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 even though its winter scenery certainly rivals 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. It’s perfect 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. Or, the 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 allow you to spend time in Banff and Lake Louise on your drive out or your return trip.
Destination Spotlight: Emerald Lake
Emerald Lake is a popular destination for both day trips and overnight trips.
Emerald Lake Loop
Visitors to Emerald Lake will definitely want to start with a hike around the lake on the 3.3-mile (5.3 km) 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). You can then 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. But, 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.
Alluvial Fan Loop
If you choose to ski, you can continue past the lake’s end onto the Alluvial Fan Loop (2.7 miles/ 4.3 km). This loop is 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.
Snowshoe and ski rentals are available at the lake. Either way, the circuit of the lake is easy for both cross-country skis or snowshoes.
Hamilton Falls Trail
Another beautiful trail at Emerald Lake is the Hamilton Falls Trail. This trail is approximately 1.4 miles (2.25 km) return with a small amount of elevation gain.
We chose to 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.
Emerald Lake’s Natural Bridge
You’ll see a small pullout 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 we 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 could descend to the river. We walked under the pedestrian summer bridge you’d normally use to view 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.
Emerald Lake Lodge
If staying overnight, lodging is 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.
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.
According to the Emerald Lodge archives, the trip from Field took two hours with a stop to enjoy the natural bridge. 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. 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 Apres Experience
The main lodge building is home to a gourmet restaurant. Here, you can feast on local Rocky Mountain cuisine that rivals the menus at any decadent restaurant 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.
So, 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. You can stop in at the lounge after your day hike at the lake or pop in for a weekend brunch. The brunch buffet is amazing, and my child is a huge fan of their cinnamon pancakes.
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. There is only one way to reach the world-famous Lake O’Hara area in winter, and that’s on foot via a 7.5-mile (12 km) ski or hike (one way.)
Cross country skiers can easily make the round trip distance to O’Hara in a day. Moreover, you can even stop in at the Lake O’Hara Lodge for lunch if they get an early start. On the other hand, snowshoers and hikers will likely want to spend the night 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.
Lake O’Hara Lodge
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, coffee, or tea. The lunch is served between noon and 2 PM, and no reservations are required. Note that payment is with cash only.
I also highly recommend checking their website to ensure 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!)
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.
Elizabeth Parker Hut
This is the budget-friendly backpacker’s 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. Plus, it’s certainly more affordable (though no easier to get reservations at.) Here, 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 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 to tour the Lake O’Hara area while at the hut.
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
In addition to Emerald Lake and Lake O’Hara, here are a few other trails to check out 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 quickly jump off the trail 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 hiking and skiing trails.
Futhermore, purchase your Discovery Pass for access to over 80 of Canada’s Parks.
Follow the links below for additional tourism info about the area.
What are your favorite snowshoeing and winter trails in Yoho National Park? Also, what recommendations do you have for others? Please share with us in the comments below.
Disclaimer: I have received complimentary accommodations at both Emerald Lake Lodge and 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.
This article was originally published on February 19, 2017, and most recently updated on April 1, 2021.
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