Jasper National Park, Canada: Take a walk on Alberta's wild side

 It's a late October afternoon and I'm white-knuckling it across the Icefields Parkway, past iridescent lakes and mountains, dry and brown, occasionally illuminated by sunlight passing through patchy blue sky that still warms the skin against the ice of Alberta's famous Columbia Icefield, which I reach dead on four. The carpark is buzzing with busloads of tourists and, as I race through them towards the door of the visitors' centre, I realise is bolted shut, a red sign hanging ominously from the window.

"But it's 4pm," I protest to its darkened doors, behind which I can faintly make out the figure of a woman sweeping.

Despite the cacophony of tourists at the visitors' centre and everywhere else, this red sign appeared with alarming regularity at sights along Canada's most famous drive and, at the end of this very week, a great deal of it would be closed for winter.

Even the wildlife I'd been promised had turned tail and made tracks to secret places of hibernation.

It looked as though I would not be going on Jasper's Glacial Skywalk - the national park's newest attraction - today. But as I continue along the road towards Jasper, hours of daylight still ahead of me, I watch as the road emptied of tourists and realised I was more than OK with this, with  the scenery of canyons, rivers and lakes and its mob-free thundering waterfalls.

And as my hosts tell me later that evening, the new Skywalk means even fewer tourists make it out to Jasper, raising the visitor count in Banff, arguably the centre of the Canadian Rockies, and creating a circus-like atmosphere there, with busloads of tourists swarming in from Calgary on day trips. Far fewer visitors make it to the stately, wide spaces of Jasper.

Maybe this warms the welcome, for I'm staggered by the hospitality of my hosts at Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge, in the heart of Jasper and within walking distance of a tremendous noose-shaped waterfall in a canyon carved deep by the icy-blue water. The canyon is filled atmospherically with tumble-down firs and on one morning, a moose makes a rare appearance.

In a few days this lodge, too, will be closed for the winter; the restaurant, renowned for its first-class Canadian cuisine including delicious local trout and strawberry pie - is already closed by 8pm, emptied of customers; the kiosk is half packed away, and remaining staff chatter about their plans to travel south, while the affable owner spruiks Jasper's sights. "If you want the true Canadian Rockies experience, you must go to Mount Edith Cavell," he urges. And, as I'm driving up the winding mountain road in the early hours the next morning, I am beginning to see why.

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It's 8.30am and the sun has just risen but, even so, it's still a dull morning, with the sun losing its battle with cloud cover. On the odd occasion it succeeds, it lights  up the Jasper landscape like a spotlight on a stage, before disappearing again behind the vast and murky sea of green trees, some of which have already lost their leaves.  Lakes loom by the roadside, still and quiet, reflecting the stone-brown mountaintops waiting to be blanketed with snow.

The road to Edith Cavell is refreshingly empty and, when I reach the summit, I have it to myself.

It's a 20 minute walk to the Angel Glacier, which hangs from Edith Cavell like a giant tongue, over an icy-blue glacial pool complete with icebergs bobbing, looking like a scene out of Antarctica. The size of it becomes clear after you learn that a fraction of it fell away that was the size of Toronto's CN tower. It's a popular spot for grizzly bears - though polars would not feel out of place. I'm half hoping I'll see one, silently trudging across the dry rocky mountainscape but, alone, I'm glad I don't.

 

Oh how small one feels below the mighty Angel Glacier at Mount Edith Cavell. Photo by @pangeaproductions #MyJasper

A photo posted by Jasper, Canada (@tourismjasper) on

But I cannot wait for the appearance of one of Jasper's more popular residents as a marvel and a mystery awaits. . 

Stretching across a significant portion of the Maligne Lake road, Medicine Lake befuddled the First Nation's people by draining like a bathtub during summer. But it wasn't magic making the water disappear - it was glacial runoff, leaving a nine kilometre lick of water like the world's longest puddle in warmer weather, reflecting sunlight as far as the eye can see.

And that's exactly how the lake, a geological anomaly, looks as winter draws close. As I drive along its expansive length, I note its moon-like landscape, dotted with small pockets of alpine trees where fire has left them bearing muted colours of red, and black and yellow.

Nearby Maligne Canyon is also a spectacular sight. Glacial-fed water has etched an abyss 50 metres deep - you can hike its interconnected stairs, pathways and bridges which take you to its rugged end of gnarly old trees and mossy rocks. For a moment I wished it was winter when the water turns to ice and you can take Canada's coolest hike through the icicle-filled frozen canyon.

The road to Lake Maligne guides you through more rocky terrain, winding past ice-blue lakes so characteristic of the Canadian landscape, skinny pine forests and gushing rivers. At  Lake Maligne, the wind is whipping up the water and the boat tours that take you to the heavily-photographed Spirit Island, also touted by my host are - you guessed it - closed for winter.

As Spirit Island is clearly off limits and the rain starts to fall, I pull my jacket closer and beat a hasty retreat to the warmth of the car.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

jasper.travel

GETTING THERE

Air Canada, Virgin and Qantas fly to Vancouver, with connecting flights to Calgary or Edmonton. From Edmonton, it's a three and a half hour drive to Jasper; from Calgary, it's a four and a half hour drive to Jasper via the Icefields Parkway. See qantas.com, virginaustralia.com and aircanada.com, virginaustralia.com

STAYING THERE

Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge has cosy log cabins and a fantastic restaurant, Endless Chain dining room, right in the heart of Jasper National Park, in walking distance from Sunwapta Falls; sunwapta.com

Whistlers Inn, in central Jasper, 105 Miette Ave, Jasper, whistlersinn.com

En route to Jasper stay in Calgary at The Westin Calgary, 320 4th Avenue SW, Calgary, Alberta westincalgary.com

Kylie McLaughlin was a guest of Destination Canada

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