A Guide to Yoho National Park in Winter

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Yoho National Park may be small in comparison to its next-door neighbour, Banff National Park, but don’t let that dissuade you from visiting. In winter, Yoho National Park is a complete delight – a veritable winter wonderland and one of Canada’s most stunning parks, packed with mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, alpine lakes, and snowy meadows.

In winter, there is plenty to do. Book a stay at Emerald Lake Lodge or nearby in Field and explore the area trails on snowshoes or cross-country skis. Snowshoe or hike to gorgeous Wapta Falls. Ski to Ross Lake or Sherbrooke Lake. And don’t miss a visit on cross-country skis to Lake O’Hara, where you’ll find a premier backcountry lodge and the Elizabeth Parker Hut.

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Useful information for your trip to Yoho National Park in winter

  • Before you visit Yoho National Park in winter, be sure to purchase a national park pass. The Discovery Pass is the most cost-effective way to visit the park. Its good for a year and it allows unlimited admission to over 80 other national parks or national historic sites. 
  • Pack cross-country skis, snowshoes, microspikes, and hiking poles so you can take advantage of all the activities in Yoho National Park. You can rent snowshoes and skis at Emerald Lake Lodge. You could also pick up rental gear in Lake Louise at Wilson Mountain Sports. They also sell winter clothing and gear.
  • Some trails are best avoided as they cross avalanche paths. It’s up to you to stay safe outdoors. Check to see what Avalanche Canada has to say about risk in the backcountry. 
  • The best map for the trails in the park is Gem Trek Lake Louise and Yoho.
  • Don’t count on a cell signal.
  • Take all the winter clothing you think you’ll need as the closest place to get any is Lake Louise. 
The avalanche trail ends at Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park
The avalanche trail ends at Emerald Lake

How to get to Yoho National Park

The best way to get to Yoho National Park in winter is to drive. Even if you could get there via a bus to Lake Louise and a taxi to Emerald Lake Lodge, you would be limited in where you could go. If you rent a car, be sure to get snow tires as the Trans-Canada Highway isn’t always a fun road to drive.

Recommended reading: How to Survive a Winter Drive: 15 Tips for Safety

It’s 225 km from the Calgary Airport to Field in Yoho National Park. Lake Louise is just a 27 km, 20-minute drive to the east. Golden to the west is 57 km and about a 45-minute drive away. Beware of the upgrades happening to the Trans-Canada Highway as the highway is regularly shut down to and from Golden. Check for planned closings beforehand so you don’t get stuck driving the long route through Kootenay National Park.

Map of things to do in Yoho National Park in winter

                                                   

  • Click on the three dots in the top right hand corner to email a copy of the map.

Staying safe in winter in Yoho National Park

Let someone know where you’re planning to go and when you’re expected to be back. 

Before you head out on any trails in Yoho National Park in the winter, check trail reports

Always go prepared with the hiking essentials but in winter I’d also suggest you pack extra socks, a warm down jacket, hot drinks, and lots of high energy food. 

Follow the guidelines for staying safe on outdoor adventures suggested by Adventure Smart.

Scenic skiing on the Lake O'Hara Fire Road
Scenic skiing on the Lake O’Hara Fire Road

Snowshoe or hike the Emerald Lake Loop

The 5.3-km Emerald Lake Loop is an easy snowshoe or winter hike that can be done in either direction. It’s perfect for families (you could pull the wee ones on a sled if necessary) or those who don’t get out very often. The Emerald Lake loop gets a lot of traffic, so it doesn’t take long for the trail to get packed down. There’s some grand mountain scenery to enjoy as you make your way around the lake.

It’s important to know that there is one avalanche chute that comes right down to the Emerald Lake trail. It’s bookended with warnings, so it’s hard to miss. Stay away from the chute if the avalanche danger is high – particularly after a heavy snowfall. Either head out to the middle of the lake, providing it’s frozen or come back another time to do it.

Note:  Check in with the rental shop at Emerald Lake Lodge for current conditions before you head out across the lake.

Starting off at Emerald Lake Lodge and snowshoeing counter-clockwise
Starting off at Emerald Lake Lodge and snowshoeing counter-clockwise around Emerald Lake
Looking out over a wintry Emerald Lake
Looking out over a wintry Emerald Lake
Pass the turnoff to the Burgess Shales (though don't visit them without a guide)
Pass the turnoff to the Burgess Shales (though don’t visit them without a guide)
Look for interpretive panels on this side of Emerald Lake
Look for interpretive panels when you snowshoe, ski or walk around Emerald Lake
Continue across the bridge
Continue across the bridge
The start or finish point of the Emerald Lake Loop hike is close to the parking lot
The start or finish point of the Emerald Lake Loop hike is close to the Emerald Lake parking lot

Snowshoe the Emerald Alluvial Fan Loop

After a large snowfall, John and I were the first out breaking trail on the 4.3 km Emerald Alluvial Fan. It takes off from the Emerald Lake Loop from the far end of Emerald Lake near the bridge. The Alluvial Fan trail makes a loop, offering some seriously good mountain views along the way. 

You can also cross-country ski the loop. In the past it’s been track set, but even if it wasn’t, it would be fun to do it, providing the snow isn’t too deep. Under the right conditions you could access it by skiing down the length of Emerald Lake. 

There was some flagging that helped us find the Alluvial Fan trail in the snow
There was some flagging that helped us find the Alluvial Fan trail in the snow
Breaking trail on the Alluvial Fan loop
Breaking trail on the Alluvial Fan loop
It was hard work breaking trail for over an hour
It was hard work breaking trail for over an hour

Hike or snowshoe to Hamilton Falls

From the south end of the main parking lot at Emerald Lake, look for the trail signed to Hamilton Falls and Hamilton Lake. It’s a short hike – only 0.8 km one way to the base of the falls – but it’s surprisingly steep. It says just 30 metres of elevation gain, but it felt like more than that. Do it with snowshoes after a fresh dump of snow. Otherwise, hiking boots and perhaps a pair of microspikes will do the trick. 

It’s a quick outing that you can knock off in 30 – 45 minutes, but it’s certainly worthwhile. 

Starting up towards Hamilton Falls in Yoho National Park
Starting up towards Hamilton Falls in Yoho National Park
Looking up at Hamilton Falls
Looking up at Hamilton Falls

Visit the Natural Bridge

The Natural Bridge is easy to find. Drive 2.4 km up the road towards Emerald Lake Lodge from the Trans-Canada Highway, and you’ll find the parking lot on your left. 

When I have visited in winter, it has never been sunny so all I’ve seen is a lot of white on white. Close-up photos of frozen water under the natural bridge are sometimes seen on Instagram, but you’ll have to make the call if its worth risking it. I think not.

There's lots of signage for the Natural Bridge
There’s lots of signage for the Natural Bridge
Until the river is good and truly frozen there isn't a lot to see at the Natural Bridge
There isn’t always a lot to see at the Natural Bridge but it is in a pretty setting
Looking down the Kicking Horse River
Looking down the Kicking Horse River
If the river is FROZEN SOLID you can walk into the chasm where the water runs but not sure I'd do it
There is flowing water in the chasm in the middle of the photos

Cross-country ski the Kicking Horse Trail

Pick up the Kicking Horse trail at the north side of the Natural Bridge parking lot. Ski down a wide fire road for about 2.3 km to a bridge over the Emerald River. In another 100 m cross another bridge over the Amiskwi River. Shortly after the bridge there is an intersection. The right-hand trail is the long Amiskwi River Trail that travels for 35 km to Amiskwi Pass.

Instead stay left and ski through pretty sections of forest to an open area with good views. You’ll also see the Kicking Horse River here. You can continue skiing for a couple more kilometres to reach the intersection with the Otterhead Trail. Stay left and continue for 0.5 km to reach the end of the trail at Otterhead River. 

It’s a 6.5 km ski back to the parking lot but the total elevation gain is just 60 m. The Kicking Horse Ski Club looks after the trails in the area. All donations are welcome.

Phenomenal ski conditions on the Kicking Hose Fire Road trail
Phenomenal ski conditions on the Kicking Horse Fire Road trail
We did find signage at all trail intersections
We did find signage at all trail intersections

Snowshoe or hike to Wapta Falls 

Wapta Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the Canadian Rockies by volume, is a study in blue-green ice in winter. The hike or snowshoe to Wapta Falls is a must do winter activity if you’re in the park – but bring your own snowshoes if there’s fresh snow as there is nowhere nearby to rent. The falls themselves are awe-inspiring, especially on a bluebird day when the snow sparkles like diamonds.

To access Wapta Falls in winter, park in a small lot by the Trans-Canada Highway and then hike or snowshoe in 4.4 km. There isn’t a lot of elevation gain – perhaps 30 metres. In total, plan on 3 – 3.5 hours for the return trip. There are some people that cross-country ski to the falls but the final downhill section is too tight to turn, so take your skis off and walk down. It’s slower in winter to hike because the trail is  several kilometres longer than the summer trail.

John following fresh tracks to the falls
Wapta Falls in winter
A close up view of Wapta Falls

Visit the Lake O’Hara area on snowshoes or cross-country skis

The Lake O’Hara area on a bluebird day is one of the prettiest places in Canada to explore. But to visit, you will need to cross-country ski or snowshoe 11 km one-way (with an elevation gain of 440 m) along the Lake O’Hara Fire Road. Some skiers do that as a day trip – and it’s very doable, but it’s not for everyone. Lake O’Hara Lodge used to offer lunch when they were open in winter, but I’m not sure if that’s an option now. Pack some food and a hot drink in case it’s not. 

If you’re after an overnight experience in the Lake O’Hara area there are two options.

Try to nab a stay at the ever popular Elizabeth Parker Hut. You can check availability and book online. In winter the hut sleeps 20 people but you’ll need to bring a sleeping bag and be cool with sleeping in shared rooms. There is a kitchen with most of the utensils and dishes you’ll need too. 

The other option is to book a stay at beautiful Lake O’Hara Lodge. It’s a far pricier alternative but a real treat as the food is fantastic and a guide is provided to take you cross-country skiing. That’s a good thing as much of the terrain around Lake O’Hara is in avalanche country.

Cross-country skiing the Lake O'Hara Fire Road
Cross-country skiing the Lake O’Hara Fire Road
Cross-country skiing with a guide from Lake O'Hara Lodge into terrain we would have avoided had we been by ourselves
Cross-country skiing with a guide from Lake O’Hara Lodge into terrain we would have avoided had we been by ourselves

Cross-country ski to Ross Lake

The cross-country ski to Ross Lake starts from the parking lot used to access the Lake O’Hara Fire Road . There is also a place to park by old Highway 1A, shortly after you cross the train tracks. (There is signage on the Trans-Canada Highway directing you to Lake O’Hara, about 14 km west of Lake Louise or 14 km east of Field).

John and I started cross-country skiing on what is now called the Great Divide trail but was once Highway 1A. The trail climbs gradually for 2 km to reach a signed turn-off for Ross Lake. Turn right and climb gradually for 1.3 km to reach Ross Lake. Continue on the trail for another 3 km to reach the Lake O’Hara Fire Road. This section of trail is challenging. It’s true backcountry skiing – cue the five downed trees and deep, untracked snow.

Turn right when you reach the Lake O’Hara Fire Road and ski it for 2 fast kilometres back to the parking lot. It’s a 5-miute walk if you parked by old Highway 1A. All told it’s a 9 km loop with an elevation gain of 200 m.

The turnoff to Ross Lake is off the Great Divide Trail
The turnoff to Ross Lake is off the Great Divide Trail
Arrival at Ross Lake on cross-country skis
Arrival at Ross Lake on cross-country skis

Hike, snowshoe or ski up to Sherbrooke Lake

Sherbrooke Lake can be accessed from the trail behind Great Divide Lodge on the Trans-Canada Highway. The trail climbs up through the trees at a moderate angle. Around the 2 km mark it rounds the shoulder of Paget Peak and breaks out of the trees. Continue through more open terrain following the creek to Sherbrooke Lake. Stay away from avalanche terrain at the far end of Sherbrooke Lake.

This is a difficult ski but it would be fine as a winter walk or snowshoe – though in places it would be hard to avoid stepping in skiers tracks. It’s 6 km return with 180 m of elevation gain. You’ll need 3 – 4 hours to do it.

A stop at Sherbrooke Lake near the end of the Wapta Traverse
A stop at Sherbrooke Lake near the end of the Wapta Traverse

Where to stay in Yoho National Park

Emerald Lake Lodge is an ideal spot to spend a long weekend. With its fantastic location, your cabin is just steps away from stunning snowshoe and cross-country ski trails. By sometime in 2023 their hot tub should be up and running again too. Enjoy a delicious meal beside the fireplace in the lounge or pony up and book a more expensive meal in the Mount Burgess dining room. 

If you don’t want to spend the money on a stay at Emerald Lake Lodge, there is the option to stay in one of the many B&B’s in Field, the Canadian Rockies Inn and the Truffle Pigs Bistro & Lodge. There are also backcountry options – cue the Elizabeth Parker Hut at Lake O’Hara and Lake O’Hara Lodge – though it’s nearly impossible to get a reservation. 

Your next option would be to stay in Lake Louise, Alberta or Golden, BC and visit Yoho National Park in winter as a day trip.

Emerald Lake Lodge in winter
The entrance to Emerald Lake Lodge in winter (this building is actually a dining room)
Lake O'Hara Lodge on a snowy day
Lake O’Hara Lodge on a snowy day

Where to eat in winter in Yoho National Park

There are only a few choices in winter but they’re good ones. We’ve had excellent meals at the Truffle Pigs Bistro in Field – and they’re taking reservations now which helps. Your other option is to head up to Emerald Lake Lodge. You can eat in the Mount Burgess Dining Room (make a reservation) or more informally in the pub or fireside in the lounge.

A few things you might find helpful for your winter visit to Yoho National Park

Be sure to pack some toe warmers and hand warmers, especially if your visit is timed with a cold spell. You can even buy insole warmers if your feet are prone to getting cold. 

I always wear layers in the mountains. My outer layer is usually a wind-proof shell or my down jacket. More often than not I heat up and the jacket is used to stay warm at lunch. One of my favourites is Patagonia’s down sweater with a hood. They make a male down sweater too.

You can rent snowshoes at Emerald Lake Lodge or in Lake Louise, but if you’re planning to do it a few times a year snowshoes are worth the investment. Then perhaps you’d get out even more. We have a pair made by Tubbs and one my Atlas – and both are great. They’re not to heavy and the binding is easily adjustable.

Hiking poles are also useful – whether you’re going on a winter walk or out for a long day on snowshoes. I prefer the collapsible ones that I can put on the back of my pack.

For lunch, a bowl of hearty soup is always welcome. The Hydro Flask insulated food jar will keep it hot.

If you’re trying to cut down on your plastic usage, I highly recommend beeswax paper to pack sandwiches, cookies…. I’ve been using the same ones for a few years now. 

Pack a few chocolate bars as a treat because you’re going to need the energy. I highly recommend the Whittaker’s brand, especially their peanut slab.

Want to return to Yoho National Park in summer?

Yoho National Park is an extraordinary destination in summer, especially if you’re a hiker. Enjoy one of these incredible hikes from early July until the snow flies, sometime in early October. There are lots of camping options in summer too.

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A winter guide to exploring Yoho National Park in British Columbia