The glorious Maligne Canyon Ice Walk in Jasper National Park can be experienced from sometime in December until early April. I’ve done it a few times now, once guided over an April Easter weekend, and another time self-guided in February.
They were surprisingly different experiences as every year the ice looks a little different and I spent more time on top looking down into the canyon the second time. Kids love the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk as much as the adults do so don’t leave them behind.
The Maligne Canyon Ice Walk is one of the most unique things to do in winter in Alberta – and it’s a whole lot of fun. You can experience Maligne Canyon in winter two ways – via an ice walk on the frozen Maligne River itself, or via an icy walk on a hiking trail through the canyon that includes six pedestrian bridges.
Maligne Canyon Ice Walk summary
Permits: It’s free to do the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk, but you do need a National Park pass to visit.
Guides/self-guided: A guided trip is the safest way to enjoy the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk as they’ll ensure you have the right equipment and they will get you in and out of the canyon safely. A big bonus with a guided trip is that they will take you to places you’ll miss when you’re doing it on your own – cue the cave.
Level of difficulty: I’d rate this an easy walk as there is very little elevation gain on the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk and even though the total distance varies on where you enter and exit the canyon, most people won’t walk more than about 4 kilometres.
Parking: There are three parking lots that provide access to Maligne Canyon – at the First, Fifth and Sixth Bridges (not shown on the map.) It’s actually best to park at the Fifth Bridge as it provides the best access to the ice walk.
What to take: No matter whether you go on your own or with a guide, microspikes are a necessity and a hiking pole helps a lot with balance and checking for pockets of water.
Where to find food: If you’re interested in a meal before or after the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk, park at the main parking lot near the First Bridge as it’s closest to the Maligne Canyon Wilderness Kitchen.
This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a qualifying purchase through one of these links, I will receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. Thank you very much for your support.
When is the best time to do the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk?
Mother Nature decides every year when the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk will open. It depends on how many cold days there have been and how much ice has built up so that it is safe to walk on.
Check in with tour companies in early December to get their expected start date – or with the Jasper National Park office. Typically you can enjoy the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk into early April. That too will vary year to year, depending on how cold a winter it’s been.
Maligne Canyon Ice Walk guided tour for the full experience
On one trip to Maligne Canyon we booked an ice walk tour, though I’m not normally a tour person. This one was incredibly worthwhile and without a tour guide we would likely have missed the caves (a highlight) and probably wouldn’t have appreciated what makes the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk so special – in fact unique in North America.
Reserve an ice walk tour well in advance with either Viator or Get Your Guide as they often sell out on weekends.
The company we went with offered three tours a day – including an evening tour which would be so much fun with a full moon. The price is around $70 for adults and $35 for children. It’s worth every penny. They also provide the microspikes and warm boots.
How the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk unfolds
Our group of eight started in Jasper by donning knee high waterproof boots in the tour office downtown. We were all given a pair of ice cleats or microspikes which we put on once we arrived at Maligne Canyon, only a 10-minute drive away.
We started the ice walk by crossing the Fifth Bridge, put in place after high waters undermined the integrity of a long standing bridge. From there you work your way up the river – where you’ll see it running even in the cold of a winter to reach the ice walk.
Why doesn’t part of the Maligne River running through Maligne Canyon ever freeze?
Chris our guide posed the question – Why doesn’t the lower section of the Maligne River ever freeze? Fortunately we had a kid in the group who was happy to throw out answers. A few adults make suggestions too. But no one gets the right answer.
Maligne Canyon lies in what is known as karst terrain, characterized by an extensive underground system of caves and fissures formed in limestone rock. The water in the Maligne River that you see flowing through Maligne Canyon comes in part from nearby Medicine Lake.
The water supplying Medicine Lake itself is a combination of glacier melt (80%), snow melt (15%) and rainwater (5%). Medicine Lake drains like a bathtub – at the bottom – and through a network of caves and fissures some of the water reaches the Maligne River.
They know this because scientists put a harmless dye in Medicine Lake which in the summer reached the Maligne River in 12 hours. But when the temperatures drop, the Maligne River flow is curtailed and the dye in the winter takes 88 hours to flow underground from Medicine Lake to the Maligne River.
Also interesting is that some stretches of the river which are fed by these springs never freeze because the water is coming out of the ground at about 4°C (39°F).
The summer level of the Maligne River
In summer, the Maligne River level is much higher as evidenced by the line of moss showing the high water mark – well above head height. Throughout the winter, the river level continues to drop, and one can see long stretches of stranded ice well above the river bottom. This ice can be quite thick and can create long bridges that are strong enough to be walked upon.
The cave on the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk
Chris leads us into a cave – one that he’s explored to a point most mortals wouldn’t consider – more than 300 metres in from where we squatted. I’m not a cave lover but I have to say once inside it was pretty cool looking out through a layer of ice. From there we continue walking up the canyon at a relaxed pace so there’s plenty of time for photography.
I didn’t take note of the cave location when I did the guided tour so just keep an eye out for feet – as you have to slither in on your belly!
The beauty of the ice
Much of the enjoyment of the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk comes from taking your time to admire the ice in all its weird and wonderful shapes. It’s also fun to watch the ice climbers in action at the far end of the ice walk.
Get behind a frozen waterfall
Our last adventure in Maligne Canyon took us through a hole behind the frozen waterfall the climbers were on. It was an otherworldly view looking out through layers of ice. To get out, we could easily slip through the hole we came in – but it was a lot more fun to slide down an icy ramp.
Walk the trail above Maligne Canyon
If you don’t want to hike the frozen Maligne River, you can still enjoy a walk on the trail beside Maligne Canyon. Most people do it as and out and back but you should know if you start by the First Bridge, it’s all downhill so on the return when you’re tired, especially if you’ve got kids with you, you’ll be slogging uphill. It’s no big deal if you’re a regular hiker.
Microspikes still come in handy on the trail as it is prone to getting icy. Sometimes it was easier to take the fast route down, sliding on our butts! I loved the views down into the canyon and would recommend a combination of hiking the trail and enjoying the ice walk.
How much time do you need on the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk?
The entire ice walk from start to our finish in downtown Jasper took three hours. It’s easy and a first-class, fun family-friendly activity. The youngster on our trip said the highlight for her was going inside the cave.