I may have been too hasty with my accolades regarding the beauty of Banff.
I may have been too hasty with my accolades regarding the beauty of anywhere else I have been in my life.
Jasper National Park takes your expectations of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, murmurs, “How quaint…” and thrusts you into a mesmerizing, eye-popping, turn-the-music-off-in-your-car-so-you-can-better-appreciate-what-lies-before-you whirlwind of majestic glaciers, towering mountain ridges, hidden lakes, and aromatic pines. There were indeed stretches of road (specific recommendations provided in the Brain Download for Jasper) where I quite literally shut off the car stereo, stared jaw-agape at the mountains on the horizon, and seemed physically unable to utter a sound. This is how striking an impression Jasper’s Rockies leave on the mind, even one so mountain-primed as mine, having just visited Banff and Yoho. For the older, slower-moving, or child-laden reader, Banff provides a multitude of activities combined with the comforts of a bustling resort town. For the young, vigorous, and able-bodied, give yourself a taste of Banff, but leave as much room for Jasper’s main course as you possibly can.
Banff and Jasper are often lumped together in conversation, much like Yellowstone and Grand Teton in Wyoming or Sequoia and Kings Canyon in California. Many comparisons for how I should describe these two Canadian Parks flickered across my mind during my all-too-brief time in Jasper, but a few stuck out to me: Banff is a birthday cake; a beloved special-occasion treat that the whole family can enjoy. Jasper is ice cream cake; a delicacy less common, more remarkable, and that you’re both less willing to share and is more likely to melt. Banff is winning the lottery; you’re overjoyed, can share with friends and family, and it offers endless options, but comes with too many hangers-on. Jasper is ascending to the throne; your path is entirely your own to choose, and glory is yours for the taking, but mortal danger lurks around every corner. Finally, Banff is Anne Hathaway as Catwoman; her performance is impressive, tasteful, and elegant, and you’re left remarking on her aptitude for the role. Jasper is Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman; her performance is jarring, singular, and provocative, and you’re left saying nothing but thinking only of her.
I will endeavor not to restrain my veneration for future National Park reviews in the future by using Jasper as a measuring stick, as such a comparison would be akin to judging every NHL player against the accomplishments of Wayne Gretzky or every world leader against the character of Nelson Mandela.
My intended plan was to spend a day at Columbia Icefields in the southern portion of the Park and three days backpacking the Skyline Trail in the eastern portion of the Park. Mother Nature, however, had other plans, as the forecast for my backpacking trip began to reveal a significant roadblock: Snow and freezing rain. I’d known this was a possibility, as even in mid-September, winter weather of this kind is not uncommon in these northern alpine environments, but I’d hoped that perhaps I’d paid my foul weather dues for a few weeks in the form of the wildfire smoke I encountered in both Washington and British Columbia. When it comes to the weather, the safest assumption is to never assume anything.
Day 1: Athabasca Glacier (Columbia Icefields, AB)
Departing Banff National Park early in the morning, the first half of my drive from Lake Louise to Columbia Icefields (the venerated home of the Athabasca Glacier, more on that shortly) along the Icefields Parkway was obscured first by darkness and then by fog. It wasn’t until I was about 30 minutes from my destination, Columbia Icefields Tent-Only Campground, that the fog lifted and I was graced with a sight which amounted to a religious experience. Throughout the dark, foggy, windy journey northward, I’d been listening to music (Weezer’s Blue album, if you want to know), and promptly cranked the volume nob down to ‘0’ after perceiving the white-topped peaks, which appeared to have been constructed by some otherworldly force. I had booked a 10:30 a.m. tour of the Athabasca Glacier, just a short drive up the Icefields Parkway from the campground, and needed to select a site and set up my tent prior to the tour time. My preferred site at the campground, after some deliberation, afforded me the following view:
Even at 10:00 a.m. on a frigid September weekday morning, the nearby visitor’s center was already packed and a bustle of activity. Tourists from seemingly every corner of the globe milled about the building, taking photos, asking questions of the somewhat overwhelmed Parks Canada staff, and speaking no less than a dozen languages. Though I am no expert on Mandarin linguistics, there seemed to be at least a handful of different dialects spoken by different groups of Chinese visitors. My appointed tour time finally arrived, and we were whisked, via shuttle bus, to the base of the Athabasca Glacier, where we boarded yet another mode of transportation: The Ice Explorer.
Ice Explorers boast a total of 6 five-foot tall tires costing $5,000 each, the ability to drive on a 36% grade, and have a modest price tag of well over $1m. Our driver, Mike, was a seasonal worker from New Zealand and proved himself to be both a wealth of information and a source of universally appreciated humor. He took us down the rocky path to the glacier, a paltry 32% grade, and dropped us at an area specifically designated to walk upon. It was after 11:00 a.m. at this point, and the sun had warmed the top layer of ice sufficiently to allow for water bottles to be dipped into a crystal-clear stream and have its delicious and frigid contents enjoyed by any visitor with enough presence of forethought to bring a drinking receptacle. Luckily, I was one such visitor.
Mike, the wisecracking Kiwi Ice Explorer driver, somewhat soberly relayed to my group that the Athabasca Glacier is receding at a rate of 10 meters/year, and that in 1843, it extended all the way to the far side of the visitor’s center parking lot. Keep this latter fact in mind when viewing a photo taken of both the parking lot and glacier from Wilcox Ridge in ‘Day 2’ of this same post. The allotment of time on the glacier itself only lasts about 25 minutes, after which another shuttle bus takes the tour from the base of the glacier to the Glacier Skywalk, suspended about 900 feet above a river in the valley below. Were I to suggest a change to the tour, I would recommend the operators make the Skywalk the first stop and the walk on the Athabasca Glacier the second, as the Skywalk, while neat, is somewhat of an anticlimactic attraction after you’ve participated in such a singular experience as drinking glacier melt…
The Columbia Icefields Tent-Only Campground was clean, well-maintained, offered incredible views, and sits just a stone’s throw down the road from the visitor’s center. If you are less inclined to use vault toilets and are well-acquainted with your habits regarding bathroom regularity, a two-minute drive to the visitor’s center during business hours will grant you the gift of a climate-controlled bathroom with indoor plumbing, as well as free wifi (the entire area is a cellular service dead-zone). If you’re roughing it in the Canadian Rockies for a week or more, the simple luxury of a flush toilet will make you feel like a prince(ss). The overnight temperatures at Columbia Icefields on my first night at the campground hovered in the high teens, and I was surprised that the coldest night I had ever spent in my young life would be in September of all months. My suggestion for camping in this area during a similar time of year would be to wear one extra layer than you think you need. I wore three bottom and four top layers, as well as gloves and a knit hat, and was barely warm enough. This could also have been a result of my blood thinning considerably from nearly five years of living in Dallas, TX…
Day 2: Wilcox Ridge (Columbia Icefields, AB)
Even closer to the Columbia Icefields Tent-Only Campground is the Wilcox Mountain trailhead. From this trailhead, breathtaking mountain vista views, grazing bighorn sheep, and an unbelievable feeling of connection to the natural world are a surprisingly short distance away. I arrived at the trailhead late in the morning to find the parking lot nearly full. Parking on the side of one of the campground roads (the trailhead lies along the Columbia Icefields RV campground road), I trudged up the fairly steep path which very quickly clears the treeline. The trail becomes gradually rockier, and for a brief period levels out before the ridge. Splitting at a crossroads, hikers have the option to head all the way up to Wilcox Ridge or to continue straight and hike around Mt. Wilcox. As the previous day was spent being chauffeured around the icefields by various bus drivers, I wanted to challenge myself with the steepest option, so I chose the lefthand trail to the ridge. I was handsomely rewarded for my efforts, as halfway up the trail to the ridge, I passed a group of four hikers who happily informed me that I would be the only hiker at the top of the ridge. A combination of mountain streams and snowmelt had caused the steep, rocky walkway to become somewhat slippery and borderline dangerous, but a sure foot and discerning eye kept me upright during the brief ascent. No less than ten bighorn sheep grazed the snow-dusted fields around me and appeared to take no notice of my presence.
The 360-degree views from the top of the ridge were indescribably spectacular. From the trail’s end, the entirety of the Athabasca Glacier, the visitor’s center and parking lot, and a large section of the Icefields Parkway road were all visible. These sights, including the glacier, seemed a trifle, however, compared to the dramatic mountainscapes which flanked me on all sides. My powers of description are limited within the confines of the English language, and I will thus allow for a series of photos to relay the scene for the reader…
Descending the trail, I passed a group of about 30 college-aged students who were themselves on the ascent, and took a moment to reflect on my luck at having had the opportunity to spend a few minutes entirely alone on the top of the ridge. That night, while still in the same campground, was spent not in my tent, but rather in my car, as the temperatures had not sufficiently increased from the teens (in Fahrenheit for my handful of Canadian readers) for me to want to brave the outdoors again. Say what you will about my constitution in this regard, but given the option, I preferred a modicum of additional warmth that my enclosed vehicle provided.
Day 3: Skyline Trail (Maligne Lake, AB)
My original plans called for me to spend two and a half days and two nights hiking the 27.5-mile Skyline Trail in Jasper, but again, Mother Nature had other plans. While the weather for Day 1 was sufficiently perfect, the forecast for the trail called for 3 inches of snow the first night and freezing rain all-day on the second and third days. As the trail was mostly above the treeline and featured many miles of mountaintop ridges with no cover whatsoever, I determined that my best course of action would be to bag the backpacking aspect of my visit to the trail. This particular hike was one of the two experiences on my trip itinerary to which I was most looking forward (the other being hiking the lava fields at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in November), and I was crestfallen upon my decision to forego such a beautiful hike due to weather concerns. My recent near-death experience in North Cascades National Park, however, had made me wary of these types of dangers, and I did not want to risk any extreme danger…
The Skyline Trail begins at Maligne Lake, a popular tourist destination renowned for its beautiful blue waters and striking mountain backdrops. Thousands of visitors each year arrive at the lake without even a second thought to the world-class hiking trails which emanate from the area. Not to be denied my prize of at least experiencing part of the acclaimed hike, I secured a campsite in another part of the Park for a single night, drove down the winding road to Maligne Lake, and hit the trail like a bat out of hell, undertaking to complete as much of it in one day as I found reasonable.
As with most hiking trails in Banff and Jasper, the first few miles were a winding series of tall evergreens and, with the high level of snowmelt running down from the mountains, the majority of the trail was thick with dark mud. After a long and gradual climb, followed by a handful of manageable switchbacks, a breathtaking valley of streams, meadows, trees, and rock formations opens up, and seems to have been created from the mind of a 19th century fantasy author.
Multiple stream crossings are necessary, but not too difficult (especially with waterproof boots) through this portion of the trail, and there is actually a significant downhill descent to Snowbowl campground, which is one of six designated backcountry campgrounds on the trail. Though I personally did not see very much wildlife on this hike, save for a few squirrels in the trees and birds of prey overhead, the natural beauty of the landscape more than made up for the lack of woodland creatures making their appearance. At first, I’d planned only to hike to Snowbowl and turn around, making for a total hike distance of about 15 miles. However, upon reaching Snowbowl, it was clear to me that significantly better views could be obtained just a short distance further up the trail, so I proceeded another mile or so. My reward was the following…
Dejectedly deciding to make my return from this point (I would have given much to have been able to complete the 27.5-mile hike in fair weather), the 8.5 mile backtrack did afford me a reminder of the gorgeous valley which led up to the mountain ridgeline constituting the bulk of the trail. Grumbling to myself about both the thick mud and my penchant for avoiding weather-related hardship forged from a cushy suburban upbringing, I vowed to return and complete the Skyline Trail in its entirety in the not-too-distant future.
Departing Jasper the following morning, bound for Edmonton, a wet tear rolled down my cheek (and dispersed into my thick beard) at the realization that I was not only unable to complete my lofty goals in my brief time at the Park, but also that I did not know when I would have the opportunity to return to what has hitherto been the most impactfully exquisite and emotionally moving destination of all my travels. I can’t imagine any other Park matching the majesty of this stretch of Canadian Rockies, but with over 20 more to visit this Fall, we shall see…