The Two Brothers totem pole in downtown Jasper (photo: Tourism Jasper)

Outdoor Adventures in Jasper

By Tracy Hyatt

I’m in a window seat, gazing at the quaint houses, large and small, dotting Wabamun Lake’s north shore. Though I’ve driven from Edmonton to Jasper many times, this is my first trip by train—and from my new vantage point nothing looks familiar. It takes longer to travel to Jasper by VIA Rail than by car, but the trip affords me time to read, reflect and simply admire the changing landscape as I head west. The mountains are the destination, but the journey to reach them is equally special.

It’s an experience that I’m relishing: The trip is a much-needed chance to disconnect and reenergize from the stress of my city life.

The land noticeably transitions an hour out from Jasper townsite. Dense forests give way to hulking Rockies peaks. Silence falls upon our passenger car: Everyone is looking out, wide-eyed and speechless. We spot young mountain goats perched on a slope and elk grazing beside the highway.

Upon arrival, a shuttle takes me from the train station to the 152-room Sawridge Inn and Conference Centre. I check into a modishly appointed suite complete with glass desk, leather club chair and gallery-worthy prints. I’m impressed by the room. It’s exactly what I expected from my online booking. Instead of spending time comparison-shopping on multiple sites, I booked with AMA Travel, which guarantees the best prices in North America on hotel rooms.

Standing on the balcony, I prepare for the next few days. I’m utterly relaxed, but adventure awaits—and so does my best friend who drove out from Edmonton a day earlier.

BOOK WITH AMA
Get guaranteed best rates on hotels in Jasper—and across North America. AMA’s exclusive Sawridge Inn room rate includes a hot breakfast.

The Rockies aren’t the only defining feature of Jasper’s scenery. So too is the Athabasca River, which snakes through the mountains from its headwaters in the Columbia Icefield. Long before white settlers arrived, the river was an abundant food source for the Stoney and Cree First Nations. It was also an important route for explorer David Thompson, who mapped much of Western Canada during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Nowadays, Jasper Raft Tours leads adventure seekers through the mighty Athabasca’s infamous rapids.

We’re booked for a late-afternoon tour and return to the Jasper train station to catch a ride to the river. At the station, I snap a photo of the Two Brothers Totem Pole, carved in 2010 by Haida artists Jaalen and Gwaai Edenshaw. It’s the second pole erected here; the original 1916 pole was removed due to deterioration after 93 years. Totems are not traditional to the area’s Indigenous peoples, but this one offers a striking reminder of those who inhabited the land long before Alberta was Alberta.

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Jasper’s rugged canyons offer amazing paddling opportunities (photo: Jeff Bartlett/Travel Alberta)

A short bus trip later and our small group sets off down the Athabasca in a bright orange float boat. For the first few minutes, we glide along without much incident, but we know there are thrills ahead. Our guide expertly steers the raft around the waves and rocks. Eventually he points us toward the larger eddies. The passengers sitting opposite me shriek as a standing wave covers them. I laugh, but our guide warns there will be no dry bums by the end of the ride.

The 60-minute voyage concludes at Old Fort Point, where the river becomes slow and shallow enough to allow the likes of elk and moose (and people) to cross. Stepping from the boat, I can’t help thinking about the challenges early explorers like Thompson must have faced along their own journeys. Though they travelled this way out of necessity, it was a thirst for adventure that pushed them onwards. Centuries later, our collective appetite for trailblazing remains, as evinced by the thousands of people who make the trek to Jasper National Park each year.

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Later, we sit down to a meal at Jasper Brewing Co.’s brewpub and eatery. The diverse menu has much to offer; we settle on blueberry ale-braised sausages, a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich and a salad. Casual conversation fills the air. My bestie and I reminisce about previous trips together and recount the humorous tales of our decades-long friendship. Not once do we discuss our harried lives back home. This is the escape I craved. Jasper does that to you. It’s small and quaint, unlike other mountain towns.

The next morning, we set off just south of Jasper to conquer a mountain. We plan to take the Jasper SkyTram up Whistlers Mountain and then complete a short 1.4-kilometre hike to the summit. (There’s a hiking trail that ascends all of Whistlers Mountain, but it’s more than three times as long and tackling it requires at least five hours.)

Our guide turns the ride into a breezy geography lesson. He points out Yellowhead Pass—a section of the Alberta–B.C. border supposedly named after French explorer Pierre Bostonais, referred to as “Tête Jaune” (yellow head) for his blonde locks—and Mount Edith Cavell, which honours a WWI-era British nurse who was executed by the Germans for smuggling injured Allied soldiers out of Brussels. I had no idea the names of these mountains were steeped in so much lore.

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The Jasper SkyTram ascends Whistlers Mountain (photo: Jeff Bartlett/Tourism Jasper)

The hike from the SkyTram’s upper station to mountaintop is worth the challenge. Halfway up we’re forced to stop for a few minutes’ break, but we do ultimately reach the summit. Somehow the 360-degree view—at 2,463 metres above sea level—is even more magnificent than it was at our rest stop just a short way down. We can see the entire valley stretching out before us, including the townsite and aquamarine Beauvert, Annette and Edith lakes. Even while walking back to the SkyTram, I’m already planning a return trip to the summit.

A little sore from the hike, we opt for a therapeutic plunge at Miette Hot Springs, a natural mineral pool operated by Canadian Hot Springs. The water is rich with sulphate, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium and sodium, and has long been believed to have healing properties. We find a quiet spot to soothe our aching muscles and marvel at the surrounding peaks.

A bit of walking also figures into our final day in Jasper. Specifically, we’re headed to the Glacier Skywalk. The three-year-old attraction is an hour’s drive from Jasper along the Icefields Parkway. There are no gas stations en route, so before hitting the road we fill up at Esso and grab breakfast at the local Smitty’s restaurant.

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Our excitement builds as we arrive at the Columbia Icefield, near the Skywalk. The massive ice field feeds eight major glaciers and straddles the continental divide, meaning water here flows in three directions—toward the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic oceans. It’s one of those incredible Alberta places that you must visit at least once in your life.

We park at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre and hop on a bus to the Skywalk. Once there, I take my time strolling to the actual platform. It’s our final adventure of the weekend, and I want to make every minute last. But before I know it, I’m standing on the cantilevered glass walkway, 280 metres above the Sunwapta Valley. The only thing between me and the lodgepole pine forest below is this amazing feat of engineering.

At first I ease myself slowly and steadily along the horseshoe-shaped path, but my nerves quickly settle. I soon find myself posing for photos, arms outstretched against the alpine backdrop.

Before heading back to the car, I snap one last pic of the Rockies, knowing they’ll soon be in our rear-view mirror. The return trip to the Jasper townsite is quiet. I feel like every last drop of adventure has been squeezed from me. I’m in full relaxation mode. I just want to press pause on life: right here in Jasper. Forever.

outdoor adventures in jasper alberta whistlers mountain glacier skywalk
Soaring views from Whistlers Mountain and the Glacier SkyWalk (photos: Tourism Jasper; Scott Rowed/Brewster Travel Canada)

HOW TO SAVE
Show your card at these AMA partners in Jasper: You’ll save enough to cover the cost of a tank of gas:

Jasper Raft Tours: Save 15% on regular adult rates (two adults save $20.70)
VIA Rail Canada: Save 10% on tickets (two adults save $18.80)
Jasper SkyTram: Save 15% on tickets (two adults save $13.48)
Canadian Rockies Hot Springs: Save 15% on fees (two adults save $1.80)
Smitty’s: Save 10% on dining (two adults save an average of $3.40)
Parks Canada: Pick up your free 2017 Parks Canada pass at any AMA centre

Total savings: $58.18

WE’VE GOT YOU COVERED
AMA Rewards partners can help ensure your vehicle is in tip-top shape before, during and after a road trip:

• Get fresh treads at Kal Tire: Members save 5% on tires and 10% on parts and services
Earn 15% in reward dollars on your next oil change—or other product or service—at Lube City
Save 10% on services at Mr. Lube locations
Save 50% on chip repairs at GlassMasters, plus earn 15% in reward dollars on windshield and tempered glass installation
• Get your ride geared up at NAPA and save 10% on retail-price parts and accessories.
• Fill up a Reloadable Esso gas card and earn 2% in reward dollars on the purchase price.