and any visit to the Rockies would not be complete without spending some time in this scenic village as well.
You’ll park at the base of the Lake O’Hara Road and from here, ski or hike up the 6.8 mile road, gaining 1440 feet to reach the lodge, located on the shores of Lake O’Hara. This road has permanent closures to the public and even in the summer, you will have to make a reservation for spots on the Lake O’Hara bus if you want to gain access to the area without hiking up the road. People are always allowed to make the trek on foot if they choose to do so but the area is closed to all bikes, both summer and winter.
Options for traveling up the Lake O’Hara Road in winter range from hiking it in boots, to hiking in snowshoes (useful if there has been fresh powder,) cross country skiing (which is my preference since it’s downhill on the way out and you can carry snowshoes for exploring at the lake,) or even skiing up in backcountry AT skis for touring at the lodge. Folks who don’t want to use their own backcountry skis can inquire with the lodge about borrowing from their collection. The lodge also has a great collection of snowshoes for guests who don’t want to carry their own up.
Bring Cash for all Expenses at the Lodge
Payment for your stay will be made before your visit because the lodge does not accept credit card payments on site. The only other expense you will be looking at during your stay will depend on how much alcohol you want to purchase. This must be purchased with either cash or a check/cheque. Tipping the staff is not allowed so you do not need to factor that in to your expenses.
Day users wanting to have lunch at the lodge must bring cash with them to pay.
Touring from the Lodge
All touring on skis or snowshoes from the lodge must be done in the company of an official lodge guide. Guests are not allowed to go out into the backcountry alone (even if prepared with their own personal gear and knowledge.) Guests will be asked to agree to this before making a reservation at the lodge. You will be given an avalanche beacon (your seat belt) before you head out with your guide each day and the guide ensures you only venture into safe terrain.
Potential guests should also know that there is only one tour from the lodge per day and that all guests on snowshoes or skis will start off on the same tour. Most tours cater to the individual who can handle intermediate terrain, be it on skis or snowshoes, and are suitable for those possessing good fitness and stamina. You will be climbing hills, hiking through deep powder, and snowshoeing or skiing for at least 4 hours. Basic knowledge of how to ski with an AT set up is recommended and hikers should have some experience with (and appropriate fitness for) snowshoeing through deep snow while climbing hills.
Please visit the following links for all information on the Lake O’Hara area: