Living in Southern Alberta, I tend to spend most of my weekends in nearby Banff National Park or Kananaskis Country. Every February though we get a long weekend to celebrate a local holiday known as “Family Day” and I seize the opportunity to travel further into the Rocky Mountains away from home.
This year for our February long weekend we travelled north to Jasper National Park and to the town of Jasper itself, located four hours west of Alberta’s capital city, Edmonton. Edmonton is the largest city in Northern Alberta and is a great launching spot for trips to Jasper.
There are many hotels in the town of Jasper with more resorts surrounding the small town but we chose to stay at a rustic wilderness hostel, managed by Hostelling International. HI Maligne Canyon was one of the smaller hostels we’ve stayed at but it was situated exactly where we wanted to be – at the entrance to Maligne Canyon and the famous Maligne Canyon Ice Walk.
Jasper’s Maligne Canyon Ice Walk – The Number One Winter Tour in Jasper National Park
Many tour companies offer guided ice walks into the Maligne Canyon but since we were travelling with young children we chose to do a self-guided tour at our own pace. It is recommended however that all visitors join an official tour where you will receive ice cleats for walking on the ice along with the interpretive walk.
The Maligne Adventures Ice Walk has been designated a Signature Experience by the Canadian Tourism Commission and Joe Urie, owner and lead guide of the Jasper Tour Company, has been leading trips into the canyon for over fifteen years. With experience like that, one can feel safe walking through a magical world of frozen ice falls and exploring ice caves deep in the canyon.
What sets the winter tour apart from a summer walk through Maligne Canyon? The biggest difference is that you’ll be hiking deep inside the canyon in winter. In summer, visitors must stay far above the canyon on a well maintained hiking trail, protected by fences that line the canyon walls. It’s an amazing experience to look down into the canyon and witness the power of the river as it carves its way through the canyon, but it’s even more amazing to crawl through the protective fence, to climb down into the canyon, and to see the canyon from the river’s perspective.
How easy is the ice walk? My son did the ice walk this winter at the age of 6 and had no problems with the trip. The guided tours require that children be at least six years old but their pace is generally slow and the hike never strenuous. The Ice cleats provided on tours also provide enough grip that you can walk on the canyon ice without risk of falling if you are careful. If you are especially worried about walking on ice, bring a set of Kahtoola micro spikes for your trip (not provided by tour companies) and you’ll have no problems at all.
How can one do the tour without a guide? While it is recommended you take a guided tour, the canyon is easy to find with a good map of Jasper and information from the Jasper Info. Center downtown. The parking lot for the Fifth Bridge at Maligne Canyon where most groups start is also well signed on the Maligne Lake Road. You’ll see maps of the canyon as soon as you get on the trail and the maps indicate the summer hiking trail as well as the ice walk pathway.
Basic Route Information: Cross the bridge at the Fifth Bridge Parking lot and hike up the canyon following the main winter trail, signed with a number 7. You’ll see signs along the trail indicating where you can enter the canyon or else you can follow other hikers that you meet. On our first trip to Maligne Canyon in winter it was pretty obvious where we should descend into the canyon from the section of fence that had been removed. There were also at least three or four guided tours in the canyon on our first trip so we had no problems finding our way around.
It is also possible to park at the main parking lot for Maligne Canyon near the First Bridge and hike down river towards the fourth bridge where you can sneak through the open fence.
Snowshoeing in Jasper
While in Jasper during the winter season you have to do at least one snowshoe hike as well. The hike I most recommend is the easy walk across Medicine Lake. Medicine Lake is also located on the Maligne Lake Road, and another reason we chose to stay at the Maligne Canyon Hostel.
From Maligne Canyon, drive further down the road towards Maligne Lake and you will see Medicine Lake on your right. It will show up on all maps of Jasper as well. There is a big parking lot here and snowshoeing across the open lake is easy in winter with no official trail. Pick your way through the boulders, follow the open creak, and gaze upon the views further up the valley.
Interesting history on Medicine Lake: In fall, the water mostly disappears from the lake, converting it into a big mudflat filled with small pools of water connected by a small stream of running water. In winter, you’d never know that the snow was covering mud but the photo below shows the small stream flowing through the mudflats. The rest of the water won’t return to form an actual lake until spring. For more on this fascinating lake (and to find out where the water goes each fall and winter) read the Parks Canada description on Medicine Lake. It’s of note that the Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site was partly formed because of this fascinating lake.
Other Snowshoe Trails in Jasper
There is more great snowshoeing to be found further down the road at Maligne Lake itself, but it is an hour long drive one way from the hostel and canyon so we chose to stick to nearby Medicine Lake. The Jasper Info. Center downtown is a fabulous source of information with maps of the trails if you would like to explore other areas of the park.
Planning your Trip to Jasper
For more information on Jasper National Park, visit the Parks Canada website.
For information on accommodations in Jasper or activities and tours to do in the area, visit the Jasper Tourism website.
For more information on traveling in Alberta, visit the Travel Alberta website.
For information on affordable hostelling in Jasper, visit the Hostelling International website where you’ll find out about the three hostels near the town of Jasper.