Even if you aren’t a regular user of social media, I have no doubt that you have seen some fairly amazing images from the Canadian province of Alberta. Not only are images of this picturesque province popular on Instagram, but it seems like every magazine and travel news site regularly names Alberta in lists of top places to visit. There’s a good reason for that, while all of Alberta has a lot to offer, the Canadian Rockies in particular are a very special place. Bright blue lakes, stunning mountain ranges and more await the intrepid traveler. One of my favorite areas to explore though is Jasper National Park which, along with Banff National Park, is even part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognizing the uncommon beauty found here. Since the winter season is already underway in this special part of the world, I thought I’d share a few of the many reasons why I love visiting Jasper National Park not just in winter, but in all seasons.
City of Jasper
No offense to Jasper, but if I were to guess I would say that most visitors to this small town in the middle of Jasper National Park are there to experience the beauty and wonders of the park itself, and maybe not the town specifically. Regardless of what actually brings all of those thousands of people to Jasper every year, it is the only home base in the park and that means everyone must spend some time in and around town, eating, sleeping and of course exploring. Jasper National Park is huge and from personal experience I know just how amazing a world wonder it is, but that’s not to say visitors shouldn’t spend some time in the town of Jasper itself. Both in Jasper and very close nearby, there are some great experiences to be had and it all starts with the town. Some of my favorites include: Dinner at the Jasper Brewing Company BrewPub & Eatery, taking in the views from Old Fort Point and driving up to Pyramid Lake.
Close to Jasper is one of the biggest draws of the National Park, the Icefields Parkway. Celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2015, the Parkway is one of the best driving routes in the world and a must-do experience for all visitors. Winding from Lake Louise to Jasper, it connects the parks and for most people it’s how they travel along the gorgeous Canadian Rockies. If you’re staying in Jasper though, it’s still easy to explore most of the Parkway, although you may want to split it up into a few days. There are also many great lookout points and hikes, some of which I’ve already written about and all of which are well worth your time to do. That’s why it’s important to spend several days exploring the Parkway, not for the driving time but for all of those incredible stops along the way.
Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
Staying at the Jasper Park Lodge is a classic luxury experience the likes of which are quickly vanishing. The experience though is about more than a nice room of course, it’s about living in the middle of one of the most beautiful national parks in the world and enjoying this experience with other like-minded travelers. Onsite, the Lodge offers great outdoors experiences, but it’s what surrounds you just beyond the gate that is the most amazing. Some of Canada’s most popular and famous lakes, hikes and mountain peaks are all an easy drive from the Jasper Park Lodge, making this resort the very definition of experiential luxury travel.
As you can expect, Jasper National Park has no end of adventure activities throughout the year. There’s one wintry experience though that you can enjoy even in the middle of summer – walking on a glacier at the Columbia Icefield. Tours take visitors directly to the surface of the Athabasca Glacier itself on an Ice Explorer, a massive truck designed for navigating the ice, mud and snow of the glacier. It’s not a long trip, and the massive windows on all sides of the vehicle are great for admiring the landscapes leading up to the experience. Of course it’s gorgeous, but I was more interested in the site itself. Sitting astride the Continental Divide, I stood directly in front of Snow Dome Mountain. While unassuming, this is the hydrological apex of North America, which means that waters from the mountain eventually drain into three waterways: The Pacific Ocean, the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay. I find that amazing, and a demonstration of the might and wonder that only nature can provide. Nearby is another fun experience, the Glacier Skywalk. This is a specially designed cliff-edge walkway that leads to a glass platform hanging high over the river valley below; 918 feet to be exact. The Glacier Skywalk combines those amazing views of the region that had me nearly veering off the road more than a few times along the drive, with information about the area both in terms of the geology as well as wildlife and even cultural exhibits.
Maligne Lake and Yes, It Deserves a Separate Paragraph
Maligne Lake is one of the most popular sites in Jasper National Park thanks not only to the inherent beauty of the drive and the lake itself, but also because of a small island in the middle of it. 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.
What I love perhaps the most about travel is the unexpected, those amazing monuments I never anticipated but which in many cases become trip highlights. That happened routinely during my time in Jasper National Park, from roads temporarily blocked off by wandering elk to even a few rare bighorn sheep sightings along the way. My favorite moment though is when I made the very smart choice to take a detour and wander along a special trail to visit the Valley of the Five Lakes. To really do it justice takes about 2-3 hours, but tight on time I managed to essentially run the trail in just an hour and a half, marveling at the sights along the way. There are indeed five different lakes featured, each as brilliant a shade of greenish-blue as you’ll ever find in nature. These emerald colored lakes, while all slightly different from each other, get their unique coloring from the rock dust fed by the nearby glaciers. The total effect is a hike through wonderland and a private, solitary experience that I know I’ll treasure for years to come.
The Entire Rockies Area From Banff to Jasper
Probably one of the greatest attributes of the Icefields Parkway is that it links Jasper to Lake Louise, with Banff an easy drive away. I challenge you to find a more mind-numbingly gorgeous region anywhere in the world, it just doesn’t exist. Ok, maybe it does, but few can honestly compare to the Canadian Rockies. Summers aren’t long in the Canadian Rockies, so locals and visitors alike make full use of this warmer time of year. Driving into Banff National Park on a gorgeous summer’s afternoon was the perfect introduction to learning about all there is to see and do when there’s no snow on the ground. The first thing I noticed was just how accessible everything is in the summer. During the snowy winter months, many roads and trails are off limits – just too inaccessible or dangerous to venture out on. That includes one of the key attractions in the area, and one I wasn’t able to see in the winter, Moraine Lake.
The star of more postcards and calendars than anyone can count, this stunning glacially-fed lake attracts hundreds of thousands of people every summer; every one wanting to capture the magic of the Canadian Rockies for themselves. I knew it would be pretty, but nothing prepared me for just how incredible this lake is to see in person. Just down the road from Moraine is Lake Louise itself and while I did see it in winter, the experiences could not have been more different. Standing there on the banks of the lake with hundreds of other tourists around me, I thought back to that morning in January when I stood there alone, watching a few intrepid hockey players out on the frozen lake. In the summer those hockey players were replaced with paddlers, having fun experiencing the lake albeit in a completely different way. Just because there’s no snow in the summer doesn’t mean you can’t hit the slopes, just in a different way. Take the Lake Louise gondola up to the top to enjoy stellar views of the area. Mountains, lakes and the small town of Lake Louise itself are all visible from the top of the mountain. Although I didn’t see any, this is also one of the best ways to see bears without putting yourself in actual danger.
For reasons no one quite understands, sometimes we click with certain places when we travel. Alberta certainly is a place I fell in love with almost instantly and over the course of a few trips, I have come to know and admire this province more than I ever expected. What compels me to return isn’t anything pictured in this post, it’s the unknown. It’s discovering a magical part of the world that I didn’t know even existed and if that’s not what travel is all about, then I don’t know what is.