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Hiking Canada's Skyline Trail

Jasper's iconic backcountry route is just part of the allure in this world-class national park
By Peter Potterfield - February 4th, 2014

This three day, 28-mile amble along the ridge crests of Jasper National Park's Maligne Range shows you some of the best vistas and wildflower parks in the Canadian  Rockies. But it's the stunning middle day, a long one at more than 13 miles, that really stays with you. The trail departs the first night's camp and climbs out of the Snowbowl through pretty sub-alpine basins that go on and on. In fact, more than half of the astounding Skyline is above timberline. As soon as you crest Big Shovel Pass at 7,650 feet, the route enters the tundra zone and side-hills through a moonscape along the crest of the ridge toward Curator Lake, just visible in the distance.

That's when you first notice the faint outline of the trail ascends high above the lake, almost impossibly so, to The Notch, at 8,300 feet an infamous defile in the crest of Amber Mountain. Everybody stops for lunch at scenic Curator Lake, nestled in its alpine bowl, but it's hard to relax knowing the route will in the next mile gain more than a thousand feet, where snow will likely remain even in late season. And when you finally reach the summit of The Notch, the high point of the Skyline, the views down into the sprawling Athabasca Valley and south to the striking north face of Mount Edith Cavell take your breath away. You realize why this trail is legendary among classic North American backcountry routes.

And just when you think the hiking can't get any better, the trail takes you along the barren, alpine ridge lines with views toward range after range of mountains arcing into the distance. Almost the entirety of Jasper National Park is visible from at least somewhere along the Skyline. And suddenly, to the distant northeast, the awesome white pyramid of Mount Robson, highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, appears on the horizon, thrusting up into the sky. With Robson showing the way, the trail gradually meanders up to the summit of Amber Mountain, and views down onto the actual townsite of Jasper, before starting down the switchbacks into the sub-alpine bowls of Centre Lakes, and eventually back into the trees near Tekarra Lake.

My party made camp just below, by the shore of a mountain stream, at Tekarra camp, where Brendan, Theo and me got to enjoy the culinary expertise of guide Sarah Peterson, of Canadian Skyline Adventures. Newly established just last year, this innovative guide service makes it possible to enjoy hiking the Skyline Trail without having to deal with the usual hassles of organizing food, getting permits (which are not easy to obtain) and arranging for trailhead transportation. Sarah and the other guides at Canadian Skyline Adventures take care of everything, including the cooking. All we had to do at camp was set up our own tents and be on time for dinner, which often included fresh vegetables from Sarah's garden.

The existence of a hiking guide service in Jasper opens adventures such as the Skyline (and the Tonquin Valley hike, another local classic) to those who are fit enough to handle the backpacking but not necessarily inclined to go on their own. Sarah, chief guide and one of the owners, met with me and the other hikers over a beer at the Jasper Brewing Company the night before leaving on our hike to discuss gear, food, and trailhead transport. At my request, she also provided me bear spray (it's illegal to fly with it) so both of us would be prepared should we have an unfriendly bear encounter. Early the next morning the four of us met for the one hour ride out to the start of the hike at Maligne Lake on the trailhead shuttle, which was also arranged by Canadian Skyline Adventures.

That first day, we all four got to know each other as we climbed up from Maligne Lake, made a detour to pretty Mona Lake, and hiked over Little Shovel Pass for our first camp. Be aware that campsites are not particularly appealing, as they are heavily used. The Skyline is a popular walk, and Parks Canada mitigates the impacts by making it mandatory that all backpackers camp in designated sites. The feel of wilderness is absent from these designated tent sites, but the scene is decidedly social. Hikers from all over the world converge on these camps every night, and that's part of the fun. The fact that Sarah secured the hard-to-get camping permits frankly made the hike possible for me.

Jasper, the Jasper Park Lodge, and Sunwapta

On the third and final day, I was surprised that the scenic vistas did not let up, not at least until we reached the Signal Mountain fire road, the final few miles, and the only part of the route that lacks a wilderness vibe. The Skyline truly lives up to it's billing as a world-class backcountry trek, but it's not the only allure in the friendly, laid back town of Jasper. I started my trip by flying to Edmonton, then making the four-hour drive on Alberta's famous Yellowhead Highway in to Jasper itself, and the unique Jasper Park Lodge. Just a few minutes from the terminus of the Skyline Trail, this iconic and historic lodge clusters around scenic Lake Beauvert and may be the quintessential accommodation in Jasper. Besides the main lodge and its restaurant, a neighborhood of cabins--some grand, some humble--ring the lake. My cabin overlooked the lake, lined by colorful Adirondack chairs, and the canoe dock, and actually had a view south to Mount Edit Cavell.

A lot of visitors never even leave the lodge. You can take the two mile hike around the lake, canoe in Lake Beauvert, or ride a mountain bike on designated trails. So outdoor lovers find themselves as much at home here as do the golfers. With both casual eateries and the grander dining room known as Cavells, the lodge--known locally as the JPL--is luxurious yet remains casual. The JPL and its expansive grounds is about 10 minutes by car from Jasper itself, and remains insulated from the bustle and the trains. The town, which clings to its quirky charm, is small and friendly and surprisingly quiet, even in high season, a stark contrast to bigger, busier Banff a few hours down the Icefields Parkway.

Despite its relaxed ambience, there's much to do in Jasper. The Jasper Tramway, highest and longest in Canada, is just south of town and takes visitors 3,000 feet above the townsite. Boat tours on Maligne Lake offer a close up glimpse of the wilderness I saw from the Skyline Trail. But on this trip, I decided to roam farther afield. Once back at the trailhead, I bid goodbye to Sarah, Theo and Brandon, and made my way about an hour south on the Icefields Parkway, the main route between Jasper and Banff, alongside the aptly named Endless Chain Mountain, to Sunwapta.

A well-kept secrect, Sunwapta Rocky Mountain Lodge won me over big time. A popular way station for the many tourists in busses that ply the Icefields Highway, its souvenir shop and restaurant attract a lot of people. But back behind the bustlling main building are cabins tucked away in the woods, far from the busy Parkway. I felt like I had my own private getaway among the trees, a comfortable place to sort and dry my backcountry gear, and take a well-earned breather after almost 30 miles on the trail. And to my surprise, Sunwapta transforms itself after six. The busses stop arriving, the crowds depart, tables in the Endless Chain Restaurant are draped in white table cloths, and the lodge caters to dozens of overnight guests with skill and expertise but a casual atmosphere. The kitchen serves up well prepared local cuisine--the elk pot pie was a stand out--and the wine list is no slouch. The Sunwapta is low key and casual, but ever-so comfortable.

Sunwapta has something else going for it: it puts you within striking distance of the famous Icefields Glacier Adventure, where giant snow buggies take visitors out onto the Athabasca Glacier for a brief stroll on the glacier itself. It's a thrill a lot of people have never had, and this well-oiled operation makes it easy. From the "Discovery Center" visitors center about an hour south of Sunwapta on the Icefields Highway, visitors buy a ticket for the 90-minute excursion. Regular motor coaches then take you out to the edge of the glacier, where the big, purpose built ice buggies, called "Ice Explorers" by the Brewster Company that runs them, finish off the final few miles on to the surface of the glacier itself. I had seen this massive operations on several drives between Banff and Jasper over the past decade, and was glad to have the experience.

Riding out on the glacier with a few dozen visitors--from as far afield as Asia and Europe--could not have been more different than my three days on the Skyline Trail with Sarah and my fellow hikers. But it emphasizes the nature of having fun in Jasper. There's something for everybody, and it's all fun. I even found a couple of outstanding day hikes near Sunwapta, including Valley of the Five Lakes and the Big Bend, which is upstream of Sunwapta Falls. But whether you're hiking a classic backcountry route, or canoeing around Lake Beauvert at the JPL, or watching the roar of Sunwapta Falls, Jasper and its environs are like no place else in North America.

Getting There

Most visitors who come to Jasper arrive via Edmonton, Alberta, and make the four hour drive on Highway 2, the Yellowhead Highway. But it's not that much farther in time or distance to arrive via Calgary, Alberta, make the drive to Banff, then another two and half hours up to Jasper on the Icefields Highway. Hiking is one of the most powerful allures to Jasper National Park, and those who wish to hike with a guide should consider Canadian Skyline Adventures for the trip described here, and other offerings. The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge can be considered a destination in itself with its unique setting and rich offering of activities. And Sunwapta Rocky Mountain Lodge offers a different sort of experience less than an hour south of town but close to the Icefields Glacier Adventures. The town of Jasper itself offers lodging, restaurants, gear shops and great bars and is integral to any visit. The province of Alberta makes planning any trip to the Canadian Rockies easy.





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