Perfect 10: Skyline Trail, Jasper National Park, Alberta
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 guzzled-the-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.
PERFECT 10 Skyline Trail from Little Shovel Pass to Centre Lakes
DO IT Allot 3-4 days so you can linger up high. Reserve campsites at least three months ahead. Leave a car at the Signal Mountain trailhead and hitchhike or shuttle to your start at Maligne Lake’s north shore. 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