Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Wildest Winter Canyon Hike in the Canadian Rockies

I love winter canyon hikes and the more ice the better!  So imagine how excited I was to finally hike the wild and crazy Maligne Canyon in Jasper this winter with frozen waterfalls over 30 metres tall!  While ice climbers love this canyon, you don't have to be a climber to strap on a pair of ice cleats, crawl through the summer fence, and make your way down into the canyon.  And, the canyon is only 10 minutes away from the town of Jasper on a good road.  Wait, what's that noise you say?  Oh, that's Spring Break calling and Jasper is less than a 5 hour drive from Calgary.

Hiking Maligne Canyon
Calgarians tend to flock to Banff on the weekends, leaving folks from Edmonton and Northern Alberta to explore Jasper on their own.  And while I get that, and agree that Banff is much closer, Jasper is just too beautiful not to visit at least once a year.  As a bonus, you get to drive the incredible Icefields Parkway en route to Jasper with places like Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, and the Athabasca Glacier available for short hikes to stretch the legs.

Bow Lake En Route to Jasper
Peyto Lake View Point En Route to Jasper
Hiking at the Athabasca Glacier En Route to Jasper

The incredible Maligne Canyon Ice Walk:  

We spent the weekend in Jasper and went skiing, skating, and snowshoeing.  What stood out to me though was the hike through Maligne Canyon.  We've done cute little canyon hikes near Calgary that were fun but had never done anything like this canyon before.  It was borderline sketchy with kids - I won't lie.  And I honestly don't think anybody without GOOD ice cleats should even be in that canyon at all!  And by good ice cleats, I mean microspikes (walking crampons) or full on climbing crampons.  Yak Trax and other icers aren't really good enough for the steep ice in Maligne Canyon.  Without some kind of crampons or spikes, you'll be sliding all of the steep pitches on your bum and you'd want to be wearing a helmet.

Spikes Vs. Icers -  Guess which won?

Where does this put kids on the danger scale when doing Maligne Canyon in winter?  Well, you pretty much need a one to one ratio of adults to children.  And it doesn't hurt to have extra adults on hand as well.  There were sections where we had to pass kids down sections with one adult at the top, and one at the bottom.   The adults responsible for the kids should also be wearing spikes.  I felt 100% comfortable in the canyon with our son because both my husband and I were wearing our microspikes.  I could have jumped off of a waterfall if I had wanted to.  We saw another family in the canyon carrying a baby and they were wearing full climbing crampons - pretty much necessary if you are carrying an infant or toddler.

Trying to demonstrate how good my spikes were - yes, I'm jumping!

Passing the kids down a slot
In the end, I won't judge your family for the decisions you make, and hope that goes both ways.  We are all responsible individually for the decisions we make.  We put a helmet on our son, and would wear helmets ourselves next time as well to prevent injuries from falling ice.  We had spikes on and we wouldn't do the trip with anything less.  We are definitely doing the canyon again next year, and will be doing it as a family trip again.

What else can you expect in the canyon along with ice and towering waterfalls?  Lots of water!  I'm not sure if it was abnormally wet this February when we hiked the canyon, but there was a LOT of water.  I'd actually consider wearing rubber boots next time instead of winter boots.  On the plus side, I did discover that my boots are 100% waterproof as my socks weren't the slightest bit wet at the end of our trip (and we were all ankle deep in cold water.)  I can't say the rest for the others in our group though.  We tried our best to lift the kids over deep water sections but it was inevitable that they'd get wet feet.

Thank you to whoever built the bridge through this section.  It was necessary!!
Finally, if you want to do the hike when the canyon is empty of people, go around noon.  Tour groups fill the canyon so that you rarely have a moment to stop or enjoy the scenery around you without having to keep moving or step to the side to let 50 people pass.  There's also a feeling like you shouldn't be down there without being on the tour!  (at least that's the impression I got from the guides.)   Meanwhile, if you go around noon, the morning tours are on their way back to their buses, and the afternoon tours are just leaving Jasper.  You'll have the canyon all to yourself at this time of day!

A rare moment where we had the canyon to ourselves


Directions to the canyon

From Jasper, head east on Hwy 16 for 2km until you reach the turnoff for Maligne Lake Road.  Turn right and follow the Maligne Lake Road until you reach the signed upper parking lot for Maligne Canyon, approximately 6km from Jasper.  Note, you can also start from 5th bridge, but we chose to start from 1st bridge at the top of the canyon.

Follow the popular tourist trail through the canyon past the second bridge on the summer trail that goes above the canyon  (You'll bypass the first bridge unless you start from the far end of the parking lot.)  The trail should be signed as trail #7.  Cross the second bridge and follow the trail until you find a good way to enter the canyon.  Here is where I leave route finding to you.  I'd rather not be held responsible for giving you inaccurate information and I honestly can't remember the exact spot we chose to get into the canyon.  I do know that we snuck through a summer fence that tour companies had taken apart.  We figured if they could do it, so could we. 

Ice Falls
Playing in an ice cave in the canyon
We hiked up the canyon a ways until we reached a sign that told us very clearly that we should proceed no further.  I like signs and warnings, so we turned around.  We hiked back to our starting point and decided to go down stream a ways to see if we could hike any further.  We did notice that the  tour companies weren't following us but it was actually a LOT easier than the previous part we had already done upstream. 

The photo at left shows the only challenge in going further down stream.  A small slot in the canyon required a bit of light scrambling.  Apparently the tour companies aren't allowed to do this section with their clients but we found it to be easy peasy - even with the kids.  And certainly safer than the previous section with huge chunks of ice threatening to drop on us.

The final waterfalls where we left the canyon
We exited the canyon and made our way back to our vehicles when we reached the beautiful waterfall in the photo above.  We did try to go a bit further but were turned around by open water flowing in the creek.  At this point it was extremely easy to get out of the canyon and many families were choosing to enter the canyon at this point to hike upstream.  The only challenge with that would be climbing UP the slot we slid down.  Much harder.

Beautiful Ice in the Canyon
Ice Cave Fun
Overall, it was a very exciting tour and I am SOOOO excited to go back again next year and repeat the tour.  We chose to do the hike ourselves to cut costs BUT if you don't feel 100% safe about doing the trip without a guide, there are several companies to choose from in Jasper who'd be more than happy to take your family into the canyon and ensure you are kept safe on your trip.  I can't endorse any specific company but Tourism Jasper has a list of companies you can choose from.  Some companies won't take children under 7 years of age but I can't speak for all of them.

Disclaimer:  There are risks associated with all sports in the mountains.  By choosing to do this trip with your family, you take those risks on yourself and I am merely sharing a story about our family's adventures.  I repeat again, that if you don't feel comfortable being in the canyon with your kids, please hire a guide.  Play safe everybody!

So cool to be IN the canyon
Finally, I want to say thanks to the tour companies who made it possible for us to be in the canyon.  I am positive that you are the wonderful people who placed the strategically located bridges throughout the canyon that helped keep our feet dry.  We also followed your example to get down into the canyon at the gap in the fence. While we might not have always been able to stay out of your way, we did try our best to keep moving so that your clients didn't have to wait on us.


  1. Thanks to your detailed article we had an amazing time in Maligne canyon this weekend!
    We arrived at 8:45 at the parking of bridge number 5 and were the first ones in the canyon (the first guided tour leave Jasper at 9). We walked up on the side of the river up to the falls. Shortly further we entered the canyon. We were 2 adults with 2 kids (7 and 2 1/2) wearing crampons (except for the 2 year old) and helmets. We also brought ski poles that enabled us to check for soft spots in the ice. We were able to walk the canyon up to the 3rd bridge then couldn’t go further, we would have needed more specialized equipment for that. It was an amazing experience to be in the canyon, it was beautiful and fun to hike; my daughter of 7 loved it and said it was like a giant natural obstacle course!
    The boots, snowpants and mittens of the kids did get wet (they had fun sliding down a few slushy ice slides!), we should have followed Tanya’s advice and wear insulated waterproof boots (like Bogs). But I had spare mittens and socks in the back pack and it didn’t ruin the fun. We stopped in Jasper on the way back to dry the kids clothes at SnowDome Coffee Bar and got a great hot chocolate, coffee and muffin at the same place!
    It took us about 3 1/4 hours to hike and come back to bridge number 5 parking. We took our time (had to help the 2 year old in many spots!) and stopped for a snack and playing in caves or natural ice slides. We did encounter 2 guided groups but got out of their way. On the way back, we saw many more people hiking up. I recommend going early morning to have the canyon to yourself!
    Thank you Tanya for your detailed blogs, they have been very helpful to me many times and here again, made us discover an extraordinary place as a family!
    Isabelle Lemée, living in St-Albert AB

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words and I'm glad you had such a great time. I need to go back again soon.