Jasper National Park, and for that matter, all of Alberta that I’ve seen, is absolutely magnificent.
Last year I visited for the first time onboard the Rocky Mountaineer, with a final stop in breathtaking Banff. This year, won over by the opportunity to cool off in the middle of a deadly hot Florida summer, I started in Vancouver on the train once again, but went even further north, up to Jasper National Park and the former fur-trading outpost of Jasper.
Ever since I road-tripped out West with my siblings in 2014, and maybe even before that when I spent a few hours in Denali National Park with my grandparents, I have this insatiable desire to be in the wilderness. Like, 10 million acre wilderness — not my backyard, not the city park. I don’t want to see people or roads or signs, I just want open sky, snow peaks and wind in the tall trees.
Quite a change from the NYC gal I used to be, right?
Here’s my list of top activities to do in Jasper National Park!
Wander around town.
Jasper, known as the little town on the big National Park, is home to around 5,000 permanent residents. The town is compact and walkable, and has everything you might need to spend a few days, from souvenir shops to candy stores to good restaurants. There are also plenty of Poke Stops and Pokemon to capture… errr, at least that’s what I heard.
Jasper is much smaller and less bustling than Banff, and nearly every hotel and guesthouse is within walking distance of the train station. Allegedly, wildlife is spotted often in this tiny town in the Athabasca River Valley, but we didn’t see a thing!
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Wander outside of Jasper
You don’t have to go far outside of the town of Jasper to experience the Canadian wilderness. Really, the town is a tiny speck in 4,200 sq. miles of Jasper National Park, so even a short jaunt from town puts you in Canadian Rockies bliss.
Mom and I set out from the Sawridge Inn one morning to see what we could see, and we ended up walking several miles on an easy trail through Aspen trees. I was hoping to encounter a moose, a bear and maybe a Sasquatch, but we had no such luck. Just a couple little groundhog-like critters and an enormous dandelion. Make a wish!
Hike Maligne Canyon
Mom and I didn’t make any plans in advance for our full day in Jasper. I knew I wanted to get out and see something, but I didn’t quite know what there was to see. As soon as we disembarked the Rocky Mountaineer and checked in to the Sawridge Inn at the edge of town, we visited the tour desk for ideas. The guy at the desk was also the bellboy, and I suspect maybe the janitor, too? He hadn’t been on any of the tours, so we chose rather blindly. But we chose perfectly!
We booked the Maligne Valley Wildlife & Waterfalls tour with Maligne Adventures. It cost about $115 Canadian, and was worth it for our guide alone. Marie, an adorable, pregnant, French Canadian biologist, was our guide for the day, and she was absolute gold. She knew everything about the area, the wildlife, the glaciers and the intricate underground river system that drains Medicine Lake (above) seasonally.
Maligne Canyon was stunning, too, and well worth a visit. It seems like a little rushing stream and then suddenly it plunges into a narrow canyon 160 feet deep. There are several hikes of varying intensities and distances, so if you’re not on a tour, you have time to wander and take it all in.
I will say it was a challenge to photograph the enormity of the canyon with just an iPhone, so come prepared if you want better photos than these!
Visit Maligne Lake & Spirit Island
A boat ride to Spirit Island was included in our tour, so after hiking a bit around Maligne Canyon and snapping a few photos at Medicine Lake, we made our way to the Maligne Lake Visitor Center. To my surprise, it was a large facility with a beautiful deck overlooking the lake and the boat house, and a tasty restaurant. We grabbed some lunch there and ate it on the boat ride over to Spirit Island.
When you book the tour, you have the option to skip the boat ride out to Spirit Island in favor of just hiking around the lake on your own… but Spirit Island is SO beautiful.
Oh my word, it was photogenic! It was the kind of place an Instagram fiend like me just goes nuts for! It needs no filter and no editing.
Y’all, Spirit Island woke up like this!
Do not skip Lake Maligne when you come to Jasper. It’s just too pretty to miss!
You can easily rent a car and do this same experience on your own, and have much more time to wander and explore at your leisure, but it was wonderful to have Marie’s expertise on the tour as we explored.
Note: it’s crucial to have reservations for the Maligne Lake boat ride out to Spirit Island, otherwise you could be waiting for hours and hours for a boat. If you’re exploring on your own, plan ahead!
The only negative part of our experience was the lack of wildlife – we didn’t see anything! Ok, we saw a few eagles, two deer and a handful of little squirrely critters, but no bears, no caribou, no elk and no moose. BOO!
Experience Icefields Parkway
To get home from Jasper to Jacksonville was no simple feat. It involved an 8-hour bus ride to Calgary with stops all along the way in Banff and Lake Louise, an overnight flight to Toronto and then a quick direct flight back to JAX. (Who knew Toronto was that close?!)
The best part of the journey home was the bus ride, which was really a bonus tour on one of the world’s most scenic highways, the Icefields Parkway. It stretches 144 miles through the Canadian Rockies and gets you up close and personal with glaciers, lakes, rivers and finally, wildlife! (See the blurry shot below? It’s a BEAR, as seen from the bus. I was yelling and jumping up and down on a moving bus while trying to take the photo, so I apologize for the quality… I WAS PUMPED.)
Along the way, we passed the Glacier Skywalk and Athabasca Glacier, where you can actually board the all-terrain Ice Explorer vehicle for a journey up the glacier.
You’ll note I leave out several activities that make Jasper’s top to do lists, and you’ll also note, if you’re very observant, that a few of those cater to folks without a fear of heights. Y’all know I’m only afraid of one thing, but my darling mom, who joined me on this adventure, is acrophobic in a bad way. So we avoided some of the typically recommended attractions, like the Jasper SkyTram and the Glacier Skywalk. Personally I feel like if you’ve done one mountain tram or glass-bottom walk, you’ve done them all, so I wasn’t disappointed at all. Other activities to consider include Mount Edith Cavell, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, Miette Hot Springs, Pyramid Lake with Pyramid Mountain, Athabasca Falls and some great fishing, rafting, kayaking and camping.
Just writing this little guide to Jasper is making me crave a return visit. There’s no place quite like the Canadian Rockies, eh?
Disclosure: I was a guest onboard the Rocky Mountaineer, and I served as one of their social media ambassadors in 2015-2016. Mom & I paid for all other tours and experiences. As always, opinions on Angie Away are all my own.
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