Unlike its bigger, more famous cousin to the south, Jasper has a more relaxed and authentic feel to it, even during the peak of the summer season. Your imagination isn’t playing tricks on you: most visitors to the Canadian Rockies arrive via Calgary, visit Banff National Park, and being transfixed by the multiple natural wonders that surround them there, they never make the 289 kilometre drive that it takes to reach this outpost of civilization in the wilderness of the mid-Rockies.
Furthermore, Alberta’s largest city lies only an hour and change from the Bow Valley (Canmore/Banff), while Jasper is a 4 hour drive from Edmonton, and 5 full hours from Calgary. All this adds up to markedly lower visitation numbers, as only 2 million visit Jasper National Park, compared to the 4 million that pass through the gates of Banff National Park.
Another aspect that gives Jasper its unique character is the fact that approximately half the town’s employable adults work in the railroad industry, as this mountain town is a divisional point on this portion of the CN rail line. This results in a base of people living here that are permanent year round residents with stable jobs and lives, making it feel more like a “real” town than other centres dependent on tourism, who often have larger transient populations.
The lower visitor numbers certainly aren’t due to a lack of alpine beauty, as there are a multitude of natural attractions ranging from aquamarine lakes, to surging waterfalls, and one of the largest glacial ice sheets in the world.
Just be careful … many people come here to go for a hike and maybe photograph an elk, and before you know it, they have two jobs, and a closet full of outdoor gear, having spent 5-10+ years living the Rocky Mountain dream in this picture-perfect Shangri-la.
Even though Jasper is known primarily for its natural attractions, it does have some cultural assets worth checking out. Those that are interested in how this settlement carved out of the Rocky Mountain wilderness came to be should head to the Jasper Museum & Archives, which is located on the road that traces the back of the townsite.
Here, the story of the first European excursions to the region, the native population that preceded their arrival, the humble beginnings of Jasper (then Fitzhugh) as a humble railroad camp of tar paper shacks, and the origins of all the area’s major tourist attractions are told, along with those detailing the life and times of the town’s most prominent and colorful citizens.
There actually used to be two towns within the boundary of Jasper National Park. Shortly after the turnoff to Miette Hot Springs (soaking in the hottest hot springs in the Rockies is highly recommended after doing the Sulphur Skyline hike, located nearby the hot pools) is the former site of Pocahontas, a former coal mining settlement.
Little remains of the site today except for foundations and storehouses, but it harkens back to a time when environmental protections were of little concern to those determined to develop Canada’s frontier with an eye on building wealth regardless of the cost to the environment.
Fortunately, the invisible hand of the market put the kibosh on Pocahontas in the 1920’s as coal prices collapsed, and increasing protests against industrial works within national parks led to the banishment of resource development within park boundaries shortly thereafter.
Despite the complete lack of pasture land within the heart of the Canadian Rockies, many of the first residents of Jasper were cowboys at heart nonetheless, running horse riding operations for guests. As such, the Jasper Heritage Rodeo was founded in 1926, with standard events like horse racing, bull riding, and calve roping figuring heavily in the event structure.
After a brief look into Jasper’s back story, dive deep into its natural heritage, starting with a drive up the Maligne Lake Road. The first point of interest worth stopping at is Maligne Canyon, which is the site of a former underground river system that had its limestone roof collapse over millions of years of erosion. The result is a deep and narrow canyon (one of the bridges is 50 metres above the surface of the river) with fast-flowing water, multiple dramatic waterfalls, and interesting micro climates where unique plants only exist within the constant damp mist generated by the action of the thundering rapids beneath.
After spending a few minutes admiring the mysterious Medicine Lake, which drains completely every winter, only to fill back up with glacial and snow melt every spring and summer, make your way up to Maligne Lake, where numerous activities await you. Mutliple trails take you along the inner lakeshore, or up the mountains on both sides of the visitor centre (Opal Mountain or Bald Hills), a cafe/restaurant allows you to enjoy the scene in front of you with fresh pastries, sandwiches or soup, and if you feel like a paddle, canoe and kayak rentals are available by the hour or the day.
If you’re truly pressed for time, the epic view from the northern shore of the lake is worth a few snaps with a high magnification zoom lenses, but if you have $64 and 90 minutes to spare, then taking a boat cruise down the lake deep into the box canyon is the best way to experience the lake.
Arrival at Spirit Island will yield the classic view that graces computer backgrounds all over the world, but trust us: in the midst of mountains that surround you on all sides, and in the presence of picture perfect blue-green water, it is 1000% better being there in real life.
Many people ride the shuttle up to Maligne Lake to begin hiking the Skyline Trail, which is one of the Rockies’ most highly rated backcountry hikes. The vast majority of this hike takes place above the treeline, granting views of austere landscapes that you simply can’t find in warmer/lower climes.
If taking a 55 kilometre hike with thousands of feet of elevation change make your joints hurt just thinking about it, then taking the Jasper Skytram will grant you the ability to view the same vistas, without all that pesky exercise. For the princely sum of $35, a cable car will whisk you to 8,000 feet above sea level, leaving you to ascend the final 500 vertical feet to the summit, or to simply drink in the view from the observation deck or the on-site restaurant.
Visiting during the winter low season means being able to ski or ride at one of the Rockies’ most under-trafficked ski resorts in Marmot Basin. With a variety of terrain suitable for all skill levels, and refreshingly unpretentious attitude, it is the perfect place to claim your piece of the Rockies in the winter without getting hurt or running into rude dudes.
If a trip down the world famous Icefields Parkway is on the agenda, start by checking out Athabasca Falls, a powerful cataract that makes for a wonderful start to a day filled with action packed sightseeing.
Sunwapta Falls is the next impressive waterfall on the road towards Banff National Park, and it is well worth checking out, but if you are jonesing for a mid morning treat, be prepared to pay very high prices for food at the adjoining resort out on the highway, such as $4 for a Nanaimo Bar (ouch!)
The last sight in Jasper National Park before crossing into Banff National Park is one of Jasper’s most visited attractions, as the Columbia Icefield feeds the Athabasca Glacier, a tongue of ice pouring off on the largest collections of glacial ice outside the polar regions in the world. Here, massive machines will take you out onto the glacier for $50, but dress warmly, as the icy katabatic winds will make it feel like winter on even what seems like a warm day at your car!