Quick guide to Maligne Lake


No trip to Jasper National Park, or the Rockies for that matter, would be complete without a side trip to Maligne Lake. Separated from the Banff/Jasper Highway by the rugged Maligne Range, this 29 mile (46 kilometer) road follows the glacial valley separating this range from the neighboring Queen Elizabeth Ranges. The main access is along Highway 16, approximately five kilometers east of Jasper.

Activities: Sightseeing, photography, walking, hiking, canoeing, whitewater rafting.

Highlights: Maligne Canyon, Medicine Lake, Jasper Park Lodge Road, Hanging Valley Viewpoint, Rose Marie’s Rock, Maligne Lake.

Time: Minimum of two hours.

Location: Five kilometers east of Jasper.

Point and Shoot

All along the drive to the Maligne Lake area, you’ll likely have lots of chances to photograph wildlife. Grizzlies bears are frequently sighted roaming the area. Along with moose, mule black bear, elk and white-tail deer, bighorn sheep and mountain goat. So you’ll definitely want to have your camera at the ready here, as in most parts of Canada, just remember to keep a safe distance between yourself and the wildlife.

The View at Hanging Valley

At mile four (kilometer six), you’ll see a sign on your left for the Hanging Valley Viewpoint. Watch the odometer, because it’s easy to miss. The viewpoint offers up an excellent panorama of the Athabasca Valley and the town of Jasper. The Maligne Valley is a classic hanging valley, sitting at a much higher elevation than the nearby Athabasca Valley, thereby offering a bird’s eye view of the area.

From the viewpoint, near the edge of the valley, you get a wonderful view of the vastness of the valley left behind by the Athabasca Valley glacier. Across the valley, Pyramid Mountain looms with its CNCP telecommunications tower on the summit. To the left of the Jasper town site, Whistlers Mountain and its ever-present Jasper tramway dominate the skyline.

Maligne Canyon

Not too long after leaving the Hanging Valley Viewpoint, you’ll take a left into the Maligne Canyon day-use area. This is a great chance to see one of Jasper’s geological marvels. Glacial melt made this canyon deep but very narrow.

The trail at Maligne Canyon is well kept, but it does get steep, so give yourself plenty of time so that you can appreciate the magic of this place. This is also a great place for photographers to get excellent landscape photos. But please avoid the temptation to climb over fences and other barriers to get your photos. Photographers have literally died here doing that.

Medicine Lake

Experience the popular lakes, rivers and streams of the Canadian   Rockies.
Experience the popular lakes, rivers and streams of the Canadian Rockies.

Much of the drainage from the surrounding Canadian Rockies exits Maligne Valley through a hidden drainage network of underground caves. Medicine Lake dramatically illustrates the how this underground drainage system works. Every Autumn, as the land dries up, the lake disappears. This is because the lake acts as a large basin with the drain open. If you have the tap running at full blast, the basin will fill with water despite the water running down the drain.

In the case of Medicine Lake, upwards of 4,000 gallons (24,000 liters) of water go down the drain every second. During the runoff in summer,  there’s enough water flowing into the lake from local streams to make up for the drainage and the lake bed begins to fill, and by late spring, Medicine Lake is in its full glory. By September, runoff has dropped off, and the lake quickly drains.

The cave drainage system beneath Medicine Lake resurfaces below Maligne Canyon, more than 11 mi (17 kilometers) downstream. This makes  it as the longest underground drainage system in all of Canada. Twice attempts were made to plug the drain, once using old mattresses, the other using magazines—neither of these odd attempts had any effect.

Medicine Lake also provides some excellent Canadian Rockies fishing. Its quiet waters teem with eastern brook trout. The fish were stocked in 1927, and somehow managed not to get washed down the drain, but rather flourish.

At mile 22 (kilometer 35), the road passes the takeout point for kayakers and whitewater rafters. Keep your eyes open for some of these icy Canadian adventurers. The waters of the Maligne River don’t rise far above the freezing point, but despite its chilly nature, the stretch between Maligne Lake and this pullout represents one of Alberta’s most popular rafting destinations.

Rose Marie’s Rock

At mile 25 (kilometer 41), the road crosses a bridge over the Maligne River. Looking upstream, a large rock is visible in the middle of the river. This rock can be seen din the the 1953 classic Rose Marie, starring Howard Keel and Ann Blyth. No, Nelson Eddy didn’t sing to Jeanette Macdonald here, despite the sign in the Maligne Lake Restaurant! It was the remake of this classic movie that was actually filmed here.

Maligne Lake

You’ve arrived one of the most picturesque spots in the Canadian Rockies. Nestled between Mounts Charlton, Unwin, Mary Vaux and Llysfran Peak on the right  and Leah Peak, Samson Peak and Mount Paul on the left, it offers some of the best photography you’ll find on your vacation. The lake was created when a landslide off the surrounding Opal Hills released almost almost 700 million-yd³ (500-million-m³ ) of material into the lower valley. This natural dam caused the water to backup, forming the present lake. Like Medicine Lake, fish stocking in the early part of the century has created a fisherman’s paradise. Don’t forget to pick up your National Park fishing license before casting in your reel.


In 1875, railroad surveyor Henry MacLeod recorded the first non-native exploration of this valley. Looking for a route for Canada’s planned transcontinental railway, he found the valley to be blocked at its eastern end. Perhaps the best reflection of his expedition can be found in his dubbing the lake at the valley’s eastern end “Sore Foot Lake” (now Maligne Lake).

The lake remained quiet until 1908 when a Quaker from Pennsylvania, Mary Schäffer, hired local guide Billy Warren to take her to Chaba Imne (Stoney for Beaver Lake). Along with her was long-time friend Mary Adams. The party had explored Jasper the year prior, but had not been able to reach the lake before snowfall. Mary wrote in her journal:

“Indians, of course, had been there, but, unless a prospector or timber-cruiser had come in by way of the Athabasca River, we had reason to feel we might be the first white people to have visited it.”

As you drive this winding road, keep your eyes open for wildlife. Many a grizzly has been seen wandering its isolated hillsides and lakeshores. There is also the potential to spot a black bear, elk, moose, mule and white-tail deer, bighorn sheep and mountain goat. A camera and film are essential, but please stay in your vehicles when you see animals and please keep a safe distance between your vehicle and the wildlife.

Crossing the Athabasca River over the H.J. Moberly Bridge, you pay tribute to one of Jasper’s earliest pioneer families. Henry Moberly worked as a factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company, settling in the Jasper area in 1858. He lived until 1931, and this bridge, built in 1940, is dedicated to his memory.

Boat tours along the lake are a must for visitors to the Jasper area. Culminating with a visit to world famous “Spirit Island”, they offer endless views of the surrounding Canadian ranges, and provide the most civilized way to see the further reaches of this magnificent lake.

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