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Attempted Skyline Trail Hike – Jasper

September 4, 2010

The snowy trail

The Low Down

The Skyline Trail is a 45km hike in Jasper National Park along the Maligne Range. Much of the trail is above the tree line, the views are spectacular!

This hike is a shuttle, there is a tour company (Maligne Lake Shuttle) which will take you from one end to the other, but you should pre-arrange this. You can start at either end.

It is a very busy trail, reservations are recommended. As it is fairly cheap, $10 a night, people tend not to officially cancel.

There are many campgrounds along the trail, so you can customize how many days you want to take to hike it. Most take two or three nights.

The Experience

I hiked the trail in late August/early September with my dad and a friend. My dad and I have done a few overnight hikes, but my friend was a n00b in decent shape.

We decided to start from the south trailhead, as there is less overall elevation gain.

We packed cold weather gear (long underwear, warm jacket) as it can snow any time of year on the trail and bear spray and bear bangers as it is grizzly country (you can rent bear spray in town if you don’t have any).

Day 1 – Fresh Feet!

We caught the shuttle early in the morning at the north trailhead to the south trailhead, leaving our car there with the idea that it would be there when we were finished. There were 13 people total on the shuttle that morning, at various levels of fitness. The ride to the south trailhead was pleasant, despite the shuttle driver repeatedly telling us, “it is cold and snowy up there, maybe you don’t want to do this?” We thought she was overreacting (foreshadowing…) It was snowing lightly at the south trailhead, but we, along with most of the rest of the group, opted to continue.

Snow near the S trailhead

The first 7km (S trailhead to Little Shovel) was fairly easy hiking, getting steeper in the last few kilometres with some switchbacks. This part of the trail is below the tree line, so the scenery is less spectacular. When we stopped for lunch at Little Shovel campground, we met a group who was quitting the hike because it was too cold at night. We opted to continue.

First views of the mountains

The next 5km (Little Shovel to Snow Bowl) were amazing. At this point the snow had stopped falling, leaving a light dusting on the ground, the clouds were breaking up, and the sun was shining. This part of the trail is a beautiful alpine meadow complete with mountain streams, marmots, and wild flowers, with little elevation change. Words cannot describe how beautiful, and photos are only a dim recreation. We were supposed to camp at Snow Bowl, but we were so inspired and the weather was so great we decided to hike on to Curator Campground (7km more).

The beauty and splendor and easy hiking continued until we hit Big Shovel Pass. At this point the hiking was more difficult and snowier, though no less beautiful. To get to Curator campground you have to hike down switchbacks, off the main trail, back into the tree line. On a 19km day, this was a bit hard on the old ankles.

mosaic1

Curator Campground is quite nice (reportedly much nicer than Snow Bowl); we arrived to find small snow drifts on most of the camp sites. There is one toilet (a high chair with no walls), poles and cables to store your food to keep it away from bears, three picnic tables, and eight designated campsites. We chose two sites near a small stream at the end of the campsite. There are also some cabins and a horse corral below the campsite, but I don’t think they take walk ons (there was no one there when we were).

Day 2 – Defeat

Our plan for day 2 was to hike from Curator campground to Tekarra. We woke up to ~1cm of snow on our tents, which made it hard to get motivated to crawl out of our sleeping bags, and got us off to a late start. The 3km hike to THE NOTCH was quite steep, and quite snowy. We heard stories of people having to be lead out of here in mid-July, as there was a heavy snowfall and the trail was lost. I can believe it, even with a light snow the trail could be hard to find, and often was through boulders or on a fairly steep ledge.

Curator Lake

We arrived at THE NOTCH behind a fit European guy and an American couple. At this point the weather had turned on us; it was quite windy with blowing snow and poor visibility. We watched the fit European scale a large snow patch with little difficulty. We then stopped for a snack, and watched the American couple attempt the same. They had made it almost to the top, when the man slid down the snow bank and into some jagged rocks. We heard him yell he was okay. Then we watched the woman do the same. She was okay too, just a bit bruised. They decided to turn back at this point and so did we. Well, we decided to scale a scree slope that we thought might be an alternate trail, then turned back, disappointed, though our moods were brightened by a herd of Bighorn Sheep.

NOMS! O HAI!

We set up camp again at Curator, and devised a plan for getting back to our vehicle that didn’t involve THE NOTCH. There are two ways off the trail at that point that don’t involve turning back along the same trail: through Watchtower campground, that will take you to the Maligne Lake Road (this is the road the trailheads are on); or down the Wabasso Lake Trail, which takes you to the Icefields Parkway (which is on the other side of the Maligne Range).

Day 3 – Retreat

After waking up to 1” of snow on our tents, we were reassured that retreat was our best option (along with the American couple and the one person that had started the hike the day before.) We decided to take the Wabasso Lake Trail out, as the Watchtower option would have meant going back uphill. By the time we ate breakfast and packed up the tents, there was at least 2” of snow on the picnic tables. My dad made a lovely snowman as the rest of us hid under a tree to get out of the wet snow.

Curator Morning Two Snowy River Crossing near Curator

The Wabasso Lake Trail is ~15km, with 900m loss of elevation (fairly steep in places.) As it is below the tree line, the views are fairly unimpressive. Horses are allowed on this trail, so it is fairly wide and well marked, but filthy. The only place we had trouble finding the trail was where it crosses the river. Basically you just cross where you can, and follow the river down until you find markings on the other side.

Wabasso Lake Trail

We arrived at the Wabasso Lake trailhead in early afternoon, with the problem of having our vehicle at a different trailhead, on a different road. There was cell phone service here, so we called the local cab company for a quote ($80!), and decided to hitchhike. We sent out one team member who found a ride to town pretty quickly, and came back with our vehicle to pick up the rest of the group.

We drowned our sorrows with beer and hot tub, and resolved to try again in better weather.

Stray Observations

Bearanoia level – Moderate. Tis grizzly country, but we saw no signs of bear, and the campsites are set up well with a separate cooking area.

Handy topo maps are available at local bookstores. There are larger ones with all of the hikes in the area, which have good detail, or smaller ones with each hike that have great detail.

Tent poles are probably the second worst thing you could forget to bring on an overnight hike 😉

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