Masterpiece Trails: Step by Step

Get the story behind the Lake Oesa-Opabin Lake Loop, Yoho National Park, British Columbia—and how to see it yourself.
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Get the story behind the Lake Oesa-Opabin Lake Loop, Yoho National Park, British Columbia—and how to see it yourself.

LAKE OESA, A SKY-BLUE tarn tucked into a glacial cirque in the Canadian Rockies, would be a worthy destination even if you had to bushwhack for miles to see it. But thanks to a retired coal miner named Lawrence Grassi, the 2-mile stone trail to Oesa is nearly as beautiful as the lake itself.

In 1946, at age 56, the Italian immigrant and mountaineer began volunteering as a warden at Lake O’Hara, the centerpiece of what is now Yoho National Park. Over the next two decades, Grassi, only 5’4”, singlehandedly improved the rough climbers’ trails in the area, manhandling 200-pound slabs of pink-orange quartzite to create stable steps across marshy meadows and talus fields. He filled in rough spots with wheelbarrow-loads of hand-quarried stones, and built staircases up small cliff bands.

Asked about the enormity of this task, he responded, somewhat ungallantly, that “it was easier to build the trail than to have to carry the ladies down when they were wearing high heels and fell.”

The hike
See Grassi’s handiwork on a 5-mile day trip: Hike around Lake O’Hara, hop stones across Oesa’s outlet, and join the Yukness Ledges, the easiest part of the Alpine Circuit above O’Hara. The route contours around 9,340-foot Mt. Yukness in such a way that the scrambling is always easy and the exposure mild. A short uphill leads to tiny Opabin Lake. Take the West Circuit Trail back down through graceful larch forests toward Lake O’Hara.

Trailhead Private cars aren’t allowed on the 7-mile road to Lake O’Hara, and a daily quota is often filled for the shuttle bus ($15 CAN/person round-trip) in summer. Reserve up to three months ahead. Season Mid-June to early October Overnight Lake O’Hara Campground ($12 CAN/site, plus $10 CAN/person wilderness pass). Contact (250) 343-6783; pc.gc.ca/yoho