Destinations: Yoho's Awe and Wonder — Photographer Linda Moore guides you through Canada's Yoho National Park, a land of soaring waterfalls and panoramic vistas.
Yoho National Park is a special place on the western slope of the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia. Wedged between Banff National Park to the east and Kootenay National Park to the southeast, Yoho — which takes its name, aptly, from a Cree word for "awe and wonder" — offers photographers a concentration of jaw-dropping mountain scenery that few North American parks can equal.
Powerful erosional forces by glaciers and rivers have carved Yoho's landscape, creating dozens of valleys, lakes and waterfalls. Towering peaks and rock walls, immense glaciers, waterfalls plunging from terrific heights, rivers surging with snowmelt, sparkling gem-like lakes, sweeping forests, golden alpine larches, enchanting subalpine floral meadows — these are among the superlative wonders that will captivate your photographic imagination.
Yoho's rugged beauty is best photographed from late spring to early autumn, when winter snow surrenders its hold on the landscape, although snow remains a possibility in any month. To capture the park's many facets, be prepared for all types of weather — from below freezing to balmy — and carry a large photographic arsenal: 20mm to 300mm or higher lenses; filters (polarizing, warming, split neutral density); flash for macro fill light; a sturdy tripod; and extra batteries.
Short day hikes and multi-day backpacking trips are your best tickets to the park's wonders. Excellent trails are concentrated in three major areas: Yoho Valley, the Lake O'Hara region and Emerald Lake. The Yoho Valley road is open mid-June to mid-October, and Lake O'Hara is reached by park bus from June to early October.
Southwestern trails near Highway 1 (the Trans-Canada Highway) open up in May and June. A few visitors travel — usually via mountain bike — to remote reaches of several long river valleys: the Amiskwi, Otterhead, Ottertail and Ice rivers.
Flora and fauna
Wildflowers bloom from May through September, with lower-elevation and early subalpine blooms peaking from mid-June to early July. Colorful subalpine and higher blooms usually peak mid-July to early August. Look for first wildflowers as early as May near Wapta Falls, and mid-June to mid-July for orchids in the areas surrounding Emerald Lake, Hamilton Falls and Ross Lake. An early summer's hike up the Mount Hunter trail is also a rewarding wildflower trip. Glacier lilies and anemones quickly follow snowmelt in the park's subalpine meadows. The best subalpine wildflower areas in the park are in the Emerald Lake and Lake O'Hara regions.
Abundant wildlife is widely distributed, seen from roadsides and trails. Several mammals are common in Yoho, including mountain goats, grizzly and black bears, hoary marmots, and small rabbit-like creatures known as pikas. Marmots and pikas populate rock piles and slide areas in the Yoho Valley area and the Lake O'Hara region.
Good bets for mountain goats are the east side of the Opabin Plateau, the slopes of Wiwaxy Peaks, the upper Sherbrooke Valley, Paget Lookout, the Burgess Pass area and the upper Emerald Basin. During early summer, mountain goats are attracted to a mineral lick by the banks of the Ottertail River, about two miles from the trailhead.
Remote long river valley trails are often productive for larger mammals. A prime site for viewing the park's moose population is around the shore of Emerald Lake. At the intersection of Wapta Falls Road and Route 1, another mineral lick also attracts moose. Grizzly and black bears are present throughout the park, but they are seldom seen and should not be approached.
Consider a visit to Leanchoil Marsh to photograph smaller birds in marsh and forest habitats. Look for well-camouflaged white-tailed ptarmigan, which have a mottled white/brown/black plumage, in such places as the upper Opabin Plateau and Lake Oesa cirque.
Lake O'Hara region
A favorite destination for photographers, the Lake O'Hara region on the eastern edge of the park offers midsummer wildflower blooms, autumn landscapes studded with vivid golden larch, dozens of lakes and tarns reflecting noble peaks, cascading streams, and a diversity of wildlife among the rocky valleys and slopes. To ensure a visit during summer through early autumn, you'll need to make advance booking of the park bus to Lake O'Hara and backcountry accommodations. Allow three or more days for adequate photographic exploration and downtime due to foul weather.
A high alpine circuit and four major hiking areas — Lake Oesa cirque, Opabin Plateau, McArthur Lake and Duchenay Basin — offer many days of close-up to panoramic scenic and wildlife photography. If you have three to four days, I recommend visiting two or more hiking areas, doing partial (Opabin/Yukness Ledge/Oesa trails) or full alpine circuits, or extended hikes to prospect viewpoints (Odaray Grandview, Cathedral Platform Prospect, etc.).
Be sure to include the Lake O'Hara shoreline circuit for early and late lighting on surrounding peaks. Visit Seven Veils Falls via a short side trail from Lake O'Hara during a sunny afternoon or an overcast day.
Showy wildflower blooms peak mid-July to mid-August, with the best displays on the Opabin Plateau, McArthur Pass and meadows near Lake McArthur. Look for a few late bloomers in September, coated by frost and snow. Also look for macro images among mushrooms, lichens and the lush mossy forest floor of several low-elevation trails.
Alpine larches are abundant on the Opabin Plateau, with moderate stands along the Big Larches trail, on boulder-strewn slopes between Schaffer and McArthur Lakes, on Odaray Plateau, and in places along the Lake Oesa trail. During the last half of September, the larch needles turn an intense gold, then fall after several days. An occasional dusting of snow on top of the needles provides a wonderful contrast.
Enjoy one or more days of photographic abandon on Opabin's larch-studded landscape. Look for situations to give extra punch to golden larches with warming filters, sidelighting and backlighting. But take advantage of those golden needles while you can, as heavy rains and snowfall will hasten their shedding.
Yoho Valley, Emerald Lake regionsYoho's north side is renowned for waterfalls, dramatic glacial landscapes, abundant lakes and tarns, wildflower displays, intriguing vegetation zones and marine fossils. Reserve one or more days in the Yoho River Valley and at least one day in the Emerald Lake area.
While more than 20 waterfalls adorn Yoho, most are concentrated in the Yoho River Valley, including Takakkaw, Twin, Point Lace, Laughing, Whisky Jack and Angel's Staircase falls. With a vertical plunge of 1,016 feet, Takakkaw is one of the world's highest falls.
The Yoho Valley trail to Twin Falls leads to four waterfalls, some via short side trails. The best sunlight times are mornings at Twin and Laughing falls, morning and early afternoon at Point Lace Falls, and afternoon at Angel's Staircase. Rainbows arc across Takkakaw and most other Yoho Valley falls, especially on sunny days. Even soft light on bright overcast days produces attractive images for most waterfalls. Bracket exposures for varying waterfall effects — faster than 1/15th of a second to slow or stop motion, and slower than 1/15th to soften the flow.
Most trails may be accomplished as day trips. Enjoy a superbly scenic one-way hike or backpack from Emerald Lake to the Yoho Valley trailhead via Yoho Pass (with an additional route via Twin Falls). Highlights include wildflower blooms en route to Yoho Pass and Yoho Lake, wildflower meadows between Yoho Lake and Twin Falls, and marvelous views of Emerald Glacier and the President Range.
Another wonderful multi-day loop takes in most of the Yoho Valley trails — Iceline, Little Yoho and Yoho Valley, with options to the Whaleback and Twin Falls trails. The Whaleback offers expansive views of Wapta Icefield, the Yoho River's headwaters and Mount Des Poilus. During stable weather, hike the Iceline trail for close-up views of the President Range and Emerald Glacier, plus distant, high views of lakes, wildflowers and Takakkaw Falls.
Elsewhere in the Emerald Lake area, short to long day hikes or backpacking trips provide avenues to a multitude of landscape images. The Emerald Lake Circuit, extending through prime wildlife habitats, is a short, easy hike along the lake's shoreline, complete with mountain backdrops, wet and dry vegetation zones, lovely wildflower blooms and a remarkable alluvial fan. A short trail from Emerald Lake leads to Hamilton Falls, best captured in morning light.
The moderately steep Emerald Basin trail terminates in a natural amphitheater with dramatic views of Emerald Glacier, the President Range and other peaks. During mid- to late summer, when the snow melts, the Emerald Triangle trail is an attractive trip from Emerald Lake to Yoho Pass (with a possible camp at Yoho Lake) to Burgess Pass and back to Emerald Lake. To capture the best views, the Triangle should be timed for afternoon lighting on peaks north of Emerald Lake.
Other areas in Yoho
Two short, scenic hikes — Wapta Falls and Leanchoil Hoodoos — are located at the western end of Yoho.
The Chancellor Range provides an attractive backdrop to Wapta Falls, the largest in the park by volume. During late May to early June, before the Kicking Horse River reaches full flow, hike the Wapta trail to a high viewpoint of the falls.
The Leanchoil Hoodoos are pillar-like formations of eroded glacial debris topped by large cap rocks. A short, steep hike takes you to these fantastic formations, but the higher viewpoint provides a closer, more dramatic perspective than the lower.
The short, steep trail to Paget Lookout ascends to expansive views of distant peaks. In early to midsummer, beautiful wildflowers adorn Paget's lower slopes and lookout. Among the showier wildflowers are glacier lily, calypso orchid and yellow columbine.
For photographers looking for a little awe and wonder, a journey to Yoho may be just the ticket this summer and for many seasons beyond.