Updated April 2019
Hiking the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park rewards you with incomparable mountain views for almost two thirds of its 44.5 kilometre length. This is a world class hike that ranks in the top 10 in Canada – at least in my experience. It shouldn’t be missed if you’re in the Alberta Rockies. But the season for hiking the Skyline Trail is short. Don’t even think of booking campsites until late July after the snow has disappeared from The Notch. And by the end of September – in a good year – the season is over.
Why you should think about hiking the Skyline Trail
What this trail delivers that most don’t is expansive scenery above treeline for almost 30 kilometres. And if you start at the Maligne Lake trailhead, then the total elevation gain over the length of the trip is 1205 metres (3,953 feet), a tolerable amount of climbing over two to three days. If you want to make the hike tougher (and who wants to do that?) start at the Signal Mountain Trailhead closer to the Jasper townsite and add 530 metres (1,738 feet) more to the elevation gain.
We did this hike over three days in early September. We were extremely lucky to get the campsites we wanted at the last minute. Most people book months ahead of time and it was only by pestering the staff in Jasper National Park every day that I snagged a cancellation.
As soon as I had confirmed campsites I booked a one way shuttle for $25 pp with Maligne Shuttle. They pick you up at 9 AM SHARP at the finish point – Signal Mountain Trailhead – and deliver you to the start of the trail at Maligne Lake. You walk back to your car. You could try hitching a ride at the end of the hike but to me it was worth the money to have our car waiting for us when we finished.
How the hike unfolds on the way to Snowbowl Campground
You won’t be huffing and puffing when you start up the trail. The ascent is gradual and in less than half an hour you reach Lorraine and Mona Lakes. The trail along the way is quite beautiful as it’s lined with an array of lichens, mosses and mushrooms. Within 90 minutes we arrived at the first campsite – Evelyn Creek at the 5.2 kilometre mark. It’s a beautiful one and not very heavily used but our goal was Snowbowl Campground – 12.2 kilometres in from the trailhead. If you’re going to backpack the trail over three days then Snowbowl is a good choice for the first night from a distance perspective.
Just after you hike past Little Shovel Campground at 8.3 kilometres, the trail heads onto the alpine tundra. In early fall the colours are already starting. From here through to the Snowbowl Campground the views are splendid.
Day 2: Hiking the Skyline Trail: Snowbowl Campground to Tekarra Campground
Today our plan was to hike from Snowbowl Campground to Tekarra Campground, a distance of 18.2 kilometres. It was definitely a longer and tougher day than the day before, but it was also one of the hiking highlights of my life.
The morning entailed crossing expansive meadows before beginning an easy climb to Big Shovel Pass. There is a side trip possible from here that we didn’t do, to the Watchtower Col. This trail provides another route back to the Maligne Lake Road should the weather turn nasty or you run into problems.
From Big Shovel Pass it’s an easy descent to reach the junction to Curator Campground and Shovel Pass Lodge. But then it’s a stiff climb – the hardest of the entire trail to the top of The Notch. The Notch can hold the snow until into August. Be prepared for some kick stepping on snow if you’re on the trail in mid-July.
From The Notch the views are glorious and the hiking just gets better and better. For the next five kilometres follow the summit ridge of Amber Mountain. This area should not be attempted in an electrical storm. It is fully exposed. From here you can see the Icefields Parkway, the Jasper Townsite and on a clear day even Mt. Robson.
From The Notch to Tekarra Campground it’s a distance of 8.8 kilometres. Switchback down the slope towards the lake and keep an eye out for hoary marmots, big horn sheep, mountain caribou and white tailed ptarmigan. The only animal we saw was a hoary marmot.
It’s easy and scenic sub-alpine walking for the final two kilometres to the Tekarra Campground.
Day 3: Hiking back to Jasper
I hadn’t expected the third day of hiking on the Skyline Trail to deliver the first class scenery it did. The trail from the Tekarra Campground starts with a rock-hop across the creek. Then it’s an hour of gradual climbing around Tekarra Mountain onto the slopes of Signal Mountain. The views from Signal Mountain of the Maligne River Valley are superb.
The last 7.5 kilometres of the trail are on an old fire road with some views early on and then nothing but dense woods. Still, between mushrooms and bird sightings, there was enough to hold our attention to the very end. We knocked off the 13.5 kilometres in four hours, with lots of stops for photos.
Avoid starting the Skyline Trail at the Signal Hill parking lot – our finish point. You end up adding 530 metres (1,738 feet) to your total elevation gain.
A few helpful notes for hiking the Skyline Trail
- All campsites have bear-proof food storage. I find it helpful to bring a few waterproof bags to store the food in.
- If you would prefer not to backpack then strong hikers can head for the night at Shovel Pass Lodge – at the half way point, about 21 kilometres in. They provide all your meals and even a packed lunch for the next day. You can complete the Skyline Trail on the second day.
- Dogs are not permitted on the trail because of the caribou.
- This is grizzly bear country though we only saw scat in the first five kilometres. Take bear spray and bear bangers.
The Skyline Trail is exceedingly popular. There is a very short window in which to hike it – late July until late September. Book reservations by calling Jasper National Park at (780) 852-6177 three months in advance of when you want to hike. The recorded message says they will return your call with 72 hours but I find they do it within the day.
I can’t say enough good things about this hike. The Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park delivers first class scenery as well but for a lot more effort. Hiking in the Skoki area is also beautiful but this is by far my favourite backpacking trail in the Rockies.
Other post you might enjoy:
- A 3 Day Backpacking Trip that Includes Egypt Lake
- Backpacking to Baker Lake, Skoki Area, Banff National Park
- Hiking the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park – Part I
- The Hike to Fish Lakes – One of the Best Hikes in Banff
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