The Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park is at the top of many hikers’ lists – so much so, that when reservations for the season open up at the end of January, you’d best hope you’re online when it opens to secure a campsite for your choice of dates.
Skyline is aptly named as much of the trek occurs above the treeline – most of the trek you’ll spend strolling through alpine meadows amidst the wildflowers or summiting windy ridgetops. Unfortunately, this is one of those trails where you really have to “pay to play”, that is, the first ten kilometres of the trail (if beginning at Maligne Lake, which I’d recommend) are through lodgepole forest with no views until the talus domes of the Maligne Range break through the trees, and the final nine kilometres take you down the most lifeless fire road, a two hour descent I would liken to total hiking purgatory.
While many fit and agile people complete the 44 km trek in one day, as a day hike or by trail running, the hike is best and most comfortably done over a period of three days, beginning at Maligne Lake and ending at the Signal Mountain parking lot (near Maligne Canyon), camping at Snowbowl at km 12 and Tekkara at km 30.
Day 1: Maligne Lake trailhead to Snowbowl Campground
Distance: 12 km
Time: 5-6 hours
After leaving one car at the Signal Mountain trailhead, drive to the end of the Maligne Lake road and park at the Maligne Lake parking lot. Take advantage of your last opportunity to use a real bathroom before beginning the hike – the “thrones” at the campgrounds are wholly unpleasant. Unless you’re starting the day really late or wanting to spread the hike over four days, don’t camp at Evelyn Creek (6 km) or Little Shovel (8 km). Both sites are not usually busy, so their picnic tables make for a good spot to take a break.
Day 1 is largely uphill through lodgepole pine forest until shortly after Little Shovel campground. The ascent is gradual at first before turning into slightly steeper switchbacks. From there, you come out into alpine meadow and ascend Little Shovel pass before descending into the Snowbowl basin. The views don’t really get interesting until after Little Shovel campground, although watching some of the ground squirrels carry enormous mushrooms in their mouths was fairly entertaining.
The highlight of the day is definitely the Little Shovel pass area shortly after Little Shovel campground, so note that if you do camp at Little Shovel, you won’t get much out of your first day of hiking! As in any open valley area, make lots of noise to alert wildlife and bears of your presence, and make sure to grab water at the creek in the Snowbowl basin before arriving at Snowbowl campground, because there is no creek at the campground.
Day 2: Snowbowl Campground to Tekkara Campground
Distance: 18 km
Time: 6-8 hours
18 km is a lot to handle with a pack on, so start your day early to allow time for rest breaks. You begin the day hiking through a relatively flat alpine meadow – the views are absolutely amazing, and if the timing is right, lots of wildflowers will be in bloom. Take lots of pictures of the meadow while you’re not working too hard, but know that the views are only going to get better.
Following the meadow, there’s a fairly steep ascent to the top of Big Shovel pass. Once at the top, you walk gradually up and down on the side of a ridge towards Curator Lake. There’s the option while on the trail to ditch your pack for a quick ascent to the Watchtower Col at 17 km – which is also an alternate campground to use if your preferences are full.
Curator Campground at km 19 is the next campground, but you have to make quite a descent off the trail to get down there so it’s not an optimal rest stop. Don’t camp here if you don’t have to, because it adds some steep elevation gain to your trek, which is not what you want right before hiking up the Notch.
We reached Curator Lake after about 3 hours of hiking, so it makes for a great place to have lunch and take a break before ascending The Notch. The view of the lake is pleasant, but be warned that there are lots of nasty black flies and horse flies about (though I don’t necessarily think this is worse than the hoards of mosquitoes in the trees and at the campgrounds).
Next comes The Notch, which has an almost legendary status in the world of Canadian Rockies hiking. It’s the highest point on the trail, at 2511 m. While not nearly as long or as much of a grind as ascending the Wiwaxy Gap (see my post on Lake O’Hara), it’s still incredibly steep at times, and if you (like me) find yourself unbalanced with a heavy pack on, it’s an incredible workout to get to the top. I’m not exactly the poster child for hiking without whining, but it’s one of those things where you just have to put your head down and grind it out. I think the ascent took under 40 minutes. (I also lost my FitBit at some point on this hike – hopefully some marmot is getting enjoyment counting his steps now 😉 )
Once at the top of the Notch, you’re at the climax of the Skyline Trail. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Edith Cavell, Marmot Basin, and even Mt Robson, along with much of the Jasper Range and the Athabasca river. The next five kilometres are gentle ups and downs on a windy ridge top that could blow you away if you let it (and can make the hike feel harder than it is), but the views are what earn the “Skyline” name.
Enjoy the views from the top, because after the ridges, you start a long series of switchbacks down into the valley, in the shadow of Mt. Tekkara, which looks straight out of a Lord of the Rings movie. Once at the bottom of the valley, it’s fairly flat for two kilometres until you reach Tekkara Campsite at km 30, which is a far nicer campground than Snowbowl (and is right by a creek).
We had absolutely perfect hiking weather for this day; it’s a bad idea to be up on the Notch and those ridges in a storm due to being completely exposed, and bad weather will lead to even worse/more powerful winds at the top.
Day 3: Tekkara Campground to Signal Mountain Trailhead
Distance: 14 km
Time: 3-4 hours
It poured rain for us on Day 3, so it was a fairly miserable day for hiking. From Tekkara campground you make a gentle ascent winding around Signal Mountain. It’s a nice subalpine area and if it’s clear you can see the Maligne Lake Road below. But the last 9 km are a total slog no matter what the weather is. It’s a downhill dirt fire road where you lose 800 m of elevation, with absolutely no change in scenery or indication of when it ends. Signal Mountain Campground is here too at km 35, but there’s absolutely no reason to stay here – just power down the fire road. Sometimes I tried to convince myself I could hear cars on the road and that we must be close, but you can hear cars from a looong way up. This descent took a real toll on my feet, causing a couple blood blisters despite my good hiking boots, and I cannot find anything redeeming about it. Pay to play though, right?
- Start at Maligne Lake, not at Signal Mountain trailhead. Going up the fire road would be even worse than going down, and adds (400 m) to your overall elevation gain.
- Bathe yourself in bug spray, preferably the Off! Deep Woods protection or something else with high DEET content. The mosquitoes at the campgrounds were unlike anything I’d ever seen in my life, and the only reprieve from them was when we were on the ridges and above the treeline.
- Book the hike for late July or later to ensure that the Notch is free of snow to allow for safe passage.
- When we booked the hike, we found that information about the Maligne Lake shuttle was difficult to acquire. This is the shuttle that would take you back to your car at Maligne Lake once you’ve finished the hike. If you want more flexibility in time to start and end your hike, and if possible, take two cars and park at each end of the hike so you can drive back to your car at your convenience. You can also hitchhike, but assume the risk that a passing tourist may not want to pick up a filthy dirty backpacker en route to Maligne Lake!
- There are, unfortunately, people who do not follow the rules. We began at the Maligne Lake trailhead around 12 noon, at Snowbowl Campground at 5:30, but despite reserving for two tent pads, there was only one remaining – meaning that someone without a reservation had arrived before us and stolen a campsite. Try to begin hiking as early as possible especially if you have a large party that needs all the tent pads you reserved, or risk having to improvize on a flat patch of land near the campground or cramming several tents onto one tent pad. There is no check-in desk at any of the campsites and as of 2016 you are not required to display your reservation on your tent, so there are shitty people who will take advantage of this lax enforcement.
- There is no water right at Snowbowl Campground. If you need water, stop at the fast-running creek that’s about five minutes before you reach the Snowbowl Campground to collect the water and filter it, or you will have to backtrack to get water for the start of hiking the next morning. The next creek after Snowbowl is about 20-30 minutes away, so you could also wait, depending on your water situation.
- Bring wine in a platypus/wine cozy. You’ll thank me for it after those long, challenging days with a pack on!
- Each campground comes equipped with bear poles for food storage – make sure you have waterproof/water resistant bags that can be hung on the poles.
I wouldn’t recommend Skyline as your first ever backpacking trek in the Canadian Rockies (as it was mine). Try hiking with a full pack on some less steep trails to get used to the feeling, because this hike will take a toll on your body; it would also be a good idea to be in good physical condition with maybe some stairs/hill running training done beforehand. The gorgeous meadows and the views from the ridges are absolutely amazing though – just maybe bring along some good tunes or conversation starters to get you through that fire road at the end!