This is one of three posts about Canada’s spectacular national parks.
After Banff, our next stop on the road trip was neighboring Jasper National Park, another Canadian beauty. Jasper is the largest of the Rocky Mountain National Parks, covering more than 4200 square miles. We only spent two nights in Jasper, but we made the most of it.
The visit started with a drive north on Highway 93. This 144-mile stretch of road, known as Icefield Parkway, is one of the most scenic in North America. It passes through the Columbia Icefield, which covers southern Jasper and northern Banff. Enormous mountains on both sides of the road are topped by glaciers that creep out of v-shaped crevices and bowl-like cirques. The dense evergreen forests are intermittently spliced by long waterfalls that flow from the mountain tops; these waterfalls then feed into glacial rivers that vary in color from deep green to milky white.
Many “tongues” of glacial ice flow from the Columbia Icefield. Its total area is 77 square miles, the largest mass of glacial ice in the Canadian Rockies. Three important river systems start from the ice field’s glaciers and flow to three different oceans: the North Saskatchewan River feeds the Atlantic Ocean, while the Athabasca runs to the Arctic Ocean, and the Columbia empties into the Pacific. All along the way, these river systems provide fresh water for millions of people and numerous ecosystems.
Athabasca is one of the glaciers that is most accessible to the public, but only under strict circumstances. Warnings everywhere told us not to walk onto the glacier itself; as it has receded, the toe of the glacier has thinned, and a large river and lake have developed underneath, along with deep, unstable crevasses. Several people have died in accidents caused by the glacier’s instability. One can climb the glacier with a certified mountain guide or take a bus tour that actually drives out onto the glacier. We opted to do the short, uphill hike that took us to the edge of the glacier.
Hiking and scenic drives in Jasper National Park
We only had one full day in the park, and so we packed as much into it as possible.
Mount Edith Cavell
The Mount Edith Cavell trail is one of the most popular in the park and involves a steep but short climb to an overlook that provides views of icy Cavell Pond, the Angel and Ghost Glaciers, and the sheer, quartzite north face of Mount Edith Cavell. The north face is considered one of fifty classic climbs in North America, and we eavesdropped while a guide with a nearby tour group told them the story of how he had recently climbed a more accessible face of the mountain and unexpectedly spent the night up there because of bad weather; he expressed reverence for the difficulty of the north face and for those who had climbed it.
Angel Glacier is formed in a large cirque that’s not visible from below, but the ice that flows out of the bowl forms the “angel’s” 40-meter-thick wings (see picture above), while the rest plunges down a steep gully and forms the body.
Mount Edith Cavell is a little over 11033 feet in elevation and receives heavy snowfall often year round. Some of this snow is unable to cling to the sheer rock face, and that, along with the constant movement of the glaciers, makes risk for avalanches high.
In 2012, an enormous ice avalanche from Ghost Glacier fell into Cavell Pond and caused a flash flood that carried rock, ice, and debris downstream. The amount of ice that fell has been estimated to be 4,414,333. cubic feet in mass, the equivalent of 1428 city buses! A sign along the path pointed out that avalanches can happen at any time and that we should stay on the trail. No problem!
Hiking around Jasper
The town of Jasper (population around 4400) was much less crowded and felt more authentic than tourist-packed Banff, but, like in Banff, we mainly went to town for necessities and wifi. But we couldn’t resist hiking the Old Fort Loop, one of several excellent trails near the town. It was a long, steep hike that gave us sweeping views of the mountains as well as the town of Jasper.
After two hikes we were done with walking for the day, but with plenty of daylight left, we took a long, scenic drive through the Maligne Valley. It first took us past Maligne Canyon to Medicine Lake, which “vanishes” in the fall due to fractures in the bedrock of the lake floor. The water seeps through the cracks, and as the summer snow melt wanes the lake slowly drains, eventually dwindling to a small stream. It fills again in the spring and summer. Native Americans believed that its disappearance was due to “big medicine” or magic, hence the name.
We continued past Medicine Lake, and the drive was breathtaking, with sheer-faced mountains looming ahead of us. The road ended at Maligne Lake, which, according to the tourist brochure, is “one of the most stunning areas in Jasper National Park.” That was a pretty tall order, given what we’d seen already, but as we neared the lake, we found it to be true:
What an amazing way to end our short time in Jasper!
Camping in Jasper
Jasper, like Banff, has numerous campgrounds with a variety of services provided. We stayed at Snaring, north of the town of Jasper and several miles down an isolated road, so isolated that an enormous bull elk stepped out of the dense brush and right in front of our car one evening!
Amenities were basic, with vault toilets and drinking water, but no other services, but our site was scenic and backed up to dense forest. I chose this specific spot because of its isolation and because it made me uneasy—I was afraid of what might come out of those trees. This gave me a great opportunity to work on my fears! One thing we’ve observed after being in bear country for a few weeks is that the locals aren’t concerned about bears. Sure, the state and national parks take strict precautions because they want everyone, including the animals, to enjoy the wilderness peacefully, but we haven’t met a person yet who’s truly apprehensive about the wildlife, and that’s reassuring.
The campground sat next to the ice-blue, rushing Snaring River, and we hung out there after setting up camp on our first day there. Here’s Dale’s selfie, relaxing on the rocky shore.
The glaciers are melting here, also
In our post on Glacier National Park, I discussed the fact that the park’s glaciers are receding at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, the Columbia Icefield glaciers are in the same boat. Athabasca Glacier, for example, has lost more than 60% of its volume (350 million cubic meters of ice) since 1885, and it’s estimated that, if the glacier continues to recede at its current rate, it may almost disappear within 100 years. Educational materials along the Icefield Parkway were a bit blunt, pointing to greenhouse gasses and human activity as the primary culprits contributing to these shrinking glaciers.
Whatever the cause, whether it’s manmade or just a part of the earth’s ongoing weather cycle, climate change is real, and we need to take all the measures we can to address it if we want to preserve what’s left of some of North America’s greatest treasures.