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Snowshoeing In Jasper: The Watchtower Canyon Tour

Snowshoeing in Jasper: The Watchtower Canyon Tour

I have succumbed to the charms of winter in Jasper. Apart from the mountain studded blue skies, sunshine and warm temperatures – even in February, it’s the sheer number of adventures available within minutes of town that has me hooked. I could live here.

While the snowshoeing in Jasper National Park is divine, there is lots more to do in the area including fabulous downhill skiing at Marmot Basin and the thrill of climbing a 100 foot frozen waterfall in Maligne Canyon.

When it comes to snowshoeing, if you can walk, you can snowshoe. And for snowshoeing with world-class views, you can’t beat Jasper National Park. With a size almost twice that of Banff National Park, there’s a lot of territory to explore. 

The Medicine Lake – Watchtower Canyon snowshoe tour is one of the prettiest you’ll find in the Rockies. 

A beautiful scene at the parking lot beside Medicine Lake
A beautiful scene at the parking lot beside Medicine Lake

Where is Medicine Lake?

Medicine Lake, about a 25 minute drive from the town of Jasper, is one of the popular snowshoeing destinations. Accessible via the plowed Maligne Canyon Road, the area gets loads of snow. Part of the reason is a function of altitude, as it’s almost 325 metres higher than the town of Jasper.

Although you can certainly snowshoe without a guide, there are times when they can add a whole lot to the experience. My snowshoeing trip to Medicine Lake is a case in point.

Anybody can drive up Maligne Canyon Road and find the big parking lot at Medicine Lake. And it’s pretty darned easy to follow the trail onto Medicine Lake. But, not many people know about Watchtower Canyon.

It’s easy to miss and judging from the tracks, no one has visited since Christian, my guide and co-owner of Canadian Skyline Adventures had last been here, about three weeks ago.

Snowshoeing through a jumble of boulders on the way to Medicine Lake
Snowshoeing in Jasper through a jumble of boulders on the way to Medicine Lake

Snowshoeing in Jasper  to Medicine Lake & Watchtower Canyon 

From the parking lot, we take off through the snow covered boulders. A pole comes in handy for checking for holes – large gaps between the boulders you want to avoid – and for balance.

After a short stretch along the lake, we head for the woods. There is some uphill snowshoeing involved but nothing too strenuous. And the mountains views framed by the trees are worth the effort.

Snowshoeing alongside Medicine Lake
Snowshoeing alongside Medicine Lake
More glorious mountain views
More glorious mountain views

One of the benefits of using a guide is that you learn a thing or two. The black lichen you see hanging from the trees is a major food source of the caribou. I had no idea! There’s also bright green lichen you sometimes see as a small clump. Although very pretty and eye catching, it is poison to the caribou.

Horsetail lichen - one of the food sources for caribou - as pointed out by my guide Christian from Canadian Skyline Adventures
Horsetail lichen – one of the food sources for caribou – as pointed out by my guide Christian from Canadian Skyline Adventures

Snowshoeing in Jasper up Watchtower Canyon

Watchtower Canyon is the highlight of this snowshoeing trip – and it’s easy to miss unless you’re looking for it. It’s got a narrow opening bisected by a stream, located on the west side of Medicine Lake about a kilometre from the parking lot.

As you head into the canyon, listen for the water running in the stream. Although it’s not deep, you definitely do not want to be falling in. (Bring an extra pair of socks just in case.) The pole comes in handy for probing the edges of the stream as well.

Basically you follow the stream up for about a kilometre from the lake until you reach the large waterfall. The trail is obvious in most places, even though it hasn’t been used for weeks. Look for a slight depression in the snow.

Making our way up Watchtower Canyon
Making our way up Watchtower Canyon

After 20 minutes of gentle climbing, the canyon walls start to close and the unfolding scene is one of great beauty. Colourful, striated rock walls and large boulders scattered helter-skelter transport you to another world. You can’t believe you’re so close to civilization. But as it turns out, we weren’t the only ones there.

The loud pecking of a three-toed woodpecker stopped us in our tracks. It took a while to find him but we did. We were also serenaded by the American dipper, a bird that loves the edges of mountain streams, even in cold Rocky Mountain winters.

Snowshoeing in Jasper and the canyon walls start closing in
The canyon walls start closing in
You do have to watch for open water
You do have to watch for open water

Our turn-around point was at the waterfall pictured below. In summer, climbers make their way here to test their skills on some hair-raising rock faces.

Such beauty and yet so few people ever venture here. From the car, it’s only about a two kilometre hike.

Snowshoeing in Jasper and looking up out of Watchtower Canyon
Looking up out of Watchtower Canyon
A whole different view on the return 
A whole different view on the return
And a trees only view
And a trees only view

The descent is speedy and in no time we’re back at Medicine Lake. As we emerge onto the lake at about noon on Sunday, we see two other people bringing the count for the day to four. I ask – where is everybody?

The weather is superb, unseasonably warm with amazing snow and dazzling blue skies. I don’t know why the place isn’t crawling with people though I do enjoy the silence.

Leaving Watchtower Canyon
Leaving Watchtower Canyon
Snowshoeing in Jasper and what a view
What a view snowshoeing in Jasper National Park!
You could make a long day of it just snowshoeing on Medicine Lake
You could make a long day of it just snowshoeing on Medicine Lake
Heading back to the car
Heading back to the car
One last view of Medicine Lake
One last view of Medicine Lake

So now you know where you can find Watchtower Canyon. All told it took us three hours at a leisurely pace to explore the area. And don’t worry about snowshoeing on Medicine Lake. In the winter, most of the water has drained – like a bathtub – so there’s only a ribbon of flowing water that you can’t miss. Avoid it.

Further reading about winter in Alberta

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

Snowshoeing in Jasper: The Medicine Lake - Watchtower Canyon Tour

Thank you to Tourism Jasper for hosting my visit but as always all thoughts/opinions are my own. This is definitely a five star snowshoeing trip.

 

 

 

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 26 Comments
  1. Although you say it hasn’t been that cold, I admire you for stopping to take photos. If I’m out and about in snow, I’m either in perpetual motion or supping on hot chocolate to warm up.

  2. Wait, what?! What happened to Florida? I was just warming up reading the last post LOL 🙂 My gawd you continue to mesmerize me with your photos, Leigh. You two are always on the most amazing adventures as well. That is the first I had heard about lichen and the caribou. I haven’t snowshoed in what 20 years or more? My first pair was the old antique, wooden ones that were HUGE. Then when I realized I would need a good pair for Search and Rescue I bought a nice, lightweight pair. They must be even a ton better these days! Thank you again for the wonderful visual and writing escape. Oh that photo looking up with the trees circled around you was awesome! 🙂

    1. @Mike I’m in Florida one day and snow the next. Sorry to disorient you – just seems to be the way my schedule is working. Next – Palm Springs so perhaps some Joshua Tree National Park photos.

      We have some old wooden snowshoes with leather bindings that look good on a wall. My lighter snowshoes are definitely out of date though I don’t know if they make them like they used to. There’s a lot of cheap plastic that looks like it would snap in cold weather.

  3. Amazing photos, I would easily succumb to that kind of beauty and charm as well! We’re heading through Canada in summer this year and can’t wait! I’m assuming there obviously won’t be as much snow, but I’ve seen photos from SUmmer and they look just as magical. Though would love to witness this much snow 🙂

  4. I am in Telluride now catching my breath on the slopes and think snowshoeing would be a great activity here too!
    The photos here are amazing!!!
    Cheers,
    Priscilla

    1. @Priscilla Lucky you. I have only seen Telluride in summer. I’m sure there are some first class places for snowshoeing in the area. You just have to watch that you’re not in an avalanche area.And Jasper is well worth visiting in winter.

  5. I’ve always had an interest in snow shoeing but never had a chance. The only winter sport I’ve tried is downhill skiing. This place looks amazing, but I’d only go with someone who’d been there I think. You?

  6. Oh my! I am hopefully visiting Canada later this year, I would love to visit Jasper national park, these photos are simply amazing, the views and landscape looks so beautiful. I like the shots of the sky framed by a ring of trees, and the wide angle shots of the snow capped mountains – Gorgeous!

  7. Beautiful photos! Do you remember what the elevation was like on this trail? Were there any strenuous uphills? Looking to do this myself this winter! 🙂

    1. Hi Veronica,
      It’s a very gentle grade to get to Watchtower Canyon. The starting elevation would be slightly lower than Maligne Lake which is at 1,670 metres.

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