Gorgeous. Beautiful. Awesome. Whatever superlatives you’ve heard describe Jasper National Park’s Skyline Trail they are all true. And if the scenery doesn’t leave you breathless the three major passes you climb over certainly will.
The Skyline is one of the premier must do backcountry hikes in the Canadian Rockies. The 45 kilometer Skyline Trail is located within Jasper National Park Alberta Canada roughly connecting Maligne Lake and Maligne Canyon. Simply described by Parks Canada as “scenic” does not do this hike justice. Approximately 25 kms of the trail is above the treeline including a section of ridge top hiking that is out of this world panoramic.
The Skyline has four access points:
- Skyline Trailhead South is approximately 50km from Jasper via Maligne Lake Road. Cross over the bridge to access the parking lot. The trailhead is across the road to the north(ish).
- Skyline Trailhead North is roughly 1km west of the teahouse at Maligne Canyon on Maligne Lake Road.
- Watchtower Trailhead is located along Maligne Lake Road at the 18 – 19 kilometer mark. This trail joins the Skyline at km18 entering the Curator Basin.
- Wabasso Trailhead is located on Highway 93/Icefields Parkway south of Jasper. The Wabasso trail is used by horse packers to access the Shovel Pass Lodge at the Curator backcountry site. The lodge also caters to backpackers but before you get too excited this is considered a primitive lodge without the luxuries – no hot bath, no chocolate bars, and no beer.
The Maligne Lake South trailhead has a higher starting elevation and is the most common access point for the Skyline. Most hikers prefer not to start at Signal Mountain Fire Road trailhead because of the lung busting 8km climb to the first camp. We suggest that you let gravity do some of the work and end your journey with this downhill knee knocker instead!
The Skyline has six backcountry sites situated along the trail. In our opinion the best and seemingly most popular sites are Snow Bowl, Curator and Tekerra. However each site has it charm. From Skyline South trailhead, in order with recorded distance from the trailhead:
- Evelyn Creek (km 5.2) – The nearby mountain stream and sheltered sites give this stop its appeal.
- Little Shovel (km 8.1) – This site makes a great stop to explore Little Shovel Pass area.
- Snow Bowl (km 11.8) – Offers a wildflower display in early summer (mid/late July).
- Curator (km 20.4) – This camp is situated at the base of The Notch in a bowl with a glacial lake (note: you actually hike DOWN to the campsite making for a longer morning grind getting to the top of The Notch the next day).
- Tekerra (km 30.1) – Sits at the base of its namesake mountain with a mountain stream close by.
- Signal Mountain (km 35.7) – Within striking distance of the peak and a relatively short 8km downhill hike to end the trail.
The Watchtower route has a backcountry site at kilometer 10.
Sites hold 6 to 10 tents offering primitive basics – a tent pad, separate cooking area (exposed), bear poles (for hanging food – you are in bear country), and pit toilet (oversized upside down green margarine container with a beaver on it and of course exposed).
Backcountry access within Canadian National Parks requires a Park Pass (allows access to the park) and a Wilderness Pass (allows access to the backcountry). Advanced reservations are recommended and may be made up to 3 months in advance. Visit the Parks Canada website or drop into the local Jasper Townsite Information Centre to book your time on the trail.
The trail is not a loop so a car at each trailhead is convenient but not a must. The Maligne Lake shuttle will transport hikers to the trailhead(s). We recommend parking your vehicle at the northern Skyline trailhead by Maligne Canyon. Make arrangements to have the shuttle pick you up at the trailhead and drop you off at the south/Maligne Lake trailhead. This way when you’ve finished your hike done your car is there waiting for you.
There is no potable water supply on the trail (i.e. water fountain, coolers, taps, etc.), you must treat and/or filter and carry your own water. For the majority of the hike access to water is not a problem as you cross a number of creeks and rivers and skirt a couple of lakes. Water access at Little Shovel, Snow Bowl, and Signal Mountain is limited. Plan on filling up prior to camp to avoid having to backtrack to find water to boil the macaroni. Fill up at the lake near Curator as you are entering the longest stretch on the trail between water sources (The Notch to just before Tekerra is approximately 8kms).
Parks Canada advises that you are responsible for your own safety so please take the time to review the material provided to you when booking your trip. Of particular concern to most people are the bears. The Skyline Trail is prime habitat for both Black and Grizzly (Brown) bears. Black bears are frequently sighted near the Signal Mountain section of the trail and Grizzlies may be spotted grazing the alpine meadows. Parks Canada publishes an excellent brochure regarding safety when hiking with bears.
Recently the park has been posting ‘No Dog’ notices in areas considered critical habitat for Woodland Caribou. The entire length of the Skyline is NOT open to dogs. Rover will have to stay at home.
Pack out what you pack in and adhere to the principles of Leave No Trace.
Successfully completing and enjoying your time on the Skyline requires a good level of physical fitness and certain degree of luck regarding the weather. Completing the hike in 3 days is physically demanding requiring two strenuous days over three mountain passes – Little Shovel, Big Shovel and The Notch.
The climb to Little Shovel Pass begins past Evelyn Creek with a number of switchbacks that get you above the treeline. Your next major climb begins shortly after Snow Bowl and is a straight forward ascent of Big Shovel Pass topping out with breathtaking views of Curator Basin. From this vantage point you’ll notice the trail splits; the good news is that the trail that climbs the ridge to the right is the Watchtower trail and not the Skyline Trail. The bad news is the wall you see at the end of the basin is The Notch.
The Notch (km 22) at 2500 meters is the highest point on the trail and may be snow bound until mid July. This is the most difficult climb (and may be a scramble depending on conditions) you will face on the trail with a seemingly near vertical climb for about 1km. Making it to the top of The Notch you are rewarded with 4 to 5 kms of ridge top hiking, with awesome views of the valley (east and west), and peak after peak disappearing into the distance. On a good day Mount Robson can be seen to the west.
At this point you are completely exposed to the elements adding to the difficulty of the hike if mother nature choses not to co-operate. While on the ridge line be very mindful of the weather conditions as afternoon thunderstorms are common – usually building up from the west. Snow, winter, and white out conditions (yes read that again) may happen at any time so plan accordingly. If you’re lucky all you’ll have to contend with is the wind.
Although completing the entire trail is physically demanding the campsites can be hiked point-to-point allowing you the opportunity to slow the pace, recuperate fully and enjoy the scenery. If you have the time we’d recommend the hike over the period of 5 days and camping at the following spots: Little Shovel-Snow Bowl-Curator-Tekerra-Signal Mountain.
What to bring:
Given good weather and late season conditions (August) no special gear (i.e. ice axe and crampons) is required to complete this hike. The trail is well marked and well travelled requiring no bush whacking or off trail navigation. Good boots, a sleeping bag suitable for frosty nights, a stable three or four season tent, and supplies for however many nights you are on the trail should suffice. Also remember to pack bear spray, bug dope, toilet paper, and water treatment/filter.