Jasper National Park, Alberta

This trip was a continuation of the vacation that I had taken to the Pacific Northwest with the rest of my family. At the end of that trip, my family flew back to Baltimore while I rented a new car and prepared to head off on my own to the national parks in the Canadian Rockies. I knew that this would likely trigger some kind of alarm on the part of the border authorities, and I was correct. I had just crossed the border from the United States into Canada a few days before, then crossed back from Canada into the USA the previous day. Now I was going back into Canada yet again, crossing the border twice in two days, as a young unmarried man traveling by himself? Yeah, that must have seemed pretty sketchy. I was stopped at the border for about half an hour so that my rental car could be thoroughly searched and for me to go through my story several different times with different authority figures. The fact that I had absolutely no criminal record at all and was enrolled in an American PhD program likely helped my case. Eventually the border security must have decided that my story checked out, and I was free to drive into Canada and head off for the mountains to the east.

Of course, it's a long distance from Seattle to the Canadian Rockies. The drive was listed at 575 miles / 925 kilometers and since much of that was over difficult mountain roads, it took about 11 hours in total to complete. I enjoyed watching the scenery change as I made the long trip to the east, the landscape going through multiple different climate zones along the way. The immediate environment to the east of Vancouver was mountainous and densely forested, part of the Cascade range that contained Mount Rainier and the peaks of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. After leaving that area, the land become much flatter and drier as I passed through the Kamloops region. That was the name of the largest city in the central part of British Columbia, where I stopped to eat lunch and refuel my car with more gas. This arid zone didn't get too much rain due to being sheltered by high mountains both to the east and the west.

After leaving Kamloops, it was a long drive north on small two-lane highways that gradually wound their way up into the mountains. By the late afternoon, I was beginning to approach the snow-capped heights of the Rocky Mountains. I engaged once again in my not-safe practice of taking pictures while driving, which captured the images seen above. In my defense, these roads weren't exactly crowded way out here in eastern British Columbia.

I reached the town of Jasper at around 7:00 PM local time with the sun beginning to set behind the mountains in the west. The town of Jasper is a tiny banana-shaped settlement located within the much larger encompassing reaches of Jasper National Park. The houses of the town are situated within a bend of the Athabasca River and Jasper holds only about five thousand permanent residents year round, although in the summer the town's populace swells with visitors coming to see the national park. This was originally a fur trading outpost before the railroad came through and led to the development of a small settlement. Due to its location further to the north, Jasper doesn't get as many tourists as its better-known sibling towns of Lake Louise and Banff to the south, and I found Jasper to be a very pleasant place to visit. Even here at the height of the summer season it didn't feel crowded at all. It probably didn't hurt that towering mountains surrounded Jasper on every side, and there was a series of fluffy clouds hanging just above the town to give it a dramatic aura. It felt a little bit like I was flying up in the air while walking around the streets.

I also had the good luck to arrive at the same time that a train was stopping at the small station in Jasper to load and unload passengers. Yes, the railroad does still operate service through Jasper National Park, and there are some fantastic (and often fantastically expensive) trips that will take passengers across the Rockies by rail. While it would be a fun way to explore the region, I needed a rental car for this trip so that I could plot my own course through the park. For the moment, I was content to watch the train as it pulled away from the station a few minutes later.

With the dwindling daylight that I had remaining, I poked around the town with my car to try and take in some of the surrounding scenery. These pictures were taken at a location known as Old Fort Point, which I would guess originally held an old fort of some kind. The main draw here was the waters of the Athabasca River, which flow around the town as it winds its way through the forests. The level of the river was clearly higher than normal, suggesting that there had been heavy rains in the last few days. I was grateful that I had managed to avoid the rain on this trip, aside from that single downpour the previous day outside Vancouver. The river flowed underneath an old railway bridge here, which had been converted into use for automobiles as a one-lane bridge. It was the only man-made object in the middle of an otherwise purely natural landscape.

By contrast, this nearby lake had no flowing water and was quiet and still. The lake was so undisturbed that it looked like a pane of glass, a mirror reflecting back the sky above in the waters below. Up close though, I could see through the illusion and spot the rocky floor of the lake. This would have been a great spot to sit and rest for a little while, except that the still water also meant that the lake had a lot of mosquitos buzzing around. I wasn't inclined to let them take a bite out of me and headed onwards in short order.

This was where I would be staying for the next two nights, the Jasper International Hostel. It was located a little ways outside the town in the middle of the forest, and there was a warning on the door not to leave food outside because of bears roaming through the area. A good warning to have! The hostel was decorated rather like a hunting lodge, with a kitchen and common area on the top floor and then several large rooms with beds down in the basement. It was a relaxing place to stay and not overly crowded despite the summer tourist season. Most of the people staying at the hostel were either from Canada or western Europe, with a few Australians thrown into the mix. For whatever reason, I've found that few Americans seem to stay at hostels. They're a fantastic deal for young people traveling on a limited budget though; I think that the total cost of two nights in this hostel was about 50 dollars (a great deal even in 2012 prices).

I woke up early the next morning a little before 6:00 AM with the intention of being out on the trail as soon as the sun was up. This was my one day for hiking in Jasper National Park, and I was devoting it to traveling as much of the Skyline Trail as possible. As the name suggests, the Skyline Trail runs into the backcountry of the park along the top of a ridge of mountains. I've included a picture of the trail map above, which can be seen if you zoom in on the right side of the image. (Unfortunately there was a bit of a glare.) The Skyline Trail runs for 44 kilometers / 28 miles from the trailhead to its ending point at Maligne Lake. That was further than I could likely make it in one day, and even if I had been compelled to try, I had no way to make it back to my rental car parked at the trailhead. The only option would have been to try hitchhiking with a random stranger and that didn't seem like a good idea. I considered camping out on the trail and doing the hike over two days, but I didn't have any camping gear at all (having flown into Seattle), which ruled that out as an option. The best that I could do was hike as far as possible on the Skyline Trail and make a decision to turn around and head back to my car at some point. How far I would make it was an open question at this point. I intended to go as far as I could though.

The trail started out much like many others I had hiked in the past, a gravel path slowly heading upwards through a dense forest. It didn't take too long though before the path fell into disrepair. The "Skyline Trail" had become little more than a deer track through the wilderness, a muddy path with brush pressing in from both sides. It didn't look like anyone from the park service maintained this trail, or perhaps they only bothered to cut back the enveloping plants once per season. After the first two hours passed and I reached higher elevations, it grew increasingly foggy around me. I realized that I was ascending up into the clouds, and the lack of visibility was slightly unnerving. I was mostly worried about running into animals along the path, with early morning being one of the periods in which wildlife are most active. It wouldn't be a good idea to round a corner and stumble right into a bear wandering through - although that has actually happened to me once before while hiking! I grabbed a walking stick and spent the next hour or so singing out loud, just trying to make noise to keep any potential animals away. I certainly wasn't worried about running into other people, as the trail was utterly deserted.

As I climbed higher on the trail, I had been conscious of the fact that the deciduous trees were slowly being replaced by tougher evergreen trees as the elevation increased. Right around the time that I reached Signal Mountain, 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) into the hike, I finally burst free of the clouds and began to take stock of the landscape around me for the first time. I had reached the skyline portion of the trail at last, with the elevation too great to support trees throughout the year. It turned out that I was not only above the treeline, but above the clouds as well! There was a sea of fog enveloping the valley below, and I was up above it now, able to see out above the white clouds to the mountains on the other side. It truly felt like I was floating up in the sky now, and I still had several more hours before I would need to turn around. What a glorious morning.

Up here at the top of the skyline ridge, there were no more concerns about wild animals causing problems. I could see for miles in every direction and nothing was going to sneak up to me. I was glad that visibility was so good because the trail continued to proceed in a decrepit state. At some points it was nothing more than a muddy track winding through a meadow of grasses and mosses. There were also patches of snow anywhere that the sun had difficulty reaching, even here in July during the hottest months of the year. Further up above, the craggy face of the nearest mountain had more snow clinging to its barren slopes. The views were simply incredible from up here on the trail. It was a little bit like walking through a prarie with the open spaces on all sides, except of course for the jagged peaks surrounding this trail off in the distance.

Eventually I drew near to the next stopping point on the Skyline Trail, the campground known as Tekarra. This was approximately 14 kilometers / 9 miles from the starting trailhead, lurking in the shadows of a truly massive solitary mountain peak off to my right. Before I could reach Tekarra proper though, I had to cross this mountain stream that blocked the path forward. There was no bridge here, no walkway across the water bubbling and splashing over the rocks. I had no choice other than to ford through the stream, soaking my hiking shoes in the process. I think that the water level is lower most of the time, and that this stream doesn't provide as much of an obstacle on a typical day in the summer. I was very careful not to slip and fall since an injury out here would be about the worst place possible. As for Tekarra, it was the most bare-bones campground that I've ever seen. There were no facilities here, no structures at all, only a few worn down picnic tables and several bare patches of muddy ground where tents could be erected. This was a true wilderness location far away from civilization. I don't think that I would have wanted to spend the night here, I could have found a better spot to pitch a tent that wasn't quite so wet.

I was running out of time now since every step forward would have to be accompanied by another step back, and there were only so many hours of daylight available. I kept on going a little bit further beyond Tekarra though, wanting to see more of the trail before I had to turn back. The ground was flat here and make for easy walking, although I could see that it was becoming rocky again up ahead with lots of small stones scattered about. These were some of the prettiest pictures that I took while hiking, especially with the combination of the huge mountain off to one side and the small natural lake sitting at its foot. I had been hiking for close to six hours at this point and I'd seen exactly one person thus far heading the other way. It was about as remote and isolated of an experience as I can recall in my whole life, out there in the mountains by myself drinking in the feel of nature. I loved it and wished that I could have kept going, pushing on further.

Unfortunately I did have to turn back eventually. This was where I stopped, a completely nondescript part of the trail as it began to wind gently upwards again towards the next campground at Curator. As best I can tell, I made it about 3 kilometers / 2 miles beyond Tekarra before I had to turn back and begin the long return trek. I'll always wish that I could have gone further or found some way to make it through to the other end of the Skyline Trail. On the other hand, the path was about to become steep once again, and given how far I had to travel to make it back in one piece, I didn't want to push things too far.

I did not take many pictures on the way back down the trail. The afternoon was bright and sunny, with the morning fog entirely burned off now. I could even see the town of Jasper itself, a blurry collection of buildings nestled in between some of the towering peaks surrounding it. I did snap one or two pictures that capture the clear view looking down into the valley below, but that was all. I was too tired at this point to spend much time fiddling with the camera, and I had already seen this part of the trail on the way up. Fortunately I was mostly heading downhill on this part of the hike instead of uphill; nevertheless, I was covering a lot of terrain, and not on flat ground. Walking downhill for long stretches of time puts almost as much strain on the leg muscles as going uphill, if applied to different areas. I was listening to an Audiobook while I was doing this hike, and amusingly it was covering a party of the story where the main characters were on a long, exhausting journey by foot. I could certainly relate to that!

By the time that I reached the starting trailhead, it was just after 5:00 PM on the clock. I had been hiking for 11 straight hours with almost no interruption, covering a distance of roughly 34 kilometers / 22 miles. I know it was that far because of the distance indicators along the trail keeping track of my progress. That distance had also involved going up about 1000 meters of vertical elevation, and then coming back down again... and all of this on top of 11 hours of solo driving the day before. Let me tell you, I was absolutely exhausted by the time this was done. My feet have rarely hurt as much as they did this day, and I don't think I've ever been so glad to see a rental car. I had seen a grand total of five people on the trail in those 11 hours, two pairs and another solo traveler. I've rarely been so alone in all my time spent traveling.

And yet, as much as I wanted to curl up somewhere and sleep for a few days, I couldn't stop sightseeing just yet. I wanted to visit two beautiful mountain lakes contained in Jasper National Park, both of which were off to the east of the town. They would be far out of the way of my travel route for the following day, which meant that I needed to see them now or not at all. The first of these was Medicine Lake, the body of water with the greenish tint to it pictured above. Medicine Lake is known for changing its water level drastically over the course of the year, rising and falling by as much as 20 meters. In the summer, the runoff from melting snow forms this good-sized lake that stretches off into the distance. In the winter, however, it dries up almost completely and leaves only a small stream behind. When I visited the water level was far higher than normal, another sign that Jasper had gone through some heavy rainfall shortly before my arrival. The little wooden dock was overflowing, with water covering the bottom few steps, and a section of the road was washed out due to rising water. I could see the water behind the warning barriers, crashing over an area where cars would normally park. It was a good thing that I hadn't been around when all that water fell out of the sky.

It was the same story at Maligne Lake where the water level in the lake had risen up to engulf part of the picturesque boat house. The poor Coca-Cola machine was partially underwater, no drinks for anyone today! Maligne Lake sits at the end of the road that runs out of Jasper town, and it's the largest and most popular lake in the park. Maligne Lake is a narrow body of water that runs for about 22 kilometers / 14 miles from one end to another, fed by glacier runoff from the surrounding mountain peaks. This is a very popular location for taking boat tours, which I would have planned for the day if I hadn't devoted so much time to hiking. The views from the shore alone were breaktaking, looking out over the waters with the high mountains encircling the lake in every direction. This was a fitting place to end my sightseeing for the day, as Maligne Lake is where I would have ended up if I had hiked the Skyline Trail all the way to the finish.

There's one final look at the view from the Maligne Lake Chalet, a place to get a very nice meal for those who have the means. I was ravenously hungry at this point, and went back to Jasper town in order to pick up some dinner. This had been an extraordinarily busy day and I was ready to head back to the hostel and get some rest. From what I remember, I made an early evening of this particular day and went to sleep before 10:00 PM. That was the end of my last full day in Jasper National Park, which I had barely scratched the surface of seeing. There was so much more to the area that I would have liked to explore if I'd had more time available. As it was though, I would be moving on the next day along the Icefields Parkway that runs to the south, first stopping to get more views from a mountain overlooking Jasper before moving on to investigate some of the glaciers. My trip through the Canadian Rockies was only just beginning.