Jasper National Park: Skyline Trail

Go to hiker heaven on Canada’s finest high-country path.
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Go to hiker heaven on Canada’s finest high-country path.

Little Shovel Pass made me a backpacker. Not the occasional-weekend- in-the-woods type, but the guzzledthe- Kool-Aid-and-asked-for-a-bigger-cup variety who daydreams in meetings and haunts the discount racks at REI and who, in 1997, accepted a 25-percent pay cut—with a baby on the way—to take an assistant editor job at this magazine.

I’d hiked plenty of miles before tackling Jasper’s Skyline Trail. With my wife, I’d explored New England’s forests, bumped into bears in the Olympics, and sweated out sections of the Appalachian Trail. But the panorama that unfolded at 7,347 feet atop the switchbacks of Little Shovel Pass—and the way-abovetreeline views that slackened our jaws all the way to Centre Lakes—were a eureka moment.

Before, I’d seen backpacking as a pleasant, wallet-friendly escape from the rat race. After hiking that 10.8-mile stretch—and realizing just how soul-stirring a grand landscape can be—the pursuit of mountain scenery became a way of life. The Skyline today has tight quotas— the price of fame and a fragile alpine environment—but it rivals a Grand Canyon rafting permit in worth-thewait payoff.

Tracing ridges strewn with cinquefoil, pulsatilla, and lupine, the 27.6-mile Maligne Range traverse dips into fragrant spruce and lodgepole forest haunted by caribou and black bears for a few miles at start and finish, and at five backcountry campsites. Smack in the middle—on those 10.8 miles—you’ll ramble across the most sustained stretch of tundra this side of Denali, serenaded all the way by pikas and marmots.

Watch for bear activity; we saw a grizzly-excavated hole that looked like the work of a backhoe. Keep your eyes to the horizon, too: From Little Shovel Pass to the Snowbowl to Shovel Pass to The Notch to Amber Mountain’s descent to Centre Lakes, the ever-improving vistas take in everything that draws photographers to the Canadian Rockies. Maligne Lake’s glacier-blue waters—so brilliantly azure they transcend every cliché.

Thousands of acres of icefields flowing through notches in the massifs that tower above the Athabasca Valley to the west. The shark-toothed Queen Elizabeth Ranges to the east. And—from The Notch—the hulking giants of Mts. Edith Cavell (11,033 feet) and Robson (at 12,927 feet, British Columbia’s highest peak). Whatever you do, budget three days for the Skyline. The middle might be the slowest 10 miles you ever hike.

—Jonathan Dorn

PERFECT 10 MILES Skyline Trail from Little Shovel Pass to Centre Lakes

MAPS Gem Trek Jasper and Maligne Lake ($10, gemtrek.com)

PERMITS Required. ($9.80 CDN per person per day plus reservation fee and park pass, see Contact)

CONTACT (780) 852-6177; pc.gc.na

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 42.2

Waypoints

HUM001

Location: 46.286397, -122.271725

Hummocks trailhead

HUM002

Location: 46.285749, -122.271588

Interpretive sign-destruction

HUM003

Location: 46.284847, -122.270249

Interpretive sign

HUM004

Location: 46.284042, -122.269611

Interpretive sign

HUM005

Location: 46.281493, -122.267567

Bench

HUM006

Location: 46.280738, -122.268127

Interpretive sign-water

HUM007

Location: 46.27895, -122.265735

Junction with Boundary Trail; turn right to continue on Hummocks Loop

HUM008

Location: 46.278927, -122.265828

Interpretive sign-debris avalanche

HUM009

Location: 46.280593, -122.274431

Spur trail left to North Toutle River viewpoint

HUM010

Location: 46.280385, -122.275112

North Toutle River

HUM011

Location: 46.281971, -122.27512

Trail fork: right

HUM012

Location: 46.282565, -122.275813

Beaver pond and dam

HUM013

Location: 46.284461, -122.277214

Bench

HUM014

Location: 46.286789, -122.272042

Hummocks Trail end

Hummocks Trail

Location: 46.282354, -122.267468

Volcano View

Location: 46.278824, -122.266181

Hummocks Trail

Location: 46.278987, -122.271245

North Fork Toutle

Location: 46.280263, -122.275

Beaver Tree

Location: 46.282784, -122.276137