By Michael Lanza
About three hours into our hike on the Skyline Trail in Canada’s Jasper National Park, a rumble of thunder rips the sky with a sound like a train derailment; moments later, the gray overcast that had rolled overhead maybe 30 minutes earlier starts spraying us with random bursts of raindrops. By the time the five of us have hurried into rain shells and flipped our hoods up, the rain commences in earnest, chauffeured by strong wind just as we emerge from forest into the alpine terrain.
Walking into the full brunt of the weather but dressed for it—and this crew has deep experience with all kinds of nasty weather—we just push on through the rain, motivated by the first taste of the scenery that awaits in greater glory ahead. Plus, we face several more miles of hiking to our first camp on the Skyline Trail in Jasper, the much-less-visited but larger sister park of its joined-at-the-hip sibling, Banff, in the Canadian Rockies.
Thanks to the mad dash that is the Parks Canada backcountry permit reservation process—in which you must choose a backcountry campground for each night of your trip in real time as availability quickly disappears—and the fact that we’re backpacking one of the most-coveted trails in Canada, we’re starting our Skyline Trail hike with our longest day, 11.8 miles/19 kilometers from the Maligne Lake Trailhead to Curator campground. But that distance draws no more than shrugs in our party of three adults of a “mature age” with countless backpacking miles on our legs and two young women tough and strong enough to possibly carry one of us out if called upon.
I’ve come here with my wife, Penny, our college-age daughter, Alex (summer work commitments kept our son, also in college, from joining us), and friends Gary Davis and his daughter, Adele, also in school and Alex’s best friend since very early childhood, to backpack the Skyline Trail, a three-day, 27.3-mile/44-kilometer, south-north traverse of the Maligne Range just southeast of the town of Jasper. Remaining above treeline for about 15.5 miles/25 kilometers of its distance and riding the crest of a high ridge at times, the Skyline has long been considered a Canadian Rockies classic for its nearly constant panoramas of massive walls of rock and a sea of mountains stretching to distant horizons in every direction.
A ferocious headwind blows the rain at us in waves, although never terribly heavy, as we climb to Little Shovel Pass at just over 7,300 feet/2,225 meters, and follow the trail over undulating alpine terrain flanked by long ridges with peaks over 8,000 feet/2,400 meters. By late afternoon, the rain stops, the sky brightens, and a river of wind dries out the air.
As the sun occasionally peeks through the scudding clouds, the post-storm, early-evening light replays a silent show of shifting colors that’s eons old and still timelessly enchanting. Soft beams of light so brilliant they look three-dimensional bounce from meadow to mountain, burbling creek to bulbous cloud, every element of the landscape absorbing and reflecting long red, orange, and yellow rays of the spectrum.
At Shovel Pass, at 7,600 feet/2,316 meters, we overlook the valley where Curator camp lies beyond sight and a pretty good walk downhill from where we stand. We can clearly see the Skyline contouring around the head of this valley, but we turn onto a faint, sometimes not visible shortcut trail that offers a more direct route to our camp.
Looking for occasional cairns, we descend steeply in spots, knees protesting, past scurrying marmots and patches of bright wildflowers. Just before dinnertime, walk into Curator campground, at 6,781 feet/2,067 meters, grabbing two of the last open tentsites.
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The Vast and Magnificent Canadian Rockies
Every time I go there, I wonder whether there’s a mountain range in the Lower 48 that really compares with the Canadian Rockies. Yes, I’m serious.
To begin to appreciate the Canadian Rockies, first you must conceptualize the scale of this region. The Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, which encompasses four contiguous national parks (Banff and Jasper in Alberta and Yoho and Kootenay in British Columbia) and three provincial parks (Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine, and Hamber, all in B.C.), spans more than 5.8 million acres/almost 2.4 million hectares. That nearly equals the area of Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Everglades national parks combined.
Jasper reigns as the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies at over 2.7 million acres/1.1 million hectares, compared with Banff’s more than 1.6 million acres/664,100 hectares. The vast majority of Jasper’s land mass comprises pristine mountain wilderness spliced by more than 660 miles/1,200 kilometers of trails.
Statistics, of course, are not the reason we are drawn to such places—it’s the scenery. And the majesty of the Canadian Rockies will practically give you chills. Just driving the Trans-Canada Highway or other roads through the region takes you on a tour of endless rows of towering cliffs and peaks with rivers of cracked ice tumbling off them.
Jasper also remains one of the last places in southern Canada with healthy populations of the range of carnivores that have existed here for centuries, including mountain lions, woodland caribou, wolves, wolverines, and grizzly bears. In one afternoon traveling the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper, our two-family group saw from our car windows two gigantic bull elk with racks perhaps broader than my wingspan, a pod of bighorn sheep, and a huge grizzly sow and her two cubs—all of them by the roadside.
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Jasper also holds the distinction of being the world’s second-largest Dark Sky Preserve, defined as a place where no artificial light is visible—in part because of active measures taken to reduce light pollution from neighboring communities (including the town of Jasper, located within the park). At night in our camps in the backcountry, I’d look up at a coal-black sky so riddled with glowing constellations of stars that I couldn’t pull my gaze from it until I got so cold that I had to dive back into my tent and bag.
With lower treelines and alpine zones because of their northern latitude, soaring walls of crumbling rock and thousands of glaciers (most of them shrinking and on track to disappear because of climate change), the Canadian Rockies have long been compared in appearance to the Alps—despite not reaching the same heights. But unlike the Alps, for Americans and Canadians, these mountains lie not an ocean away but right next door.
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The Notch and a High Ridge Walk
Leaving Curator camp on our second morning, we follow a connector trail uphill to rejoin the Skyline and continue upward to the nearly flat basin of Curator Lake, at around 7,360 feet/2,243 meters, a blue eye cradled in a barren bowl of rocks, cliffs, sparse vegetation growing no more than ankle- or calf-high, and one of the few lakes along the entire trail.
Marmots bound over the rocky ground, their signature whistling call carrying a distance, while pikas scurry more quickly or stand on hind legs and chirp loudly, and the faster and most numerous Columbian ground squirrels dash away at our approach. But we see few other wild animals, which isn’t terribly surprising: The starkness and openness of the alpine zone that the Skyline crosses for many miles gives large animals that are wary of humans plenty of warning of our approach.
From Curator Lake, we begin the Skyline’s hardest climb (when hiking south to north, as many people do), the steep and loose slog to the pass known simply as the Notch, at 8,238 feet/2,511 meters—a spot known to hold snow later into summer than anywhere else on the Skyline. Penny chats with a backpacker coming in the other direction who says that yesterday, around the time that afternoon thunderstorm hit us, the wind reached 100 kph (over 60 mph) and rain pounded the long, high, fully exposed ridge traverse that awaits us beyond the Notch.
The words foreshadow, even if imprecisely, what we are walking toward.
The wind blasts through the natural funnel of the Notch, so we don’t linger there very long. Beyond it, we embark on the stretch of the Skyline that embodies its name, where the trail stays atop a ridge crest for two-and-a-half miles/four kilometers with, it seems, all the Canadian Rockies spread out before us. Zipped up inside our shell jackets and leaning into the biting wind, we swing our heads side to side, gazing out at endless mountains and deep valleys cut by braided, glacial rivers.
With everyone ready for lunch, we drop a short distance down off the trail on the lee side of the ridge, taking a break from the hammering wind to eat overlooking several small lakes and tarns in the broad basin of Excelsior Creek, between 8,858-foot/2,700-meter Centre Mountain and 9,157-foot/2,791-meter The Watchtower.
Moving on again, we pass near the top of Amber Mountain at 8,415 feet/2,565 meters, the Skyline wriggling like a snake along this open ridge. Then the trail falls off the ridge, zigzagging downward into another creek valley. With the sun now more out than obscured and us much lower and out of the wind, we shed some layers, though the cool wind remains.
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And the Skyline isn’t finished with showing off to us. The sheer and fluted rock walls of 8,839-foot/2,694-meter Mount Tekarra loom above as we descend this gentle, wide valley past another beautiful lake at the toe of the mountain. From Tekarra campground, the Skyline climbs out of the forest again, granting us one final walk through the alpine zone, looking across a deep valley to yet another long wall of cliffs stretching for miles, glowing in late-afternoon sunlight.
Minutes after the trail drops back into forest, we roll into Signal campground, almost 10 miles/16 kilometers from Curator campground. The mosquitoes are thick here—it is the last day of July, in the middle of peak mosquito season, so this surprises no one. But they don’t bother us much: We’re buzzing viscerally with that excitement of having just completed the sort of exceptional day of hiking through mountains that you remember years later.
See all stories about backpacking in the Canadian Rockies at The Big Outside.
The Gear I Used See my reviews of the outstanding backpack, tents (this one and this one), boots, sleeping bags (this ultralight bag for me and this warmer bag for my wife, who gets cold more easily), rain jacket, down jacket, fleece hoody, ultralight air mattress, and stove I used on this trip.
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See all stories with expert backpacking tips at The Big Outside, including these:
“How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking”
“8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking”
“5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking”
“7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry”