We pulled into 7-Eleven in Edson to grab a quick lunch (I had a surprisingly good chicken enchilada wrap) then were back on our way, hurrying to make it to Jasper by 2 pm for the Maligne Canyon ice walk tour we had booked.
After stopping at the gate to buy a one-night permit ($19.60) to stick on the windshield, we proceeded into Jasper National Park. For the next thirty minutes we drove through the most incredible scenery: towering snow-capped mountains, vertical dolomitic limestone rock faces, and aquamarine glacier-fed lakes. We spotted mountain goats, elk, and mule deer, grazing along the roadside.
Without a minute to spare, we pulled into the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge parking lot, where we had arranged to be picked up by the ice walk bus. Before we boarded the bus our guide, Alycia, distributed boots and ice cleats to us and six others who would be participating in the tour. The lined rubber boots were warm and comfortable and the ice cleats, rows of metal studs that velcroed onto the boots, gave them some grip.
During the five-minute drive to Maligne Canyon, Alycia described the geology of the canyon. It is fed by the Maligne River, which originates at Medicine Lake, but soon disappears underground before reemerging at the canyon. Over millions of years this river has carved a narrow, 50-metre-deep canyon in the limestone. Visitors can hike along the rim and over the canyon, along a trail system with six bridges. In the winter, there arises the unique opportunity to walk along the frozen river bed on the canyon floor.
We walked along the lower canyon trail to a point where we could duck beneath the safety railing to enter the canyon.
Particularly in areas where the canyon was just a few metres wide, it was neat to look up the smoothly eroded limestone walls to sun-lit trees high above. In one area the rock had been eroded away to create a dome-like roof above us.
Majestically beautiful ice falls adorned the walls of the canyon at several points -- mammoth formations of glistening stalactites and crystals of ice.
The largest ice curtain, "The Queen", draped over a nook in the canyon wall, allowing us to walk around in the chilly "cave" behind the ice -- probably the most memorable experience of the tour!
The tour turned around shortly past The Queen, at a spot demarcated by a log lying across the ice; apparently beyond which the ice was unsafe to walk on.
We did see one area where the ice had broken, revealing the dry stream bed a couple of feet below, but otherwise the ice was solid and easy to walk on.
Waterproof boots and ice cleats are recommended for walking within the canyon, as there are some areas that are a bit slushy and the ice in general is very slippery. Ice cleats can be rented from one of several sports equipment shops in Jasper for around $10, so it's easy to tour the canyon safely on your own, without a guide (and we saw many people who were). Next time we'll know better!
We backtracked out of the canyon and made our way back to the parking lot along the upper trail, which had beautiful views of the mountains. It was a sunny 7 °C -- absolutely perfect weather!
The ice walk tour took around two hours and we were back at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge by 5 pm.
We drove across the highway into the town of Jasper, parked on the street, and set off in search of a place to have dinner.
It was Valentine's Day and the restaurants were busy! We decided on L&W Family Restaurant, a large restaurant with an amazing canopy of ficus, fig, and other tropical foliage spanning the entire ceiling. The lights strung within the branches gave the restaurant a cosy feel. The menu featured Greek specialities, among other things, and I enjoyed spanakopita and Greek salad.
Our plan for the evening was to try our luck at seeing the aurora borealis. As it was not yet fully dark when we finished dinner, we walked down the street to Cafe Mondo, a little Mexican restaurant, where we ordered coffees and hot chocolates and shared a couple of desserts.
After 9 pm we drove about ten minutes from Jasper, down the Icefields Parkway, to a bridge that had been recommended by our ice walk guide. Jasper National Park is a designated dark-sky reserve and the stretch of road we were on was pitch black, the only light being that from the stars, reflected off the snow. Though we saw an incredible number of stars -- and even a couple of meteors -- the aurora unfortunately did not make an appearance (not surprisingly, as the geomagnetic activity was low). Standing under the stars was fantastic and we spent twenty minutes taking fun long-exposure photos.
We left the park and drove an hour east to Hinton to spend the night at Nova Inn.
...continued: Snowshoeing Pyramid Lake and Medicine Lake