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Jasper National Park is the kind of destination that offers a lifetime’s worth of exploration and discovery, but it’s still possible to squeeze in plenty of fun winter or summer activities in just a weekend.
Although it’s widely known to be the largest park in the Canadian Rockies, the fact it’s nearly twice the size of an entire east-coast province – Prince Edward Island – truly puts its scale into perspective. The stats seem more hyperbole than fact; Jasper National Park is home to nearly 1000 km of hiking trails, it’s the world’s second largest Dark Sky Preserve, and it is part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 230-km Icefields Parkway, which links Jasper to Lake Louise and Banff National Park, is widely considered one of the most scenic drives on the planet.
The town itself still feels, well, like a town. The out-for-your-last-dollar shopping-mall atmosphere that permeates most resort communities is largely absent. Instead, the town is chock full of friendly people who embrace the mountain lifestyle. Even in the height of summer, locals outnumber visitors at both the De’d Dog pub and the Legion.
Before diving into the ultimate Jasper, Alberta: Top 7 Adventures in Jasper National Park, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Jasper can feel busy. Nearly 2.3 million people visit each year, including nearly 1.5 million in a 12-week period between June and September. But it is so easy to avoid the crowds, especially if you understand a few simple rules:
1. Roughly speaking, most visitors only see a small amount of the park. Venturing just 2-3 kilometers from the nearest road will drastically thin the crowds.
2. Standard meal times are the best times for exploring. Restaurants are crowded at these times, but the trails are practically deserted. It’s not unusual to have sunrise or sunset to yourself, even at busy locations like Pyramid or Maligne Lakes.
3. Book accommodation early. It’s truly busy, especially in the summer, and both hotels and campgrounds are routinely sold out. Wild camping is illegal, too, so Jasper isn’t the place to embrace your own Christopher McCandless experience.
4. Visit between the months of October through May and observe the incredible fall colours, the white capped mountains and alpine in winter and warm summer-like days in May.
1. Hike at Edith Cavell
Edith Cavell can be one of the busiest locations in Jasper National Park. On a busy summer day, thousands climb the short Path to the Glacier trail. Yet it’s easily one of the quietest places in Jasper, too, if you visit early in the morning. Begin with sunrise at the end of Cavell Lake, located about 200 m down the Astoria Trail, before venturing closer to the mountain. It’s worth spending a couple hours exploring Cavell Meadows, but if time doesn’t allow, the short hike to the viewpoint overlooking Cavell Pond is worth the effort.
2. Hike Upper and Lower Sunwapta Falls
Both Athabasca and Upper Sunwapta Falls are wildly beautiful and warrant a stop despite the crowds these two road-side waterfalls attract; however, a hiking trail leads from Upper Sunwapta Falls to Lower Sunwapta Falls. Although it’s only a 4-km roundtrip, the short distance will immediately lead visitors into a more secluded wilderness.
3. Adventure to Maligne Canyon
Maligne Canyon is, undoubtedly, more beautiful in the winter when it’s possible to walk along the canyon floor or ice climb on the countless frozen waterfalls. In the summer, the hiking trail follows the rim and offers impressive views of rushing whitewater and waterfalls that have carved the limestone walls over the past 10 000 years.
The canyon is a frequent stop for tour buses, so it’s best to start early and avoid the post-breakfast rush.
4. Opal Hills or Bald Hills hike or Maligne Lake bike
Maligne Lake is one of Jasper’s best-known landmarks, but visitors rarely venture away from the chalet or boat house unless they’re aboard a boat cruise to Spirit Island. For truly unique views of the Maligne mountain range and the lake, hike either Opal or Bald Hills. The former is an intermediate 8.2 km loop, while the latter is an easier 6 km hike up an old fire road. Both are in prime grizzly habitat, so consider carrying bear spray and hiking in a small group rather than solo.
In late winter, the Bald Hills is an excellent backcountry ski location (the Bald Hills are closed for caribou conservation until February 28); however, it is in avalanche terrain. For a few days in spring, lake conditions may be perfect to bring a fat bike and pedal out onto the lake towards Hidden Cove campground or Spirit Island.
5. Kayak or Canoe for a quiet Picnic.
For visitors keen to hit the water, rent a canoe or kayak and paddle down Maligne lake. While it is possible for advanced paddlers to do a solo trip to Spirit Island in a day, it’s more enjoyable for novice paddlers to simply head down the lake and find a deserted picnic area. There are several with picnic tables and fire rings; however, it isn’t mandatory to use these locations unless you plan on a campfire.
6. Climb Morro Peak
Morro Peak is rumoured to be the smallest summit in the Canadian Rockies. Truthfully, I’ve never been able to verify the claim, but it is likely the easiest and shortest summit hike in the Canadian Rockies. Technically, it isn’t an official trail; however, off trail hiking is perfectly legal in the national parks and Morro Peak is a worthy objective for anybody eager to reach their first Rocky Mountain peak. The trailhead is located at the end of the Overlander trail, immediately after highway 16 crosses the Athabasca River 20 km northeast of Jasper. From there, a well-used trail heads for the summit.
On the way down, be careful not to hike too low, too soon, as it’s a common mistake that leaves hikers in an exposed area above some dramatic cliffs.
7. SUP Lake Annette or Lake Edith
Stand-up paddle boarding is hugely popular in the Canadian Rockies and it’s little wonder why. The lakes are small, calm and are completely surrounded by stunning mountain views. In Jasper, the two smaller lakes – Lake Edith and Annette – are the warmest and most paddle friendly. Translucid Adventures rents SUPs at Lake Edith’s western entrance, which is within easy walking distance of Lake Annette.
Sunrise locations: Pyramid Island, Cavell Lake, and Mile 5 Bridge
Sunset locations: Edge of the World, Horseshoe Lake, and Old Fort Point
Cloudy Day locations: Athabasca Falls, Sunwapta Falls, and Upper Maligne Canyon
Night Sky locations: Pyramid Lake, Lake Edith and Annette, and Medicine Lake
Like what Jeff had to say and his awesome photography? Follow him on his Instagram @PhotoJBartlett to see and read more.