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An Outlandish Guide to Jasper National Park | Canada

An Outlandish Guide to Jasper National Park

Jasper National Park is rugged. Beautiful. Wild. Not like these adjectives wouldn’t describe any of Canada’s National Parks, but because of how big Jasper is, you’ll also get to choose your own way. A town less developed than Banff. Lakes less crowded than Lake Louise. Multi-use trails that you can bike along. Lakes open for paddling. With less regulation comes a lot more possibility for real adventure.

Curious about what makes Jasper National Park so worth exploring? I went as part of a Canadian road trip in 2019. Here are some of the best hikes, recommended campsites, and things to do in Jasper National Park, plus all the other stuff you might want to know before you plan your trip.

It was COLD by the time we got to Jasper! This post doesn’t have as many photos as usual because we were gloved, kayaking, or otherwise huddling indoors. 

At a Glance

Jasper National Park is an 11,228 km2 park in Alberta, and a big part of the Canadian Rockies. Notable features are massive peaks like the 3,350m high Mt. Edith Cavell, the 23km long Maligne Lake, and the epic Icefields Parkway that connects Jasper to Banff.

While Jasper is open year-round, peak season is June through August. Temperatures dip below -20°in winter, making it much harder to enjoy the backcountry.

View of Spirit Island on Maligne Lake Kayaking Trip

Entrance to Jasper National Park costs $9.80 CAD per person or $18.90 CAD per group PER DAY. If you’re planning to visit for more than 7 days, you should consider buying the Discovery Pass ($68)  which includes access to 80 Parks Canada places.

Reasons to Dig Jasper National Park

I honestly doubt you need to be convinced to go, but in case you do, here are some reasons to visit Jasper.

It’s Not Banff (Yet)

Annual visitors to Jasper National Park are increasing every year, but 2.5 million is nowhere near the 4 million visitors who visit Banff. There are five main access areas to Jasper, meaning there are still plenty of places to explore. And since the park is HUGE, it’s easy to find a sense of solitude in a way that you really can’t in Banff.

Maligne Lake, for example, is one of the most popular attractions in the park, but it’s also the starting point for lesser-known backcountry treks and kayaking trips. By choosing one of the less popular pull-offs on the Icefields Parkway or going on a day hike rather than a bus tour, you’ll get a genuine sense of wild that’s becoming increasingly difficult to come by at Banff.

The Icefields Parkway is really awesome

Running 233 km between Jasper Townsite and Lake Louise, the Icefields Parkway is one of the coolest stretches of road I’ve ever driven.

The Colombia Icefield Discovery Centre at the drive’s midpoint is perhaps the most obvious pulloff. While the views of the Colombia Icefield are awesome from the Discovery Center, it’s little more than a massive visitor center where tour busses get dropped off to watch some park films, shop for sweatshirts, and buy a glacier tour.

Icefeild Discovery Center on the Icefield ParkwayThat said, the Colombia Icefield Discover Centre is the jumping-off point for Athabasca Glacier tours and the Colombia Icefield Skywalk. The glacier tours are on an Ice Explorer, a vehicle outfitted for Glaicer travel. They start at $103 CAD, but actually look pretty sweet. The Colombia Icefield Skywalk, on the other hand, is pretty uninspiring. For $34 CAD, you’ll walk out on a glass-floored platform 6km up the Parkway and the views don’t seem much different from what you get from the road.

Instead of the tourist traps, check out the Valley of Five Lakes, an easy 4.5 km loop trail, with Tekarra looming. Athabasca Falls is also spectacular; the Class 5 waterfall is 18M wide and considered one of the most powerful waterfalls in the Rockies. As you get closer to Banff, some of the best pull-offs are Peyto Lake and Bow Lake. 

Take a look at this Icefields Parkway map from Parks Canada for more information on distances, points of interest, and to find out which pulloffs have trailheads and accommodation.

And Jasper is a Dark Sky Preserve

Stargazing is a completely different experience without city lights. And as a Dark Sky Preserve, Jasper is one of 17 places in Canada where you can gaze up without any artificial light pollution from surrounding areas.

The Dark Sky Festival – an event that pairs stargazing with keynotes and panels on the subject – comes to Jasper every October. As the days grow shorter, it’s one of the best months for stargazing. But honestly, you’ll probably be impressed when you look up at any time of year. Some of the best places for stargazing in Jasper are Maligne Lake, Medicine Lake, and Pyramid Lake because of huge clearings over the water and majestic peaks silhouetted against the sky.

There’s a lot of wildlife

Jasper is home to more than 60 types of mammals. And some really cool ones, at that. Keep your eyes peeled for bears, moose, sheep, and elk. 

One of the best places to see wildlife in Jasper is in the Maligne Valley on the 48km stretch of road between Jasper and Maligne Lake. We saw all of the big mammals right from the road! The wildlife are most active at dawn and at dusk, so get out for an early drive for your best opportunity to see wildlife.

Grazing sheep in Jasper National Park

While we’re on the subject. Jasper is a great spot to see wildlife, but feeding or approaching them isn’t responsible. It’s our shared responsibility to keep wildlife wild!

There’s more to do than just hiking

Cycling Jasper

Jasper’s extensive trail network is multifunctional, meaning that unlike most parks, the backcountry is open to cyclists, too. Bring your own bike or rent one in town if you want to explore some of the park’s 300km of single-track.

Looking for bike rental? Vicious Canada has full-suspension bikes for rent from $20 per hour. Overnight rentals are also available.

In addition to cycling and water sports, there’s supposed to be great rafting, skiing, and climbing in Jasper. Before you go, consider all the things to do in Jasper so you can plan a unique itinerary.

Canoe, Kayak, or SUP Jasper

Also notable is how many lakes, rivers, and other waterways you’ll find around Jasper. Yeah, there are tour boats that run trips across Maligne Lake, but if you’re up for an independent adventure, you can also rent a canoe, kayak, or a standup paddleboard to get out on the water.

Rent a kayak or canoe with PureOutdoors. We rented from them for our kayak camping trip on Maligne Lake. Based in Jasper, the local operator has great equipment and more affordable prices than if you rent equipment at the lake.

Kayaking on Maligne Lake

Adventurous Things to do in Jasper

Skyline Trail

The Skyline Trail is regarded as one of the best hikes in the Rockies. The 44 km hike starts at Maligne Lake and travels mostly above treeline to Signal Mountain Trailhead. Below is a suggested 3-day Skyline Trail route. 

Skyline Trail Route: Get an early start on Day 1 as you hike the 12km from Maligne Lake to Snowbowl Campground. The first 8km of the day is spent traveling through the forest (which is often muddy), but just before you get to Little Shovel campground, you’ll break through treeline and see why the Skyline Trail has its name. Set up camp at Snowbowl campground.

Day 2 is a long one, traveling 18km between Snowbowl and Tekarra. It starts with a relatively easy climb over the Big Shovel Pass. After 8km, you’ll pass the sign for Curator Campground. From there, the trail gets steeper and climbs to The Notch – an infamous point where the Skyline Trail tops out at 2400m. Snow clings to The Notch until late in the season and fog and snow can make navigating the trail difficult. From The Notch, views open up to views of Mount Edith Cavell and surrounding mountains. The trail descends gradually towards Mount Tekarra with Tekarra campground at the base. Be prepared for some river crossings.

After sleeping at Tekarra, Day 3 brings a 14km trek down to the Signal Trailhead. After about 5km of hiking, you’ll get to Curator campground where the trail dips down above treeline. Walk along the gravel Signal Fire Road until you get to the trailhead.

Important note: Unless you’re traveling with two cars, you’ll need to plan a shuttle or hitchhike on one side of the hike. Maligne Adventures runs a daily shuttle during high-season from Jasper to Maligne Lake. The best way to do this is to park your car at Signal Trailhead a day before your hike begins, hitchhike back to Jasper, and take the shuttle to Maligne Lake. If you’re traveling off-season, we were quoted a steep $200 for private transport. I’d recommend hiring a taxi or working out a deal with someone in town.

We planned on hiking the Skyline Trail at the end of September but got snowed out. Something to go back for! If you want to read more about the trek, check this awesome post on the Skyline Trail from In a Faraway Land.

Kayaking on Maligne Lake

Maligne Lake is one of the best-known things to do at Jasper National Park, but few people know that there are also three backcountry sites around the lake. The only catch? Fisherman’s Bay, Hidden Cove, and Coronet Creek are paddle up only.

Kayaking on Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park

The most common itinerary is a 3-day kayaking trip where you spend night 1 at Fisherman’s Bay, night 2 at Coronet Creek, and paddle back to the boat dock on day 3. That said, you can really book it however you want. Just keep in mind that the Maligne Lake camping sites you book will determine how many kilometers you have to paddle each day. Check out the full itinerary here.

Read More: An Outlandish Guide to Kayak Camping on Maligne Lake

ACCOMMODATION

Hotels

There is tons of lodging inside the Canadian Parks. Entire towns were built before the parks were fully protected, so it’s possible to stay in a well-equipped towns surrounded by nature. There are too many hotels, hostels, and lodges to recommend, so here are a few resources for finding your own.

Booking.com | There are some incredible places, but you’ll want to hop on months ahead of time to explore hotels, lodges, and resorts in Jasper. Most hotels are located in Jasper town, but you can also find a few gems tucked next to lakes or waterfalls. Check prices and availability.

Stay in Jasper | You’ll notice Airbnbs in Jasper are quite limited, but that’s because locals use StayinJasper.com instead. All the listings are bed and breakfasts or rooms in a private home. Check prices and availability.

Wilderness Hostels | Hostelling International runs several wilderness hostels along the Icefield Parkway and in Jasper National Park. They’re quite basic, but because of their placement in some of the most privileged locations in the park, they’re a steal. Dorm beds from $25 per night.

HI Maligne Canyon Wilderness Hostel in Winter

HI Maligne Canyon Wilderness Hostel // Photo by hihostels.ca

Camping

You’ll have your pick of campgrounds in Jasper if you’re visiting in the summer months (May – October). Here are a couple of the bigger campgrounds that are reservable in advance. 

Wapiti | Since Whistlers was closed for reconstruction in 2019, the most well-equipped campground in Jasper is Wapiti located beside the Athabasca River. There are with 363 sites, flush toilets and even showers, but the stand-out feature of Wapiti is that it’s it’s year-around with 75 campsites staying open for winter. Sites from $27 CAD per night.

Wabasso |  Wabasso is just south of Jasper Town and has 231 reservable sites. It’s equipped with toilets and a fire pit, but the site is only open in summer. Sites from $22 CAD per night.

Snaring |  Snaring isn’t too far from Jasper Town, but with 62 sites, it feels a bit more intimate than the bigger sites. Some are well-treed while others get more sunlight. Pit toilet only. Sites from $16 CAD per night.

Backcountry |  Jasper promises more than 1,000km of trails, which means the backcountry campsites in Jasper can be pretty remote and pretty incredible. Explore all the backcountry campsites here.

Backcountry campsites in Jasper National Park

GETTING AROUND

HOW TO GET TO JASPER NATIONAL PARK

The closest airport to Jasper National Park is Edmonton Airport (YEG) in Edmonton. From the airport, the best way to get to Jasper National Park is by private vehicle, but there are a couple of other options.

Cold Shot is a shuttle service that runs routes around Alberta. At time of writing, they ran daily shuttles departing at 7am between Edmonton and Jasper. The route takes about 4 hours and costs $55 CAD.

Another option is to book the train with VIA Rail, though the schedules are way less convenient. During the summer, departures are Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday just after midnight and the journey takes 6.5 hours. The cheapest fare I could find when I searched was $97 CAD.

Icefields Parkway through Jasper National Park

GETTING AROUND THE PARK

There aren’t currently park shuttles in Jasper, so you’ll honestly need a car once you’re there.

Renting a car? There are lots of reasons to go with a more-beastly-than-usual rental car for this trip. Depending on when you’re traveling, you’ll want tires with extra grip and perhaps 4WD if you’re expecting rain or snow. Here are a couple of rental car or campervan companies I can recommend:

  • Hertz has pickup locations in Calgary, Edmonton, and Lake Louise for as little as $34/day. They also have a program for drivers aged 20-25 who are unable to rent a car from other major agencies. Check prices and availability on hertz.com
  • Escape Campervans offer fully equipped campervans which can be a really fun way to travel! While they don’t have 4WD or get as good of gas mileage, you might be able to save by having an indoor spot to sleep on the nights you may have splurged on a hotel. Pick up only available in Calgary, and campervans rented in Canada must also be returned there.

Before booking your rental car, be sure to ask about total cost (incl. airport fees, additional drivers, mileage, etc.) and insurance coverage. Give it a scan to check for any existing damages and be sure to return the car with a tank of gas to avoid the surcharge. 

What about shuttles? If for whatever reason you won’t have one, there a couple of taxi operators like Mr Taxi and Tours and Caribou Cabs or tour operators like Sun Dog Tours and Brewster Express that can help you with transport. Keep in mind that these costs will add up and since you might be without service, you might have to pay a driver to wait for you once you’ve arrived at your destination.

Photo behind the wheel at Jasper National Park

Ever been to Jasper National Park? What were your favorite experiences or things to do?

Exploring the most rugged, wild, awesome park in Alberta. Curious about what makes Jasper National Park so worth exploring? Here are some of the best hikes, recommended campsites, and things to do in Jasper National Park, plus all the other stuff you might want to know before you plan your trip.

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