Hiking to the top of Jasper National Park

Two million people visit the park each year, but only a tiny fraction trek into the breathtaking backcountry of the 44km Skyline Trail.

Standing on Jasper National Park’s Skyline Trail, exhausted from shouldering a 13kg backpack for two days, I looked far ahead to where the route became a faint, jagged line running straight up the face of the mountain.

“That’s where we’re going – the Notch,” said my guide Sarah Peterson. I’m sure she could see the doubt in my eyes, because she added: “It’s going to be really hard, but I promise you the view is worth it.”  The 44km Skyline Trail is one of the most beautiful – and challenging – stretches of the park’s 1,000km of trails. The route gains 1,380m in elevation and reaches the highest point of any hiking trail in Jasper, the Notch, at 2,511m above sea level.

I had good reason to attempt the journey. Along with neighbouring Banff, Jasper is a Unesco World Heritage site, recognised for its beauty, animal and plant life, and staggering variety of landscapes, including glaciers, alpine meadows, steaming hot springs, cerulean lakes and some of the highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains.

But the wilderness faces threats. Last year, despite opposition from environmental groups, the glass-bottomed Glacier Skywalk was built overlooking the park’s Sunwapta Valley, 103km south of the town of Jasper. And this year, Parks Canada approved a plan for 15 new glamping-style campsites and a day lodge at the mostly undeveloped Maligne Lake – a move many fear will set a precedent for further development.

Yet none of that dampened my enthusiasm. While Jasper receives two million visitors every year, the Skyline Trail – thanks to a short summer hiking season from July to late September, and only 40 tent sites spread over seven campgrounds – sees only 2,500 people annually. I wanted to be one of them.

Because we had no backcountry experience, my friend Annemarie and I enlisted a guide from Canadian Skyline Adventures, the only Jasper-based outfitter that leads hikes of the Skyline Trail. Together with Peterson, we set out from the route’s southern end, the mountain-ringed Maligne Lake, the longest and deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies, and soon were winding our way through a fragrant forest. Peterson pointed out indigenous plants and their medicinal uses and offered edible berries like tiny blueberries, miniature strawberries and buffalo berries –a bear favourites she picked just off the trail.

The three of us were soon passed by several packs of runners – marathoners and ultra-marathoners who somehow manage to complete the trail in a single day. As they disappeared into the forest, I heard loud whoops and whistles echoing off the trees.

“You never want to surprise a bear,” Peterson said, explaining their warning sounds. Along with elk, caribou, moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, marmots, grey wolves and black bears, Jasper is home to an estimated 120 grizzlies. Carrying bear spray is highly recommended, but the first lines of defence are hanging food at night, making warning noises on the trial and, should we encounter a bear, avoiding eye contact and trying to appear small and nonthreatening.

After a lunch stop 5km in at Evelyn Creek, the fir, spruce and pine trees we’d been hiking past were replaced with colourful wildflowers and lichen-covered rocks. Chubby marmots darted across our path. By 3pm, we’d descended to the valley floor, where a rock-strewn river led to the night’s camp at Snowbowl, a 7km-long lush meadow at the base of the Maligne range.

While some people complete the hike in two days or stretch it to four or five, we chose the more popular three-day option, which meant covering 19km on day two. So the next morning, we shouldered our packs and began a long ascent through a flower-filled meadow to Big Shovel Pass, named after a 1911 expedition party was blocked by snow and had to fashion shovels from trees to dig a path for the horses.

We cleared the pass, stopped for lunch at Curator Lake and then faced the trail’s biggest challenge: the near-vertical 2km climb up the side of Amber Mountain to the Notch. Peterson estimated that it’d take us two hours to reach the top. Even then, we’d still have to hike another 11km before reaching camp for the night.

We started slowly, picking our way around boulders that dotted – and at times obscured – the narrow trail. My legs burned as we pushed up dozens of dizzying switchbacks and hazards like loose scree and unsteady rocks. The trail occasionally deteriorated into crude stairs – small footholds that tilted vertiginously toward a precipitous slope. I seemed to be making little progress, but each time I stopped to catch my breath and quiet my screaming muscles, I could see the lake below growing smaller, and the views of the silver mountains around us expanding in every direction.

Two hours later, we managed to make the final steps to the top of the Notch. Tears of relief filled my eyes as I soaked in the 360-degree view of sawtooth peaks stretching to the horizon. We could see almost the entire park, the town of Jasper looking like a miniature playset far below, and six different mountain ranges jutting skyward in shades of green, rust and grey. Among them, I spotted snow-capped Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. We conceded to Peterson that, yes, the view was well worth the effort.

During our gruelling ascent, the clouds had darkened ominously and now they began to unleash small shards of ice into the cold wind.

“Is that hail?” I asked.

Peterson nodded. Hail and snow weren’t uncommon, even in summer, she said. We didn’t want to be caught in a thunderstorm above the treeline; we’d be even more exposed to lightning. Fuelled by the rush of our accomplishment, we hurried along the barren ridgeline past the peak of Amber Mountain and began the long descent, skirting deep pockets of snow.

That night, we shared the campground with only one other group, the last humans we saw until we reached the trail’s end the following day. 

We covered no fewer than 44km in three days, and when we finally reached civilization, I felt like I could sleep for weeks. Yet I savoured a sense of accomplishment. With sweat, sore muscles and a few tears, I’d earned my admission into some of Jasper’s most beautiful places.

Experienced hikers can trek the Skyline Trail independently. Canadian Skyline Adventures guides groups from one to six people, accepts children as young as 10 and offers custom and private tours. Campground reservations are essential.