Jasper National Park, covering nearly 11,000 square miles, is the behemoth of the Canadian Rockies. Less fancy than Banff, its counterpart in the south, Jasper is for those that seek the wilderness, with thousands of back-country trails waiting to be discovered and some of North America's wildest animals.
It is also a place for the adventurous, with a smorgasbord of activities to keep even the most intrepid entertained. Indeed, as we set off in our RV from the cool city of Edmonton towards Jasper, the opportunity to have our first taste of some outdoor experiences was exciting us almost as much the epic scenery we were about to discover.
Here are five things you absolutely have to do in Jasper National Park.
Strap on a harness and climb
Don't. Look. Down.
Three little words you will inevitably hear when you engage in any activity that involves height. Yet, as easily as they roll off the tongue, as you hang suspended over the edge of a limestone cliff with only the quick hands of your guide standing between you and certain death should it all go wrong, they're not the the easiest words to follow.
Thankfully, as nerve wrecking as the descent can be (although, spoiler alert, it really is very safe), the climb up is so much more fun!
Prior to trying rock climbing in Jasper, besides the odd dalliance with an inside climbing wall, neither of us had ever embarked on an activity such as this. And certainly never in a place as stunningly beautiful as Jasper National Park.
With two hours to learn the difference between a belay and a bowline, to master the figure eight knot and conquer, and take on not one but three progressively more difficult routes, it was an intense and thrilling morning. There was swearing (Andrew forgot he was the only thing between my controlled descent and several broken bones at one point), blisters, and tired limbs. Moments of rest were taken whilst dangling above the turquoise waters of the lake below and new ways up sought out.
A stubborn refusal to give up meant that we reached the top, not once but on each successive occasion. It was a proud day for Along Dusty Roads - and the beginning of a new hobby.
Further details | We joined Rockaboo Mountain Adventures for their four hour 'Experience Rock Climbing' tour. This provided a wonderful introduction into an activity neither of us has had much experience of in the past and is perfectly suited to beginners.
For more information, or to make a reservations, see this link.
Go hard at whitewater rafting
'Paddle Forward. Paddle Hard. Paddle Hard. Lean in. Stop!"
We righted ourselves in the front of the raft, allowing the water that had somehow found an entry point between skin and tight velcro fastenings to make its way south - a quick gasp from Andrew when icy glacial water signalled that it had found a particularly sensitive area of his crotch.
This was our first time whitewater rafting together, and after a potent shot of caffeine had failed to provide the necessary wake-up call, speeding through grade III rapids on that crisp spring-like morning certainly did.
During moments of calm, as we bobbed along the Athabasca River from our drop in point further upstream, we chatted about life in the Canadian Rockies and took in the spectacular views that surrounded the raft. Snow-capped peaks, and deep-green forests, a female moose milling along the bank and the spectacular roar of as thousands of litres of water passed beneath us.
Exercise, adventure and the great outdoors.
Another morning well spent in Jasper.
Further information | We joined Jasper Rafting Adventures for their morning four hour Sunwapta River tour which includes exhilarating Grade II and III rapids, plus great guides.
See this link for further information.
Visit Lake Maligne
We didn't always have the best of weather during our time in Jasper, a situation encapsulated by our initial experience at Lake Maligne. This ethereal like glacial lake, with its aquamarine waters and mountain backdrop was nowhere to be seen when we first arrived, replaced instead with rolling mist and torrential downpours.
With a trusty weather app telling us that most of the national park was suffering a similar fate, we decided to hunker down in our RV and wait for the storm to pass - the reward after few cups of tea and hours later was more than worth it.
Months ago, when we were to think of Canada and its epic national parks, it was an image like the one above that came to mind. And so, our time spent at the water's edge, alone but for a handful of other stubborn tourists and a boat of local sport fishermen is not an experience we will soon forget.
The vast expanse of velvet-topped water reflecting snow capped peaks, a stillness both visible with the eye and the ear, and a serenity that you can only find once you have left the city far behind; we may not have seen Spirit Island, the lake's greatest secret, but after the storm passed, Maligne revealed a just why she is one of Jasper's greatest destinations.
Lake Maligne Boat Tours | Declared the 'Best Boat Ride in Canada' by 8 million Reader's Digest readers, this is an absolute must-do for visitors to Jasper, and anybody keen to catch a glimpse of the famous Spirit Island. Boats leave approximately every hour, with the last leaving at 2.45 p.m. Each tour lasts 1.5 hours. For further information, or to make a booking, see this link.
Hiking Trails | There are a number of hiking trails in the Lake Maligne area, from the relatively easy 2.7km Moose Lake Loop, to the infinitely more difficult 10.4km Bald Hills hike. Whichever you choose will depend heavily on available time and weather conditions, but all are spectacular in their own right.
Take a Food Tour in Jasper
19 years ago, Estelle hitched a ride from her native Quebec and wound up in Jasper. Working with the local tourism office for several years, she has now followed her dreams to create a business that shares not only the foodie scene in this tiny mountain town, but tells the stories of those that founded it and continue to make it prosper.
Taking place over three hours, covering four great restaurants , and providing you with enough food and drink to negate the need for lunch or dinner, it's a fantastic option for those who have a little longer in town, need a break from all the hiking, or are wondering what to do on a bad weather day.
Further information | Tours begin at 2.30 p.m. every day and last for three hours. Food portions are surprisingly large for a food tour, so definitely go without lunch, and be warned that the alcoholic drink served with each meal are full measures - definitely don't plan on driving anywhere after the tour as you will definitely be over the limit!
To check availability and book your place, follow this link.
Take the Skytram to the clouds
To walk amongst the snow-dusted Rockies was a dream fulfilled for us and, although we couldn't make it to any of the more rugged hiking trails which criss-cross Jasper, a trip up the Skytram made sure that we took in some of the best views possible in the national park.
From 2263 metres above sea level, we were privileged enough to look out upon the vast expanse of valleys and mountains which feel so typically Canadian in our minds. Visiting in the late afternoon in hope of golden hour (which unfortunately didn't come), we skipped the restaurant & cafe at the top to set out on the 'Summit Trail' walking route (clearly signposted) to the peak of Whistlers Mountain, which also has panoramic views of six surrounding mountain ranges.
Note that just because it feels like summer down below, up at this altitude it's always going to be more like winter - so take a jacket with you for any SkyTram visit as it's much chillier and windier up there!
Further information | Tickets for the SkyTram can be bought in advance here, and we strongly recommend doing it. We visited toward the end of the day, in not fantastic weather, and there was still quite a queue - if you've got a packed schedule like us, you'll not want to wait around for an empty ride! The trams depart every 9 minutes and it's recommended to arrive at the SkyTram site 15-20 minutes before your slot departes.
The Skytram is open March to October, with extended evening hours from May 18th to September 23rd.
Jasper National Park Accommodation
Whilst Jasper National Park itself is huge, the town of Jasper is relatively small, and accommodation options are somewhat limited. This means that if you plan on visiting (and want something a little fancier than a small plot to pitch your tent), you'll need to sort your accommodation as early as possible.
RV Parks and Campgrounds
We had the opportunity to spend time at two RV and camp grounds in Jasper, and can recommend them both
Whistler's Campground | Jasper National Park’s largest campsite, Whistler's Campground has 781 pitches and modern amenities including hot and cold running water, showers and electrical and full hook-up spots for RVs. At only 2 km away, it's also one of the closest grounds to the Jasper (note however that it is closed until spring 2020 due to a huge upgrade to the facilities).
Wabasso Campground | With spectacular views and a nearby gushing river, Wabasso (a 10-15 minute drive outside the town of Jasper) is the perfect choice for those who want a little more of a wilderness experience (confirmed by the presence of countless 'Bears are found in this area' signs dotted around the grounds!) but still like modern amenities, with electrical hook ups for RVs and hot showers for campers.
Hotels and Hostels
Maligne Lodge | Whilst this may look a little drab from the outside, this has large, comfortable and very well equipped rooms and proves itself to be a popular base from which to explore Jasper. Click here to check availability and prices.
Jasper Downtown Hostel | As the name suggests, this hostel is perfectly located slap bang in the middle of downtown Jasper, and near all the amenities you may need. Great rooms with privacy curtains, large and excellent kitchen and helpful staff. Click here to check availability and prices.
Located halfway up Whistler's Mountain, 7km away from the main town, HI Jasper suits those looking to connect with nature and other like-minded adventure seeking travellers. Good dorms (although 44 people in one room might be a little too much for some), well-equipped kitchen and excellent hiking right on your doorstep. It might not suit everyone, but many people love it. Click here to check availability and prices.
Jasper National Park Fees
Whilst there is absolutely plenty to do in Jasper alone, most people choose to combine a visit here with a few days in Banff National Park (with the epic Icefields Parkway drive on Highway 93 N easily linking the two parks), or the Canadian Rockies as a whole. This is good news when it comes to park fees, as you only require the purchase of a single 'Park Pass'!
A pass can be purchased for either a certain number of days at a per day rate or as an annual subscription, and covers all National Parks in Alberta (Banff, Elk Island, Jasper, Waterton Lakes) and British Columbia (Glacier, Kootenay, Mount Revelstoke, Pacific Rim and Yoho).
The cost for one adult per day is $9.80 CAD, which if you're travelling for sometime can certainly add up, in which case an annual subscription for one individual may be a better idea at $67.70 CAD (or $136.40 CAD for a family/group).
Note that if you're arriving with public transport or as part of a. tour, you do not need to purchase a park pass; it only applies if you are arriving in your own (or rental) vehicle.
What About Bears?
It's not surprising that we both really REALLY hoped to see a bear whilst driving around Jasper; alas they remained well hidden from us. However, every single visitor to Jasper National Park (and all of Canada's national parks for that matter) should take the issue of how to stay safe and respectful within the habitat of these wild animals very seriously.
Upon entry to the park, you should be issued with leaflets about things to know and things to avoid when seeing an animal in the park - please read this information and digest it at the beginning of your visit.
For more advice on how to act, read 'Safe Travel in Bear Country'.