One of the most beautiful spots in all of Canada is just a short drive away. At a distance of only 37 km (23 miles), Yoho National Park is an easy day trip from MRC.
Yoho National Park extends over the Canadian Rockies and lies between Banff and Kootenay National Parks. It is the smallest of the three but it packs a big punch. The Trans-Canada Highway passes through the park, allowing for easy access. With exceptional hiking trails and many sightseeing options, Yoho is a great destination for casual visitors and seasoned backpackers alike.
The park is located along the western slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains in the province of British Columbia. The eastern end of the park sits on the Continental Divide where the Bow River flows east towards the Atlantic Ocean and the Kicking Horse and Columbia Rivers flow west to the Pacific. Here the Continental Divide also marks the border between the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.
The park’s breathtaking vistas are a result of plate tectonics and erosion, as well as glacial sculpting during the ice age. The park’s steep slopes, deep valleys and alpine meadows are home to a diverse mix of flora and fauna.
Although the park is small, its spectacular beauty cannot be overstated. Camping facilities and over 400 kilometers of hiking trails allow you to experience it all up close. The two main areas of interest are the Yoho Valley and the Kicking Horse River area. Popular sites include Takakkaw Falls, Emerald Lake, Lake O’Hara, Natural Bridge, and Wapta Falls.
There are also historical points of interest. The Burgess Shale Fossil Beds, home to fossils more than 530 million years old, are extremely important in the field of paleontology. The Spiral Tunnels that go through the steep terrain of the Canadian Rockies are a testament to innovative railway engineering.
Start your visit to the park with a scenic drive on the Yoho Valley Road. This 13.7-km road is located off the Trans-Canada Highway approximately 4 km east of the town of Field. It runs through a deep valley and offers many stunning views. Near the 3-km mark there is an overlook where you can see the Upper Spiral Tunnels that cut through Cathedral Mountain. The next pull-off looks out on the “Meeting of the Waters”, where the powerful Kicking Horse River joins the Yoho River. The road ends at the parking area for Takakkaw Falls.
Takakkaw means magnificent in the Cree language, and this waterfall truly is magnificent. The Takakkaw Falls are 384 meters (1260 feet) high, making it the tallest waterfall in the Canadian Rockies and the second tallest in Canada. Water shoots out through an opening in the cliff wall and drops a distance of 254 meters (833 feet).
The Takakkaw Falls are easily accessible; it is a short walk from the parking lot to the base of the falls. A wheelchair-friendly trail leads over a bridge crossing the Yoho River. This waterfall is a delight to the senses – from the parking lot you can catch a glimpse of it through the trees and hear its thunderous roar. As you approach, the mist and spray get stronger, so be sure to bring your rain jacket!
You can also take the more strenuous Iceline Hiking Trail which offers beautiful views of these majestic falls and the glaciers beyond. At 13.8 kilometers (8.6 miles) round trip this is a demanding day hike, but well worth it if you have the time and energy.
The best time of year to visit Takakkaw Falls is in early summer. The waterfall is fed by the melt water of a glacier 100 meters up the mountain, so the volume of water is at its peak this time of year.
Emerald Lake, reached via an access road off of Highway 1 south of Field, is the largest lake in Yoho National Park. This pristine mountain lake was formed by glacial silt flowing into it from the President Range. Tom Wilson, the famous nineteenth-century mountain guide, came across the lake in 1882 while tracking down a team of horses. He was captivated by its lustrous aqua green color and thus named it Emerald Lake. The color is most intense in early summer when the flow of glacial silt is strongest.
There are a number of hikes beginning at Emerald Lake. The trails are studded with a beautiful variety of native wildflowers and offer amazing views of the distant peaks. The most accessible trail is the Emerald Lake Loop. It covers 5.3 kilometers (3.2 miles) and starts with a level, gravel path suitable for wheelchairs. Taking just 1 to 1.5 hours to complete, it is a perfect afternoon hike for the whole family.
The lake area is open year-round, offering winter adventures as well. You can snowshoe or cross-country ski across the lake or follow one of the trails through the wilderness. Here you can get away from it all and enjoy the back country of the Canadian Rockies.
On your way to Emerald Lake, be sure to stop at Natural Bridge, one of Yoho’s ancient marvels. This natural rock formation was created by the strong currents of the Kicking Horse River cutting through the soft rock that sits below the harder limestone.
The Kicking Horse River is a Canadian Heritage River. Beginning at Wapta Lake, it flows southwest past Field, goes through the Natural Bridge, over Wapta Falls, and then flows northwest where it ultimately joins with the Columbia River. It was named by James Hector in 1858, after he was kicked by his packhorse while exploring the river.
The Lake O’Hara region is considered by many to be the highlight of Yoho National Park. The breathtaking view from Opabin Prospect is a favorite among photographers and is not to be missed.
There are many scenic hikes in the mountains surrounding the lake where you can enjoy an abundance of wildflowers in early summer and golden larch trees in the fall. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot mountain goats and other wildlife as you traverse these trails. The hikes, such as the Lake Oesa Trail, Opabin Plateau Circuit and McArthur Pass, range from easy to advanced. To protect the delicate alpine environment, access to this region is limited and can only be reached by bus or on foot. You’ll want to plan ahead as bus reservations sell out quickly.
In the 1870s the Canadian Pacific Railway was built to cross the Continental Divide and connect British Columbia with the rest of Canada. It goes through the steep and narrow Kicking Horse Pass. This pass was chosen in spite of its rugged terrain because it was the shortest route to the Pacific coast and was close to the US border. The tracks originally went over the Big Hill, the steepest gradient of any railway in North America. The Spiral Tunnels, completed in 1909, offered a solution by creating a more gradual grade through the mountains.
There are two viewpoints where you can safely watch the trains and learn more about the Spiral Tunnels and the Kicking Horse Pass National Historic Site. From the lookout 7.4 km east of Field on the Trans-Canada Highway, you can see the Lower Spiral Tunnel in Mt. Ogden. The Upper Spiral Tunnel going through Cathedral Mountain can be seen from the pull-off 2.3 km up the Yoho Valley Road.
To learn more about the railway’s history, take the 1.2-km Walk in the Past Trail which begins at the Kicking Horse camping area. It leads to an old spur line and an abandoned locomotive that was used during the Spiral Tunnels’ construction. Alternatively, from the Spiral Tunnels viewpoint on the Trans-Canada Highway, you can walk along the original track of the Big Hill.
The Burgess Shale Fossil Beds lie on a high mountain ridge in Yoho National Park. These beds contain the fossilized remains of over 100 different marine animal species and algae dating back over half a billion years. Discovered in 1909, this site is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Fossil Beds can only be reached as part of a guided hike organized by the Yoho Shale Geoscience Foundation. These hikes must be reserved in advance and are limited to groups of 15. The hike is fascinating and informative, but can also be physically demanding. Lasting 7.5 to 11 hours and covering a large area with moderate elevation gain, this hike is not for the faint of heart.