A rail journey through the Canadian Rockies typically concludes at one of two ever-impressive destinations: Banff National Park or Jasper National Park. These protected lands sit with Yoho and Kootenay National Parks to form the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site. Millions of tourists are amazed by their eternal beauty and pictorial landscapes yearly.
The biggest of them all, Jasper National Park, shines as a stunning example of the wonders one can behold when the terrain is left to nature. Whether you have weeks here or your time is limited to just a few days, here are eight fantastic things to do in Jasper, from its townsite to deep in the backcountry. Pick and choose, or do them all; either way, you are sure to leave the park with a newfound appreciation for the Rockies and their offerings.
1. Ride the Jasper Skytram
Canada's longest and highest guided aerial tramway awaits in Jasper National Park. It takes seven minutes to climb from the base station at the bottom of Whistler's Peak to the Summit Station. While the gondolas do not reach the actual summit of the mountain, you are transported high above the tree line into an alpine world where mountain views reign supreme, and there is no lack of gorgeous sights.
Approximately 20 passengers - including a flight attendant - can ride in each Skytram car. Commentary regarding the passing scenery or answers to pressing questions fill each minute of the journey to the top. The line climbs to approximately 7,425 feet, unveiling panoramic views of six mountain ranges, glacier-fed lakes, sweeping valleys, and the town of Jasper as you reach the top. Upon disembarking the car, you are welcome to soak in the vistas once more from the boardwalk or hike one of the many mountainside trails. There is also a gift shop and a quaint eatery to grab a bite before you descend.
2. Hike Maligne Canyon
Regardless of your athletic ability, hiking Maligne Canyon should top your list as one of the best things to do in Jasper. This canyon is the deepest in the park, plunging more than 160 feet into the earth at some points. While this may sound intimidating, accessing its most scenic points is easy, thanks to a series of six bridges.
Bridges one and two offer the calmest trek and are the most easily accessible, while bridge six provides the most intense hiking experience. Those visitors looking for magnificent views of a waterfall should select bridge three. The fourth bridge showcases water flowing into the canyon from an underground cave system. While more difficult than bridges one and two, bridge five offers an enjoyable trek over the river with fewer fellow hikers. Each path promises a unique vantage point over the canyon views.
Visitors may not know this natural site is perhaps even more impressive during the long winter months. All the canyon's water freezes over, creating frozen waterfalls, ice caves, and fantastic ice formations. The hiking paths remain open during this time; however, for your safety, it is best to set out into the canyon with a guide during the winter.
3. Look at the Stars Over the Canadian Rockies
Jasper National Park was named a Dark Sky Preserve in 2011 and has worn that badge proudly for over a decade. The park is the second-largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world and is easily the most accessible, thanks to the proximity of Jasper's townsite. For visitors, this means sightseeing does not end when the sun drops behind the mountains.
Millions of stars overtake the horizon as the sky darkens, and constellations you may never have known existed are displayed. Spring and summer visitors may even be treated to views of the Milky Way on clear nights. Visiting during fall and winter opens the skies to new possibilities, including that of the aurora borealis, whose colorful show occurs between October and May. Head to Maligne Lake, Pyramid Lake, Athabasca Falls, or the Columbia Icefield for the best stargazing.
4. Venture into the Town of Jasper
Downtown Jasper holds its own regarding tourism in Jasper National Park. Unlike other resort towns throughout Canada, this town has a delightful small-town feel. Approximately 4,200 people live here throughout the year, so typical accommodations, like parks, an activity center, a library, and a charming fire station, sit aside tourist attractions.
Much of downtown Jasper's central business district is split between Connaught Drive and Patricia Street, though there are attractions throughout the town. During your visit, set out on foot to explore the array of restaurants and breweries or pop into one of the many shops to purchase your ideal souvenir. For an added bit of fun, keep your eyes peeled for the three Jasper the Bear statues throughout the town as you explore.
5. Visit Athabasca Falls
The sheer power of the Athabasca River comes to a head at Athabasca Falls. This beautiful class-five waterfall is located along Icefields Parkway, and the walk to get to it is quick and easy. Park in the lot right off the scenic byway, then join one of the mostly flat trails for impeccable views of the water rushing through a narrow gap in quartzite rocks. There is even a pedestrian bridge over the top of the river from which you can enjoy fantastic views of the river and falls. For a bit more of a challenge, join the path that ventures down a stone staircase to the bottom of the falls. Even if you explore both courses, you are looking at a hike less than a mile in length.
6. Join One of the Wildlife-seeking Guided Tours
Jasper National Park is a haven for countless species of mammals and birds, and the further you get into nature, the more likely you are to see them. With over 4,300 square miles of protected land within the park, there is plenty of space for them - and you - to roam. Moose, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, grizzly bears, black bears, and wolves are among the largest animals roving the land. Bald eagles soar overhead, and smaller creatures like marmots and pika hide amongst the rugged terrain.
The best way to see Jasper's wildlife is by joining one of many guided tours that set out into the backcountry. Headed by a knowledgeable guide, learn about the park's flora and fauna and discover animal hotspots. Your guide is an invaluable source of information about the mammals you encounter, their habitats, and the conservation efforts within the park to ensure the species thrive for generations to come.
7. Hop Between Lakes in the Park
Beautiful lakes abound throughout the park, primarily due to the glacial ice that covered the Athabasca River basin during the ice age. What remains in Jasper are over 1,700 bodies of water tucked throughout the landscape; however, only about 100 have names. Amongst the most popular include:
- Pyramid Lake - With Pyramid Mountain looming in the backdrop and a tree-clad island accessible only via a wooden bridge, Pyramid Lake is a favorite amongst tourists. As a bonus, this lake is located less than 10 minutes from downtown.
- Maligne Lake - Brilliant turquoise water surrounded by majestic peaks greets visitors at Maligne Lake. Spirit Island is one of the most popular attractions here and is so scenic that it has become one of the most photographed islands in Canada. You can see it for yourself by renting a canoe or joining a scenic cruise.
- Medicine Lake - Imagine a scenic lake surrounded by rocky beaches and mountain ridges that only exists for a portion of the year. Welcome to Medicine Lake. Medicine Lake drains into a system of underground caves annually and becomes an empty crater. Whether the water is there or not, this shallow lake is an inspiring sight to behold.
8. Explore the Columbia Icefield
Traveling along Icefields Parkway toward Lake Louise opens up some of the most amazing views in Jasper National Park. Look over snow-capped mountain peaks and rolling valleys that give way to turquoise lakes and evergreen forests. Columbia Icefield, home to Athabasca Glacier, is the center of all this. One glimpse at this 10,000-year-old sheet of ice will show why it is one of the top things to do in Jasper.
Board a giant Ice Explorer to venture onto the glacier and enjoy the opportunity to walk around and touch the ice for yourself. Listen to facts about the formation of this region and the glacier itself, as presented by your guide. Touch melted glacial water while looking over otherworldly views. Your visit to Columbia Icefields can also include a visit to the Glacier Discovery Center and a walk on the glass walkway perched over 900 feet above the Sunwapta Valley.
One of the best things about taking a train vacation to Jasper National Park is that every season is a great time to visit. Summer brings outdoor adventures aplenty, including hiking, mountain biking, and easy access to all the abovementioned experiences. Winter, shrouded in its white cloak, adds an exciting dimension to the landscape and changes the views to make them that much more jaw-dropping. And with the right gear, you can accomplish almost anything that you would do in the summer months.
Join Vacations By Rail in exploring this Rocky Mountain treasure. Our itineraries include seasonal adventures that showcase the park in its winter glory, like the Canadian Snow Train With Jasper tour, and tours that explore both Jasper and Banff National Parks, including the Canadian Rockies By Rail journey. Contact a Rail Specialist to find the perfect rail vacation to unlock the wonders of the Rockies.