Hiking the Skyline Trail is perhaps the most iconic backcountry adventure in Jasper National Park. When visiting the Canadian Rockies most visitors put a high priority on surrounding themselves with mountain scenery and treeless alpine vistas. A drive on the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper is a great and easy way to get into the mountains. But, there is nothing better than immersing yourself in the backcountry on a multi-day backpacking trip. With nearly 16-miles of the trail completely above the treeline, the 28-mile long Skyline Trail is without a doubt one of the best backcountry adventures in the Canadian Rockies.
This post is all about our experience hiking the Skyline Trail and what you could anticipate from your own journey. While we took this adventure over the course of four days we actually recommend this to others in our Skyline Trail Guide as a 3-day adventure. Check out that guide for more details on how to prepare for your own adventure on this amazing alpine trail.
Hiking the Skyline Trail – Day 1
Getting started on the Skyline Trail is perhaps the most daunting challenge of the backpacking journey. This is a thru-hike where the two trailheads are separated by 24 miles of asphalt. While a shuttle service can be arranged we found it easy enough to park at the small Signal Trailhead parking area and hitchhike up to the main Maligne Lake Parking Lot. The road is well-traveled and although we had about 20 cars pass us by, we only stood on the side of the road for about 15 minutes before we caught a ride.
Hitchhiking and Enjoying the Ride
We were picked up by a nice German couple on holiday who stopped several times during the drive through the Maligne Valley. It is important to not be in a rush when hitchhiking. The German woman had a good eye and caught a glimpse of a female moose as we zoomed by. The car was thrown in reverse and we made our way cautiously back as to not spook the massive creature. This was a great way to start our adventure.
Beginning the Hike Through the Trees
Our ride ended at the first parking area at Maligne Lake. The second parking lot on the west side of the lake, known as the Maligne Lake Boat Launch Lot, is where the Skyline Trailhead (5,573’) can be found. It is a half-mile hike between the two parking lots, but it is a gorgeous little jaunt along the crowded northern shore of Maligne Lake. We made our way to the trailhead and set out on our 31+ mile journey (including several spurs) along the Skyline Trail. The first part of the journey leads through a dense forest with a moderate ascent, but little Skyline-esque features to be found. This section of the trail can be muddy from the snowmelt even in late August.
There are two short spurs to be found that lead to two beautiful lakes, both of which are well signed. The first is Lorraine Lake. The turn-off of which is found about 1.3-miles in on the left-hand side of the trail. There is a small pond that is located immediately off of the main Skyline Trail. Do not confuse this with the much larger and picturesque body of water found just a bit further down the spur. The trail crosses over the outlet of the small pond and to the edge of Lorraine Lake completely surrounded by the dense forest.
The second spur leading to Mona Lake is another quarter-of-a-mile further down the Skyline Trail. The spur trail is very short, flat, and easy to follow. We found the lakeshore to be a perfect spot for an early lunch. While not far into the hike this was a long way from where we had started our day at the Wapiti campground on the south side of the town of Jasper. The waters of Mona Lake are calm and we even got to listen to an unseen Elk beguiling through the mountain terrain.
The Bald Hills
Back on the Skyline Trail the dense tree cover and the moderate ascent continue. About 3 miles into our journey we passed through the trail intersection leading day hikers to an area known as The Bald Hills. If 30+ miles on the Skyline is not enough of a challenge you could always take on the Bald Hills (about 3-miles round from here). The Evelyn Creek Campground (5,985’) found less than a quarter-of-a-mile further up the Skyline Trail would make a great base camp for exploring the Bald Hills and then continuing with The Skyline Trail the following day.
The Evelyn Creek Campground is much too close to the Trailhead to make a good campsite unless you intend to explore the Bald Hills. But it is a beautiful area just above the rushing water of the creek. The Skyline Trail crosses over the creek via a well-built bridge. At this point, the trail has only climbed about 400’ in about 3 miles. The path ahead steepens gaining almost 850’ in a little less than 2 miles as it continues to wind its way through the forest.
Little Shovel Campground
At 5.25-miles into our journey, we came to the Little Shovel Campground (6,847’). It has a natural spring for freshwater. The 8-site campground is safely tucked into the woods but glimpses of the grandeur of the Skyline Trail can be taken in from the highest campsites. This is the campground we could get camping permits for. While we enjoyed hanging around the campsite for the remainder of the afternoon, we could have easily made it to the next campground (Snowbowl) and recommend that as the first day’s destination for other hikers in our Skyline Trail Guide. We slept well at Little Shovel until some latecomers came noisily trampling in at 11 PM to set up their site in the dark. Do not be the type of backpacker who yells to one another across the campground when other campers are already in their tents.
Hiking the Skyline Trail – Day 2
The next morning we continued our ascent of the Skyline through the trees but not for much longer. The treeline is found less than a mile past the Little Shovel Campground. At just over 1.5-miles (7-miles from the Trailhead) on the day we passed over the first of the three alpine passes on the Skyline Trail. The Little Shovel Pass (7,387’) is very easy and for those with mountain experience, it will come as a surprise that the sloped terrain is a pass. Here above the treeline, we found plenty of wildflowers, a marmot, a hawk, and a whole community of pika going about their summer foraging.
On the other side of the pass, the Skyline Trail descends sharply dropping 400’ in about half a mile. This side feels more like a typical mountain pass trail. The Skyline Trail drops into a gorgeous alpine valley that one can only assume is called Snowbowl because of the campground that is found at the valley’s northern corner. The highlight of this section is passing through a small gorge and alongside an alpine creek lined with summer wildflowers.
At nearly 2.5 miles on the second day and just over 7.5 miles into hiking the Skyline Trail, we briefly re-entered the treeline and found the Snowbowl Campground (6,870’). This is a more picturesque spot to end Day One and the destination I would recommend as part of a 3-day journey. The 8 campsites can however be very busy and we found several groups packing up their gear. These campers seemed to be leaving out a little late. If you do take on the Skyline Trail as a three-day adventure it is important to get an early start for crossing over the treeless terrain before any afternoon storms have a chance to materialize. Once you leave the Snowbowl Trees there is no cover to be found on the Skyline Trail for the next 11 miles.
Leaving the Woods Behind
Passing by Snowbowl Campground the path rounds a hillside and once again quickly emerges from the woods. We now found ourselves in an even larger alpine valley with several creeks passing through it and the second pass looming in the distance, nearly 3-miles away.
At the end of our first day, we had been told that there was a momma grizzly bear with three cubs that had been spotted by numerous people on this stretch of the trail. One group had apparently spooked the protective mother and she stood up on her back legs to ward off the three intruders. They got the point and were well-shaken hours later when they were talking with us. We proceeded through this section with extreme caution but also with optimism that we might spot the family of bears. Unfortunately, our diligence did not pay off. To add insult to our failed endeavor a group of backpackers that we ran across the following day spotted the family early that morning in this same area.
Hiking the Skyline Trail over Big Shovel Pass
Even without catching a glimpse of the bears, we found the alpine valley to be beautiful. At first, the trail undulates slightly over the slopped valley crossing over two streams before starting a long moderate ascent up the pass. It takes two miles to climb up nearly 850’ from the valley to the top of the second pass known as Big Shovel Pass (7,611’). Along the way, the path deteriorates into many different indentions in the eroded earth. Curator Mountain rising on the west side of the pass is an ever-present and beautiful fixture on the landscape.
A Summer Storm
On the other side of the pass, the Skyline Trail continues to climb slightly up another 40 feet as it skirts the edge of a rocky alpine bowl. We crossed over and started our way around the wind-swept terrain just in time for a summer storm to roll in and pelt us with rain and a bit of hail. This is a bad spot to be stuck during a storm as there is no cover to be found for miles. With no other choice, we pushed ahead and rounded the bowl shivering in the cold wind. It is a mile and a half from the pass to the intersection for the Curator Campground. The entire distance is exposed and descends moderately about 400 feet. It reveals beautiful views down the long western valley which is the escape route to the Icefield Parkway should the weather have turned really bad.
Descent to the Campground
By the time we made it to the junction for the Curator Campground located at about 12.5 miles on the Skyline Trail and at an elevation of 7,265’, the rain had subsided. We took a left and started a surprisingly steep descent towards the campground. The Wabasso Trail drops nearly 450 feet in 3/4 of a mile as it leads from the Skyline Trail intersection to the campground. The path crosses over a beautiful wide shallow creek before finding the treeline and descending to the beautifully placed Curator Campground (6,810’).
The Curator Campground is a typical Jasper backcountry campground with 8 campsites. It has bear boxes for storing food, several picnic tables, and nice tent pads. For the most part the pads are flat. There is a creek running through the campground to a small pond but the highlight is a massive cascading waterfall. It is amazing to lie in the tent at night and listen to the water crash down over the rocks. The creek also makes it easy to access water. All the campgrounds on the Skyline Trail also have open-air barrel toilets that many people visiting Jasper’s backcountry find alarming. While it does take some nerve to drop trou with no barrier between you and nature, at least there are facilities. Plus, they have minimal impact on the amazing environment.
Halfway on The Skyline
While the Curator Campground is not a stop I recommend on a 3-day journey, it is actually the best campground on the Skyline Trail. It is perfectly situated for a 2-day adventure but at 13.25 miles in, it is not an easy trip. If you think you can make it the 13.25 miles in one day then book this campground. It is actually a great spot to rest up before taking on The Notch. If done as a 2-day you might also consider staying in the Shovel Pass Lodge just below the Curator Campground. You could shave off pack weight by not having to carry a tent or cooking supplies. They also have an outhouse—with walls! A real luxury in the Jasper Backcountry.