Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Winter Getaway to Jasper with Affordable Lodging at the HI Athabasca Falls Hostel

As a child growing up in Northern Alberta, Jasper National Park was my family's closest mountain destination for ski weekends and summer vacations. These days, my family has to wait for a long weekend to make the trek north from Calgary, and finding affordable lodging becomes very important.

HI Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel, Jasper National Park

This year we chose to visit Jasper for the Family Day Long weekend and we booked a private room at the HI Athabasca Falls Hostel for a cross-country ski getaway. We spent three days skiing, hiking, and ice skating around the Town of Jasper from our cozy wilderness base camp.

Cross-country ski getaway in Jasper (Whirlpool Valley Trail)

Geography and Access to Jasper via 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 and you want to check the road report before you go.

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 GuideThere's a great map and winter brochure that can be downloaded from the Parks Canada site too.

I recommend leaving in the morning if possible so that you can stop along the Icefields Parkway at a few of the viewpoints.

There's nothing like a bluebird day on the Icefields Parkway

Panther Falls: One of the short hikes you can take along the Icefields Parkway in winter

Accommodations at the HI Athabasca Falls Hostel

While there is no shortage of hotels and motels in Jasper, we love staying at the HI Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel , one of ten wilderness properties in the Hostelling International Canada collection.

We used to refer to our wilderness hostel trips as "camping adventures" when the kids were younger, but you should feel pretty comfortable at Athabasca Falls, one of the more luxurious wilderness properties.

"You won’t find electricity or running water here, but alternative energy sources power the lights, the kitchen is fully equipped for all your cooking needs and the heated sleeping rooms are the perfect spot to rest your head. It's also said that these wilderness hostels have some of the cleanest and nicest outhouses in the parks! There’s a manager on-site to help you get settled, and easy road access gets you right to the door." - Hostelling International Canada

The Athabasca Falls are just across the highway from the wilderness hostel

Sleeping at the HI Athabasca Falls Hostel:

The hostel has a two mixed-gender shared cabins. Each cabin sleeps 12 to 16 guests. Youth must be at least 13 years old to sleep in a shared cabin with their parents.

Athabasca Falls also has two private rooms that share opposite sides of a third cabin. Each private room comes with a double bed and two bunk beds (sleeping up to 6 people.) These rooms are great for a family or group of friends, and younger children are allowed to share these rooms with their parents.

Every stay at the hostel includes sheets, pillows, and blankets so you can leave the sleeping bags at home and pack more outdoor gear. The cabins are also heated so this is definitely not camping and you won't be cold.

And while the cabins have lights, you'll still want to bring your headlamps or flashlights for outhouse bathroom trips. There is no indoor plumbing at the hostel, but folks wanting a shower are allowed to drop in at the HI Jasper Hostel in town.

Each private room has a double bed
We always book a private room for our family and have also shared one with friends. We enjoy the extra space where we can spread our wet clothing out to dry, and enjoy having a door we can lock with our possessions safely stored inside while we're out exploring.

Each private room has two bunk beds

Common shared facilities at the HI Athabasca Falls Hostel: 

The hostel has a large shared cabin with a fully stocked kitchen including microwave, propane stoves and ovens, toasters, coffee pots and kettles, dishes and cooking supplies, and two large refrigerators.

Shared cabin with kitchen in the HI Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel
The cabin has a beautiful fireside room as well with comfortable sofas and a wood burning fireplace that is usually crackling. And lest you forget to bring books or games, don't worry! The hostel has enough games to occupy your group for days! There's also a plentiful collection of local guide books to read. I should mention too that there are outlets for charging your devices in the sleeping cabins as well as in the main cabin.

There's plenty of room for large groups and families at the HI Athabasca Falls Hostel 

Why hosteling?

One - We can travel with groups of friends and hang out together in a common cabin to play games, cook, and eat together. That won't work at a motel.

Two - We get a winter wilderness experience which is great when it's still months to go before camping season begins. When our son was younger, he loved playing outside each hostel in the giant snow banks with his friends. 

Most hostels also have outdoor fire pits which can be fun with a group of friends and a bag of marshmallows.

Three - We save money by staying at an affordable hostel and can cook our own meals rather than having to eat out.

Sharing the hostel with other groups also means you'll be chatting with the other guests while you cook dinner, finding out about their adventures from the day, and maybe discovering a new trail or two to explore.

Sleeping cabins at the HI Athabasca Falls Hostel 

Winter Exploring in Jasper: Athabasca Falls 

Athabasca Falls is right across the highway from the hostel and it's a very short hike. The full loop around the viewing platforms and down through the lower canyon is 1 km in length. At a good pace, you can be back in your vehicle in under an hour (with plenty of time for photos.)

Athabasca Falls in winter 

Note the trail can be quite icy (especially if you want to descend into the canyon) so bring ice cleats and wear good boots.

Bring ice cleats to explore the canyon at Athabasca Falls

Winter Exploring in Jasper: Cross-country Skiing 

Parks Canada maintains groomed cross-country ski trails in the following areas:
  • Whirlpool cross-country ski hub
  • Marmot Meadows cross-country ski hub
  • Pyramid Lake
  • Wabasso Campground

Visit the Parks Canada website for full information on each area. 

Pyramid Creek on the Pyramid Fire Road

Skiing the Pyramid Fire Road

My family first chose to ski the Pyramid Fire Road from Pyramid Lake because I wanted to reach the Pyramid Lookout (and couldn't resist skiing one of the most difficult trails in the park.)

The Pyramid Fire Road is 13.2 km round trip and the scenery from the lookout is definitely worth the climbing. The ski down is also a lot of fun!!

Pyramid Lookout on the Pyramid Fire Road Trail

Parks Canada describes the trail below: 

"Choose your turn-around point: ski the mainly flat, first 1.1 km to Pyramid Creek at the end of Pyramid Lake (green), and then continue on and gain steady elevation on your way to Pyramid Slough at km 3.1 (blue). Next, climb steeply to the lookout over the Athabasca Valley shortly before the end of the groomed trail at km 6.6 (black)"

Know before you go:

- Dogs are allowed on this trail on leash.

- This is a ski only trail. No fat biking, no hiking, no walking.

- The trail is groomed for both classic + skate skiing. It would be a very advanced skate skiing trail though with the climbing!

After skiing the Pyramid Fire Road, I recommend skating on Pyramid Lake if you've brought ice skates. and if you want to check out the Town of Jasper, this is a good opportunity before returning to the hostel for dinner.

Approximately 400 metres of climbing brought us to this lookout

Skiing the Trail to Moab Lake

Skiing the Whirlpool Valley Trail in Jasper exceeded all expectations! We skied 16 Km round trip to reach Moab Lake and the trailhead for the historic Athabasca Pass route.

It was pretty cool skiing to two sets of the iconic red Parks Canada chairs as well.

Easy skiing on the Whirlpool Valley Trail

Skiing beside the Whirlpool River

Parks Canada describes the trail:

"Ski through the woods on the gentle rolling terrain of Moab Lake Road (green.) The red chairs at a viewpoint of the Whirlpool River make a great destination. Beyond that, follow Moab Lake Road past the red chairs and the Whirlpool River (blue.) The groomed trail ends at a viewpoint of Moab Lake with another set of red chairs."

And for those staying at the Athabasca Falls Hostel, the Whirlpool cross-country ski trails are a very short drive away. Spend a few hours skiing, stop at the Athabasca Falls site for a short hike, and you have your first day filled. 

Know before you go:

- Dogs are allowed on this trail on leash.

- This is a ski only trail. No fat biking, no hiking, no walking.

- This is a great trail for skate skiing and there is a very large skate area in the middle of the double tracksetting.

First set of red chairs beside the Whirlpool River

Trailhead for the historic Athabasca Pass route (still 49km further!)

Moab Lake and the second set of red chairs

Winter Exploring in Jasper: Hiking Maligne Canyon

A valid question: did you really go to Jasper if you didn't hike Maligne Canyon?? 

This is a classic "must do" activity, summer or winter, and you can choose to hike above the canyon (required in summer) or hike down inside the canyon (winter only.)

Make sure you bring good spikes or ice cleats for this one and if you aren’t familiar with the canyon, guided tours are recommended. Helmets are also suggested due to the risk of falling ice.

Hiking in Maligne Canyon is a must-do winter activity in Jasper

If you don’t have a helmet, stay away from the waterfalls, do not stand under them, and give the ice climbers wide space! (Good advice even if you have a helmet.)

We always park at the 5th Bridge parking lot and hike up the trail from here, dropping into the canyon when we find an opening in the fence. Read more about the hike on the Hike Jasper website.

You'll want good spikes or ice cleats for this hike!

Visiting Maligne Canyon from the Athabasca Falls hostel is a good day trip and I recommend stopping at the Jasper Park Lodge to skate after if you've brought ice skates.

We also combined our hike + ice skating with dinner in town and wandering around looking in the stores.

Maligne Canyon is a magical place in winter

Winter Exploring in Jasper: Natural Outdoor Ice Skating 

We stopped to skate on Pyramid Lake after skiing the Pyramid Fire Road. The Pyramid Lake Resort maintains an oval on the lake and it's a nice place to spend an hour on a sunny day. The ice was quite smooth for our visit and we enjoyed the mixed ski/skate outing from the Athabasca Falls hostel.

Skating on the Pyramid Lake Oval in Jasper

The resort also rents ice skates if you forgot to bring yours. Read more on the Tourism Jasper website.

If you need to warm up afterwards, I highly recommend stopping in at the Bear's Paw Bakery in town for a cup of Jasper's best coffee and one of their homemade treats. I'm usually tempted to order one of everything in the display case! 

After hiking Maligne Canyon, we also stopped to skate on Mildred Lake at the Jasper Park Lodge. This oval is a full kilometre in distance and so we got quite the workout skating laps here. Skate rentals are also available at the Jasper Park Lodge.

Skating on Lake Mildred at the Jasper Park Lodge

For more information...

For more information on winter hosteling with Hostelling International Canada please visit their website.

Make a reservation for the HI Athabasca Falls Hostel directly from the HI Canada website.

For more information on winter activities in Jasper, visit the Tourism Jasper website.

And downhill skiers will want to visit the Marmot Basin website.

You can also read my specific Marmot Basin story here: Marmot Basin: A Ski Resort the Whole Family will Love in Jasper National Park

Winter hiking in Maligne Canyon

More Resources:

Read: Winter Road Trip to Jasper National Park - where we stayed at the HI Maligne Canyon Hostel

Read: The Wildest Winter Canyon Hike in the Canadian Rockies - hiking Maligne Canyon with young children

Read: Winter Road Trip? North to Jasper National Park - with downhill skiing, ice climbing, and winter hiking

Disclaimer: Our stay at the HI Athabasca Falls Hostel was hosted for this trip. All words and opinions are my own.

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