Although traditionally viewed as the “other” big Rockies park after Banff, JASPER NATIONAL PARK covers an area greater than Banff, Yoho and Kootenay combined, and looks and feels far wilder and less commercialized than the rest. Its backcountry is more extensive and less travelled, and Jasper, its only settlement, is more relaxed and far less of a resort than Banff, with just half its population. Most pursuits centre on Jasper and the Maligne Lake area about 50km southeast. Other key zones are Maligne Canyon, on the way to the lake; the Icefields Parkway; and the Miette Hot Springs region, an area well to the east of Jasper renowned for its springs and trails.
The park’s backcountry is a vast hinterland scattered with countless rough campgrounds and a thousand-kilometre trail system considered among the best in the world. Opportunities for day- and half-day hikes are more limited and scattered than in other parks. Most of the shorter strolls from Jasper are just low-level walks to forest-circled lakes; the best of the more exciting day-hikes start from more remote points off the Maligne Lake road, Icefields Parkway (Hwy-93) and Yellowhead Hwy (Hwy-16).
Permanent settlement first came to the Jasper in the winter of 1810–11. The great explorer and trader David Thompson left William Henry at Old Fire Point (just outside the present town), while he and his companions pushed up the valley to blaze a trail over the Athabasca Pass that would be used for more than fifty years by traders crossing the Rockies. In the meantime, Henry established Henry House, the first permanent European presence in the Rockies. In 1813 the North West Company established Jasper House at the eastern edge of the park’s present boundary. Named after Jasper Hawes, a long-time company clerk there, it moved closer to Jasper Lake in 1829. By 1884, and the collapse of the fur trade, the post had closed. By 1900, the entire region boasted just seven homesteads.
Jasper’s true origins date back to the coming of the railway in the late nineteenth century. The Canadian Pacific had made Banff and Yoho boom in 1885, and the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway hoped for similar success when in 1902 it started to push its own route west. Jasper Forest Park was duly created in 1908, and Jasper became a centre for railway operations in 1924, greatly boosting its population and importance. The first road link from Edmonton was completed in 1928 and official national-park designation came in 1930.
Beds in Jasper are not as expensive or elusive as in Banff, but still near unobtainable in late July and August. The Jasper Home Accommodation Association (w stayinjasper.com) has rooms in around 120 private homes, at $75–150 for a double – contact the visitor centre or check the website for availability. Most motels dot Connaught Drive on the eastern edge of town; prices drop sharply in the off-season. Often cheaper and more pleasant are cabins a few kilometres out of town. The four park-run campgrounds close to town and three local hostels all fill up promptly in summer, so bear in mind Icefields Parkway options. There are no accommodation or camping facilities at Maligne Lake, but two backcountry campgrounds ($14) on the lakeshore can be reached by canoe (get details from Jasper’s visitor centre).
Jasper’s system of backcountry hiking trails and 111 backcountry campgrounds makes it one of the leading areas for backcountry hiking in North America. To stay overnight in the backcountry, pick up a wilderness permit ($9.80) within 24 hours of your departure from the park information centre in Jasper or at the Columbia Icefield. All trails and campgrounds operate quota systems; contact the park information office for details and book yourself backcountry campgrounds – and thus trail places – as soon as you can (reservations $11.70). Trails remain busy even into September; the busiest are Skyline, Maligne Lake, Brazeau and Tonquin Valley.
The park information office offers invaluable advice, and excellent, cheap maps of several trails. For overnight hikes, talk to staff or get hold of a copy of The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide – but by general consent the finest long-distance trails are the Skyline (44km; 820m ascent) and Jonas Pass (19km; 555m ascent), the latter often combined with the Nigel and Poboktan passes (total 36km; 750m ascent) to make a truly outstanding walk. Not far behind come two hikes in the Tonquin Valley – Astoria River (19km; 445m ascent) and Maccarib Pass (21km; 730m ascent) – and the Fryat Valley (3–4 days). Others to consider are Maligne Pass and the long-distance North and South Boundary trails (the latter two both over 160km).
Jasper’s few down-to-earth bars are short on style but long on enthusiasm; but anyway, with many hostels and campgrounds far out of town, much of the fun is of the make-your-own variety. For other evening entertainment – which can include theatre, cinema, music or dance – consult the town guide available from the tourist office.
The range of hiking trails in Jasper National Park is vast, and well beyond the scope of this book, but the best are below; there are also some great options along the Icefields Parkway.
Easy day-hike featuring meadows, glaciers and waterfalls.
Stroll alongside twisted cliffs and pounding waters.
Moderate day-hike with splendid Maligne Lake views.
The classic multi-day backcountry hike.
Hard day-hike with glorious, craggy views and nearby hot springs.