One of the most photographed spots in Canada is Spirit Island in Jasper National Park. This scenic spot was iconized when it graced the back of the Canadian $5 bill. The scene is found on the world’s second-largest glacier-fed lake which holds more beauty than could be placed on every banknote worldwide. This is Maligne Lake. Its beautiful turquoise water is not only home to Spirit Island but the audaciously named Valley of the Gods. If any valley deserves such a bold name it is this gorgeous place deep in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. It takes planning and effort to explore this valley and we’ve got everything you need to know in this guide to visiting Maligne Lake.
Visiting Maligne Lake Quick Links
- Season & Weather
- Boating Options & Restrictions
- Camping & Permits
- Camping Gear & Food
- Picnic Areas
- Side Journeys
- Maligne Lake Paddle Guide
- Recommended Itinerary
- After Maligne Lake
Stats for Visiting Maligne Lake
- Trailhead: Maligne Lake Boat Launch Parking Lot
- Type: Out-n-Back
- Rating: Moderate
- Distance: 27-miles (Total. To Coronet Creek Campground and back)
- Season: Late-May to Early-October
- Maligne Lake Elevation: 5,508′
- Recommended Time: 4 days, 3 nights
- Camping Permits: Required
Location of Maligne Lake
The world’s second-largest glacier-fed lake (the largest is Lake Baikal in Russia) is found deep in the heart of Jasper National Park. It cuts through the alpine terrain for 14 long miles. Given its location, you might think it would be a hard journey to arrive to the lake, but it is relatively easy. The road is paved and the north-western corner of the lake is easy to get to with paved roads climbing all the way to the lake sitting at 5,508 feet.
Parking at Maligne Lake is easy as long as you arrive fairly early in the day. The lots are large but this is a very popular destination. A good time to arrive would be within an hour after sunrise. The main parking lot is primarily used by those going out on one of the cruise boats. If you are using a private boat or renting from an outfitter in Jasper you will want to park in the smaller parking lot on the northwestern tip of the lake. I have it listed on the map as the Private Boat Launch Parking Lot.
Exploring Maligne Lake is a predominantly summer activity. The cruise boats and backcountry sites typically open in late May and run through early October. The larch trees make the fall color change in late September especially beautiful. Late July and August will have the most comfortable temperatures. However, given the lower elevation, this journey is much more reasonable in June than many of the other alpine backcountry adventures. There would also be more snow on the high peaks earlier in the summer adding to the beauty.
Any and all weather is possible when exploring the Canadian Rockies. Come prepared for every condition. That being said the mornings at Maligne Lake tend to be calmer making it the best time of day to paddle across the lake. Stronger winds tend to develop in the afternoon which creates waves on the deep lake.
Boating Options & Restrictions
Boats with gas motors are NOT allowed on Maligne Lake with the exception of the Canadian Park Service’s boats. While a peaceful multi-day paddle across the lake is the recommended form of transit you can operate a small craft with an electric motor and traverse the lake in a single day. You will most likely need several large batteries to power your electric motor as you can not use a gas generator onboard to keep your batteries charged. Regardless of how you choose to transit the lake, we highly recommend camping in one of the lake’s backcountry campgrounds as this allows you to experience the tranquility of this remote location.
A kayak is the recommended vessel of choice when visiting Maligne Lake. The average depth of the lake is more than 100′ deep and it can get choppy in windy conditions. Kayaks are easier to maneuver in these kinds of conditions than a canoe or rowboat. They also come with the added benefit of having water-tight storage compartments to keep your gear dry.
Canoes are not necessarily a bad choice as they typically can carry more weight. This is important when doing a multi-day journey into the wilderness. Just make sure you leave yourself more time as a canoe will not cut through the chop as easily as a kayak.
Jasper National Park offers the Maligne Lake Cruise that transports hoards of visitors to Spirit Island for a brief visit. This is a good option for those with young children or those unable to make the long paddle. The cruise ends at Spirit Island which is the gateway to the Valley of the Gods on the southern section of the lake. Cruisers will get to glimpse the valley, but go no further. With less traffic, those paddling through the still waters will experience one of the highlights of visiting Maligne Lake and Jasper National Park—tranquility. Reservations are recommended for the cruise.
The same vendor who provides the Maligne Lake Cruises also does canoe and kayak rentals but their pricing is pretty steep. For a slightly cheaper rental option contact Pure Outdoors in Jasper. They deliver to Maligne Lake. If you prefer to explore the lake with a rowboat powered by an electric motor contact Currie’s Guide.
The best way to experience Maligne Lake is by camping in the backcountry campsites. The lake becomes calmer in the late evening after the cruise boats return to port and the wind dies down. The sound of water flowing off of the glaciers, birds chirping, and elk bugling fills the air. Campfires begin to crackle as the cool of the night begins to settle in. The solitude of camping at Maligne Lake would be worth the journey even without the otherworldly beauty of the mountainous lake.
Permits are required for camping when visiting Maligne Lake. The permit reservations typically become available in mid-January (2021 postponed it to April due to Covid). They also fill up very quickly. Most of the weekend dates for the entire summer will be booked within a few hours. It is important to note that you are not allowed to book more than 2 nights in any one of the campgrounds. Do not overstay your permit. The campgrounds are sold out nearly every night and rangers patrol them. Make sure you pickup your actual permit at the Jasper Backcountry desk before starting your journey and that you carry it with you in a secure location.
All three of the campgrounds found on Maligne Lake are maintained sites. They come with numbered campsites with established pads. The reservations are not site-specific, only campground-specific. Bear proof food storage lockers, outhouses (bring your own TP), and centralized cooking areas with tables and fire rings are provided. Gathering firewood in the campground is prohibited but you can collect wood along the lakeshore while paddling in or purchase it locally in Jasper.
Hidden Cove Campground
Hidden Cove is the first of the campgrounds on Maligne Lake and it has 4 campsites. It’s found on the west side of the lake in an area not traversed by most visiting Maligne Lake. It is only 2.5-miles from the boat launch which makes it nearly unusable for paddlers looking to traverse the entire lake. Its primary use is for families with young children and those new to kayaking or canoe camping who are looking for an easy beginners trip.
Fisherman’s Bay Campground
Fisherman’s Bay is located 8.5-miles from the boat launch and it has 8 campsites. It is a beautiful site located in a large cove on the east side of the lake. As the name would suggest it is a popular spot for fishing. The real highlight is its close proximity to Spirit Island. It is an easy paddle of just over half a mile to the Island’s overlook. Campers at Fisherman’s Bay can enjoy the iconic scene by themselves late in the evening after the boat cruises have retired for the day.
Coronet Creek Campground
Coronet Creek is found at the southern tip of the lake 13.5-miles from the boat launch. It has 8 campsites and is a beautiful spot nestled in the Valley of the Gods. Water flows down from the glaciers perched in the high peaks making the campground one of the most beautiful in the Canadian Rockies. While it is the end of the road for a journey across the lake it is the starting point for a hike up the Coronet Creek Trail.
Henry McLeod Campground
The Henry McLeod Campground is the only campground found in the Maligne Lake area that isn’t maintained. This means that those traveling to this remote area will need to bring everything with them including a required bear canister and a camp stove. The McLeod Campground is the terminus of the nearly 5-mile-long Coronet Creek Trail which has over 1,100′ of elevation gain.
The nice thing about a backcountry adventure on Maligne Lake is you get to float your gear to your campground rather than having to carry it on your back. The gear needed is still very much the same as backpacking except you will trade out the backpack itself for several waterproof dry bags. Check out our Backpacking Gear List which is designed for the kind of mountain weather you will encounter at Maligne Lake.
Beyond the usual tent, sleeping gear, and clothing you might consider bringing better food and cooking supplies. We did Maligne Lake with our typical freeze-dried food and felt like we missed out watching other campers grilling steaks and drinking bottles of wine. The park-provided fire pits allow for more elaborate foods than is typical when backpacking. Just remember you will need to source the wood locally (either in Jasper or along the lakeshore in transit) and add the extra weight to your boat. Be careful not to overpack your rig as a heavy canoe or kayak can be harder to maneuver.
In addition to the three lakeside campgrounds, Maligne Lake also has four portages for picnicking. Each picnic area comes complete with tables, a cooking area, and a less-than-private wilderness toilet. These areas make great stopping points for lunch or to just take a break from paddling when visiting Maligne Lake.
- Trapper Creek – Located 2.75 miles from the boat launch on the west side of the lake.
- 4-mile – Located 3.5 miles from the boat launch on the east side of the lake.
- Sampson – Located 7 miles from the boat launch on the east side of the lake.
- Spindly Creek – Located 11 miles from the boat launch on the west side of the lake and in the heart of the Valley of the Gods.
While the whole lake is beautiful there are three places that should be given priority when making plans for visiting Maligne Lake. The first is the iconic Spirit Island located 9 miles from the boat launch. The second is the Valley of the Gods and the third is the far less traveled 5-mile Coronet Creek Trail.
For most people who visit Maligne Lake, Spirit Island is the destination. This beautiful scene is where the boat cruise ends. The small island, which is really a peninsula, comes complete with a First Nations lore akin to Romeo and Juliet. The island was the meeting spot for two young loves from warring tribes. The chief and father of “Juliet” in this story forbid the girl to return to the isle. The boy returned often to the island in search of his love until the day he died on the island. His spirit forever locked to the tiny speck of land. While the easiest way to visit the island is via the cruise boat the best way is by camping in the Fisherman’s Bay Campground and paddling over after the cruises have left for the day.
Valley of the Gods
The Valley of the Gods refers to the area of Maligne Lake that runs from Spirit Island to the southern tip of the lake. While this is obviously a part of the lake most visitors only glimpse the valley from the vantage point at Spirit Island. This 5-mile long section not only should be explored but it should be given priority when paddling across the lake.
Cornet Creek Trail
The Coronet Creek Trail is often overlooked by those visiting Maligne Lake. While it isn’t an easy trail, it is beautiful and has one of the best chances of spotting bears in the wild. The trail is literally covered in bear scat. Almost everyone who makes the journey returns with a bear sighting so make sure you travel with bear spray.
While the Skyline Trail isn’t a side journey per se, this 28-mile long trail is worth mentioning. It begins from the Private Boat Launch Parking Lot on Maligne Lake. It is an amazing backcountry journey above the trees through Jasper National Park. Some people hike the full length in a single long day but it is better done as an additional 3-day backpack. Something to consider when planning your visit to Maligne Lake.
Maligne Lake Paddle Guide
When exploring the beautiful waters of Maligne Lake there are a few things to know. I have created a route on the map that shows the recommended route when paddling the long lake. Keep in mind that the cruise boats travel fairly quickly creating a lot of chop in the middle of the lake. I suggest hugging the shoreline when possible. You have a better chance of spotting bears, elk, and moose when you are closer to the shore as well.
The recommended route hugs the western shore for the first 3/4 of a mile and then crosses over the lake at the narrowest point on the northern end of the lake. From here the path hugs the eastern shore all the way to the Samson Narrows which are the narrowest part of the lake and the gateway to the Fisherman’s Bay. Be especially careful through this area with the cruise boats going both ways squeezing through. Try to give them as much room to maneuver as possible. The next stop is obviously Spirit Island which should be fully explored.
Beyond Spirit Island, you will paddle into the Valley of the Gods. The cruise ships do not enter this section of the lake so it is less important to hug the shoreline. However, help is unlikely should you tip over in the middle of the lake. For this reason, I still suggest staying close to shore. I also suggest exploring one shoreline on the way in and the other on the way out. For the best views explore the eastern shore in the morning so that the light is illuminating the views to the west and likewise the western shore in the afternoon. The southern end of Maligne Lake has several deltas with the large glacial fed creeks fanning out and crashing into the lake. Take your time and explore the beauty of the lake fully.
Many people who think about exploring the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies fear an encounter with a bear. While you should be smart, storing your food appropriately, and keeping your campsite clean, bears are not the real danger when visiting Maligne Lake. The water itself is the most dangerous threat. While this is the world’s second-largest glacier-fed lake it is also extraordinarily deep with a maximum depth of 318 feet and an average depth of 115 feet. The cold water that enters the lake stays cold because of its depth. This water hovers around 40º Fahrenheit throughout the summer. Should you tip your boat you have very little time to right it and get out of the water before hypothermia sets in.
Sample Kayak/Canoe Itinerary
- 1st Day: Start early while the water is calm. Camp at the Fisherman’s Bay Campground. Watch the sunset at Spirit Island.
- 2nd Day: Camp at Cornet Creek Campground taking the eastern shore route through the Valley of the Gods in the morning.
- 3rd Day: Hike the Cornet Creek Trail and then return to the Fisherman’s Bay Campground taking the western shore route through the Valley of the Gods in the afternoon.
- 4th Day: Return to Spirit Island for sunrise and then pack up camp. Return to the boat launch.
Electric Motor Itinerary
- 1st Day: Camp at the Fisherman’s Bay Campground. Watch the sunset at Spirit Island.
- 2nd Day: Taking the eastern shore route through the Valley of the Gods in the morning to Cornet Creek and hike the Cornet Creek Trail. Return to the Fisherman’s Bay Campground taking the western shore route through the Valley of the Gods in the afternoon.
- 3rd Day: Return to Spirit Island for sunrise and then pack up camp. Return to the boat launch.
After Visiting Maligne Lake
Jasper National Park has many campgrounds available for both advanced reservation and first-come, first-served. This is a very popular park so reservations are highly recommended as an open first-come, first-served site can be difficult to find. The Whistlers Campground and Wapiti Campground are the only two campgrounds with showers (usually hot) and both have good cell service as well. The Whistlers campground was rebuilt from the ground up and is scheduled to reopen in 2021. The facilities should be very modern. Reservations for the Jasper campgrounds go quickly and typically open in mid-January. Check out our Canadian Rockies Guide for yearly reservation opening dates and details.
When it comes to accommodation near the town of Jasper there isn’t any better place to stay than the gorgeous Pyramid Lake Resort. It sits on the lakeshore perched below one of the most gorgeous mountains in the area. A close second would be the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge which has a lot of activities immediately available including canoeing and a golf course. There are slightly more affordable options in Jasper township as well but if you are trying to save money look at the town of Hinton which is the gateway to the northeastern entrance of the park.
The Maligne Lake Chalet is a popular eatery located right on the lakeshore. It is recommended to make reservations ahead of time through the website. The town of Jasper has cuisine from all over the world including one of our favorite, Mediterranean food at The Raven Bistro.
Visiting Maligne Lake
There are many ways to explore the turquoise waters of Maligne Lake. Regardless of whether you do so via a slow multi-day paddle or a brief cruise to Spirit Island, you will be left with beautiful memories. I’ve never met anyone who has spent time on these beautiful waters that didn’t long for a day when they would be able to return. Visiting Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park is not only a highlight of a journey through the Canadian Rockies but one of the most amazing places in all of North America.