Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been writing about my favourite mountain treks, trying to narrow them down to the finest 10. The journey now crosses the Atlantic Ocean to Canada, ascending into the Rocky Mountains outside of Jasper, where the Skyline Trail joins my previous nominations: Gokyo Ri (10) and the Picos de Europa (9).
8. Skyline Trail (Canada)
The Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park is well named. Traversing the Maligne Range, it’s the highest hiking trail in the national park, and it spends more time in alpine terrain – 25 kilometres, or 60% of its length – than any other defined hike in Canada. I’m not its only fan. In the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, it’s described as ‘one of the exceptional backpacks in North America’.
Alpine hiking on the Skyline Trail
It begins on the shores of beautiful Maligne Lake, rising through conifer forest towards the alpine heights of North America’s greatest mountain chain. If the trail is noted for its alpine expanses, it’s also known for its bears, and as I strode out alone through the lodgepole forest, passing trees clawed by bears, it wasn’t without some trepidation. I’d seen other hikers set out with bear bangers, bear mace and bear bells…though I also knew that around here they call the latter ‘dinner bells’ because of their ineffectiveness. I had only my voice to alert bears to my presence – an endless, tuneless rendition of ‘He’ll be coming round the mountain when he comes’. Surely, no self-respecting bear would attack something that sounded this awful.
Eight kilometres from Maligne Lake, the Skyline Trail bursts out of the forest into alpine country, and I wouldn’t stand beside a tree again for the better part of two days. Up here the alpine meadows were freckled with wildflowers, and the land was in constant floral colour – red, white, yellow, blue and purple thrown around like confetti. Cautiously curious marmots bustled about the meadows, grazing the flowers, their shrill whistles of warning like a scratch through the air.
I climbed between frost-shattered summits and over passes so barren it was difficult to believe that just a few hundred metres back it had been like pasture. Storms, snow and sun washed through, and nothing but the weather impeded the view for the next 25 kilometres. At times my only companions were the bighorn sheep that clattered about the slopes.
Curator Lake, looking ahead to the Notch (photo credit: brilang)
The highest point on the trail is the pass known as the Notch, rising above Curator Lake, 2510 metres above sea level. It was here that I realised the perfection of the Skyline Trail. Large snow banks lingered below the pass well into summer, and from its crest you can see (on a good day) distant Mt Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. Nearer at hand was the dominant Mt Edith Cavell, with Angel Glacier crumbling over its right shoulder. Deep into the Athabsaca valley below, the river was as grey as the lead of a pencil. The fierce wind brushed patterns across Curator Lake below, and wherever I looked – left, right, ahead, behind – there were mountains. It was as though the Rockies revolved around me and the Skyline Trail.
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