Without a doubt, Jasper offers some of the finest hiking in Canada, much of it close to the town and surprisingly accessible. From easy strolls to downhill scrambles, the trails we explored provided some of the most memorable moments of our trip. Route markers provided by local clubs and trail stewards also make it relatively easy to navigate Jasper’s interconnecting trails.
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.