The crowds thin out north of the Icefields Center. Traffic on the Parkway is considerably less than it was. Often you won’t even see another car in your rearview mirror. Scenic pullouts aren’t jammed, with travelers vying for the prime shooting spots. Perhaps most noticeably, the tour buses no longer ply the highway. The route to Jasper has become a much more pleasant drive.
Sharing a common boundary with Banff National Park just south of the Icefields Center, Jasper National Park, containing slightly over 4,000 square miles, is the largest of Canada’s four mountain parks. Established in 1907, it is bisected by two main roads—The Yellowhead Highway running east and west, and the Icefields Parkway, running south to Banff. Sitting at the intersection of these two byways is the town of Jasper.
And the scenery isn’t over—not by a long shot. Huge mountains still loom over the road. Some travel reviews have gone on record as saying the best mountain peaks are along this final leg. Having never progressed past the Center, we were heading into unknown territory. The promise of more stunning vistas as the day dawned crystalline clear filled us with anticipation. Camera primed and ready, we continued the drive into Jasper . . . going slowly to not miss a scene.
A road sign needs to be posted—a warning of hazardous conditions ahead! Distraction from the outstanding scenery can make following the road full of risks. One of us seemed more enamored by the views than the other, and fortunately that other one was doing the driving.
With its headwaters on the northern edge of the Columbia Icefield, the Athabasca River flows north, providing a route for the parkway to follow. Flanked by mountains on both sides of the road, some of the giants of the Canadian Rockies loom above the drive.
Pyramid Mountain portends your arrival into Jasper. A striking landmark of the area, it looms above wherever you go in town.
Locals will tell you that Jasper is what Banff was 50 years ago. We found it to be a quaint, flower-festooned town that showed pride in what it had to offer. Although July and August are its prime tourist months, you won’t find it intolerably crowded. Its location far from attractions other than the scenery keep the swarms of travelers from filing through.
And a choice of restaurants and cafes offer a wide variety of food and ambiance. Except for one very popular small cafe (reputed to have great pastries and homemade dishes), we never had trouble finding a place for a cook’s night out.
We were told to check out Jasper’s community garden—and were suitably impressed. Despite a shorter growing season, it was apparent Jasperites appreciated homegrown food. The many raised beds were overflowing with fresh, healthy produce.
The coming of the railways helped to create the establishment of this national park. Jasper’s origins go back before a community was established here. Its name comes from Jasper Hawse, one of the early traders who established a post nearby in the Athabasca Valley early in the 1800s. Knowing that the coming of trains would mean an influx of settlers, the Canadian government set aside 5,000 square miles in 1907, establishing Jasper Forest Park. The threat of oversettlement was abated, but interestingly, mining and logging were still allowed within the park boundaries. By 1911, two rail companies had laid their tracks through Jasper. The Grand Trunk Pacific went from Ontario to Prince Rupert crossing the Rockies over Yellowhead Pass, while the Canadian Northern headed southwest into Vancouver. Today, Jasper is still a popular stop on the rail lines—you won’t be in town long before hearing the blast of a incoming train’s horn.
So enough about Jasper’s background—it was time to set up home base and experience its assets firsthand! Located at the base of its namesake mountain, Whistlers Campground was our destination. Just a handful of miles outside the town’s border, its setting under a fragrant canopy of spruce and firs made an inviting natural surrounding. You’d never know it held more than 700 sites.
And we never knew when we’d have company drop by. Usually late afternoon—hoping for Happy Hour perhaps?
Although allotted five full days here in Jasper, I wasn’t letting one good moment go to waste. With the looks of a pleasantly cool evening coming on (remember, it stays light late this far to the north), I was determined to take an exploratory trip to one of Jasper’s premier peaks.
A few miles south of our campground, a steep, winding 9-mile road (albeit paved) switchbacks up the Astoria River Valley to one of the area’s premier locations. There you will arrive at the base of one impressive mountain, Mount Edith Cavell, as well as up-close perspectives of two glaciers and a trailhead to a subalpine meadow with a summer profusion of wildflowers. If you don’t mind the road trip, you could easily spend many contented days here. It is one incredibly impressive place.
In the deep cirque pocket at the base of Mt. Edith Cavell, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to have a mental picture of how glaciers filled this landscape. The trail marked Path of the Glacier traverses a landscape that was buried under the ice of two glaciers just a little more than a century ago. Zip up those jackets—there’s a cold breeze coming off that ice!
Angel Glacier spreads her wings across the lower flanks of Mt. Edith Cavell. Below lies Cavell Pond, where glacier meltwater is filling in a hollow carved by the receding ice. Snow doesn’t usually bond to slopes steeper than 40 degrees, so most of the snow that falls on the north face of Mt. Edith Cavell slides off in avalanches. In the near perpetual shade cast by the mountain, the snow accumulates and consolidates into the ice of Cavell Glacier.
Extensive studies of glacial activity have been done here in this valley. In fact, the period of cooling in the Rockies that lasted from 1200 to 1850 has been named the Cavell Advance. During this interval, glaciers in the Rockies advanced significantly. When the first explorers arrived in the Rockies in the late 1880s, most of the glaciers were just backing off from those maximums. Consequently, there exists a fine photographic record of the changes since. They have learned that the maximum of the Cavell Advance was the greatest progress of the glaciers during the previous 2600 years. Incredible!
Angel Glacier once descended to the valley floor and merged with the ice of Cavell Glacier. In the 1940s, the contact was broken and Angel Glacier began to recede. On warmer days this hanging glacier frequently avalanches ice and snow onto the valley floor. We were witness to that occurrence as the sound of rock or ice fall reverberated through the valley.
Icebergs or “growlers” calve from Cavell Glacier, and then float in the frigid meltwater pond.
We were making a pre-dawn drive back up to this very location the following morning. If conditions were good—no way to predict—I’d get my classic shot of Mt. Edith Cavell. After a hike through the trees down to the shoreline of Lake Cavell, the first sight wasn’t too noteworthy.
Good photographs are oftentimes a result of patience rather than skill or technique. Throw in some good luck will improve the equation. Also having the ability to put up with less than desirable conditions. Frozen fingertips are often a casualty of this process. All things taken in, I got my shot and walked away satisfied.
Mt. Edith Cavell is the highest mountain near Jasper, topping out just over 11,000 feet. Native inhabitants knew it as the “White Ghost” and locals called it Mt. Fitzhugh after a vice-president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. But the name was officially changed in 1915 by the Geographic Board of Canada who requested a mountain be named for Edith Cavell, an English nurse who had worked behind the lines with the Belgian Red Cross in World War I. Tending the injured of both sides, she was executed by the Germans for allegedly assisting the escape of captive Allied troops. This beautiful peak facing the Athabasca Valley was chosen and every summer a memorial service is held on August 5th, the day she was put to death. This year marked the 100th anniversary and a special service was held at the base of the mountain.
From the rugged and spectacular mountains around Jasper,
Melinda and Chris