Driving down the Icefields Parkway as I returned to Calgary from an April conference at the Jasper Park Lodge, I vowed to return as soon as possible with my husband and two kids in tow. I had travelled along this route way, way back during junior high school, but my memories had faded over time and I was in the middle of being blown away by the awe-inspiring scenery along the parkway. Within 24 hours of returning home, I booked a 2-night visit to the park for the four of us.
As Canada’s largest park in the Rocky Mountains and 10th largest national park, Jasper is big enough to seem daunting to first-time visitors. To get you started, here are six adventures that we loved – three that cost money (but are worth it) and three that don’t!
Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure
The Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre is located just north of Jasper National Park’s southern boundary, across the parkway from the foot of the Athabasca Glacier. It’s a great spot to take in views of this and other glaciers and it’s also the departure point of Brewster Canada’s Glacier Adventure. Admiring the glacier from a distance is pretty neat, but taking a trip right onto it is truly thrilling!
We rode a coach for about 5 minutes from the Discovery Centre to the lateral moraine (aka giant pile of dirt and rocks at the side of the glacier) and then climbed aboard the really cool, really big Ice Explorer for the bumpy drive out onto the ice. Along the way, we motored down a crazily steep hill, splashed through a torrent of water flowing off the glacier and learned a whole lot about glaciers from our hilarious drivers. For example, that pile of dirt and rocks on the far side of the parking lot at the Discovery Centre? That’s the terminal moraine, which marks the furthest extent of the glacier in modern times. That’s a looong way from where it ends now; the glacier has been receding from there since the mid-1800’s. Also, the Athabasca Glacier, which we were driving onto, is just one of several glaciers that extend from the Columbia Icefield, which is over 300 square kilometres in size and up to 365 metres deep. You might be able to guess that the Athabasca Glacier marks the start of the Athabasca River, but did you know that the water from the glacier eventually makes its way all the way to the Arctic Ocean? True story! Want an Ice Explorer (aka Terra Bus) of your own? You’d better have well over a million dollars to burn and the ability to persuade Brewster Canada to part with one. That’s because 22 of the 23 existing Terra Buses are in service here at the Columbia Icefield… and the other one’s in Antartica!
On arrival on the glacier, we were given 30 minutes to walk around the ice (staying within the marked boundaries for safety ’cause no good holiday involves falling down a crevasse), scoop up some crystal clear, super-cold glacial runoff to drink, marvel at the beautiful blue colour of the ice and – of course – snap a million selfies. The highlight of the ride back to the coach was once again the crazily steep hill, going up this time. I wouldn’t attempt that hill in my minivan, I will tell you that!
Although you can choose to do it as a standalone adventure from the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre, a trip to the Glacier Skywalk is built right into the Glacier Adventure. After disembarking the Ice Explorer, we got onto a coach that took us on the 7-minute drive from the base of the glacier to the Skywalk. Although its glass floor section is certainly the Skywalk’s most photographed feature, the whole experience also includes a 1 km walk along the cliff’s edge (on wide well-fenced walkways, fear not ye who loathe heights), above the dramatic Sunwapta Valley. Along the way, there were interpretive stations, a self-guided audio tour and even park educators, all teaching us about the geology and ecology of the area. Stepping onto the glass floor was exhilarating… and a little terrifying, but we felt proud afterwards for having braved it!
A practical note: there are no washrooms at the base of the glacier or at the Glacier Skywalk and if you’re doing the Glacier Adventure, you will go straight from one to the other. So make sure you take full advantage of the washrooms at the Discovery Centre before boarding your bus to the glacier. And save most of that great tasting glacier water for after your return!
Add This for Free: About an hour’s drive north of the Columbia Icefield, the Athabasca River tumbles through a steep – and extremely photogenic – canyon at Athabasca Falls. You can see quite a bit of the falls just by walking about a minute from your car, but take the few extra minutes to walk down to the base of the falls. The stairway to get you down there runs through a now defunct channel of the river; it’s quite wonderful to walk through a dry version of the canyon and imagine how it would have looked when it still flowed!
Jasper is renowned for its numerous mountain peaks, alpine lakes and superb hiking. But if you’ve got little kids or are short on time, some of those really stellar mountain views may be too much to achieve on foot. For an amazing high altitude view of six major mountain ranges – including Mount Robson – and with minimal effort, we hopped on the Jasper Skytram. The tram heads up from the Lower Station (located about 15 minutes from the town) for a quick trip up to near the top of Whistlers Mountain. We were short on time and didn’t make the hike up to the final summit of Whistlers Mountain (an additional 200 m of elevation gain up a moderately steep, gravelled trail) but definitely plan to do it the next time we visit. Apparently the views from up there are even better! We saw one Dad carrying a little guy who had made it all the way up on his own steam, but then crashed hard and slept the whole way down. He’s lucky his dad was in pretty good shape!
Add This for Free: Located about 20 minutes north of the Jasper Skytram Lower Station (and about 5 minutes outside of Jasper townsite), Pyramid Lake is home to one of Jasper’s most iconic and yet easy to access sites, Pyramid Island. The lake and the island both take their name from the triangular peak that looms over the lake – Pyramid Mountain. After you’ve passed Pyramid Lake Resort, continue on to the small parking area and then you can walk across the bridge that connects the island to the shore. There’s a small loop trail on the island and great views of the lake and surrounding mountains in every direction.
Miette Hot Springs
The turn off to Miette Hot Springs is just 5 minutes west of the park’s eastern gates, and since there are no roads that head to the park’s northern boundaries, if you’ve made it from the Columbia Icefield to here, you’ve basically driven the [road-accessible] length of the park! The 20-minute drive up to the hot springs is just 2 lanes and quite windy; it’s a fun drive if you remember not to rush. We stopped for a peek at Punchbowl Falls and again to look down at the Fiddle River from high above. At the Miette Hot Springs pool complex, we rented towels and lockers and then headed for a sweet, sunshiney soak. This hot spring has the honour of being the hottest one in the Canadian Rockies. It’s so hot, in fact, that the 54ºC water must be cooled before it goes into even the hottest of the four pools, which is pretty toasty at 40ºC. We made it into all four pools, though my husband was the only one who managed to stay in the coldest plunge pool for more than a few seconds.
Add This for Free: The ‘Source of the Springs‘ trail (1.2 km round trip) takes you from the lower part of the hot springs parking lot, along burbling (but not hot) Sulphur Creek and up to where hot springs water runs out of the hillside and into the creek. Along the way, you’ll walk through the abandoned ruins of the original Miette Hot Springs pool and bathhouse. Built in 1919, it was decommissioned in the 1980’s when the new facility was built because the original suffered from ageing infrastructure, rock slides in the steep sided valley, and parking challenges.
Got more time in Jasper National Park? Five additional highlights of our short visit:
- Wildlife! We were lucky enough to see deer, elk, bighorn sheep and a grizzly bear from our vehicle. Remember, always keep your distance from wildlife and never approach or feed them; it’s for your safety and theirs. Get more information about Jasper’s wildlife.
- Raspberry White Chocolate Scones from Bear’s Paw Bakery in Jasper townsite. Forget about the carbs – these are worth ’em!
- The drive up Maligne Valley, including stops at Maligne Canyon, Medicine Lake (famous for disappearing during part of each year) and Maligne Lake. We didn’t have time on this visit, but the Maligne Lake Cruise, which includes a visit to famed Spirit Island, is a popular activity.
- The seemingly endless views of mountain peaks, lakes, waterfalls and glaciers from the Icefields Parkway (aka Highway 93 between Lake Louise and Jasper).
- Jasper National Park is the world’s 2nd-largest Dark Sky Preserve, but kids’ early bedtimes and/or cloudy skies sometimes make stargazing a challenge. At the Jasper Planetarium, you can take a trip through the park’s night skies and on into the cosmos from within their inflatable planetarium, regardless of the weather! And if the skies happen to be clear and you’re not rushing the kids off to bed, you can add on guided night sky viewing through the most powerful telescopes in the Rockies.
Jasper National Park is a fantastic family destination and although many of us are extra motivated to visit Canada’s national parks during 2017 (when there are no entry fees), this park is well worth the regular entry fee at any other time. If you’re planning your first visit to Jasper, I recommend incorporating these attractions into your itinerary to ensure you get a great overview of the park – from end to end!
Thank you to Brewster Canada, Parks Canada and Jasper Skytram for providing complimentary entry to these attractions; the opinions expressed here are my own.