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O’Brien Lake Hike – Banff National Park

The Taylor Lake trail is a very popular hike in Banff National Park, especially during the fall larch season. But many people don’t know about another lake called O’Brien Lake, which is just a short side trip away from Taylor Lake. With its own unique and beautiful mountain setting, the O’Brien Lake hike is a very enjoyable add-on or alternative to the Taylor Lake hike.

While we think the O’Brien Lake hike is a very enjoyable all year around, it is especially nice in the fall as the larch trees which surround the lake turn golden. With golden larch trees and Mount Bell (2,910 m) towering overhead, the mountain setting for O’Brien Lake is breathtaking.

golden larch trees reflect off the water on O'Brien Lake in Banff National Park

The great news is that most Banff hikers can easily visit both of these beautiful Banff lakes, as the side trip to Taylor Lake is just minutes away from the trail junction for Lake O’Brien. We feel the combination of these two lakes makes it one of the best Banff National Park hikes.

Taylor Lake is another excellent Banff location for viewing larch trees in fall, making this a great option to see two unique locations with lakes and larch trees.

O’Brien Lake Trail – Quick Details

Trailhead: O’Brien Lake trailhead

Distance: 18.8 km out and back

Elevation: 1,155 m elevation gain

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O’Brien Lake Hike Highlights

The first 75% of the O’Brien Lake hike is along the the same hiking trail as the very popular Taylor Lake trail. To begin hiking to O’Brien Lake you need to pass through a wildlife gate designed to keep wild animals away from the TransCanada Highway and the picnic tables in the Taylor Lake picnic area.

Picnic table in Taylor Lake parking lot

The first leg of the O’Brien Lake hike begins in a lush evergreen forest on a well groomed hiking trail. If you are hiking in a group, you’ll love the fact that the wide trail allows two people to walk side-by-side nearly the entire way to O’Brien Lake.

In the fall, you’ll enjoy more fall colors than just golden larch trees. The brightly coloured bushes that line the hiking trail showcase their bright red and yellow leaves. We especially like the red fireweed leaves in fall, as they glow brightly in the sun.

a young girl enjoys the fall colors in Banff while hiking to O'Brien Lake

After 0.6 km of hiking, the O’Brien Lake trail meets up with the charming Taylor Creek, which is fed by water from both Taylor Lake and O’Brien Lake. Taylor Creek will be your companion for most of the hike up towards Lake O’Brien. The proximity to Taylor Creek can cause the hiking trail to get a bit muddy, so we recommend a good pair of water-resistant hiking shoes in case there isn’t an alternate path around the mud.

Mud along Lake O'Brien hiking trail in Banff

Shortly after, the Lake O’Brien hiking trail becomes less groomed and more uphill. There’s some rocks and roots to contend with along the path, but they never get too bad.

This leg of the O’Brien Lake hike is especially beautiful as cuts across a steep side slope with Taylor Creek below. Mushrooms thrive in this area of the woods due to the ample shade and humidity from the creek. Meanwhile, beautiful moss-covered rocks protrude from the hillside on the opposite side of the trail.

a small mushroom grows inside a tree stump along the Lake O'Brien trail in Banff, Canada

Many hikers start to remove layers at the halfway point to the Taylor Lake and Lake O’Brien trail junction. At this point, the trees thin a bit, allowing more sunshine to reach the hiking path. There are some fun wooden walkways overtop muddy terrain around this section, which kids of all ages will enjoy.

a young Banff hiker walks across a wooden boardwalk on the O'Brien Lake Trail

Beyond the wooden walkways, the switchbacks begin and the Lake O’Brien hike becomes noticeably steeper. Although the hiking trail is harder here, most regular hikers will have little issue with the effort involved.

The switchbacks last for less than a kilometre and then levels off as it nears Taylor Creek again. As with other sections near Taylor Creek, the trail becomes rocky and muddy for a few hundred meters.

a female hiker steps on rocks to avoid the mud on the O'Brien Lake Trail

You’ll be nearing the Taylor Lake and Lake O’Brien junction when you start to see the top of Mount Bell through through the trees at the 5.8 km mark of the hike.

The Lake O’Brien hiking trail crosses the Taylor Creek again at the 6.2 km mark. It’s worth stopping here for a drink of water while appreciating the small, but beautiful waterfall adjacent to the bridge.

As you near Taylor Lake (and the junction for O’Brien Lake), you’ll walk through a muddy meadow where you will see your first larch trees of the day. In addition to larch trees, the meadow features plenty of rocks, roots and mud (but there’s usually an adhoc rock bridge to walk across on). When you have sound footing, take a moment to admire the majestic Mount Bell looming large overhead.

Golden larches glow in the sunlight below Mt. Bell on the O'Brien Lake Trail in Banff in September

The trail junction to O’Brien Lake and/or the Boom Lake hike is within this meadow on the left. Taylor Lake is so close, you should really take a few moments and go take a look, before returning to complete the Lake O’Brien hike.

a woman sitting at Taylor Lake with larches on the shore
(Taylor Lake viewpoint near O’Brien Lake junction)

You’ll immediately cross Taylor Creek again on a little wooden bridge. In fall, take a moment to look right to see a large stand of larch trees on Panorama Peak (2,872 m).

two young hikers cross a small wooden bridge over Taylor Creek on the O'Brien Lake hike in Banff

Beyond the bridge, you’ll see a sign stating that there is no well defined trail after the bridge. Despite this warning sign, the trail to O’Brien Lake is pretty easy to follow, but it’s often not well maintained. The route has plenty of slippery rocks and tree roots all the way to the lake. Watch your step as we slipped and fell a few times on our way to Lake O’Brien.

The O’Brien Lake trail runs through lush woods with spruce and fir trees and moss and tiny shrubs for a carpet. It begins downhill, which is quite nice after 7 km of uphill hiking. The downhill doesn’t last long and soon you are gaining altitude again.

The nature starts to get very scenic at 8.7 km mark of the O’Brien Lake hike. As the trail starts to level off, you can hear a stream running nearby and you can see Mount Bell through the trees ahead.

a beautiful stream flows along the O'Brien Lake hike in Banff National Park

You’ll need to cross a small stream on a makeshift bridge of fallen trees. Cross carefully as the wood can be quite slippery. Wet feet at this stage of the trip would not be pleasant.

You’ll enter a meadow with scattered larch trees and evergreens. There’s a large patch of larch trees on the shoulder of Mount Bell on the right. The trail through the meadow can get extremely muddy, and you can virtually count on your hiking boots getting dirty.

An open meadow with a few larch trees near the end of the Lake O'Brien trail

The golden larch trees get more dense as you approach O’Brien Lake. The first glimpse of O’Brien Lake caused our daughter to literally stop in her tracks and say “Wow!”.

The views from the end of the O'Brien Lake hike are amazing

Lake O’Brien was mirror-like resting peacefully at the foot of Mount Bell with golden larches reflecting perfectly in the perfectly still water. There are much fewer people at Lake O’Brien, guaranteeing a more peaceful lake experience than Taylor lake.

a perfect reflection picture of golden larch trees on O'Brien Lake hike in Banff

Note that Lake O’Brien is often in the shade and it can be much colder than on the main hiking trail. If you stop for lunch (a perfect place to do so), be sure to have a jacket or a fleece nearby.

The Lake O’Brien and Taylor Lake larch tree hikes are not as well-known as some of the most popular Banff larch hikes such as the Saddleback Mountain hike and the Larch Valley trail, making it a good alternative if the Lake Louise shuttle buses, the Moraine Lake shuttle buses and their respective parking lots are full.

O’Brien Lake Trailhead

The O’Brien Lake Trailhead is found in the Taylor Lake parking lot on the TransCanada Highway 1 between Castle Junction and Lake Louise. The trailhead is at the back of the parking lot, where you’ll see a set of stairs through a large locked gate. Remember, this is the same trailhead as the Taylor Lake trail.

a hiker walks through the animal fencing at the O'Brien Lake trailhead in Banff National Park

It’s a 30 minute drive from Banff to the Taylor Lake parking lot, and an hour and 45 minutes from Calgary.

O’Brien Lake Hike Stats

How Long is the O’Brien Lake Hike?

The round-trip distance of the O’Brien Lake trail is 18.8 km (one-way distance of 9.4 km) from the Taylor Lake parking lot to the shores of the beautiful Banff lake below Mount Bell.

two children hike the long trail to O'Brien Lake in Banff

How Hard is the Hike to O’Brien Lake?

Due to the length and incline, we rate the O’Brien Lake hike as “moderate”.

At 18.8 km and 1,155 m elevation gain, the Taylor Lake trail is a moderate Banff hike, bordering on challenging.

The numbers look a little scary, but there’s nothing technically difficult about the hike to Lake O’Brien and there are no really steep parts. The hiking trail is just a consistent, but gradual climb with occasional level sections.

a young hiker enjoys the moderately difficult trail to O'Brien Lake in Banff

The trail has some roots, rocks and muddy sections, but are pretty easily managed by regular hikers.

Once at O’Brien Lake, pull up a fallen log and soak in the beauty of nature in this isolated area of Banff National Park.

How Long Does the O’Brien Lake Hike Take?

It should take a typical adult 4.5 – 5.5 hours to hike to O’Brien Lake. Add on an additional 15 minutes for a side trip to Taylor Lake, and an additional 30-60 minutes to explore the large larch forest in the meadow behind Taylor Lake.

We recently enjoyed the O’Brien Lake hike with our two kids (9 and 7 years old) and it took us 5.5 hours. Hiking at our normal (no kids) speed, we’d have likely completed it in around 4 hours.

a shrub with bright red leaves grows along he O'Brien Lake trail in fall

O’Brien Lake Trail Map

The main Taylor Lake hiking trail is very easy to follow. Once you leave the Taylor Lake trail and are on the Lake O’Brien trail, it’s also pretty easy to follow.

It’s not an official trail, so sometimes there are more than one option available, but it’s usually pretty obvious. Having the O’Brien Lake trail map downloaded onto your Alltrails app will come in handy if you are unsure which direction to go.

golden larch trees grow along a ridge on Mt. Bell, overtop O'Brien Lake

To find the O’Brien Lake trail map in Alltrails, simply search for “Taylor and O’Brien Lakes”. Be sure to download your hiking maps prior to leaving home as you won’t get a reliable cell signal on this hike.

A paper map isn’t required for this Banff hike, but if you are like me and love looking at topographic hiking maps, we highly recommend Gem Trek hiking maps. We own the entire set of these excellent Banff and Kananaskis hiking maps.

a single larch tree glows a bright gold color in the sun near O'Brien Lake in Banff National Park

I love looking at my Gem Trek hiking maps; they are exceptional 3D topographic maps which give an excellent overview of the mountains and hiking trails in the area. It really helps you understand how the O’Brien Lake hike fits into bigger picture.

The O’Brien Lake trail map is found in the Gem Trek map entitled, “Banff and Mount Assiniboine Map”.

Hiking to O’Brien Lake with Kids

If you are visiting Banff with kids, and are regular family hikers, the hike to O’Brien Lake is a challenging, but doable Banff hike with kids. Some kids may find the distance challenging, but it’s well worth it to make it to the top. Even kids can appreciate the rewarding views you get at O’Brien Lake.

Our kids, who are 9 and 7 years old, recently hiked with us to O’Brien Lake. This was among their longest hikes ever, but they did it without any issue. They enjoyed the reward of golden larch trees reflecting in the beautiful alpine lake at the end.

A boy enjoys a family hike to O'Brien Lake in Banff, Canada

Don’t miss these other best Banff day-hikes with kids.

Where to Stop for Lunch or a Break

The obvious place to stop for lunch is at O’Brien Lake, but it may be hard to find a spot to sit. If you can’t find a log to sit on, then you may wish to make the side trip to Taylor Lake. There’s a picnic area there with a few picnic tables.

golden larch trees grow along O'Brien Lake in Banff

O’Brien Lake Hiking Safety

There are relatively few hiking hazards along the O’Brien Lake hiking trail, with only a few rocky and rooty sections to contend with. The final leg to O’Brien lake can be slippery with mud – two of us slipped and ended up on our butts in the mud!

a muddy meadow near the end of the O'Brien Lake hike

As with all wilderness areas of Banff National Park, you need to prepare yourself in case of an encounter with any of the park’s large animals. This means carrying bear spray (in a holster, not in your bag), hiking in a group and makings lots of noise.

We also recommend you read the following Parks Canada wildlife publications:

Your chances of encountering a dangerous wild animal in Banff National Park are very low, but you want to be prepared just in case.

A Canada Jay (also known as a whiskeyjack) sits on a tree near the shores of Lake O'Brien

Parks Canada doesn’t publish an official O’Brien Lake trail report, so we recommend you read the Taylor Lake trail report (under Lake Louise Area) for possible closures, trail conditions and any wildlife warnings before you head out.

O’Brien Lake Trail Logistics

  • You can bring your on-leash dog on the Taylor Lake hike.

  • Mountain biking is not allowed on the O’Brien Lake trail.

  • There are toilets and picnic tables in the Taylor Lake parking lot.

  • Plan to pack plenty of water and snacks for this hike. Fill your hydration packs before you leave.

  • You won’t get cell service anywhere on this hike, so don’t count on it for your safety.
larch trees grow on a ridge near O'Brien Lake in fall

What to Bring for Hiking O’Brien Lake Trail

We recommend you come prepared with layers and proper hiking gear for this full-day hike. Check out our list of Banff hiking essentials with the hiking gear and clothing we recommend to get the most enjoyment out of your day hike, regardless of the variable Banff weather and trail conditions. The Lake O’Brien trail is a moderate Banff hike and we especially recommend bringing these items:

  • Bear spray is a must. Cannisters are available to buy or rent at many locations in Canmore and Banff. Carry your bear spray in an easily accessible location, such as a bear spray holster.

  • Water – the O’Brien Lake trail is a consistent uphill climb and on a hot summer day you’ll want to ensure you have enough water. A hydration pack is an effective and eco-conscious way to bring enough water for a hard hike.

  • Bring several layers of clothing with you. The weather can be quite variable hiking in Banff National Park, no matter the season. For hiking in Banff, we typically wear convertible hiking pantsT-shirts, a fleece top and rain jackets. Bring a daybag as you can expect to put on and take off layers all day. For fall hiking, pack a down jacket or a warm soft shell jacket.

  • We don’t use trekking poles, but they can help with balance and to take pressure off knees on the descent.
a few bright yellow larch trees grow in a meadow adjacent to Lake O'Brien

O’Brien Lake Footwear Recommendation

The main Taylor Lake trail is in decent shape for most of its length, but the trail to O’Brien Lake is a bit more challenging with many rocks, roots and very slippery muddy sections. For this we recommend you leave your trainers at home and wear hiking shoes or hiking boots.

golden larch trees reflect off the still waters of Lake O'Brien

A truly enjoyable hike in the forest with a beautiful Banff lake surrounded by rocky cliffs and larch trees at the end.

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