a long awaited road trip to jasper

This post is about 6 months late but I'm nothing if not consistently bad at blogging on time. Would you have me any other way? On second thought, don't answer that.

When our friend Shiv told us she was relocating to Toronto, we were crushed. Shiv had been our guiding light in Canada, having moved to Calgary the year before us. We watched her pave the way from London before we eventually flew out to start living our lives alongside each other. She recommended restaurants, helped us with immigration questions and even hooked us up with her banking advisor so that we could get our finances in line as soon as we arrived. Bloody hell, she greeted us in Canada with a giant sign at airport arrivals. We'd never known Calgary without her in it.

So when she called in July and told us she was returning to Calgary for three weeks, we began planning something special. None of us had ever been to Jasper since arriving in Canada, and with beautiful weather predicted for August and an international travel advisory in place, it was the perfect provincial stay-cation.

Jasper is a small town in the Canadian Rockies and the commercial center of Jasper National Park. Similar to Banff, the towns alpine feel and mountainous beauty attracts tourists the world over, and it had been at the top of our Alberta travel wish-list for well over a year. The drive to Jasper takes around 6 hours from Calgary, through the Rockies and along the Icefields Parkway, one of the worlds most scenic roads and a bucket list drive for many. We'd been as far as the Athabasca Glacier on previous excursions but the mystery of the road beyond that point had us captivated from the moment we decided to go. We booked rooms in a hostel, rented a car (did you really think our own crappy car would be able to handle that journey?) and set off for the perfect mountain vacation.

Our first stop was the Columbia Icefield for access to the Columbia Glacier Skywalk. Athabasca Glacier, the most accessible part of the Columbia Icefield, is the most visited glacier in North America, and a dynamic natural wonder within the Rocky Mountains. Unfortunately, the glacier recedes at an alarming rate of 5 meters a year, with staggered signs showing where the ice reached throughout the 20th century as you walk to the base of the glacier. This gives a stark reminder that our planet and ecosystems are incredibly fragile. We hopped on a bus to the Skywalk, a 1-kilometre walkway leading to a glass platform suspended above a 918-foot drop. The Skywalk offers unparalleled views of the Columbia Icefield and an educational walkway where we learned more about this unique environment.

Another half hour down the road leads to Sunwapta Falls, one of the most spectacular sights in Jasper National Park. Sunwapta means turblent water in the language of Stoney Nakoda First Nation, perfectly summing up the sheer power of this waterfall, as the Sunwapta River plummets 60 feet down a small gorge. What the falls lack in height, they definitely make up for in force.

Upon arriving in Jasper town we checked into the HI Jasper. Jasper is a popular tourist destination in Canada during the summer months, and we had to book our accommodation months in advance to get a room, even during the pandemic. It wasn't cheap, with private rooms going for up to $260 per night during peak season, but we couldn't fault the hostel itself or the location. After a short stroll into town we headed for the Jasper Brewing Co. BrewPub for dinner and many, many drinks. This popular bar is part of the Bearhill family, a group of Alberta based brewpubs that we love. Each location offers a different selection of craft beers and great food, so we'd definitely recommend giving them a try, whether you're in Edmonton, Calgary, Banff or Jasper.

Jasper is one of the only places in western Alberta with a train station, as the Rocky Mountaineer passes through on it's way to the B.C. coast. We discovered this bright and early as the first freight train of the day screeched its way into Jasper along the tracks that ran next to our bedroom window. That's one heck of an alarm. After grabbing breakfast we drove out towards Medicine Lake, famed for its disappearing water. In fact Medicine Lake isn't a lake at all, but a geological anomaly playing host to an extensive underground drainage system for the Maligne River. While it appears full during the summer months, sinkholes beneath the surface drain the lake of water in the autumn, leaving a frozen meandering river behind in the winter.

After a photo stop, we continued up the winding road to Maligne Lake. After committing to renting canoes for a paddle on the water, our plans to see Spirit Island were scuppered when we realised it was 14 kilometres from the docks. There was the option of buying tickets for the boat cruise to the island, but after spending money on boat rentals, this proved to be a little out of our budget for the day. Despite the lack of planning, it's left us with unfinished business in Jasper National Park, with the promise to return one day to see what has been named the most picturesque island in the Canadian Rockies. Spirit Island is only accessible by boat and holds great spiritual significance for the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, who believe mountains are physical representations of their ancestors. The fact that Spirit Island is surrounded on three sides by the same mountain range is very rare and makes it particularly significant to the Stoney.

After realising our dream of paddling to Spirit Island was a little misguided considering the distance (and the fact we'd only rented the boats for an hour) we headed back to shore and back to the car for our next stop of the day - Maligne Canyon, the deepest canyon in the Rockies. The Maligne Valley is home to some incredible natural wonders, but Maligne Canyon is truly spectacular, no matter the season. Several bridges cross the canyon at various points, giving a great view of breathtaking waterfalls, rushing waters and depths of more than 50 metres at certain points from above. Beautiful in the summer, Maligne Canyon is even more incredible in the winter, as guided icewalks lead you along the bottom of the canyon, passing frozen waterfalls and icy caverns galore. After a long hike around the canyon, we drove back into town, stopping off at Pyramid Lake and lamenting the fact we didn't bring our swimsuits for a dip in the cool water, before heading back to the hostel.

Later that evening we embarked on our Saturday night activity - stargazing! Jasper National Park is one of 17 designated dark sky preserves in Canada, areas in which no artificial lighting is visible, and active measures are in place to educate and promote the reduction of light pollution to the public and nearby municipalities. Medicine Lake seemed like a great place to see the stars, but the drifting cloud cover made it difficult to see the sky in all its glory. It turns out that the best stars were visible from a lay-by on our way back into town, from which we saw entire galaxies and constellations galore. It was a magical way to spend our last night in Jasper.

We hit the road early on Sunday morning for the drive back to Calgary, but not without making a few scenic stops along the way.

Our first stop, Athabasca Falls, is a force to be reckoned with. The turbulence of Sunwapta Falls was tame in comparison to this roaring torrent of water flowing from the Athabasca River, considered the most powerful waterfall in the Canadian Rockies. From there we got back on the road, stopping at more scenic points to stretch our legs and take in the incredible views.

Our road trip was coming to an end as we left Jasper and crossed back into Banff National Park. The sun was beaming as we approached Athabasca Glacier again, and we stopped to head up the trail to the base of the glacier for the final stop. It was a truly spectacular end to the trip, but we left with heavy hearts, knowing this would be the last time spent with Shiv before she returned to Toronto.

For all the time we'd spent dreaming about visiting Jasper, we weren't prepared for the sheer natural beauty of this incredible place. For now, we're looking back at the photos, reminiscing on the great sights, and looking forward to the day we can go back and tick off more of the Jasper National Park bucket list. Spirit Island, we're coming for ya!