Jasper National Park forms the northernmost component of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks system, and is the largest, wildest and most forbidding of all the parks. With spectacularly jagged mountains, unusual geological formations and a history of adventure and conflict, it is the wild sister of its sibling, Banff. While Banff has been recognized as an international luxury destination for over a century, Jasper has been known for its harsh terrain, strange landforms and abundant wildlife.
The townsite of Jasper, in a valley carved by the Athabasca River, is located at the junction of the Icefield Parkway and Yellowhead Highway, and huddles against the eastern face of the Princess Lakes Bench and Pyramid Mountain. Only about 1,000 people call this town home all year long, but during the winter ski season and in the summer the population swells to 10 or 15 times its normal size, with visitors from around the world. Most of them come seeking the isolation and spectacular scenery that has made Jasper famous, as well as the exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities.
Skiing, hiking and climbing are popular activities year-round, due to the high altitude glaciers and wide diversity of terrain. In the summer, whitewater rafting, horseback riding and mountain biking are excellent ways to see the backcountry. If you are planning on coming to Jasper, don't forget your camera, as the snow-capped mountains and unique quality of light in the area make for very impressive photographs.
Most Jasper businesses are located along Connaught Drive and Patricia Street, which run parallel to the railway tracks that stretch alongside the Athabasca River. Between the main shopping district and the mountain lie the homes of the locals, as well as the aquatic centre, museum and library. Bars and restaurants are scattered along Patricia Street and can also be found on Connaught Drive. The Jasper Jasper Park Information Centre is located right in the centre of town, where Miette Avenue meets Patricia Street. The Information Centre is the best place to find information about the hundreds of activities and attractions found in the park.
Many of the hotels can be found at the north end of town on Connaught Drive, as well as near the Pyramid Lakes Road. A unique feature of Jasper is the Approved Accommodations: private homes that have suites available for rent to tourists. They are sanctioned by the Chamber of Commerce and are usually cheaper than hotels. This can be a real lifesaver when all the other rooms in town are booked.
When visiting Jasper, it is important to know about the town's permanent residents: the elk and bears. Excellent wildlife photography opportunities abound in and around town, and a few simple rules will ensure that both you and the animals have an enjoyable experience. When taking pictures, use a telephoto lens and keep at least 50 meters (150 feet) away. Never feed or attempt to get close to any wildlife, and make sure that you consult Parks Canada about proper wildlife safety precautions before heading off into the woods. Elk are often seen in town, wandering through backyards and even down the main streets of downtown. But remember that these animals are not tame, and that they may attack if provoked. You don't have to panic if you see one; just keep a respectful distance and avoid disturbing them.
The town of Jasper is dwarfed by the vastness of the park stretching out on all sides and makes an excellent base for exploring the park's many attractions. Major roads run east, west and south of the town, and a drive along any of the parkways or highways will open up boundless outdoor opportunities.
To the northeast of the Jasper townsite, the Athabasca River runs down the centre of a valley, and separates the town from the Maligne Lake Valley to the east, as well as Maligne Canyon and the Jasper Park Lodge. The trails around the lodge and Maligne Lake are excellent for hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter.
Following the Yellowhead Highway north from town will take you out of the park and through the town of Hinton and eventually to Edmonton. Some of the most unusual landscape in the park can be found along this stretch of highway. A half-hour drive to the north lies Jasper Lake and the surreal Jasper Sand Dunes, as well as the Miette Hotsprings. The shore of Jasper Lake offers some exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities, as bighorn sheep and mountain goats enjoy feeding and sunning themselves on the cliffs alongside the Yellowhead Highway. For a refreshing dip, stop by the Miette Hot Springs, located just off of the Yellowhead highway before Hinton. The 104-degree Fahrenheit water will soon chase the chill of the mountains away.
To the west of Jasper lie the Monashee Mountains, a rugged and isolated range. The mountains are home to Mike Wiegle Heli Skiing, considered one of the best heli-ski operations in the world. There are also whitewater rafting opportunities, and the chance to see Mount Robson, an imposing block of granite that is the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies.
To the south of town, you will find the Whistlers Gondola, Jasper International Hostel and Marmot Basin Ski Area. Further south is the Icefields Parkway, one of the most spectacular drives in North America: a 300 kilometre stretch of highway winding toward Banff beneath soaring peaks and massive glaciers.
Halfway between Jasper and Banff is the Icefield Centre, where you will find a Parks Canada Information Centre and the Athabasca Glacier SnoCoach Tours.
When many people hear of Canada, the first place that springs to mind is Banff. The soaring peaks, dense coniferous forests and abundant wildlife are a Canadian institution. The Banff townsite sits within Banff National Park, Canada's oldest and most spectacular Heritage Site. Home to many of the nation's most famous landmarks, densely populated with wildlife and full of opportunities for relaxation and adventure, Banff is Canada's ambassador to the world and one of the country's most-visited tourist attractions.
Banff is 100 kilometres west of Calgary and sits in the first range of the Eastern Slope Rocky Mountains. The landscape is rugged, consisting of towering black mountains, deep blue and white glaciers and alpine tundra. The valley bottoms are densely carpeted with spruce and pine trees, and fast-flowing rivers churn through their centers.
Almost all the people and animals in Banff live in these river valleys, most of which are less than a mile wide. Banff is home to black and grizzly bears, whitetail and mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Some people visit Banff just to see the animals, who are easy to observe and fairly docile. However, it is best to bother the animals as little as possible.
The city of Banff is relatively tiny, squeezed into a narrow mountain valley and bisected by the Bow River. Nearly all the restaurants and businesses in town are crammed into three blocks of Banff Avenue, which makes for a densely packed market atmosphere. South of the Bow River is the legendary and magnificent Fairmont Banff Springs, and the Upper Hot Springs. Several kilometers to the west of town is the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, and to the west is the Golf Course Road, which is flanked by verdant fairways and greens.
A kilometer or so northwest of town are the Vermilion Lakes, a small chain of marshy ponds with walking trails running alongside that make a picturesque stroll, summer or winter. The deserted airstrip lies across the Trans-Canada Highway, along with the Cascade Ponds and Lake Minnewanka. This area is popular with hikers in the summer, but should be avoided in the winter, as there may be icefalls from the steep slopes above.
To the north is Mount Norquay Ski Area, which is only a 10-minute drive from town up a spectacular mountain road. Sunshine Village Ski Resort is a 20-minute drive to the west, and Lake Louise Ski Area is another half hour north. Along the Icefields Parkway towards the north end of the park is the Icefields Center and Athabasca Glacier—both are worth a visit. If you are driving to Banff, you might want to take a day or two and visit the Radium Hot Springs, which lie a two-hour drive west of Banff along one of the most spectacular stretches of highway in the world.
The town of Canmore is a 15-minute drive to the east of Banff, just outside the park boundaries. This small mountain community received international attention in 1988 when it hosted the Winter Olympics Nordic skiing events at the Canmore Nordic Centre. Since then, it has become a popular spot for athletes to train, because of both the high altitude and excellent facilities. There are many hotels and shops in Canmore that rival those in Banff, and a great many tour companies that operate in the park are based here. Canmore is a great place to find the down-home local culture that is sometimes lacking in Banff. With lower food and housing prices, Canmore is home for many Banff business owners, as well as a center of late-night activity during the summer. Canmore's dramatic mountain backdrop and easy access to the back-country has made it an ideal location for shooting Hollywood mountain movies. The actors can often be seen wandering around the downtown area and blending in with the locals.
Getting to Banff is quite easy. The park is an easy two-hour drive from the airport in Calgary, and many Banff hotels offer airport shuttle service. If you are planning to drive to Banff, which requires driving through the park, make sure to purchase a parks pass from the kiosk on the Trans Canada Highway in Canmore. If you are caught without a pass in the park, you could receive a ticket and fine. Parks personnel often check vehicles in ski area parking lots, so it is better to spend CAD10 on the pass than face a hefty fine.
Camping areas are scattered throughout the park, from commercial campgrounds with showers and cooking areas to wilderness campsites that are little more than a clearing in the trees. If you intend to camp, be sure to check with Parks Canada to ensure that the area you are heading into is safe and that there are vacant sites available. Fees for camping in Parks Canada campgrounds range from CAD10-CAD24 per night.