Monday, February 23, 2015

Winter Road Trip to Jasper National Park

As a child living in Northern Alberta, Jasper National Park was our closest mountain destination for ski weekends and family vacations in summer.  Living in Southern Alberta now though, we rarely get up to Jasper and tend to explore Kananaskis or Banff on weekends instead.

Paradise found in Jasper National Park at Medicine Lake

Geography and the Icefields Parkway

The town of Jasper is located 412 km north west of Calgary or 364 km straight west from Edmonton.  In summer, it's pretty easy to access via the Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise but in winter this road is often snow covered, closed for avalanche control, or just plain treacherous.  We still make the trek once every winter or two but snow tires are a must, four wheel drive is really nice to have, and it's even advised that you have chains on your tires when conditions are less than ideal.

The route from Calgary to Jasper can be seen here on Google Maps and more information on driving the Icefields Parkway can be found here on the Parks Canada Icefields Parkway Travel Guide.  There's a great map and winter brochure that can be downloaded from the Parks Canada site too.

Driving the scenic Icefields Parkway to Jasper

Hostelling in Jasper

We usually try to find affordable accommodations when we travel so more often than not, you'll find us bunked down at a wilderness hostel.  Jasper National Park has 4 wilderness hostels and we'd stayed at almost all of them until our recent trip when we finally stayed at the HI Maligne Canyon Hostel to complete our Jasper Hostelling experience.  We chose Maligne Canyon as our base camp for one main reason - proximity to the famed Maligne Canyon Ice Walk.  Now that we've explored the area more, I can also say that the hostel is well situated for amazing snowshoeing and winter hiking.  I'd go back any day just to snowshoe at nearby Medicine Lake.

HI Maligne Canyon Hostel

HI Maligne Canyon Hostel

What you will find at the Maligne Canyon Hostel: 
  • Three small rustic cabins with propane heaters and electricity
  • A small kitchen cabin that has hot plates (no ovens,) dishes, and basic cooking supplies
  • Two sleeping cabins, each with two rooms - each room sleeps 6 people in bunks
  • Outdoor bathrooms with pit toilets (no showers)
  • Walk out the door proximity to Maligne Canyon for ice climbing and ice hiking

What you will not find at this hostel:
  •  Indoor fireplaces
  • A common area with sofas or comfortable furniture.  (the main communal cabin has two tables with benches and that's about it.)
  • A sauna or hot tub (some hostels have these amenities)

Maligne Canyon is one of the more rustic hostels we've stayed at and may not suit all families.  For us, we were just happy to have a roof over our heads and to have beds to sleep in rather than sleeping on the ground in a tent.

Finally, of note for families, there are no private rooms at this hostel and children under the age of 6 can not share a communal dorm room. We got around this by booking two full dorm rooms for our group of 3 families.

A look at the small kitchen and communal cabin

Why we chose to stay at HI Maligne Canyon - ICE HIKING

We stayed at the Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel last year but found it to be a bit far from the canyon.  And the canyon was our #1 activity we HAD to do in Jasper.  This year, we chose to stay as close to the canyon as possible (across the road in fact) and we had a lovely half day hike playing in a frozen world of ice falls.

Hiking in Maligne Canyon

We started our hike at the top of the canyon by the first bridge and hiked down towards the fourth bridge.  We hiked as much of the canyon as we could before we ran into open water (including one short slot that we had to scramble down) and we hiked out via the 5th Bridge.  You can see the ice path (in blue) on the map below and the 5th bridge parking lot is far right.  We sent the dads back for the vehicles and this way we only had to hike one way - all downhill.

Maligne Canyon Ice Walk

Tip to avoid the tour groups:  Go around 11am.  The tour groups tend to come in the morning, wrap up for lunch, and then come back for the afternoon.  We found a nice gap in the middle where we could have the canyon to ourselves.  Otherwise, expect serious bottlenecks around every corner.

Our Ice Canyon Crew
Hiking through Maligne Canyon
Helmets are strongly recommended for hikers in the canyon
The canyon is a natural playground for kids
Ice Cleats recommended for adults and kids when hiking in the canyon

For more photos and information on this ice hike, see the story I wrote last winter: The Wildest Winter Canyon Hike in the Canadian Rockies.


Other reasons to stay at HI Maligne Canyon

Medicine Lake is a 20 min. drive from the hostel (see map here) and our long drive to Jasper was 100% justified by our outing to Medicine Lake alone!  It will forever forward be the new #1 thing to do when we visit Jasper in winter and it was one of the most beautiful places I've ever found for snowshoeing.

Snowshoeing through the boulders along the edge of Medicine Lake

We started from the first parking lot for Medicine Lake and did a short loop around the lake.  It was easy hiking and the trail was fairly well packed down.  If you wanted powder, there were places you could find that off trail too.

Seeking out powder on Medicine Lake
Snow Angels in the middle of Medicine Lake

Interesting fact about Medicine Lake:  In fall, the water mostly disappears from the lake, converting it into a big mudflat filled with small pools of water connected by a small stream of running water.  In winter, you'd never know that the snow was covering mud (rather than ice) but the photo below shows the small stream flowing through the mudflats. The rest of the water won't return to form an actual lake until spring. For more on this fascinating lake (and to find out where the water goes each fall and winter) read the Parks Canada description on Medicine Lake.  It's of note that the Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site was partly formed because of this fascinating lake.

Medicine Lake - One of the Top Tourist Attractions in Jasper
The Lake is a great place for family snowshoeing
Kids will find Medicine Lake a fun place to explore

Other activities to do while staying at HI Maligne Canyon


Skating on Lake Edith

One final hike on the way home - Horseshoe Lake

Some trips are full of disappointments (last year's trip to Jasper comes to mind) while other trips are full of wonder and beauty.  This year's road trip to Jasper was magical and every hike we did was amazing, beautiful, and most of all - FUN.

Snow Angels on Horseshoe Lake

Horseshoe Lake is one of the short family-friendly hikes in Jasper that we'd never actually done before and so we decided to head down the little trail (2 km round trip max.) and explore.  So glad we did!!

Hiking across Horseshoe Lake

The lake is a horseshoe shape (hence the name) and in winter you can hike around the horseshoe right on the surface of the lake.  This was a lot of fun and the boys were making snow angels from the second they arrived on the lake.  The kids chased each other across the lake, we climbed a small island, played on a boulder, and found a fun little open stretch of water to play by.

Fun Loop Hike on Horseshoe Lake

I highly recommend this short little hike en route to or from Jasper.  It's just outside the town of Jasper between Athabasca Falls and the Wabasoo Lake parking lot.  While the parking lot is not signed, it's just north of the Athabasca Falls Hostel and shows up on this link to Google maps.

Our group at Horseshoe Lake on the small island
Running across Horseshoe Lake

 Overall Impression of this year's trip to Jasper

HI Maligne Canyon Hostel - small, not the most comfortable hostel we've ever stayed at, and best not shared with many other people.  The hostel sleeps 24 but the kitchen seats 8 comfortably.  (And there is no other cabin or common area other than the kitchen with its two small tables.)  BUT, it's better than winter camping, it's warm, and it's close to Maligne Canyon.  For those reasons, I recommend staying here if in the area. 

Maligne Canyon Ice Walk - Winter MUST DO activity when in Jasper.

Medicine Lake - MUST visit for snowshoeing and winter hiking

Horseshoe Lake - Super Awesome with kids!  Adults would find it short and probably not very exciting.  Great family outing.

Best Coffee - The Bear's Paw Bakery - hands down!!!  (probably some of the best coffee I've had in all of Alberta in fact.)

Parting shot of Medicine Lake

Special thanks to the awesome people with Hostelling International who helped us with our stay this weekend. To make your own reservation at any of the Jasper hostels, or to find out more information on them, visit the Hostelling International Website.  And to note - The Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel is definitely worth checking out if you have young kids because they have two private rooms. 


  1. I spent lots of time exploring Jasper (and area) as a child. Maligne canyon is a beautiful spot and one that we returned to often. It been quite some time since I have there and your pictures sure make me want to return!

    1. Thanks Josee. I hope you get to return some day.

  2. Looks like an amazing trip with good company. : ) I so want to go there now! Haven't been to Jasper in ages! The Medicine Lake photos are stunning!

    1. Thanks Karen. Hope you get to Jasper next winter. Recommend the Athabasca Falls hostel with a private room. You'd love it.