There’s no getting around it: Jasper is a stunner. It would be a travesty not to make the most of this beautiful national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its abundant wildlife, laid back alpine town and nearly 1000 km of trails, so here are six of the most stunning things to do when backpacking in Jasper National Park.
Grab a Map and Hike
In 2014, the Visitor Information Centre in Jasper celebrated its 100th anniversary. This landmark rustic building sits in the heart of the alpine town and is your first stop for advice on the best trails for getting around Jasper National Park. Pick up a map and you will notice Jasper is very aptly shaped like the letter ‘J’.
So strap on your hiking boots and make your way into the wilderness. Within minutes you will be eating up the spectacular scenery with your eyes, and feeling a million miles away from hectic urban life.
We chose the Mina Loop Trail, which was recommended to us as a relatively short and unchallenging route to explore Jasper National Park, just to the north of the village, past breathtaking mountain vistas and serene lakes.
Our first stop was Cabin Lake, which reflected the clouds in the sky like a perfect mirror.
The Upper and Lower Mina Lakes were perfectly peaceful and enveloped by total, blissful silence – which is so hard to find these days, it felt completely fresh.
Hardly a soul was around, except for the occasional couple cycling past on their bikes. And on that note…
2. Get On Your Bike
Cycling is an ideal way for getting around Jasper without a car, so it was an easy decision to hire bikes. The park’s trails vary from pristine roads to forest tracks criss-crossed with tree roots. We headed for the Red Squirrel Run Trail and Athabasca River Loop to the south of the village. Once we’d crossed the Canadian National Railway line – no easy feat when you have freight trains passing that are literally a mile long – we rode by Mildred Lake, the Trefoil Lakes and Annette Lake, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine.
We were over the moon to see a group of wild elk grazing near a horse riding centre, headed up by this impressively antlered male.
The following day we were keen to get out on the bikes again, so we headed up north to Pyramid Lake. This calm oasis lays next to the Pyramid Mountain, so named because of its triangular peak.
If your bum isn’t too numb from all that bike riding (ours weren’t), it’s time to climb onto a saddle of a different kind…
3. Saddle Up On a Horse
Don your cowboy hat and boots for a true western experience, as Jasper Riding Stables takes you for an adventure on horseback – a wonderful way to explore Jasper National Park.
Our horseriding tour guide was supposed to have retired a few years ago, but loves the horses and the park so much that he continues to lead tours. Informative and engaging from the start, he told us all about the park’s flora and fauna, and how they are being affected on a ground level by changes to global conditions. He gave us insight into the local culture and even tips for travelling in Mexico and Hawaii – two of my dream travel destinations.
The scenery was really something to behold. Silver birch trees lined our forest route, birds of prey circled overhead and, from high up here near the Pyramid Lake, we could see for miles across the pine trees, rivers and lakes to the mountains looming on the other side.
This was one of my favourite experiences in Jasper – it was so calming to ride on horseback through such a beautiful natural setting and I felt very connected with the surroundings. Even though I have little experience of riding, my horse was well-behaved, only stopping occasionally to try and nibble at some of the foliage – or to do a poo!
If you’re keen to take a step back and let someone else drive you around, why not…
4. Take An Organised Tour
If you are in Jasper without a car and you’re keen to see bears and other creatures roaming in the wild, you may want to sign up for an organised tour. We chose SunDog’s Discover Jasper and its Wildlife Tour. Leaving every afternoon, a minibus will drive you around to explore Jasper National Park and see which animals are out wandering as the sun sets.
It was our driver’s first time leading this tour and unfortunately for him, despite driving around a number of roads where creatures are sometimes spotted, we didn’t see anything for around an hour and a half, except for one small female elk. We were assured that this is unusual. So we sat back and enjoyed the scenery and the driver’s commentary. Eventually, on one of the side roads we encountered a large male elk making his way through the forest.
Then the driver produced this heavy antler to pose with. How an elk can carry two of these around on its head all day, I don’t know.
On our walk back to our accommodation after the tour, we finally spotted a bear. He was surprisingly placid and didn’t mind having his photo taken with me.
There are many lovely homestays in Jasper village, as the residents open up their spare rooms to visitors for a fee. On this evening, we were staying in a stylish, airy and modern house built by Aldo, a friendly retired Italian man, and his Canadian artist wife Shirley. When they’re not welcoming guests, indulging in their hobbies and enjoying the Rocky mountains, the couple spend several months a year in California’s desert resort of Palm Springs and travelling around the world visiting family. Their next trip will be a cruise around Norway. It seemed to us like they have the perfect retired travelling lifestyle.
If you’re happy to forego the comforts of a real bed for a few nights, and truly feel at one with nature, how about you…
5. Pitch a Tent for a Camping Experience
Judging by the traffic coming in and out of Jasper’s Whistlers campground, many people travel around Canada in a huge RV, or recreational vehicle. Some of these vehicles are enormous, like full mobile homes. Alternatively you could bring your own tent and camping equipment. We hired ours from Bactrax Banff Camping Rentals. Here you can choose from a backpacking or car camping package or do as we did and hire the individual items you need.
For us, it was a three-person tent (so we could fit in our large backpacks as well as ourselves), two inflatable therma pads to sleep on, a camping stove with gas, and a plastic plates and crockery set.
The tent, while not one of those pop-up tents (which we couldn’t find in Canada, despite it being an outdoorsy nation), was easy to assemble and had just the right amount of space for us and our bags. We were also impressed with the compact camping stove which was super powerful, cooking our supper in just a few minutes.
It was a lovely, warm and sunny day as we pitched the tent in our walk-in spot in the campground, a short walk from the food lockers (to protect your fare from hungry bears) and a well-maintained toilet block. There were birds chirping in the trees and squirrels passing by, hopeful for some morsels of bread. After dinner on the first night, we hung up our hammocks – souvenirs from Malaysia – between the trees and chatted until the sun went down, enjoying the peaceful, natural environment and the comforting aroma of the pine trees.
One thing to be aware of, however, is no matter how warm the day, it can get very cold indeed during the night – near freezing – so make sure you have a warm sleeping bag and layers of clothing to wear.
6. Go High into the Clouds
On our first day, when we were walking through Jasper village, we spotted something sticking up, high on the mountaintop, and wondered whether it was a cluster of tall trees or a hermit’s castle (yes, our imaginations were on overdrive that day). As it turned out, it was the Upper Station of the Jasper SkyTram, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014.
This was our last day to explore Jasper National Park, and a scorcher of a day, so we checked it out, taking the seven minute ‘flight’ 2300 metres up Whistlers Mountain, as the attendant gave us a commentary of what we were seeing.
At the top, we took the boardwalks and hiking trails up a further 200 metres to the summit, enjoying spectacular 360 degree views over Jasper National Park.
Signs revealed that this rugged mountaintop landscape makes up around 40% of the park. Not much can live up here, so it was a privilege to experience this area from a bird’s eye view.
I couldn’t help but feel philosophical up here, feeling at once like a small speck in the world and elevated – physically and emotionally – among these majestic, calm mountains.
From high up here we could see for ourselves Jasper village way below with its distinctive ‘J’ shape. An exhilarating way to conclude our stay in this naturally, soulfully picturesque part of the world. Who needs a car to explore Jasper National Park, anyway?
This post was brought to you with thanks to Jasper Riding Stables, BacTrax Camping Rentals and Jasper SkyTram.
Next up, find out how to plan a Canada backpacking trip and the best way to cross the country, here.