Skyline Trail (Jasper)

In August 1983 with Ruth, Carol R, Michael C from London, Dwight, Rob and Sam (Hagar the Horrible) from Toronto, and a bunch of people from Texas. In 1984 with Rhonda, Dianne B, Paul D, Heather, Warren, and maybe one or two others whose names I don’t remember. 

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Compared to some other Skyline trips our gang did in those days, the hikes I was on were fairly uneventful. Nobody forgot their sleeping bag, spilled the dinner, or dropped a full roll of toilet paper down the outhouse hole. Nobody decided they had to have a Special Burger at L&W before the hike and keep the rest of the group from starting the hike until 2:00pm. Nobody forgot to get a trail permit and had to bull the park warden when he got caught. Nobody went to the wrong trailhead, hiked Maligne Pass instead, and ended up 3/4 of the way to the Columbia Icefield at the Sunwapta warden station three days later. I’m not going to mention any names (you know who you are) but I wasn’t on any of those trips. Nobody bushwhacked up the side of a mountain on Canada Day with a big flag and a thirty pound accordion to play O Canada on the ridge heading to Mount Tekarra. Okay, I was on that one and while it wasn’t really a Skyline trip we did do a good part of it. That story is told elsewhere. I’ll just say for now that I wasn’t the one with the accordion.

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Also on these trips, nobody met and fell in love with anyone from halfway across the continent. But two years before the 1983 hike, some of our friends were hiking the Skyline and encountered some hikers from Texas on the trail. Two marriages resulted from that trip, and the 1983 hike took place less than a week before Glen (from Saskatoon via Jasper) and Sue’s (Fort Worth via Albuquerque) wedding, with approximately half the population of Texas in town for it. We were saying “y’all” for months. Sue’s best friend Tammy was with us on this hike, along with Kyle and a few other Texans.

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Since the 1983 and 1984 hikes were so uneventful, this writeup will concentrate on the actual trail. The Skyline is 44 kilometres long and while there aren’t extreme elevation changes there are significant ups and downs, which are more noticeable when you’re carrying a heavy multi-day pack. Smart people take four or five days to do it, but working at places like Smitty’s we usually didn’t have that much free time off and we’d do it in only two days with a single overnight stay at Curator campground. The good thing about that is that you only have to set up and break camp once. The bad thing is that you have to do two long days with a heavy pack. And scenery like this really deserves more time to enjoy.

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You could start from Maligne Canyon and hike south to Maligne Lake but hardly anyone does it that way. For one thing, there is a net elevation loss going north from the lake to the canyon; the ups and downs of the trail even it out a bit, but the elevation differential is still significant. For another, the Maligne Canyon end involves several uninteresting kilometres on an old dirt road that once served a fire lookout on Signal Mountain. Hiking up this road, even when you know the scenery is going to get better, is not a good way to spend the first few hours of a multi-day hike. Of course you still have to hike down it when you’re coming from the other direction, but that’s more denouement than depressing: hiking down it gets it over with faster and you’ll have the experience of having just been through all the exciting parts.
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You start from Maligne Lake having driven past the tourist facilities to the end of the road (and the world as we know it to most tourists). The boat docks and other tourist things at the lake are actually reasonably good and environmentally sensitive, but with plans approved for construction of overnight accommodations that may be changing soon.

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The first couple of hours or so on the trail from the lake you go through nice but unexciting subalpine forest, but then it gets good. The trail works its way up Little Shovel Pass and then through a broad expanse of flowery alpine meadows known as the Snowbowl. Yes, there can be snow there even through the summer, but it’s more known for the snow among the ski mountaineering and telemarking crowd, who have a cabin there which is only used in winter.

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The nearly 600 metre climb over Little Shovel Pass is the warmup, the first of three big climbs you have to do. After the Snowbowl, you hike over (Big) Shovel Pass. Its name derives from an early 20th century trip led by the Otto Brothers outfitters; they got hit by a midsummer dump of snow, and they had to make shovels out of the local timber. One of those shovels is preserved in the Jasper Museum. The climb over Shovel Pass from the Snowbowl isn’t as big as the one over Little Shovel Pass, but it’s higher elevation and if it’s your second climb of the day you’ll feel it more. Around here you also meet up with the trail from Watchtower Basin which comes up from Maligne Lake Road. Watchtower was the first backpacking trip I ever did but I don’t have photos of it. I remember it being a fairly long and uninteresting hike through woods to alpine meadows, but once you got to the meadows they really needed more time to explore. Something best done on an extended Skyline hike, which may be in our future plans.

From Shovel Pass, you drop to Curator Creek and, if you’ve planned your trip well, a night in the campground there.

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Because after that is the big climb up to The Notch. The climb is under 500 metres but the trail goes up there pretty directly. The above photo is at Curator Lake, where you’ve already climbed 200 metres from your cozy Curator campsite. See that little gap in top right where the snow is? Yep, that’s The Notch and you have to go there. Here it’s about one and a half kilometres away.

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Looking back down to the lake from near The Notch. The trail going up isn’t bad, it’s a good grade and it’s well maintained. No scrambling up gravelly gullies, rocks and roots or bushwhacking. And you get to look at scenery like this and stop a lot for photos.

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At the 2080 metre summit of The Notch, suddenly you get views of the Athabasca Valley, Mount Edith Cavell, Whistlers, the Fryatt group, Tonquin and all. Even Mount Robson if it’s a really clear day. You keep going at this elevation for about three and a half kilometres, sidehilling along the open upper slopes of Antler and Amber Mountains while you struggle to keep your eyes from popping out of their sockets.

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Then the trail switchbacks down rather quickly to the rocky basin which is home to Centre and Tekarra Lakes.

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The Tekarra basin and the views of the Watchtower and Centre and Excelsior Mountains are somewhat more austere than the earlier parts of the hike.

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But the trail emerges from the basin and works its way around Mount Tekarra, lying there like a mummy, and then through the meadows on the north side of Signal Mountain.

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You get another hour or two wandering through the meadows on Signal before you hit the road. The meadows are doable as a day trip from the Maligne Canyon trailhead if you don’t mind spending the better part of the day hiking the road (hint: bring a bike). There is a trail that shortcuts some of the switchbacks in the road, but it isn’t any more appealing than the road and definitely not one you want to hike up.

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It’s a very popular hike and has pretty strict quotas. There may be better overnight trails in the western cordillera, but I can’t think of one.

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