Highlights From Jasper National Park And The Icefields Parkway
Some of the most beautiful mountain scenery we’ve seen are the Canadian Rockies! There is so much to see and do that it would take several weeks to see just the top highlights. Many people visit Banff National Park as their destination, however to avoid the crowds we chose to make Jasper and Yoho National Parks our primary destinations with short trips into Banff and the surrounding area.
Our first visit was during the 2019 spring shoulder season from late May into early June. Spring or Fall shoulder season is the best way to avoid the crowds however you do risk missing out on some experiences if winter lingers too long. For example our timing was a couple of days off to enjoy a cruise out to Spirit Island on Maligne Lake, with ice still covering portions of Maligne Lake the boat tours weren’t open yet, the same was true with accessing Mount Edith Cavell Trail due to snow cover. In other National Parks Yoho Valley Road was closed due to avalanche risk so we were unable to visit Takakkaw Falls during spring, same with Sunshine Meadows with the transition from winter to spring/summer activities.
The risk of closed activities holds true for both spring and fall shoulder seasons so identifying your must do activities up front becomes an even more important part of your trip planning. We were already planning a return visit in 2020 so we planned to followup on some of the activities we missed out on.
Our Canadian Rockies visit actually began in Vancouver by riding the rails to Jasper on VIA Rail Canada. While we’re certain the experience pales in comparison to the Rocky Mountaineer experience, the route was pretty much identical. We opted for economy seats which served us well for the overnight trip, though considering the “snorer” that sat behind us we would probably have been better off upgrading to a sleeper.
In this post we’ll highlight some of our top spots in Jasper National Park.
Canada National Park Pass
Unless you are taking tours that include park entrance fees you will need to purchase a National Park pass. There are a variety of passes from single location and day passes, weekly passes and annual park passes. They can be purchased on site but we purchased annual park passes considering we were going to be there for 7 days and we could always use them during the rest of the year if venturing back into Canada. You can learn more about park passes at Parks Canada. The passes are required and enforced, on our first day we forgot to display our passes on the dash and had a warning on the rental car upon returning. We made a quick run to the Park office in Jasper to show them our passes and clear things up.
We started Day #1 with a hike at Maligne Canyon, it’s located about ten minutes from the town of Jasper and is very popular so plan to arrive early. There are a number of entry points to the canyon trail, we started at Bridge #5 and hiked along the canyon up to the main parking area then looped back along the higher trail. The views are incredible along the way and at each of the bridges heading up to the main entrance.
There is some gain in elevation but nothing too difficult for most trekkers, the fact that it was May with some standing water and icy spots did make for some slippery & muddy moments. The hike from Fifth to First bridge and back took about 2.5 hours which included several rest breaks and photo stops along the way.
There are bathrooms at the Fifth and First Bridge trailheads and a restaurant and main parking area at the main entrance.
Maligne Canyon Gallery:
Maligne Lake Road to Maligne Lake:
Maligne Lake Road begins near the town of Jasper and ends 28 miles (46 km) later at Maligne Lake. We actually drove this road several times during our visit as it seems you spot things you missed before. Take your time and keep a keen eye out for wildlife such as mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, and grizzly and black bears.
Maligne Lake is the largest lake in the Canadian Rockies. You will find several hiking opportunities at the lake, a visitor center and cafeteria as well as the pier from where you can hop on a boat tour out to Spirit Island which is one of the most photographed places in the Canadian Rockies. We hoped to be able to fit this in however winter hung on just a few days too long and the boats weren’t running yet before we had to leave. We’ll be sure to reserve a tour for our 2020 visit. For more info on the boat tours visit the Maligne Lake Cruise site.
Views Along Maligne Lake Road:
Valley Of Five Lakes:
The trail takes you past five turquoise color lakes nestled in a forest of fir trees. The lakes are quite beautiful along with the views from the higher sections and the shaded areas of the forest were a welcome respite.
Many sites classify this hike as suitable for the whole family or family friendly. Now maybe it’s because we were foolish enough to tackle this hike the same day as hiking Maligne Canyon but we thought parents with young children or older visitors may want to consider not attempting the entire circuit. There are portions of the trail with elevation gains and losses and a number of boulders to traverse so be aware especially in wet conditions.
The Valley of Five Lakes trail is located about 6 miles south of Jasper along the Icefields Parkway and is very popular.
Valley Of Five Lakes Gallery:
Pyramid Lake lies at the base of Pyramid Mountain, it’s one of 20 small lakes created by retreating glaciers. Located at the end of Pyramid Lake Road, just 3.5 mi (6 km) from Jasper the lake is a popular spot for fishing, kayaking or simply watching the sun go down. Hiking and mountain bike trails connect the lake to the town and other nearby sites.
Pyramid Lake Island is one of the most popular destinations and photo spots in the area. It’s located about a mile further down the road with limited parking available on your left. The Island is accessible from a wooden pedestrian bridge with .5 mile of trails primarily used for walking and nature trips.
To beat the crowds during busier seasons consider coming early for sunrise or late for sunset to get a clear shot of the bridge.
Located about 30 minutes south of the town of Jasper off the Icefields Parkway is Athabasca Falls. At 75 feet they are not the tallest waterfall but certainly pack a powerful punch!
Several paved pathways lead to various viewing points that overlook the falls and then down a narrow section with stairs to the canyon below.
It can be quite crowded during busy times so consider an early or late visit to avoid crowds. As always stay on the trails and exercise caution as mist from the falls creates slippery areas on the rocks.
Athabasca Falls Gallery:
Located about 45 minutes south of Jasper (55 km) is Sunwapta Falls. From the Icefields Parkway turn on to the road near the Sunwapta Falls Resort and follow it to the parking area.
There is a viewing bridge over the canyon that provides a very nice view of the main waterfall. If you cross the bridge the trail will continue through the forest for 28 miles to Fortress Lake.
Lower Sunwapta Falls Trail: To view the lower falls follow the trail downstream (by not crossing the viewing bridge) for a little over a kilometer for several viewing areas with views of the canyon below. The end of the trail is at the final waterfalls where the river becomes much wider.
You’ll be hard pressed to find another stretch of roadway with more breathtaking views than the Icefields Parkway. The road from Jasper down to Lake Louise is filled with dramatic mountain views and forests, beautiful ancient glaciers, emerald lakes and cascading waterfalls.
You’ll want to take your time and keep a watchful eye out for wildlife along the way, so pack a snack or lunch, take a hike or simply sit and absorb natures beauty.
Views Along The Icefields Parkway Gallery:
Columbia Icefield / Athabasca Glacier:
Visiting the Columbia Icefield should definitely be one of your “must do” activities during your visit, where else are you going to be able to experience a glacier up close and personal. The Columbia Icefield is the largest in the interior of North America and the easiest glacier to experience without enduring a long hike or climb is Athabasca Glacier.
There are a number of ways to experience the glacier, many will take a tour on one of the Ice Field Explorers up and onto the glacier or add the skywalk adventure (visit Columbia Icefield Adventure for details.) Others will sign-up for a guided hiking tour up the glacier. If you are up for a shorter hiking experience and at no cost you can choose to hike the “Toe of the Glacier.”
To access the Toe Of The Glacier Trail park in the large parking lot by Sunwapta Lake across the road from the Icefield Center and follow the footbridge across the stream to the toe of the glacier. There is some elevation gain of about 165 feet (50 meters) and the round trip trail is about 1.2 miles (2 km). The trail is a steady uphill grade but should be no problem if you are in reasonably good shape. We left our Yaktrax in the car which might have come in handy on this trek, however by wearing footwear with a good amount of tread we managed the hike with minimal slipping.
Columbia Icefield – Toe Of The Glacier Gallery:
Where We Stayed in Jasper:
We reserved a place about 3.4 miles (5.5 km.) north of town as our home base at Patricia Lake Bungalows located, as you might guess, right on Patricia Lake. In May 2019 we stayed 3 nights in a Whistler 1 Queen which was located just a short stroll to the lake. The room and grounds were clean and well cared for and the staff was friendly and helpful providing recommendations to some excellent local places to dine! If you are looking for a serene & peaceful retreat outside of the busyness of town we highly recommend PLB! A truly wonderful and memorable experience, we’re looking forward to a return visit in 2020!
Patricia Lake Bungalows Gallery:
Where We Ate In Jasper:
Ask any local for a coffee shop recommendation and they’ll probably tell you Bear’s Paw Bakery, trust them, it’s great! We ate at Karouzos Steak House twice, need we say more? In the mood for pizza? Try Famoso’s,