Mention the Canadian Rockies, and most people instantly think of Banff. As the main tourist destination in the Rockies, Banff is very much a commercial town geared to tourism. But for those who like their Rockies a little quieter, 250 kilometres north is paradise – the town of Jasper.
July and August are the peak times to visit Jasper, but if you don’t mind colder weather and like your lakes frozen, you can avoid some of the tourists by visiting in the few months either side. The weather can be haphazard, so allow a little flexibility in your plans.
Six kilometres south of Jasper is Whistler Mountain. If you visit early or late in the day, you will most likely hear the melodic sounds made by the whistling marmots living on the lower slopes of the mountain. Early birds can also get cheaper tickets on the Whistler Mountain gondola. The terminus is at 2,500m, with spectacular views south to the Columbia Icefields, and west to Mount Robson.
For those who prefer to look up at mountains, there are plenty of beautiful lakes close to town, all surrounded by snow topped peaks. Patricia and Pyramid Lakes, 8km north-west of town, are small and quiet. They have beaches just begging for picnickers to sit on them and admire the view after a tranquil lunch. Herds of elk and deer roam the area, and if you’re very lucky, you may spot a coyote or a black bear.
Maligne Lake is south of Jasper, and is the largest of the glacier fed lakes. A boathouse from the 1920s completes the storybook setting. There are a couple of excellent hikes in the area, taking full advantage of the beautiful scenery.
Nearby is Maligne Canyon, a narrow cleft through the rocks filled with roaring water during the spring thaw. It’s also home to a very active herd of big horn sheep, who can jump out of nowhere to startle tourists.
For those visitors who like more leisurely pursuits, it is possible to swim in Lakes Annette and Edith near town. Situated at around 1000m, they are popular during the summer months, although it’s still not advisable to take a lengthy swim in the icy waters.
After a few hard days of sightseeing, go for a leisurely drive about 40km towards Edmonton. At the sleepy little town of Pocahontas (she certainly got around!) take the turnoff to Miette Hot Springs. The renovated spas contain two pools, and are a welcome respite for tired bodies. On the way there you may be lucky enough to see mountain goats beside the road, although they’re more likely to be perched on a cliff high above you.
Another excellent drive is route 93A, which was the original road heading out of Jasper towards Banff. Now preserved as a scenic route, the road offers a number of interesting stops. Keep your eyes open, particularly during the quieter times early and late in the day, because wild life abounds here. Mother bears with their cubs have been seen chomping on berries right beside the road!
The aptly named “Meeting of the Waters” marks the place where two rivers join together. During the spring thaw this meeting can make for spectacular waterworks. Further along, it is worth taking the time to visit Moab Lake. A pleasant walk ends with the magnificently sited lake, mountains hovering in the background.
Skiers visiting in winter will certainly want to make the trip to Marmot Basin, a popular ski resort south of Jasper on 93A. In summer, however, it looks much the same as any other deserted ski field, except for the breathtaking scenery.
One of the final stops before the road rejoins the main highway is the Athabasca Falls. A raging torrent in spring, the fierce waters tumble and crash over hundreds of smoothed boulders. The adventurous can explore further up the river, but wear shoes with a good grip.
When the time comes to leave Jasper, there are two major routes. Those who arrived by train can continue their journey either east to Edmonton and on across the Canadian plains, or west to Vancouver. This route takes you on one of the most spectacular train journeys in the world, with incredible scenery in every direction.
For those travelling by car, allow plenty of time to explore the 230km Icefields Parkway which connects Jasper to Banff, with a slight detour to Lake Louise. The road follows a valley through the Eastern Mountain Ranges, and offers spectacular scenery and plenty of wildlife. By the end of the day you’ll probably have a stiff neck from craning upwards to see the view.
The Sunwapta Falls are set in chunky terraces of rock, and it’s worth taking a short stroll to the viewing platform. Peyto Lake is a beautiful glacial lake, but should only be visited when the snow clears, otherwise the gentle uphill stroll can become a mammoth battle through waist high snow drifts.
Another beautiful stop is the Tangle Falls. Intrepid visitors can do some exploring here, rewarded by a close up look at the rushing waters. The best known stop, however, is Athabasca Glacier. This glacier has been steadily retreating for years, and there are date markers so you can see the gradual regression. It is possible to take a truck ride on the ice, or you can simply walk from the car park. Be warned – the weather can change very rapidly during your visit, so be prepared.
The Weeping Wall is particularly interesting after or during rain, with thousands of tiny waterfalls pouring down its rough faces. And for those nature lovers with a penchant for moose, try visiting Waterfowl Lake at either end of the day. It’s home to a number of these huge creatures.
The Icefields Parkway continues on to Lake Louise, the magnificent setting for scenes in the movie “The Bodyguard”. Finally the road reaches Banff, leaving the peace and quiet of the wilder Jasper behind for good.
Exploring the Canadian Rockies is a must for lovers of rugged, mountain scenery. For those who want to experience the Rockies and its wildlife as closely as possible to how it would have been centuries ago, Jasper is the perfect base. The Rockies are waiting for you.