As foreshadowed by our hike the previous day up Bald Hill, we were in for more weather. Sometimes we get nice bluebird days, sometimes we get low clouds and gusting winds over the alpine ridge. It’s all part of the adventure on the Skyline trail.
This is the eight entry of our Canadian Rockies trip series covering our eighth hike. You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.
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The Skyline Trail (Parks Canada) is a popular point to point backpacking trail in the Maligne Lake area in Jasper National Park. It has the honor of the highest trail in Jasper National Park sandwiched between the Maligne River drainage on the east side and Athabasca River drainage that the Icefield Parkway travels through on the west side. The Skyline Trail is also part of the Great Divide Trail (Section E – Hiking Project) and was among the favorite sections of a thru-hikers that met earlier on our trip.
- name: Skyline
- type: point to point
- distance: 30.5 miles (49.1 km)
- elevation change: 6607 ft. (2014 m) ascent & 8482 ft. (2585 m) descent
- time: 2 days (11:23 hours moving)
- location: Maligne Lake Area, Jasper National Park, near Jasper, Alberta, Canada (google map directions)
We chose to start from Maligne Lake, the southern end point of the hike. The northern end is Signal Trailhead along Maligne Road (google map directions). This direction is recommended by most since there is less elevation gain going northbound. We chose this direction so we only needed to travel down Maligne Road only once and leaving our car at Signal Trailhead.
There are a couple trails that connect to the Skyline Trail around the midway point. Parks Canada refers to them as escape routes in case of bad weather or if the Notch is impassable due to snow.
The Wabasso Trail continues from Curator Campgrounds, about halfway along the Skyline Trail, and heads downhills toward the west and ends on the Icefield Parkway. It is roughly 9.3 miles (15 km) and serves at an GDT alternate (hiking project) before turning off toward the Icefield Parkway (hiking project).
A little over 1 mile south of the junction for Curator Campgrounds, the Watchtower trail (The Outbound Collective) connects the Skyline Trail and provides another access to the east that ends on Maligne Road. It is an 8.2 mile (13.2 km) muddy trail that also requires a ford of the Maligne River. This may be impassable at times. The alternative to the halfway point Curator Campgrounds for the Skyline Trail is Watchtower Campgrounds
Near the southern end of the Skyline Trail, there is a junction for the Evelyn Creek Trail. This connects the Skyline to Bald Hills should you want to extend your hike.
Similarly, there are service roads connecting to the Skyline Trail near the northern end that connects to a series of trail networks around Edith and Ochre Lakes. Following these trails can eventually lead you to Jasper, which is what the GDT does (Hiking Project).
All backcountry campgrounds along the Skyline Trail requires a reservation from Parks Canada and you must stay at these campgrounds. Specifically, the reservations are through Jasper National Park for the Skyline (Parks Canada). The campgrounds are all well kept with bear boxes or pole for food, picnic tables, open air pit toilets, and tent pads. Depending on whether you plan for a 2 or 3 day hike, the campgrounds you chose will vary.
For us, we found one night available at Curator Campgrounds located roughly halfway on the Skyline Trail. This is the ideal campgrounds for a 2 day and 1 night hike and a popular one because of that. So we grabbed it the first time I saw an opening. The Curator Campgrounds is one of the two campgrounds that is not located directly on the Skyline requiring an additional 0.6 miles (1 km) one way hike.
There is an outfitter’s lodge called Shovel Pass Lodge located near Curator Campgrounds that provides for lodging and meal service. Availability and reservations can be found on their website and they can be reached by phone at (250) 838-0972.
The only other campgrounds we saw available online during our last minute searching was the alternative to Curator Campgrounds, the Watchtower Campgrounds. This is the other campgrounds not located directly on the Skyline requiring an additional 2.1 (3.4 km) hike one way on the Watchtower Trail. The additional distance seems to make it less desirable.
If you are planning for 3 days and 2 nights, I would recommend Snowbowl Campground and Tekarra Campground. A 4 day and 3 night hike would then involve Curator or Watchtower in addition.
Since this is a point to point hike, setting up a shuttle is needed to cover the distance between Maligne Lake and Signal Trailhead along Maligne Road.
There is a private morning shuttle service available that goes from Signal Trailhead to Maligne Lake before returning (Maligne Adventures). It is the same shuttle that can provide you a ride in from the town of Jasper to Maligne Lake. The cost at the time of our hike was CAD$35 per person.
Having checked out the traffic along Maligne Road the day before, we knew it was a popular and busy road during the August peak season. So we opted to leave our car at Signal Trailhead and try our luck hitchhiking. Fortunately for us, our trail karma was good and a couple from Edmonton gave us a ride in their minivan after we waited for about 20 minutes.
The start our trip, we drove to the Signal Trailhead to leave our car. The parking lot at Signal Trailhead was packed and we barely squeezed our car into a space at the end of the lot. This may be a good reason to head southbound and leave your car at the large Maligne Lake parking lot. However, that one gets pretty busy as well.
We started trying to hitchhiking just before 9 am so we found several other groups also doing the Skyline here waiting for the Maligne Adventures shuttle. We didn’t have to wait much longer than them as we were picked up about 15 minutes more minutes of waiting. Thanks to the couple from Edmonton!
- distance: 13.8 miles (22.2 km)
- elevation change: 3419 ft. (1042 m) ascent & 2118 ft. descent (646 m)
- time: 5:52 hours (5:14 moving)
It was 10 am when we got on our way from the Maligne Lake trailhead.
For the initial 3.5 miles to Evelyn Creek and Evelyn Campgrounds, the trail is through the forest with a slight uphill. The first point of interest was Lorraine Lake at 1.3 mile mark and Mona Lake at 1.8 mile mark.
The only other thing to note was how muddy the trail was in this early section. Slogging through the mud, we reached Evelyn Creek Trail junction, a crossing of Evelyn Creek, and the equally muddy Evelyn Creek Campgrounds. This was the only portion of trail we encountered on our trip that we’d wished we had our gaiters.
After the campgrounds, the uphills section started switchbacking at a 10.1 grade over the next 1.5 miles to the Little Shovel Campground. It was through the forest without much views. As we gained elevation, the trail started to become less muddy. However, we did notice some worn path at places where the switchbacks were cut. This is a reminder to not cut switchbacks as they lead to greater erosion of the trail.
After a brief bathroom break, we continued uphills for another 0.8 miles. The grade started flatten out a little bit with an average of 7.0% as we neared the treeline. Trowel Peak can be seen in front of us.
After the treeline, the trail curves to our right along the side of the mountain and flattening out as we came to meadow bench, which we traversed in two thirds of a mile.
Our first pass of the hike was Little Shovel pass at 6.7 miles from the trailhead. The pass was rather flat and wasn’t too interesting.
On the otherside of the pass, the trail drops at a -16.8% grade over 0.4 miles with a view of the end of the next basin we were heading into
and outward down the drainage.
At the bottom of our descent, we came to a stream followed by two third mile of relatively flat trail until Snowbowl Campground. We did need to hop a few rocks to cross the stream.
The flat trail continued for another 1.5 miles as we curved around the mountain side before continuing through a grassy flat with plenty of wildflowers. This was the perfect section for getting lost in your own mind among the idyllic field.
There are a few streams there with bridges through this section and at the second stream crossing, the trail start to head up hill with an initial 0.4 mile at roughly 7.5% grade. Then the trail flattened out again briefly through a marshy and muddy section as we followed and then crossed another stream.
The next uphill was at roughly a 10.3% grade over 1.2 miles toward our Big Shovel Pass sitting under Curator Mountain.
We reached the barren Big Shovel Pass 11.3 miles from the trailhead. We didn’t stick around for long as the view was pretty monotonous and the stiff wind made us cold. The trail continued to curve around the mountain to our right.
As we continued on from the pass, we were able to get a better look down the drainage under Curator Mountain where we would be heading for Curator Campgrounds. To the right of drainage was Curator Lake on another bench and the Notch pass we would go over the next day.
After a slight uphill and then downhill over a half mile from Big Shovel Pass, we reached the junction for the Watchtower Trail. We decided to drop our packs and head up to the pass for a look down the Watchtower drainage. It was only a 0.15 mile one way detour, but the grade was 21.8% with switchbacks.
Returning to the Skyline, we continued for another mile at a slight downhill to reach the junction for the Curator Campgrounds side trail. From here, we could see the campgrounds amongst the trees below in the valley.
While it was only 0.6 miles down to the campgrounds, we were going to lose good amount of elevation with a -14.2% grade with plenty of switchbacks. After crossing a final stream, we arrived at our home for the night.
We chose campsite number 8 since it was the farthest area from the pit toilet cooking area. The little stream next to it was also nice.
After setting up camp and cooking dinner, we ended up turning in early since it was the coldest evenings in the mountains we had encountered so far on the trip.
It rained throughout the night dropping the temperature even more. Once we were up and out of our tent in the morning, we were eager to get going to warm up. We hit the trail around 7:30 am.
- distance: 16.7 miles (22.2 km)
- elevation change: 3087 ft. (941 m) ascent & 6371 ft. descent (1942 m)
- time: 7:00 hours (6:09 moving)
We did not mind the climb back up to the Skyline Trail at all and I started to feel my toes again as we neared the junction.
The initial uphill was 0.8 miles with a 12.8% grade from the campgrounds to Curator Lake turning left at the junction to continue north on the Skyline Trail. Curator Lake still had several shades of blue even with the overcast. Unfortunately, it looked like the low overcast was blocking our next pass at the Notch.
We rounded the lake over a half mile passing a stream pooling into a green pond.
From here, our uphill push toward the Notch began. The uphill was only 0.4 miles, but at a steep 24.9% grade. The initial portion was rather rocky and I thought the trail was decently well marked, but you could go off the trail if you aren’t paying attention.
Toward while the final section was more loose dirt.
We arrived at the Notch in the clouds.
The next 2.5 miles of the Skyline is typically the best part of the hike as the trail continues on the ridge line and around Amber Mountain with open views of the Athabasca River drainage. For us, Skyline meant we were the clouds and the openness meant blistering cold winds doing its best to push us off the trail. It wasn’t the worst wind I’d ever encountered (see Huemul Circuit or Lofoten Islands), but it still made the walk uncomfortable.
With the wind blowing so fast, we catch a glimpse of the valley below in an opening between the clouds, but they were very short lasted. Near the end of our ridge walk, the clouds opened up once more revealing some blue sky.
Just before we took the trail down, I decided to scramble upon the rocks here to give it one last try for a view. Our patience had paid off as we clouds lifted to reveal Mount Edith Cavell sitting above the Athabasca River Valley.
Afterwards, the trail starts to drop off the ridge to the east. The trail drops at roughly -13.3% grade over the next 1.4 miles switchbacking through a rocky area.
At the end of the switchbacks, there were a few creek crossings. We could also see Mount Tekarra starting to peak out behind the clouds.
The downhill continued for the next 2.1 miles to Tekerra Campgrounds, but at a mild -4.6% grade. The muddy trail and several stream crossings through a marshy meadow made it less pleasant. The rain that started didn’t help either.
After a short break, we crossed the stream just passed Tekerra Campgrounds.
The trail gained a little elevation and started to round the mountain on a ledge walk of sorts with views of the Maligne River Drainage and ridge on the opposite side. Sirdar Mountain, Mount Dromore, Grisette Mountain, and Roche Bonhomme are among the peaks that dot the ridge.
We would continue to undulate along the ledge for 2.7 miles from Tekkera Campgrounds at a slight overall incline. That is until the trail started its long descent into the valley after reaching a final high meadows with a view north toward Moberly Flats and Hwy 16.
The first section of the downhill was over 0.8 miles at a -9.9% grade as we entered the tree line. This brought us to the junction with the Signal Mountain Fire Road. There was a bike rack here as the fire road is open to multiuse. Turning left would have taken us to the Signal Mountain Outlook (stevensong.com), though we didn’t know exactly what was out that way at the time. So we turned right and continued on the Skyline.
A few steps from the junction was the Signal Campgrounds.
The rest of the trail would be on the Signal fireroad curving through the forest with minimal views. From the junction it was 5.3 miles at a relatively uniform grade of -10.0%. This rivaled the most boring and worst parts of all our hikes on the trip.
We were very happy to to see the Signal Trailhead and our car at the end of it.
Our hike on the Skyline was over day 18 and 19 of our trip, which was starting to wind down. It was our last planned backcountry backpacking hike we had planned. So we would start to drive back south and mostly do some day hikes along the way.
To make it easy on ourselves after the hike, we stayed in the cheapest hotel room I could find in the town of Jasper, the Athabasca Hotel (bookings.com) for USD$102. We had a small room and shared bathrooms. This made it more difficult to dry out all our camping equipment, but that’s the price we pay for the convenience of being able to stroll around the town of Jasper.
Our first order of business was dinner, which was in the form of an appetizer platter at the Whistle Stop Pub (tripadvisor). It was more food than we expected that we didn’t find the need to order their burgers. So good bang for the buck, but nothing fancy.
We would be driving down the Icefield Parkway the next day so we turned in early after walking around and finding some ice cream.
The rating below are based on an unevenly distributed scale of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). For full description of the ratings and the categories, see the explanation here.
views/experience: 3. Unfortunately for us, we hiked the best part of the trail in complete cloud cover, save for a glimpse at the end. The view was of the Athabasca River Valley that the Icefield Parkway travels through and Mount Edith Cavell sits behind on the opposite side. The rating of 3 is really predicated on what could have been here even though I thought about rating this hike as a 2 based on our experience.
Otherwise, I enjoyed the rigid looking Mount Tekkera, ledge walk with views out toward the Maligne River drainage continuing into the Athabasca River Valley to the north,
and the high alpine meadows. The views from the Notch and Big Shovel Pass were decent, but I didn’t think they were as aesthetically pleasing since much of the scenery was barren brown and black dirt without anything to provide contrast.
A major negative of the hike were the long long stretches of trail through the forest at either ends of the hike, especially when we were on a fire road.
difficulty: 3. The difficulties with the Skyline isn’t so much the elevation profile, but rather the environmental elements that you likely have to endure. The amount of total elevation would probably earn this hike a 2 difficulty as majority of the elevation gain and loss are not that steep. It might be more difficult with a southbound hike as you’ll gain total more elevation. The thing that bothered us the most was the muddy trail on several sections. It didn’t seem like it was the easiest to keep our shoes dry and we wish we packed our gaiters for this hike rather than leaving it in the car. Lastly, we were blasted with some bad weather including high winds and cloud cover while on the ridge. Being on an open ridge makes it much easier for bad weather to influence your hike.
technical: 1. The trail is well marked and signed. Even in the heavy clouds on the ridge portion, we didn’t have any issues following the track. There are a couple minor stream crossings that could have the potential of being more than just hopping across a few rocks earlier in the season. Though earlier in the season may lead you to additional worries such as snow on the trail up to the Notch. So I would say this is a 1 with the potential of being higher.