There’s nothing like an early morning in the Canadian Rockies! The air is fresh and the scent of evergreens seems particularly potent. And that’s coming from someone who is by nature a ‘night person’ not accustomed to seeing the dawn of a new day. But it’s different in places like this—places that inspire me to make the big effort. Good pictures or not, I never regret seeing a mountain sunrise.
Just north of Jasper you’ll find a particularly scenic place. Easy to get to—there’s even a hiking path—it’s a very popular location on these warm summer days. No available parking spots testifies to that. But you might just have a summer sunrise all to yourself, as I did this early morning. It was just me and the distant yipping of coyotes in the hills.
A winding road heads through the hills to two picturesque lakes, formed when glacial moraines dammed shallow valleys. Pyramid Lake is backed by Pyramid Mountain, which is the mountain that stands above Jasper and is dominant throughout the Athabasca Valley. That was where first light fell on a calm and clear August morning.
The photo taken and camera stowed, while heading along the road I came upon another perspective of the lake that seemed particularly enticing. Not one to pass up a photogenic opportunity, I grabbed my gear and managed to catch the lingering warm hues. And that is what can make a mountain morning a very special and memorable event.
Not one to waste those good moments, I decided to follow the shoreline trail. Less than a mile away, but from an entirely different view, the mountain still held the colors of early morning. Pyramid Lake came through with dividends!
There are several mountain tramways in the Canadian Rockies—we had already passed on them in Banff and Lake Louise. If there is one tramway you should take here in these mountains, the Jasper Tramway can’t be beat. It’s the highest in the Canadian Rockies and the views from the top don’t get any better, Or so say many of the travel books. In the end, we couldn’t pass up this touristy(?) opportunity.
The tramway climbs more than 3,000 feet up the steep north face of The Whistlers, named for the hoary marmots that live on the summit. During the 7-minute trip, we were given a talk about what we were seeing as well as the opportunities we’d have at the top.
We picked a great morning to go. The air was cool, the breeze was calm, and the summit wasn’t too crowded with people. After debarking, our first view was of Pyramid Mountain—standing nearly at eye level. Oh what a view!
From another angle, there was Jasper laid out before us. Ideally located in the Athabasca River Valley, you can see the jeweled lakes of Edith, Annette and Lac Beauvert glistening in the morning light.
From the upper terminal of the tramway you can take the mile-long trail up to Whistlers’ true summit. With an elevation of slightly more than 8,000 feet, you’ll do a little huffing and puffing. Not ones to be deterred from slight elevation gain, Chris charged up the steep trail.
. . . and the views were definitely worth it!
Perhaps we had saved the best that Jasper had to offer for our last full day. And then, maybe we’d live to regret having left it for last. Although forecasted to be another perfect day, low clouds blew in on Day Five and hung around, overcasting the skies and dulling the landscapes. Oh well, we take what we get and make the best of it.
It is famed for the color of its water, the peaks that surround it, the three glaciers that hang on it and the small scenic island within it. Maligne (pronounced Mah-LEEN) Lake is the largest glacier-fed lake in the Canadian Rockies and second largest in the world.
Just a few weeks before our arrival, a wildfire had swept through this area. Sandwiched between Maligne Canyon and its lake, Medicine Lake’s shoreline was Ground Zero. Necessitating an evacuation of all people in the area, fortunately it was extinguished before spreading too far. But still, severe damage was done, many hundreds of forested acres destroyed.
Since the first tourists were guided to Maligne Lake by Fred Brewster in 1914, the journey has evolved greatly. Instead of a three-day horseback trip, it’s now a one-hour drive from downtown Jasper along a paved road. Even into the 1940s it required an arduous trip of 8 hours to reach Maligne Lake. In 1940, Fred hosted a record 131 guests during the season. Even as late as the 1960s, there was nothing more than a dirt trail leading from Medicine to Maligne Lakes. A rough road was established in 1965, finally being paved in 1970. Then the visitors by the thousands began to arrive. It has been a mecca for camera-toting tourists from around the world ever since.
Named for the first white woman to see the lake, The Schaffer Viewpoint Trail follows the shoreline to arrive at a highpoint above the lake, where “tremendous” views await. Alas, with skies such as they were, our view was less than that. Still, you could see the potential and realize its impressive vista.
Mary Schaffer was an aristocrat from Philadelphia who fell deeply in love with the Canadian Rockies. She spent many summers in the area around Banff and Lake Louise, finally making two summer-long, guided expeditions into the wilderness backcountry. The goal of her second trip was to locate what would someday be known as Maligne Lake. With a hand-drawn “map” sketched by a Stoney Indian (who had been to the “Lake of the Beavers” only once, sixteen years before) to guide them, and the determined scouting efforts of one of her guides, she and her party arrived at the lake in the summer of 1908. She would return a few years later to execute an official survey of the lake.
The views might be less than their potential, but conditions wouldn’t deter us from a good hike. After stoking up with a good lunch, we headed to the opposite shore. Many trails lead from the lake up into the elevations; Moose Lake sounded perfect for us.
The landslide that dammed Maligne Lake was a big one—the second-largest measured in the Rockies. It ran across the valley floor and part way up the western side. Depressions in the rockslide debris have become natural hollows in which small lakes have formed.
We took a mountainside trail up to catch a spur leading off to our left. Winding through a segment of the thick fir and spruce forest that robes the mountainsides encircling Maligne Lake, the pewter skies softened the scene and made our walk more pleasant.
Without warning the forest fell away and before us was a postcard sight. Lacking the majesty of Maligne Lake, nevertheless Moose Lake had its own kind of charm. We lingered awhile, taking in the view as we rested and snacked, and decided the only thing lacking was its namesake along the shore.
Leaving Maligne Lake in late afternoon, the road more-or-less follows the course of the Maligne River. As it drops into the Athabasca River Valley, its gradient becomes increasingly steep. After his horses were swept away by its swift-flowing waters in 1846, a missionary coined the phrase “la traverse maligne” and thus the name came to be.
The churning and cascading water has eroded a deep canyon from the easily dissolved limestone bedrock. Being nearly 200 feet deep in places, yet sometimes a mere 6 feet across, Maligne Canyon is one of Jasper’s most popular tourist draws.
Cascading water to free-falling waterfalls are scattered along the canyon trail. A scenic path, following the thunderous torrential waters, gives many perspectives of the rock-walled chutes, most too difficult to capture. One thing for sure—even being there in person—it’s difficult to grasp the force and full drop of the water. It is a place deserving of its crowds.
A fitting way to end our stay here in the Jasper area would be finding a mountain sunset. Despite the long day, I couldn’t resist the desire to take one last scenic drive. Convenient to our campground, Highway 93A was my choice. With the sun dropping low, I headed out for parts unknown.
The 15-mile stretch of this historic road is a remnant of the original Banff—Jasper Highway. It is Jasper’s version of Banff’s Bow Valley Parkway. Beginning just south of Jasper, it parallels the Icefields Parkway. It is the route less-traveled, definitely off the beaten track.
The views open up from the start. Climbing above the surrounding valley, you have a perfect panorama of the Jasper townsite. Directly below flows the Athabasca, the work of glaciers easily visible in the broad sculpting of the river valley. A favorite waterway for rafters, local outfitters keep busy in the summer. A scene such as this, with Mt. Edith Cavell looming above, is typical of what you’d see.
I think I knew, in my heart of hearts, that the day’s overcast skies wouldn’t produce any stunning sunset colors. Call it being overly optimistic, or just looking for an excuse to take a drive, I ended up on the bridge spanning Whirlpool River. In the distance stood Whirlpool Peak, in perfect position to be side-lighted by sunset colors. If only those colors would show.
Sometimes, it’s not just about getting results, but just about being in a particular place. To paraphrase John Muir –“[Come to] the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you . . . “
We awoke to low-hanging clouds on our departure day. Our drive back down the Icefields Parkway would have a different look to it this time around. But not all was lost—mountain peaks have a way of poking through a sea of swirling clouds. Packed up, we pulled out of Jasper. I sat back to enjoy the views.
Just south of the Icefields Center, those low clouds rose above the peaks. Giving Chris a head’s up notice, one last mountain view would be mine to take and remember.
High on the Canadian Rockies,
Melinda and Chris