Yoho National Park in British Columbia isn’t very big compared to its next-door neighbour – Banff National Park. But the park is one I’d highly recommend visiting if you’re doing any kind of cross-Canada road trip or even the popular Vancouver to Calgary drive because what it lacks in size, it makes up for in mountain splendour! It’s also accessible as a day trip from Calgary, Banff, Lake Louise and Golden.
Yoho National Park is one of four Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks known for their incomparable mountain scenery. That in itself nets them a UNESCO designation. But Yoho is also home to the Burgess Shale fossils – which are also included as part of the UNESCO site. On top of that, 28 mountain peaks over 3,000 metres grace the skyline. There’s more. Takakkaw Falls, the second highest waterfall in Canada is easily accessible. And some of the prettiest lakes in the most alluring colours in the world can be found in this park. So what? Well if you’re into hiking, this is nirvana. There are loads of stunning Yoho National Park hikes and almost all are easily accessible to fit day hikers.
If you love hiking, backpacking and nature, then Yoho National Park needs to be on your must-visit list.
Described below are 10 superlative Yoho National Park hikes. These run the gamut from easy to difficult hikes. Some are short; some will take a full day. All will blow you away with their beauty. There are more hikes in the park than I am showcasing but they’re in the worthwhile – and not the amazing category.
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Emerald Lake Circuit
The Emerald Lake hike is a family-friendly 5.2 km circuit with negligible elevation gain. What I love about this easy hike, is the ever-changing vistas, including a variety of views of Emerald Lake itself, the majestic mountains ringing the lake and the Emerald Glacier. Even the forest is pretty, especially in fall when its awash with colour.
Allow 1 – 2 hours depending on your pace and the number of photo stops.
From Emerald Lake you can hike up to the Emerald Basin or do the Emerald Triangle – another loop hike, but it’s about a 6-hour hike.
Paget Lookout and Paget Peak
Less than 15 minutes from Lake Louise is the trailhead for several hikes including- Paget Lookout and Paget Peak, Sherbooke Lake and Niles Meadow. We hadn’t planned to hike up Paget Peak but in July, it can be a pain to get parking at Lake Louise, so after coming up short on a parking space we made our way to Yoho National Park and activated our Plan B hike.
What a delight! The hike up to Paget Lookout is only 7.8 kilometres return but it does boast an elevation gain of 520 metres (1706 feet), so you need about three hours to do the out and back hike. It would be a good one to do with the hike to Sherbrooke Lake – as both are family-friendly if your kids are regular hikers – and neither is too difficult. Paget Lookout is an old fire tower so there’s some shelter if the skies open. If not, sit out on one of the benches and take in the view down the valley towards Field.
The hike up Paget Peak from the lookout is a whole other “kettle of fish”. It’s another 2.8 km return to hike up Paget Peak. That comes with a 446 m climb and descent. Not only is it steep, but much of the hike is on scree. If you’re new to scree, you might want to try something easier.
On the bright side, the views from the top are soul-stirring, especially on a bluebird day.
Abbott Pass Hut hike – one of the challenging Yoho National Park hikes
The trail to Abbott Pass Hut is still in the process of being upgraded – but when it’s open again, this is one exceptional hike to do, especially with an overnight stay in the hut. The hut is operated by the Alpine Club of Canada – so check their website for updates.
When the hike reopens, you can look forward to a scenic, 915 m climb, with about two thirds of the climb on a gnarly scree slope. This hike isn’t for the faint of heart, those that hate moving boulders underfoot or anyone who loathes scree. But if you love a challenge, and the chance to sleep in the second highest permanent structure in Canada, then put it on your wish list.
Twin Falls and the Whaleback Ridge Hike
One of the Yoho National Park hikes that plunks you into an area of waterfalls, is the combo of the hike to Twin Falls and the Whaleback Ridge. It’s a full day hike of about 21 km if you do what we did. There is the option to continue into the little-traveled Waterfall Valley from the bridge spanning Twin Falls Creek. If you add that, allow an additional 90 minutes to two hours for the return hike.
Start at the Takkakaw Falls parking lot and follow the trail past Laughing Falls to reach the Twin Falls Campground at 6.7 km. Be sure to check out the trails around Twin Falls Chalet for great views of Twin Falls. Then there’s a climb of a couple of hundred metres to reach the airy vista at the top of Twin Falls. Shortly after the climb, reach the Whaleback North junction at 8.0 km. This area is a scenic spot for lunch.
From the junction there are several kilometres of delightful walking – called the “scenic highlight of the Yoho Valley” by Graeme Pole, probably because up to 11 mountain peaks can be seen in this section on a clear day! Before the steep descent to the Yoho Valley trail, continue a short distance for a view of the Iceline Trail, pictured at the top of this post.
At the bottom of the descent through an avalanche gully, turn left onto the Little Yoho Trail and follow it to reach a junction at Laughing Falls. Then turn right onto the Yoho Valley trail and continue 4.4 km to reach the parking lot. At the end of the day it feels much longer than that. There are several campgrounds on this route if you want to break up the hike and do more exploring.
Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit
The Lake O’Hara alpine circuit is one of the premier hikes in Canada.
The alpine circuit connects seven trails to create a loop. You can hike it in any direction – and you can exit it at numerous locations if bad weather rolls in. Don’t attempt it until the snow melts in mid-July either.
Over the 9.8 – 12.4 km route, depending on what sections you do, expect to encounter phenomenal alpine scenery, high plateaus, turquoise-coloured, glacier-fed lakes, catwalks and ledges, meadows, wildflowers – and yellow larch trees if you hike in the fall.
Allow a full day to do the loop – and to savour the hiking experience. Read The Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit in Yoho National Park for a full description of the hike and how to get permits for either the Lake O’Hara Campground or the bus.
Burgess Shale hike
The Burgess Shale hike can only be done as an 11-hour guided hike. That’s not a typo. You need to be prepared to commit – as they go rain or shine.
The hike starts at 7 AM. Over the next 11 hours you hike about 21 km and climb 825 m. You also learn a lot about what makes the Burgess Shale fossils so special, and enjoy scenic stops, usually with one heck of a view. Once you reach the Walcott Quarry, you get about an hour to look for fossils – and trust me, everyone will find something.
The hike starts off with a quick climb and a great view of Takkakaw Falls. The next stop is beautiful Yoho Lake where you get a chance to catch your breath and enjoy a red chair moment. From there the grade moderates and the views open as you can see in the photo below. Eventually, you end up with a panoramic view of Emerald Lake and all the mountains around it.
On the final climb to the quarry, keep an eye out for mountain goats. We saw about 40 of them, and from what I understand, they usually hang out here.
This hike is popular but obviously you do need to be in some sort of physical shape. Reserve well in advance to avoid disappointment by visiting this website.
Iceline – one of the top Yoho National Park hikes
The popular Iceline Trail is one of the premiere Yoho National Park hikes. Do the hike for take-your-breath away views of the Yoho Valley, Emerald Glacier along with views of the Vice President, Whaleback and Isolated Peak – if you hike to the high point on the trail.
The trail climbs 690 m from the Takakkaw Falls parking lot. But the route you choose is up to you so the mileage will vary from 12.8 km to 21.1 km for the day. Do the hike as a loop, an up and back or go the back way and climb to it after a night at Stanley Mitchell Hut. No matter what way you hike it, you’ll revel in the picture-postcard scenery.
The 6.3 km hike to McArthur Lake boasts an elevation gain of only 413 m so it shouldn’t take you more than a few hours to complete. This is big time grizzly country so be sure to carry an accessible can of bear spray with you – and know how to use it.
The hike starts near the warden cabin, and in short order passes Elizabeth Parker hut on route to Schaffer Lake. Enjoy pretty hiking through larch forest from Schaffer Lake to Lake McArthur, especially in the fall. When you reach the spectacularly coloured Lake McArthur, the deepest one in the park at 85 m, you will have passed the high point on the hike. Descend to the lake and finish the loop at Schaffer Lake. From there, either retrace your steps – though once back at the ACC Hut you could add in a loop to visit Morning Glory Lakes.
Lake Oesa – one of the easy Yoho National Park hikes
If you’re visiting the Lake O’Hara region with a young family, the hike to Lake Oesa would be a great choice. It’s just 6.6 km return with 240 m of elevation gain. You could certainly do an out and back in 3 hours, but this lake is one where I’d recommend lingering over a long lunch.
The route to Lake Oesa is well-signed and the trail is beautifully built. Pick it up by Lake O’Hara’s bridged outlet stream.
There is the option to make the hike into a loop if you’re up for the Yukness Ledges and the Opabin Plateau. I’d highly recommend this providing you don’t have young kids or frail parents with you, as the scenery is astounding on this section and the hiking is fun.
President Range – one of the off-the-beaten-path Yoho National Park hikes
The President Range trails aren’t marked. They’re for people who like to explore and don’t mind following their instincts and not trail signs. The President Range is best explored with either a night in the Stanley Mitchell Hut or at the nearby Little Yoho Campground. Otherwise, you’ll be pressed for time and you won’t see much of anything.
Over the course of several hours, including some time trying to cross a swollen creek to go to Kiwetinok Pass before giving up, we followed streams, clambered up small rock faces and generally made our way over to some massive glaciers in the President Range. It was worth the hike to see the cooked-up rocks in a variety of colours and to get up-close with a glacier.
Where to stay in Yoho National Park
John and I stayed in the Takakkaw Falls walk-in campsite accessed from the Takakkaw Falls parking lot for a couple of the hikes I mentioned. You can’t reserve the walk-in campsite. Fortunately, even in August that didn’t seem to be a problem. Some campsites come with a fire pit and a view. All are private. Pit toilets, potable water and even large wheelbarrow-like contraptions for moving your gear are all part of the campground. You self-register at a kiosk and pay with cash or a credit card.
Close to Cathedral Mountain Lodge are two campgrounds – the non-reservable, first come, first served Monarch Campground and the reservable Kicking Horse Campground. COVID has shuttered some campgrounds for the short term.
If you don’t mind hiking, there are many choices including the pretty Yoho Lake Campground – which could be used for the Iceline Trail. Also consider Little Yoho Campground for the Iceline and President Range Trails.
For the Twin Falls – Whaleback Loop, you could also stay at Laughing Falls or Twin Falls Campgrounds. Both are quite lovely.
In the Lake O’Hara area there is one campground only and it’s a bear to get a reservation. Try here.
Looking for a roof over your head? The Whiskey Jack Wilderness Hostel is just a few minutes’ walk from the Takakkaw Falls parking lot but it comes with dorm rooms.
Cathedral Mountain Lodge, is a 25 minute drive away from the Takakkaw Falls parking lot and is a lovely spot to spend a night or two.
I’d also recommend a stay in Emerald Lake Lodge, a 30 minute drive away. Many of the rooms overlook Emerald Lake.
The town of Field is also a short drive away. It offers an assortment of B&B’s.
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