A quota system has long been in place to limit the number of visitors using the bus service operated by Parks Canada to protect this sensitive alpine area in Yoho National Park, as well to provide a wilderness experience to visitors wanting to avoid overcrowding.
But with the entire season selling out within minutes of the online reservation system opening each April, leading to cries of frustration, Parks Canada announced a random draw system to allocate reservations on the bus will begin in 2020.
“There’s 3,000 or so bus seats a year to Lake O’Hara and those were selling out in minutes,” said Jed Cochrane, acting visitor experience manager for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay.
“We had 20-something thousand people who were online trying to make their reservation and we heard from Canadians that that experience was frustrating,” he added.
“This is the first time a random draw has been done in Parks Canada, and Lake O’Hara is really popular and so it makes good sense to pilot it this here.”
Under the changes, visitors will have a one-month period from Feb. 1-29, 2020 to submit an application using Parks Canada’s online reservation service with a non- refundable $10 application fee.
Applications will be drawn at random and temporary reservations assigned, with successful applicants notified and given two weeks to confirm their spot.
Cochrane said this approach would improve the reservation experience for visitors and help to ensure all online users have a chance at securing a reservation for a bus seat to Lake O’Hara, an area with hanging valleys, jewel-blue lakes and breathtaking vistas.
“We’re working to make sure people can go up and enjoy Lake O’Hara and have a really positive visitor experience, while working to maintain and improve integrity of this special spot,” he said.
In addition, there are also changes to the overnight camping reservation system for 2020, with all overnight camping reservations at Lake O’Hara being offered only though Parks’ reservation system. Telephone bookings are no longer available through the direct Lake O’Hara reservation line.
Beginning at 8 a.m. Jan. 24, 2020, the entire Lake O’Hara overnight camping season will be available to reserve on a first come, first served reservation model, which is same as for other campgrounds on the reservation service
“We heard from folks that the phone-in wasn’t a great system from a visitor experience perspective,” said Cochrane.
Lottery systems are becoming more common throughout the world, and particularly in the United States, such as for Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and The Wave, a sandstone rock formation, in Arizona.
The Alpine Club of Canada already administers a lottery system for Elizabeth Parker Hut at Lake O’Hara.
In the 1970s, a day use quota of 40 people per day was set, and was promptly reduced to 36 people a day based on bus scheduling and reservations. Since then, the quota has crept slowly upward to incorporate guided groups, and demand keeps growing.
The current quota is set at approximately 181 people a day – which includes 32 spots for day use, 11 commercial guided seats, 90 for campers and 48 for the Alpine Club of Canada.
This number does not include guests staying at Lake O’Hara Lodge, or hikers who trek in on the 11-km access road.
“Nothing has changed with the quota,” said Cochrane.
Lake O’Hara Trails Club, which helps maintain the trails with Parks Canada at Lake O’Hara, had recommended the federal agency consider allocating day-use spaces on the bus via a lottery system.
Caroline Marion, president of the Lake O’Hara Trails Club, said the group is supportive of Parks Canada’s decision to move to a random draw.
She said the club conducted a visitor survey in 2016, which showed that the lowest satisfaction level was around Parks Canada’s online reservation system.
“There’s a really short window of time to make reservations and then the entire summer is booked in 15 minutes,” she said.
“We’ve been encouraging Parks to move to a random draw kind of system for a while, suggesting this is nothing new and it’s successfully used around the world.”
The trails club also recommended a new walk-in, walk-out policy, with no option for buying a seat on the outbound buses amid concerns the increasing number of people hiking the 11-km road often travel beyond the lakeshore and can double the number of day users in the area.
Cochrane said Parks Canada has not gone that route at this stage, noting people can still buy a seat on the out-bound bus.
“In terms of that change in policy or a change in the quota and how things are run at Lake O’Hara, those are pieces that would be part of the broader park management planning conversation for Yoho,” he said.
A spokesperson for Lake O’Hara Trails Club was not immediately available for comment.
For more information on the random draw reservation system, and online camping reservations at Lake O’Hara in 2020, please visit: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/bc/yoho/activ/randonnee-hike/ohara.