Canadian Rockies Hikes: The Skyline

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Over the Notch and onto the definitive Skyline ridge-walk. Mt. Edith Cavell in the distance. Photo by Kathy Copeland, hikingcamping.com.

An opinionated guide to the Skyline Trail hike in Jasper National Park, Alberta. This guide is brought to you by Canadian Rockies hiking experts Kathy and Craig Copeland at hikingcamping.com.
Shuttle trip: 44.5 km (27.6 mi) one way
Elevation change: 1205-m (3952-ft) gain, 1735-m (5690-ft) loss
Key elevations:

  • Trailhead 1690 m (5543 ft)
  • Big Shovel Pass 2320 m (7610 ft)
  • Amber Mountain 2530 m (8300 ft)
  • Hiking time: 2 to 3 days

Difficulty: moderate
Map: Gem Trek Jasper & Maligne Lake
Opinion
Mountains can move people.
The Canadian Rockies quite literally moved us when, in 1990, we immigrated from the U.S. to Canada so we could live next to this tremendous range.
Immersing ourselves in such a vast, beautiful wilderness proved irresistibly seductive. To find out what affect it has on you, backpack the Skyline, where the vastness and beauty of the Canadian Rockies is powerfully evident.
True to its name, the Skyline allows you to stride near or above treeline for much of the journey. Starting at Maligne Lake, you’ll gain surprisingly little elevation for such a long hike. You’ll have to gear down only once, midway, when you climb the Notch. The Skyline’s topographical profile resembles the spine of a brontosaurus. It’s way easier than the famous Rockwall (Kootenay National Park), which is Stegosaurus terrain.
You’ll see peaks near and far, some ferocious, others meek. The limestone canines of the Queen Elizabeth Ranges are visible from the trail as it plies meadows spangled with flowers. The name Skyline refers to the section northwest of the Notch, where you walk a 4.5-km (2.8-mi) mountain crest with body-slam scenery in all directions. Southwest is 3368-m (11,047-ft) Mt. Edith Cavell, the biggest incisor in the northern two-thirds of Jasper Park. West are toothy peaks rising above Tonquin Valley. Northwest, 80 km (50 mi) distant, is Mt. Robson.
Fast trekkers can buzz this trip in two days and still have time to wallow in all the flowers: multi-hued Indian paintbrush, lavender lupine, bright yellow cinquefoil, and fluffy, white pulsatilla, to name a few. On the less hospitable dirt-and-rock passes, look for tenacious bluebells. Allow at least an extra day if you want to roam the green ridges west of the trail between Little and Big Shovel passes.
The final 8 km (5 mi) are on an old, viewless road descending Signal Mountain. It seems like a never-ending plunge, but you gotta pay if you wanna play. You’d be crazy to begin your hike straining up this end. Starting at Maligne Lake knocks 530 m (1738 ft) off your total elevation gain. If you have just one vehicle, leave it at the trailhead near the Maligne Canyon parking lot, then hitchhike to the lake. It shouldn’t be difficult. When you finish the hike, having your vehicle waiting for you is a relief.
If you’re traveling to Jasper from far afield, reserve campsites on the Skyline several months ahead—or risk missing this world-famous hike. Schedule your trip after late July, to ensure the Notch (a steep, narrow pass) will be sufficiently snowfree to allow safe passage. Curator campground, about half way, is the logical choice for your one night out on a two-day trip. But the viewless, trampled-dirt sites at Curator are dismal. Tekarra Lake campground, two-thirds of the way along, is more pleasant.
Don’t get caught up here in a storm. This is an alpine route—high and exposed. You’ll be vulnerable to lightning. Snowstorms are possible even in summer. Check the weather forecast at the Jasper Info Centre before heading out. Pack foul-weather gear, regardless.

Fact

By Vehicle
From the junction with Connaught Drive at the north end of Jasper townsite, drive Highway 16 northeast 1.8 km (1.1 mi). Turn right (east) onto Maligne Lake Road. It’s signed for Jasper Park Lodge. Set your odometer to 0 here, then cross the Athabasca River bridge. At 0.2 km (0.1 mi), go left for Maligne Lake. At 5.4 km (3.3 mi) turn right into the Signal Mountain trailhead parking area. This is the Skyline trail’s northwest terminus, where we recommend ending the hike. If arranging a shuttle, leave one vehicle here. Otherwise, park here and hitchhike. If the Signal Mountain parking area is full, drive 0.8 km (0.5 mi) farther and park in the Maligne Canyon parking lot. This is where you should start hitchhiking anyway, just past where tourists resume driving to Maligne Lake.
To reach the southeast terminus of the Skyline trail—where we recommend starting the hike—drive or hitchhike the remaining 40 km (25 mi) to Maligne Lake. Continue past the lodge to the parking lot nearly at road’s end. It’s just above the lake’s northwest shore, at 1690 m (5543 ft).
On Foot
The signed trailhead is just above the parking lot’s southwest end, on the forest edge, 40 m/yd before the Bald Hills fire road. Head initially northwest, ascending at a gentle grade through lodgepole pine forest. Within half an hour, pass Lorraine Lake (left / southwest) at 2 km (1.2 mi), 1760 m (5770 ft), and Mona Lake (right / north-northeast) at 2.2 km (1.4 mi). The trail curves around Mona’s southwest shore, high above it.
At 5.2 km (3.2 mi), 1817 m (5960 ft), reach a junction. Left (south-southeast) intersects the Bald Hills trail in 2.2 km (1.4 mi). Bear right, immediately cross a bridge to the west bank of Evelyn Creek. The campground here has two tables and bear-proof food storage. Atop the next switchback, pass four tentsites. The ascent continues, tempered by more switchbacks. Heading west into the Maligne Range, the trail affords only glimpses through thinning forest until 2050 m (6724 ft), where the first vista (southwest to southeast) reveals rounded mountains with talus-slope sides.
A stream is audible in the forested valley below, just before reaching Little Shovel campground at 8.5 km (5.3 mi), 2140 m (7020 ft). It’s in the trees and has a couple tables and bear-proof food storage. Five minute farther, the trail gently ascends into alplands. The road-trail on the Bald Hills trail is visible east-southeast, beyond the first ridge. The sharply-peaked Queen Elizabeth Range is east.
In alpine meadow, about 30 minutes beyond Little Shovel campground, the trail curves northwest and grants a revelatory view of the open terrain ahead. Crest Little Shovel Pass at 10.2 km (6.3 mi), 2240 m (7347 ft). The left side is mostly scree, the right largely heather and krummholz. From the pass, descend into the Snowbowl—a vast, alpine basin where wildflower meadows spread to the horizon.
The trail is rough where it drops into a gorge carved by a swift creek. Rockhop the creek at 2085 m (6840 ft). Five minutes beyond is Snowbowl campground, at 12.2 km (7.6 mi), 2090 m (6855 ft). It has a couple tables and bear-proof food storage. Scattered alpine fir on the grassy slopes makes this an inviting site. The peak rising above Little Shovel Pass is visible southeast. Only a sliver of the Queen Elizabeth Range is visible right (northeast).
Carry on northwest. Gentle ridges of the Maligne Range (left / west) invite off-trail exploration. In ten minutes, cross the bridged south fork of diminutive Jeffrey Creek. Cross the bridged north fork 1.4 km (0.9 mi) farther. A gentle ascent crests Big Shovel Pass at 17.8 km (11 mi), 2320 m (7610 ft). An equally gentle descent leads 200 m (220 yd) to a junction. Right (east-northeast) ascends to Watchtower Col, then plunges into Watchtower Basin. Sans pack, dashing to the col is a quick, easy, scenically worthwhile detour. (Skip below for details.) Bear left (northwest) on the main trail to continue hiking the Skyline.
Descend barren slopes beneath Curator Mountain (left / southwest). Reach a junction at 19.8 km (12.3 mi), 2200 m (7216 ft). Go right (north-northeast) for the Skyline. Left (west) descends 120 m (395 ft) to reach Curator campground in 0.8 km (0.5 mi). It has a couple tables and bear-proof food storage. The trail beyond Curator, which we emphatically do not recommend, descends through forest 10.6 km (6.6 mi) to Wabasso Lake, then continues another 3.2 km (2 mi) to the Icefields Parkway, for a total elevation loss of 1100 m (3610 ft).
After the 19.8-km (12.3-mi) junction, the Skyline trail curves northwest, around the northeast shore of turquoise Curator Lake. It then steepens, approaching the Notch—a narrow, 2510-m (8233-ft) col. Its southeast side can remain snow-covered until mid-August. Be prepared to kick-step footholds on the final ascent.
Atop the Notch, the view extends southwest across the Athabasca River to Mt. Edith Cavell, and northwest to Mt. Robson. A brief, off-trail scramble—145 m (475 ft) up the steep-but-easy slope north of the Notch to a minor summit—significantly broadens the panorama.
Back on the trail, resume hiking northwest from the Notch, onto the definitive Skyline. The journey climaxes for the next 4.5 km (2.8 mi), along the barren summit ridge of Amber Mountain. Ups and downs are slight. 360° views are constant. Cruising elevation: 2480 m (8135 ft). Highpoint: 2530 m (8300 ft).
About 1 km (0.6 mi) northwest of the Amber Mountain summit, the trail begins switchbacking down the northeast slope, into the basin cupping Centre Lake. At 28.2 km (17.5 km), 2180 m (7150 ft), reach the lake’s outlet stream on the basin floor. Rockhop to the northeast bank. The slope to your right (east) rises to Centre Mountain. Just down-valley (northwest) is 2694-m (8836-ft) Mt. Tekarra.
Follow the trail generally north, into the subalpine zone. For about 2.5 km (1.6 mi), enjoy easy walking among scattered fir trees. Pass right (east) of Tekarra Lake (unnamed on the topo), at 2090 m (6855 ft). About 0.6 km (0.4 mi) farther, reach Tekarra campground at 30.5 km (18.9 mi), 2055 m (6740 ft). Situated in open forest, near the creek, next to subalpine meadows, it has a couple tables and bear-proof food storage.
Just north of the campground, rockhop to the creek’s west bank, and follow the trail northwest. After a brief, gentle ascent, begin an hour-long contour between 2120 m (6954 ft) and 2160 m (7085 ft): generally north-northwest beneath Tekarra Mountain, curving west then west-northwest onto the flowery slope of Signal Mountain. The angular peaks of the Colin Range are visible north, across Maligne River Valley.
Intersect the Signal Mountain fire road at 36 km (22.3 mi), 2150 m (7052 ft). The Athabasca River Valley is west, far below. A left spur leads south-southwest 0.8 km (0.5 mi) to the site of the former Signal Mountain fire lookout. Bear right, pass Signal campground in 100 m (110 yd), and follow the road generally north-northwest. You’ve begun the final leg of the trip: a viewless, 8.5-km (5.3-mi) descent through forest. Make noise frequently to avoid surprising a bear at close range. The road eventually curves east-northeast, then northwest to reach Maligne Lake Road at 44.5 km (27.6 mi), 1160 m (3805 ft).
Watchtower Basin
From the junction in Big Shovel Pass, at 18 km (11.2 mi), 2320 m (7610 ft), ascend the narrow path right (east-northeast) 0.4 km (0.25 mi) to 2380-m (7806-ft) Watchtower Col. The new view here is north into Watchtower Basin. For a much-improved perspective west-northwest of the Notch and Curator Lake, continue ascending left (northwest) from the col, up the ridgecrest, to 2420 m (7935 ft).
Want to explore Watchtower Basin? Before dropping into it, note the location of the highest lakelet, on the basin’s left (west) wall. Make that your goal. Then follow the trail down: west across scree, curving north through heather. From the col, you’ll lose 365 m (1197 ft) in 3 km (1.9 mi) to reach Watchtower campground at 2015 m (6610 ft).
More Canadian Rockies hikes.
Kathy and Craig Copeland are the opinionated hikers. They write unique guidebooks—bold, intelligent, entertaining and of course accurate—that ensure you make the most of your precious time outdoors. Their titles include “Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies, The Opinionated Hiking Guide,” and “Where Locals Hike in the Canadian Rockies, The Premier Trails in Kananaskis Country, near Canmore and Calgary.” Visit hikingcamping.com to see or purchase any of the Copelands’ books.

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