A June 2005 trip
to Jasper National Park by Idler
Quote: For its winning combination of stunning mountain scenery and variety of outdoor pursuits, few places can match Jasper.
Staying just outside of town on lovely Patricia Lake was in itself a high point of the vacation, a quiet retreat after a day spent hiking, driving, and exploring the area. It was rewarding to learn a bit of the area’s history, too, by visiting the local Jasper Yellowhead Museum and talking to local residents.
Hiking in the park was surely the best way to appreciate the area, but exploring by river raft and on horseback provided unique experiences as well. Many people we met around town gave us useful advice about places to go and things to do, too, which made us feel a little less like tourists, always a welcomed feeling. I only wish we’d had more than 5 days to make use of all the tips we were given.
Sights, sounds, and smells that are cherished memories of this trip include the majestic snow-capped peak of Mt. Edith Cavell surrounded by luminous clouds at sunset, the call of loons heard out on evening walks along Patricia Lake, and the heady smell of wild rugosa roses that permeated the moist woodlands and meadows virtually everyplace we went. This trip also marked something of a coming of age for our son Greg. At some undefined point, he ceased being someone we were responsible for taking care of – a child – and became a travelling companion with his own very definite ideas about what he did and didn’t want to do.
I’d like to thank IgoUgo for providing a ticket to Banff as my prize for winning 2004’s Member of the Year award. Although the Canadian Rockies had been on my "Dream Destinations" list for several years, I doubt we would have made it there this year without that extra incentive.
Canada refunds nonresidents the 7% Goods and Services Tax (GST) paid on certain classes of goods, including taxes on hotels, tours, and items purchased primarily for use outside Canada. Pick up a tax refund pamphlet at the airport or stores, or download forms from the Internet here. Our tax refund, which was mailed to us about a month after we returned home, came to over , making it well worth the effort to keep receipts and have them stamped at the Receipt Validation desk at the airport prior to departing.
When’s the "season?"
Remember that high season for Jasper doesn’t actually kick in until late June. That doesn’t mean off-season is a bad time to visit, but roads out to Mt. Edith Cavell and Angel Glacier are still under snow in mid-June and closed to the public. Bear in mind that you’ll probably encounter snow at higher elevations, as we did twice on our drive along the Icelands Parkway to Jasper, and dress accordingly. It may be summer back home, but won’t seem like it at 6,000 feet in the Canadian Rockies.
Hiking enthusiasts will want to pick up a copy of a helpful pamphlet listing local trails available at the park information center. The interconnecting trails around Jasper are well-suited to overnight backcountry hikes, but this requires a Wilderness Pass from the park office. Also note that all visitors to the park need to purchase an entry pass. If you’re planning to be in the area for several days, the most economical choice is to simply purchase a National Parks pass. Consult the park website for current fees and details.
Railroads have a long and illustrious history in the Canadian Rockies, and Jasper in particular has always been geared toward rail passengers. Railroad tours are a popular way to visit the parks, and Jasper caters to travelers arriving by train. For further information on rail vacations in the Canadian Rockies, contact Rocky Mountaineer Vacations.
Well, for the most part, yes. Patricia Lake Bungalows does indeed offer "breathtaking views" (to quote the website) of one of the area’s loveliest lakes. The units are well maintained though modestly furnished and the grounds painstakingly landscaped. Wire netting protects each shrub or tree that deer or elk might eat, and each bungalow sports cheerful window boxes and hanging baskets. Our suite featured a separate bedroom, a double bed in an alcove off the living area, and a sleeper sofa, more than enough room for the three of us. The kitchen was fairly well equipped and practically spotless, plus I liked the note encouraging me to leave recyclables in or under the sink to be picked up for recycling.
Jack enjoyed reading in the Adirondack chair out front, while Greg made a beeline for the kayak rentals at the dock. (Luckily, there were laundry facilities at the bungalows, as on his first outing, he capsized and came in dripping wet.) I also liked the nearby hiking trail along the lake, where we spotted loons, elk, and other wildlife.
But there were a few things I wasn’t completely happy with. For one, our "family suite" was a duplex, meaning we shared a wall with an adjoining unit. Unfortunately, there was poor soundproofing between the units, so whenever our neighbors washed dishes, used their stove, or did anything else in the kitchen or bathroom, it was fairly audible.
Next, there was the placement of our bungalow – right across from the children’s playground and a basketball court. Now, this would’ve been great if we had small children, or even a child interested in playing basketball, but we didn’t. As a result, our evenings were filled with the sound of children playing – sometimes rather noisily – and basketballs thumping until past 10pm.
Would I stay here again? Yes, without hesitation. The setting is lovely, the rates are reasonable, and the bungalows are comfortable. Plus, almost every day we saw elk and other wildlife. If we came again, though, I wouldn’t book a family suite and would request a bungalow away from the play areas instead. The single bungalows sited among quiet groves of trees near the lake would probably be the best choice.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 16, 2005
Patricia Lake Bungalows
Jasper National Park, Alberta T0E 1E0
Denjiro’s menu is admirably wide-ranging, with all the staples of a sushi restaurant, plus a good number of hot-pot (shabu-shabu) dishes and a broad-ranging selection of appetizers. My son opted for the sushi-centered combo menu, which featured a large bento box with portions of sashimi, teriyaki, tempura, vegetables, and a bowl of miso soup. This came fairly quickly, so he was finished before my husband and I had gotten even half of our meal. Still hungry, he eyed our food in a manner calculated to prompt us to suggest that he order a few additional pieces of sashimi for himself.
Both Jack and I ordered sashimi and maki piecemeal, concentrating on favorites such as eel, octopus, and salmon. Jack is very much into fish roe, which I eschew, while I’m a devotee of complex maki rolls, finding one featuring smoked eel very much to my liking. While in Kyoto last spring, I’d developed a taste for Japanese pickles, so I ordered a side dish featuring many of my favorite types – dark purple baby eggplant, yellow daikon, green cucumber, and pickled greens. These crunchy treats made a perfect accompaniment to the sake we were sipping. I also split an order of edamame with Jack, the freshly steamed, sea-salt-coated soy pods making a nice filler as we waited for the sushi chefs to complete each item in our order.
I’ve always enjoyed watching sushi chefs at work, and the two chefs at Denjiro obviously had their hands full. If we’d been pressed for time, in fact, it would probably have been frustrating to wait as each item was prepared, but, happily, we were in no hurry, so we sipped warm sake, shelled edamame, and relaxed to the sound of soft rock alternating with Japanese music.
As might have been expected, we found the sashimi not to be the very freshest we’d eaten, but that was perhaps understandable given how far we were from the ocean. On the other hand, all the other items were skillfully prepared and tasty, so those less focused on sashimi or seafood would probably not notice this. Denjiro was obviously a local favorite, the room filled with happy diners, several of whom greeted the hostess and sushi chefs like old friends. Basking in this friendly atmosphere, we prolonged our meal with dessert, finding that Denjiro offered one of our favorites – green-tea ice cream. Finally, perhaps due to the advantageous exchange rate, we found our bill came to less than a comparable meal at our favorite moderately-priced Japanese restaurant back home.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on August 16, 2005
Denjiro Japanese Restaurant
4120 Connaught Drive
Jasper National Park, Alberta
One of my favorite things to do while on vacation – or at home, come to think of it - is to get up fairly early and go out for a horseback ride. As luck would have it, Pyramid Riding Stables was just 5 minutes from where we were staying outside Jasper and offered 1-, 2-, or 3-hour rides. We’d been plagued with a series of rainy days while in Canada, but when I learned that the following day was forecast to be sunny, I made sure to get up early so that I could call the stables at 7:30am and make arrangements for my husband and I to do a 2-hour ride at 9am.
The tidy stable was set among tall pines not far from Patricia Lake. Behind a rail fence and Western-style gate, the stable yard bustled with activity as the hired help carried out the morning chores. We stepped into the office, signed a waiver, paid, and then were led to an area outside near our mounts. By this time, a dozen or so horses had been tacked up and were standing patiently by a rail fence, and I was pleased to see that all the horses looked well cared for. I was even happier to be assigned to a sturdy-looking quarter horse I’d picked out as one of the best-looking of the bunch. At about that time, a large group of school kids had arrived, and it was with some relief that I saw they had signed up for a 1-hour ride and would be going out separately. We seemed to be the only takers for the 9am 2-hour ride.
As we were being helped onto our mounts, our guide, Suzanne, came up and introduced herself. Suzanne hailed from Australia and had not been in Banff long; in fact, she’d arrived just the week before and we were her first 2-hour group. She was spending the summer working in Banff, but was actually making her way around the world, with several scheduled stops such as this, to earn money to continue her trip. Suzanne was a cheery and talkative young woman, and it took little prompting to get her to tell us about her plans for her upcoming year and the adventures she’d had so far. I rather envied her, truth be told – so young and carefree, and with all the world before her.
Our guide (left)
Our horses proceeding at a good-paced walk, we followed Suzanne through thickly-wooded forests and, at one point, along a grassy slope near the edge of a cliff with stunning views of Pyramid Mountain and lake. The ride was a leisurely one, relaxing rather than invigorating. There is always the sensation of seeing the landscape anew from the back of a horse, and by the time we arrived back at the stables, I was wishing we could have just kept on going, through the valleys and to the mountain passes beyond.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 16, 2005
Pyramid Riding Stables
P.O. Box 1200
Jasper National Park, Alberta
Happily, we found a trip that proved one of the most engaging whitewater experiences we’ve had. After looking over various brochures and talking with people from several companies, we booked a trip with Whitewater Rafting Jasper, Ltd., a long-established company recommended by a friend.
Our next decision was which river trip to take. Basically, all the companies offer comparable trips on the Athabasca River and to Sunwapta Falls. Most of the rapids on the Athabasca are Class II, while the Sunwapta trip offers Class III rapids, but entails a longer drive and is only 2 hours long. We opted for the 3 1/2-hour Athabasca trip.
Glacier-fed rivers like the Athabasca, which flows from the Columbia Icefield, are cold, but we were kitted out in neoprene wetsuits and booties that kept us comfortable. Wedging myself into the wetsuit in the makeshift "dressing room" in the back of the shuttle bus was a bit dicey, however. The put-in point was near popular Athabasca Falls, and we had something of an audience watching from the falls above as we hauled our rafts to the river and set off.
This company uses smaller eight-men rafts, more exciting than larger rafts and more conducive to developing camaraderie among rafters. Our trip was a bit unusual as we had four guides in the raft for the three of us. The head guide was supervising a guide learning this stretch of the river, while the other two were basically along for the ride. This favorable guide-to-client ratio provided a perfect opportunity for me to ask all sorts of questions, which were all good-naturedly and authoritatively answered. I learned all about the requirements for becoming a certified rafting guide in Canada, as well as receiving some terrific tips on places to go and things to do locally.
Although the rapids weren’t particularly large or technically difficult, the Athabasca is a swift-running river and kept us on our toes. There were no slow stretches requiring paddling, and we only needed to paddle to set ourselves up going into and negotiating rapids. Listening to the head guide coach the guide-in-training through the various stretches of the river was fascinating, and I picked up a few tips on "reading" the river secondhand.
All too soon we’d reached the take-out point, but it seemed we weren’t done with rafting for the day. The annual Jasper Rafting Pentathalon was being held that evening on the Athabasca near Old Fort Point, and our newfound friends urged us to come cheer them on as they defended their title.
The defending champs at the Whitewater Pentathalon
Whitewater Rafting Jasper, Ltd.
P.O. Box 362
Jasper National Park, Alberta T0E 1E0
Maligne Lake Trail
Maligne (pronounced "ma-LEAN") Lake is the largest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies, and the backdrop of snow-capped mountains reflected in its crystalline waters is surely one of the most-photographed views in the park. Busloads of tourists decamp at the visitor center near the northern end of the lake and mill about the dock waiting to board boats out to Spirit Island. We opted to hike, rather than cruise, after reading about the trails near the 14km-long lake.
Just steps from the main parking lot is the trailhead for the Maligne Lake Loop (also known as the Mary Schäffer Loop), an easy 3.2km trail skirting the lake’s shoreline for about a kilometer before turning inland through lichen-clad stands of spruce, pine, and fir. The trail passes a good example of a glacial "kettle," an enormous depression formed when blocks of buried glacial ice melted. Anyone wishing a more challenging hike can branch off near the kettle onto the 8.2km Opal Hills Loop, which sets off toward majestic Opal Peak.
Before beginning the trail, we stopped at Curly Phillip’s Boathouse, built in 1927 and still renting canoes, rowboats, and kayaks. Our son, Greg, is less a hiking than a kayaking enthusiast, so after setting him up with a kayak and gear and extracting a promise that he’d be back in an hour, we parted ways. We had some qualms about letting him go off on his own, but with the lake dotted with canoes, kayaks, and excursion boats, it seemed help would not be far off if anything went amiss.
After our easy 1-hour hike, we came back to the boathouse at the appointed time, but Greg was nowhere to be seen. I wasn’t particularly worried at first, as the boy seems to have inherited his father’s unreliable time sense, but after 20, 30, and then 40 minutes passed, I became quite alarmed. Just about when I was ready to send out a search party, we spotted a distant red speck approaching, which slowly proved to be Greg in his red kayak. Relief! My ensuing parental lecture was countered with many exasperated protests that I was a worry-wart, but I got my point across – and he paid for the extra rental time out of his own pocket.
Medicine Lake and the South Boundary Trail to Beaver Lake
Medicine Lake does a baffling disappearing act every year. Drained by an enormous underground system of caves, the lake goes from brimming with snow melt in the spring to a near-dry lakebed by the fall. Native people thought that spirits were responsible for the lake’s annual fluctuations, considering it "spirit medicine" – hence the name.
We’d passed this intriguing lake en route to Maligne Lake and resolved to find a hike nearby. The South Boundary Trail, with its trailhead near the southern end of Medicine Lake, provided an excuse to explore the shores of Medicine Lake a bit before parking at nearby Beaver Lake picnic area and heading down the trail. We didn’t see a soul for the 2 or 3kms we followed the path, which ran along a level fire road.
As it was in the early evening and we were becoming mosquito bait, we didn’t progress much past Beaver Lake; however, the trail continues for some 12km to Jacques Lake before connecting with other long-distance trails. The bites we sustained during the short hike were worth it, though, for the views of the saw-tooth ridges of the Queen Elizabeth Range towering over the forested valley. I’d definitely consider coming back to do the 12km hike to Jacques Lake, perhaps as an overnight backpacking trip.
Old Fort Point
When I told a friendly shopkeeper that we were heading out to Old Fort Point, she beamed and remarked, "That’s where we locals take our evening constitutional." Minutes outside the town, this is indeed a popular spot, with stairs ascending to an overlook providing grand 360-degree views of the Athabasca River, Jasper town site, and the surrounding mountains. There seems to be no "fort," however – merely the broad overlook.
Though the Old Fort Point trail is regarded as an easy one, we managed to turn this innocuous hike into one of the more grueling treks of the summer. Rather than simply going up the clearly signposted steps to the summit, we decided to take a less direct route around the back and then up from behind the overlook. Normally this should take about an hour, but we managed to squeeze it into a mere two and a half…. with difficulty.
We started out well enough, following a 3km trail up around to the broad overlook, where we gaped at the gorgeous views before deciding it was time to head back down. Following what seemed to be a well-worn path down, we figured we’d soon be back at the car.
View from Old Fort Point
A few hundred yards along, the broad path suddenly became a very narrow trail. After engaging in one of those pointless, "Are you sure this is the way?" queries that ended in one party becoming huffy that his sense of direction was being called into question, we continued down this far-from-casual downhill path. Fifteen minutes later, I repeated the query piu forte, asserting that we couldn’t possibly be on a "real" trail. The path-blazer ahead countered that it couldn’t be all that much farther, could it? It was impossible to tell – below us lay a thick screen of trees.
I’m the first to admit that I’m a complete wuss when it comes to climbing downhill. Going uphill, I soldier on just fine, but when I get to the top and realize I have to get back down – well, that’s when I set up a prolonged whine about how steep it looks.
This particular stretch, which I’m pretty sure was a wildlife trail, involved descending a steep bank of crumbling scree punctuated by intermittent sharp boulders, with the odd hand-hold or two provided by unreliable-looking saplings. In a fine snit at having been led down THE WRONG WAY, I plopped down at one particularly steep juncture and began what soon became a well-practiced butt-slide down the mountain.
About the time I’d become one with the scenery in terms of an even coating of dirt, we reached the beginning of the trail we’d so innocently set out on several hours earlier. Staggering back to the car, I resolved next time to just go for the obvious approach, as another "constitutional" like that would surely do me in.
Maligne Canyon Trail
Many people visit this impressive canyon by hiking down a trail from a parking lot. It leads to several bridges spanning a narrow, deep cleft cut by the fast-flowing river. Visitors can peer down into the impressive 50m-deep canyon with its vertical moss-clad limestone walls and dense mist rising from the raging torrent. To simply get a quick view of the canyon, it’s easiest to park at the upper end of the canyon and walk down this short trail. However, a more pleasing approach to the canyon is by hiking a trail that begins at the end of the canyon and follows the river upstream, starting at Sixth Bridge, a round-trip hike of around 7.5km. Few visitors hike the entire canyon trail, which is shame, as this is one of the nicest hikes in Jasper.
I’m a sucker for trails that follow alongside water, whether it be a raging river or a gentle brook. The Maligne River is a fast-moving beauty, the green-blue water diverted by massive boulders and rugged rock outcroppings. The trail starts level with the river, but soon rises above it as the canyon deepens and the trail rises with the canyon’s ledge. Fenced overlooks are set up at several natural promontories commanding sweeping views of the river and canyon.
During the last kilometer before turning around, we had obviously entered the range of the visitors descending from the parking lot. Crowds congregate at several bridges spanning the deep gorge, with some video enthusiasts leaning far out to get a better camera angle, a dangerous move given that several people end up falling into the canyon every year. To our amazement, we saw a well-dressed couple – the woman in heels, no less -- coming down the steep, rocky path pushing a large baby carriage. Quite a bumpy ride for junior, I’d imagine.
Maligne Canyon is connected by a system of caves to Medicine Lake. Looking at the water tumbling through the canyon, I couldn’t help but think of the inexorably decreasing lake some 15km away.
However, glacier-fed lakes are also dauntingly cold. Amazingly, there’s a perverse subset of people who enjoy plunging into frigid waters – the members of Polar Bear clubs, for example, not to mention those folk from northern climes who enjoy beating each other with birch boughs in the sauna prior to dashing outside to roll in the snow.
On this latest vacation, much to my dismay, I learned I’d been harboring one of these deviants in the bosom of my very own family.
The first indication of my son Greg’s hyperborean tendencies came during an excursion to Miette Hot Springs near Jasper. I’d never been to a hot springs before, but the idea was quite appealing after several days of hiking. Each of the hot spring’s outdoor pools is maintained at a different temperature. Two were hot – one uncomfortably so, I thought. After a Goldilocks moment in the hottest pool, I settled comfortably in the moderately warm pool, taking my cue from the clusters of middle-aged Europeans congregating there.
Soon, however, I noted members of one group urging one another to jump in the frigid "plunge pool," the ringleader being a burly fellow with perhaps an unfair natural advantage by virtue of his ursine pelt of chest and back hair. He stood in the shallows extolling the virtues of the invigorating plunge, and soon, others farther down in the pecking order were shamed into joining him. I noted none of them stayed in very long, however.
This display of thermal one-upmanship soon caught Greg’s attention. By then, he was glowing a bright lobster red from prolonged immersion in the hottest pool, so I could understand the appeal of a quick dip in the plunge pool. But when he proceeded to go back and forth between the hot and cold pools, barely acclimating to one before jumping in the other, I felt compelled to call out a motherly entreaty. Once Greg hit high school, however, he became selectively deaf, and now neither the length nor intensity of my nagging seems to have any effect on him.
Our next aquatic foray once again ended up with Greg splashing happily in freezing waters. At the end of our rafting trip, along a placid stretch of river, one of the guides jocularly remarked that we were welcome to take a dip if we wanted. Greg, taking this invitation at face value, threw himself backward from the side of the raft, looking for the entire world like an outsized seal swimming alongside in his black wetsuit. Luckily, I’d had the motherly foresight to bring along an extra set of his clothes.
At some undefined point in parenthood a curious apathy sets in. Nowadays, I feel little more than ineffectual witness to my son’s development and can only wonder at his ever-shifting tastes. However, some of his enthusiasms have remained constant, such as a fondness for climbing. When one of our rafting guides mentioned a nearby swimming hole featuring a jump from a cliff off into a deep lake, Greg pricked up his ears and began a relentless campaign to drive out to this spot.
Jack, who harbors latent daredevil tendencies himself, was also intrigued by the idea. Reluctantly, I agreed we’d check out the swimming hole at Horseshoe Lake the following day.
That evening, we drove out to Old Fort Point to watch the Rafting Olympics, a yearly competition among the local rafting companies. In its 11th year, it’s a big event for the locals, who gather in droves along the river starting at around 7pm. Not long after arriving, we heard a commotion: "Here they come!" The first event was a sprint from Alpine Village down to the bridge. Eight tightly-grouped rafts had rounded a corner upstream and were paddling madly for the finish line.
Much high-fiving took place when the winning team reached shore, followed by a long spell of milling around before the next event. Five events comprise this rafting pentathlon: a sprint, raft flipping, slalom, a rescue, and, last but not least, a beer-chugging competition at a local bar.
Next up was the raft-flipping competition. On a signal from the starter, each crew raced from the riverbank into the shallows, jumping in and paddling madly for the center of the river. Each crew readied itself by strategically placing the strongest members who would flip the raft. The goal was to flip the raft, then immediately right it and get all members of the team back into the boat with their paddles held aloft in the least amount of time.
We cheered lustily as the team from Whitewater Rafting Jasper, Ltd., the company we’d rafted with earlier in the day, readied themselves on the bank. The defending champs had their game faces on, with one guide sporting a Mohawk and another clenching a rope in her teeth. Seconds after racing from the bank, they flipped and righted their raft with amazing speed. They performed the next event, the slalom, in impressive style as well. For this event, teams had to paddle upstream against a very strong current, the object being to paddle around – but not touch – a paddle suspended a few feet above the river’s surface from the center of the bridge.
This seemed the most technically difficult and physically taxing event. As side currents were weaker than the center currents, the teams hugging the bank longer set themselves up better for the final haul toward the center of the river. Regardless of approach, however, rounding the paddle placed in the center of the river involved a sheer test of strength.
Unfortunately, it was well past 8pm when this event ended, and the sun was rapidly sinking behind the mountains. We’d been going all day fueled by a few measly snacks. It was tempting to stay to witness the final event, but our stomachs were growling in protest, so we reluctantly left. (We later learned that the team we’d been rooting for came in third among the eight teams.)
The following day we drove out to Horseshoe Lake. While I observed from a comfortable nearby log, Jack and Greg clambered up a cliff jutting over the lake. It was scant reassurance that the cliffs were thronged with teenage boys showing off to girls watching nearby. The boys launched themselves from ledges on the cliffs, landing with impressive cannonballs and skin-bruising belly flops. In Darwinian terms, this activity would be categorized as a "self-culling the gene pool." Teenagers, however, have another term for it: "fun."
It wasn't the cliff’s height so much as the iciness of the water that was daunting. Once the initial shock of jumping in the water had passed, the usual reaction was to swim frantically for the exit point at the base of the cliffs, which took 2 or 3 minutes. Emerging dripping from the water, swimmers stood shivering and blue-lipped for a few moments, arms clasped across their chests.
Greg and Jack watched this procedure a bit before beginning their ascent. The cliffs offered leaping points from various heights. Jack took up a supervisory position as Greg readied himself on one of the lower ledges. He stood there indecisively for a few moments, until a boy some 15 feet higher up on the cliff made an impressive leap. That did the trick – Greg leapt feet-first.
What seemed like an eternity, but was no more than 2 seconds, passed before his head broke the surface of the water. Greg gave a yelp halfway between triumph and physical protest, then made a great show of swimming very casually to the base of the cliff. He was clearly freezing when he finally emerged from the water, but stood there with an nonchalant appraising look watching the next round of jumpers.
Going a bit higher up the cliff with each jump, Greg finally braved the highest point some 30 feet above the lake. By this time, Jack had gotten into the act, too. I’d relaxed sufficiently not to hold my breath each time I watched them preparing to jump. The novelty of the experience was obviously wearing off for them, however, and soon Jack began toweling off and putting on his shoes. Die-hard Greg made one final leap before we departed for the benefit of a group of Australians who had just arrived on the scene.
As we started back to the car, the bellwether Australian had waded into the shallows and was encouraging her friends to, "Come on in. It’s lovely!" A few moments later, we heard a splash followed by an indignant howl: "It’s bloody freezing!"