Once we had seen our share of waterfalls in Wells Gray, our journey continued west across Canada and into Alberta. Our destination: the Canadian Rockies, the spectacular mountain range that straddles the province from north to south, dotted with rivers and lakes. We were spending the better part of three weeks in the region, splitting our time between Jasper and Banff, the two major national parks (don’t worry, Yoho will make an appearance too!). Jasper National Park was up first, for a 6-night stay in the town. We arrived too late on the first day (after work for me) to do anything, but did see the impressive Mount Robson on the drive, plus our first of many elk sightings.
Edge of the World
After I finished working on the first day, we set out on our first hike in Jasper National Park. It was recommended by a colleague, or else I wouldn’t have known about it. It’s not an official trail either so you won’t find signs or a proper car park at the trailhead. The Edge of the World hike is about a 15-minute drive out of Jasper town, up the road towards Marmot Basin. Luckily, the drive does most of the uphill for you! You have to park on the side of the road, and walk along the barrier on the corner to find the trailhead. From there it’s a short hike, about 20 minutes or so, and reasonably flat, but pushing through thick foliage and muddy (even snowy!) ground. Like I said, not an official trail, so no maintenance!
Then, you emerge from the foliage on the edge of a very large, steep cliff – watch your step! The view is stunning, though. It just opens up over the Jasper National Park valley, the river snaking along to the town, surrounded by the towering mountains. Seriously, these are impressive peaks! There was snowfall the week before we arrived, (only the Miette springs road was closed fortunately) which made it all the more beautiful. We didn’t do the SkyTram, but I believe it looks over a similar view. Once we’d soaked it in thoroughly, we just had to retrace our steps back to the car again. We returned to town for dinner at the Jasper Pizza Place, on another friend’s recommendation!
Valley of Five Lakes Hike
Now, it was the weekend, and I had two full days off work to explore Jasper National Park. Dad and I set off after breakfast on our next hike, the Valley of Five Lakes. This one is also just a short drive from town and takes a couple of hours to complete. There’s some up and downhill, but no major elevation gain overall, plus it’s an official, maintained trail. I noticed a lot of the hikes in the area were either very short, or super long and technical, so we had to pick ones doable for our ability level and available time.
As the name might suggest, the route takes you past five lakes. All are glacier-fed which means they’re all dazzling shades of green and blue. Get ready for a lot of that in the next couple posts! The colour comes from the “rock flour”, the sediment picked up by the glacier and ground down to fine particles. The quantity affects the colour though, and each lake was just a slightly different shade to each other, which was stunning to see!
It was a lovely sunny day too, lighting them all up, and of course, plenty mountains serving as a backdrop. We saw butterflies, dragonflies and chipmunks along the way too. Dad also found his first of many more red chairs to come, large wooden Parks Canada ones, overlooking one of the lake views. He loves sitting admiring a good view for ages! All in all, a beautiful couple of hours of scenery!
Maligne Lake Cruise
We returned to town to grab lunch and pick up Mum then, we all headed off to Maligne Lake. This is one of the biggest lakes in the area, and the cruise on it is a popular choice for visitors to Jasper National Park. The drive there was pretty exciting too, as we saw a black bear with her cubs in the snow at the side of the road! We stayed safely in the car to watch them amble by, seeming unfazed by the other cars stopped. The route also took us past Medicine Lake, a pastel blue shade this time, with a lookout point to take in the view.
The lake cruise features a live guide narration telling us abut the lake and surrounding mountains – with lots of jokes peppered in! We sped up the lake towards the Queen Elizabeth Mountain range, which forms a ‘J’ shape around the lake. The recent snow had left them looking jaw-droppingly spectacular as they surrounded us on three sides!
Tucked inside the ‘J’, is Spirit Island, so-named because it is a sacred, significant place for the First Nations tribes. Sadly, they were forced out of the area when the National Park was created, but visitors are not allowed on to the actual island out of respect for its significance. Instead, the boat pulls around in the turquoise water (a brighter colour at this end of the lake, closer to the glacier) to allow you to disembark on the nearby mainland that juts into the lake. You get about 20 minutes to walk a trail along the shore, admiring the incredible view of Spirit Island and the snowy mountains behind it.
Maligne Canyon Hike
Returning up the Maligne Lake Road, following the river as it snaked through the trees and snowy ground, we stopped at Maligne Canyon next. Mum had opted to join for this hike, since it was fairly flat along the top of the canyon, and there are plenty places to turn back if needed. There are five bridges spanning the canyon, so the first few can be reached pretty quickly. The canyon is a deep gorge where the river has carved its way deep into the rock over thousands of years. It’s deepest at the first couple of bridges, evening out as we continued on. The first bridge is possibly the most dramatic, with a log jam creating a gushing torrent of water.
The trail mostly goes through the forest where the river hides beneath the tree cover. It gains water as it goes, as there is a huge underground tunnel network leading from Medicine Lake, feeding into the river through the rocks. Towards the fifth bridge, we emerged from the tree cover to stunning mountain views (how many different ways can I describe these magnificent mountains?). We walked across the fifth bridge but then straight back again, as we needed to return the same way. We did opt for a slightly different route, taking a higher trail higher above the river through a pretty alpine wildflower meadow.
All of these glacier-fed lakes, it was time to see an actual glacier! The most notable one in Jasper National Park is the Athabasca Glacier, which feeds the Athabasca River that runs through the whole valley. It’s about an hour south of Jasper town, following the Icefields Parkway. It’s just about the last thing before you cross into Banff. The glacier is probably also notable because you can join a truck tour to drive and then walk on the ice itself.
There’s also a sky bridge nearby, a glass floored structure jutting out the cliff that Mum & Dad were going to do (I’m terrified of heights). But as we drove past it, still about 10 minutes away from the glacier, we realised it didn’t actually hang over the glacier as we thought. Having realised that, Mum & Dad decided to skip it. Instead, they joined me for the walk I’d been planning to do in the meantime.
Rather than pay to walk on the glacier, we did the free trail, which leads you to the toe of it. It is a bit of a steep, rocky ascent at first, but doesn’t take long, and then you reach the flatter plain just in front of the ice. Seeing the people walking on the ice put into perspective just how large this thing is! It was also crazy to be standing next to so much snow and ice in the height of summer! There are information signs around, including ones that show how far the glacier used to extend. It’s been receding for years now, which is natural for glaciers, but climate change is, of course, exacerbating it.
Wilcox Pass Hike
We popped into the Icefields Centre across the road for lunch. Mum was also hanging out here while Dad and I went to do another hike nearby, the Wilcox Pass. Now, the entire hike over the pass takes basically a whole day, which we didn’t have. So our plan was just to get as far as the red chair viewpoint – yes, more red chairs already! It’s a pretty steep hike, uphill all the way, starting off in the forest for the first while. We soon had to stop to slather ourselves in bug spray!
Then, the trail eventually emerges out from the treeline, and wow, I did not realise how far we had ascended already! We were so far above the road where we started! Continuing along the path, things got rockier but a bit more level, until we spotted the red chairs up ahead. They really are in a fantastic spot, as the trail is right across the road from the Athabasca Glacier. Seeing up from up here showed off its massive size even more than at the foot earlier! We could also see more details of the mountains around, including a second glacier. It was insane how thick the snow capping them was too!
We continued a bit further on the trail, climbing uphill again pretty steeply and quickly. A river carved its way down the mountainside, which you have to go up and around. The views of the glacier continued to be no less incredible too! Eventually we reached a plateau, meaning this was as high as our view would get. And then, the rain began, so we whizzed back down the mountainside! Fortunately we got to the tree cover before the worst came, and we were prepared with raincoats. Weather changes fast in the mountains!
The Long Way Back
We set off on the drive back to Jasper, intending to stop at the Athabasca Falls on the way. But then our day took a turn. Look, travel is an adventure and things don’t always go to plan. Which can be very frustrating but it happens. And happen, it did. We’d only gone about 15 minutes from the glacier, when we encountered a huge line of cars parked along the roadside. Was there another bear sighting maybe? No, a man was waving each new car over to do the same and informing everyone that there had been an accident up ahead so we couldn’t get through. Ok, not great, but surely they’ll clear it quickly, right? I mean, this is the main road through Canada’s two most popular national parks!
Nope. Cars soon began to come towards us, those who had left the line and turned back. They called out that the emergency services were saying potentially 6 HOURS for the road to reopen. Brilliant. There’s also no signal on this stretch of road, so we decided to double back to the Icefields Centre. The parkway is really the only road through the parks, and sat nav quickly told us that our fastest detour option would take about…. 6 hours! In the end, we decided to go for it. It was better than waiting for 6 hours for it to possibly not be open even then. We had to cross into Banff, exit the parks at Saskatchewan Crossing and drive up the shore of Abraham Lake. Which did let us see another bright blue glacial lake!
THEN we turned off this highway onto a dirt forest road. Which we had to follow for TWO hours. it was so bumpy and there were so many potholes. I was slightly terrified the car would hit one, break down and we’d ben stranded! We only passed a few other cars the whole time too. We later learned this was because there was a “road closed” sign at the other end of this highway! Nothing on our end though, which is why we pushed on. The car kicked up so much dust and mud too, it was absolutely filthy by the end. We finally returned to Jasper at around 9pm, to learn that the road was still shut. So our detour was the right plan! We were exhausted and grumpy and just wanted to go to bed!
So, the original plan for yesterday had been to go to Pyramid Lake in the later afternoon. Since that plan obviously got derailed, we rescheduled for today after I finished work. Fortunately, I hadn’t decided yet what to do on these last two evenings, so I didn’t have to bump any other plans to make room for this. It’s just a short 10-minute drive out of Jasper too, perfect for after work. The lake sits cradled by a few mountains, Pyramid Mountain being the closest. We also got a view of my favourite mountain in the park – Mount Colin. I just think naming a mountain “Colin” is excellent! Had we made it here the day before, my plan had been to rent a kayak, but it was too late in the day by now.
Instead, we headed to Pyramid Island, a small island in the lake connected to the mainland by a bridge. It’s been a popular tourist spot for years, and has been carefully maintained (stay on the paths!) to try to preserve it. You can even get married here, with the mountains and lake as your backdrop! It’s really small so took no time at all to walk around it We then followed another walking trail down the lakeside to the nearby lodge. Most of the trail was in the trees and on the far side of the road, rather than next to the shore. It was an easy leg stretch though!
Then, we drove around the lake a little further to one of the beaches on its western banks. We hadn’t really brought beach gear, but we sat on the picnic bench and enjoyed the view, watching a canoe paddle by. I dipped my feet in for a different sort of paddle too!
We’d had dinner in town a couple of times this week. Aside from the pizza, we also tried Evil Dave’s Grill, just because of the name – more formal than I’d expected! Plus Jasper Brewing Co., the first brewery to be allowed to open inside Jasper National Park. I hadn’t had much of a chance to explore anything else in the village though, so I went for an after-work wander. There’s really two main streets with shops and restaurants on them. One is at the very south of the town with the railway line just across the road. You can watch the freight trains and the Rocky Mountaineer roll through regularly. Or take a photo by the steam carriage or the totem pole. The other street is immediately behind it, while the rest of the town is mostly residential.
A lot of the shops are souvenir or outdoors shops, and I did pick up a new magnet. I browsed a few looking for a new backpack but didn’t choose one in the end. There was a cute little boutique though, Bombshell, where I got some handmade resin earrings. I passed by the Visitor Centre, which was in a lovely old building. They’re installing a new outdoor exhibit about the First Nations peoples expelled from the park, due to open later in the year. Once I’d exhausted the shops, I met up with Mum & Dad for our last dinner in town, at the Olive Bistro.
Jasper National Park
All in all, Jasper National Park is STUNNING. The lakes and mountains are so beautiful. You might think they all start to look the same after a while, but every view was different! We’d been worried the recent snowfall would impact our visit, but it barely did at all. In fact, the snow made it even more spectacular, seeing it dusting the peaks. And yes, we had a day that didn’t go to plan, but that didn’t sour my experience at all. I still felt I got to see and do a lot in the time we had! Plus, we still had even more mountains and lakes coming up, as we journeyed south down the Icefields Parkway again (fortunately reopened now!) and into Banff National Park…