When you’re planning your trip to Western Canada, everyone will rave to you about Banff National Park and the beauty of its abundant mirror lakes and snow-capped peaks. I agree with this sentiment completely – in fact, I’d even go so far as to say that Peyto is one of the most mesmerising turquoise bodies of water I’ve ever seen, while Hector Lake is one of the most tranquil.
But what about Jasper National Park? Occupying the northerly section of the Icefields Parkway, Jasper is just as wonderful and offers just as much to see as Banff. Arguably Canada’s greatest national parks, I love them both in equal measure, but Jasper is sometimes given a raw deal. Visitors give the park less time or worse – they miss it off their Alberta itineraries altogether because it’s not quite as accessible as Banff (which is less than two hours from Calgary International Airport, while Jasper is four hours from Edmonton). To prove it’s worth the effort and deserves as much fuss as Banff, here are seven reasons why I love Jasper:
Jasper is bigger…
…but its town has a smaller population than Banff. In fact, with its 4,250 square miles, Jasper is nearly double the size of Banff, and its town (population: 4,051) has almost half as many inhabitants. In a nutshell: it has more amazing ground to cover and less people to compete for space with – which perfectly leads me onto my next point.
Jasper is a lot less commercial than Banff. The town itself feels like a time warp – a colleague of mine returned recently for the first time in over 20 years and he said it was equally charming on both visits. The key sights are a lot quieter too, while the distinct lack of packed tour buses makes experiences feel more laid-back. And even though the underdeveloped hiking trails in Jasper may be harder work than those in Banff, they’re much more likely to make you feel like a pioneer.
When we visited in June, we spent two hours walking through the Valley of the Five Lakes (six miles from the Jasper townsite) and didn’t see a single soul. It felt like we were the only two people on earth, with only each other, and a miniscule chipmunk, for company. Bliss.
It’s where the Icefields Parkway starts (or finishes)
Anyone with a driving licence and a burning desire to hit the open road would be mad to visit Western Canada and not take on the Icefields Parkway. And to complete the full 144-mile run, you need to visit both Jasper and Banff. This glacier-studded route starts just a few miles south of Jasper town, and finishes at the Trans-Canada Highway just after Banff’s Lake Louise.
You’ll encounter more wildlife
Due to its remoteness, you’re more likely to see wildlife in Jasper than you are in Banff. In fact, when we went, we had three separate encounters with bears in just one day. We also saw abundant elk, chipmunks and, although we (thankfully) didn’t see any in the wild in Jasper, we heard murmurings of grizzly bear sightings around the townsite. You can’t get much closer to nature than this.
There’s Maligne Lake
So Banff has plenty of incredible ‘M’s’; Moraine and Minnewanka to name but two, but Jasper’s Maligne is undoubtedly the best of the bunch. For one, it’s got stats on its side: it’s the biggest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies and the second largest glacier-fed lake on earth. It’s also home to the world-famous Spirit Island which, rain or shine (or in our case, snow), is easily one of the most magical spots on the planet. Moisture from the mountains hangs in the air here, and I felt dwarfed by their snow-dusted peaks as we raced around the dock that overlooks the island. Despite the cold, my heart warmed at the sheer enchantment of the place – it had an almost dream-like, ethereal quality to it that I haven’t experienced before or since.
The boat trip out to the island is a secluded affair, but for those who want to go the extra mile (or 13) for more seclusion, you can even kayak or canoe to the island – and beyond – yourself. At the opposite end of the 13.5-mile-long lake is Coronet Creek campsite, where you can spend the night after your eight-hour canoe journey. Those who opt solely for the boat trip won’t even know the campsite exists, because motorised vessels are only allowed two-thirds of the way into the lake, to keep it as free from pollution as possible.
Sandwiches don’t come much better than those from Patricia Street Deli
After a morning spent rafting on the rapids of the Athabasca River (yet another reason to visit Jasper!), we were delighted to have received a great recommendation from a local: grab your lunch from the Pat Street Deli.
It took a little while to find the place when we got back to town, but, nestled behind a jewellers in Patricia Street, it soon revealed itself to us. Thankfully we’d just missed the lunchtime rush (we hear the queues go out the door at peak time) so walked straight in. All the workers were incredibly friendly, fun and sociable, and chatted to us about our travels as they built us each a custom mega-sandwich. I bowed to owner Glen’s expertise and let him create a masterpiece for me of his choosing. All I know is it was crammed with chicken, garlic mayo and more, and it was utterly delicious.
You can walk on a glacier
Stepping on an ice sheet that’s thousands of years in the making, having carved the postcard-perfect landscape into what we could see today, was incredible. Sipping from a frozen glacial river was even more so. The Columbia Icefields is probably one of Jasper’s busiest attractions, and it’s easy to see why – there aren’t many glaciers that are as accessible as the Athabasca Glacier, let alone visible from the road!