I did a double take at Google Maps when it estimated an hour until I reached my goal. I had already made the long drive from Edmonton to the front gate of Jasper National Park and then the not-so-short drive from there to Jasper Park Lodge. It seemed inconceivable to me that it was another hour to then reach Maligne Lake, but that’s part of what makes this part of the world so special. It’s thanks to its remote location and practically unparalleled natural beauty that thousands visit every year and is the reason ultimately why I was there too. And by the end of my time not only in Maligne Lake but also in Jasper National Park, I would learn that getting there is truly half the fun.
Zoning out while you’re driving to Maligne Lake really isn’t advisable. Visitors are warned of that fact almost immediately thanks to signs warning of bear and caribou crossings, the speed limit strictly enforced to safeguard man and animal alike. You wouldn’t want to race through anyway, while not a long drive in terms of the greater Jasper area, it’s definitely one of the most beautiful. Navigating my way through virgin forests, past waterfalls and small lakes and more hiking trails than I could count, I was immediately won over by the shocking natural beauty of the area. Even areas burned out by wildfire had their own attractiveness, the power of the elements in full demonstration. Like everywhere else in the Canadian Rockies, the drive to Maligne can take as long as you want it to. There are many places to stop and either just stretch your legs admiring the scenery or even go on a day hike. I skipped the hikes, but did stop a few times to pull out the camera safely and capture moments that I could scarcely believe I was living. I had somehow walked into a postcard and loved every second of it.
I eventually did manage to pull myself away from the all-consuming scenery and arrive at Maligne Lake along with what seemed like the entire population of Alberta. It was September and the snow in the mountain peaks warned of an end to summer and everyone was out for one last grasp at enjoying the nice weather before the first real snow. Thrilled the weather was still perfect, I grabbed my camera and went out to see what all the fuss was about. Maligne Lake itself is about 14 miles long and is popular not just for canoeing and kayaking, but for the amazing hiking trails that surround it. The most popular activity though was first on my to-do list – a 90-minute cruise out to Spirit Island.
While iconic Spirit Island is the destination, the cruise is really about the experience of being on the lake. The largest glacially formed and fed lake in the Canadian Rockies, the power of those glaciers are clearly seen all around from the soaring mountains to the majestic glaciers that hang to their cliffs. Add in bright green pine tree forests and water an unusually beautiful shade of blue and you have what I think is as close to natural perfection as exists in this world. The Classic Spirit Island Cruise includes these sights along with guides who share the history and geology of the areas that guests sail through. But the real star of the proverbial show is Spirit Island.
For many people, Spirit Island is the defining image of the Canadian Rockies. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had seen these vistas before in books, calendars, postcards and any number of marketing materials. That’s why it seemed so familiar when the boat finally arrived and that’s also why the entire experience felt as if it was plucked from a dream. What makes this small spit of land so very special was immediately obvious to me. A small islet covered in bright green trees surrounded by aqua blue waters and mountains in the background aptly named the Hall of the Gods. Glaciers and snow-covered peaks were all around us and when taken in as a whole, the views of Spirit Island truly are mesmerizing. All of the guests on the boat that afternoon stood there, just looking seemingly transfixed by an unknown power. It was a special moment, a rare moment and an important moment. That’s why Spirit Island is so iconic, it’s demonstrative of what really experiencing the Canadian Rockies is all about. It’s the perfect summation of the beauty and adventure that defines this remarkable part of the world.
The return from Spirit Island was much less intense and even though it was still technically summer, I couldn’t wait to warm up with a hot cup of cocoa at the Jasper Park Lodge. That afternoon was my first introduction to Jasper National Park. I’ve shared other experiences that came later, but it was that first day that set the tone for my trip, which foretold the adventures I’d have and the beautiful scenery I’d be lucky enough to witness and for any visitor to the Park, I can’t think of a better way to get to know it than a visit to Maligne Lake.