The Skyline Trail is an amazing trail in Jasper National Park where nearly 16 miles of the 28-mile journey is located above the treeline. This gives adventurous travelers unprecedented views of high alpine meadows, snow-fed creeks, turquoise lakes, and snow-capped, glaciated peaks. This section of the Canadian Rocky Mountains is wonderous, beautiful, and wild. On our journey, we found the landscape mesmerizing despite sometimes being shrouded in by the very clouds that the Skyline touches. Along with the beautiful terrain, hikers should be prepared to come across raptors (birds, not dinosaurs), pikas, marmots, bears, and if lucky the rare woodland caribou. While the Skyline is a mountain trail that is run by many in a single day (aka: crazy people) this Skyline Trail Guide recommends savoring the experience over the course of a 3-day backpacking trip.
Starting Elevation: 5,573’ (Maligne Lake Boat Launch Parking Lot)
Ending Elevation: 3,801’ (Signal Parking Area)
RecommendedTime: 3 days, 2 nights
Backpacking Season: Early-July thru Mid-September (See details below)
Camping Permits: Required and the reservations fill up fast in January.
Because of the elevated nature of the Skyline Trail, snow can linger until later in the season. Mid-July is about the earliest that the trail is typically clear of snow. The Notch is a steep section with loose scree and I would not want to hike it with the added challenge of snow. For this reason, we recommend Mid-July to Early-September. If you want to have the best chance of completely avoiding the snow then plan your journey for August.
The trail can be hiked in either direction but most backpackers will take on the Skyline in a south to north direction. This allows for much less elevation gain as the trailhead at Maligne Lake (the southern trailhead) starts nearly 1,700′ higher than the northern trailhead. We also suggest this route in our Skyline Trail Guide because it climbs the steepest part of the trail over The Notch rather than descending it. This is much safer.
Parking & Shuttle
The southern trailhead starts at the Maligne Lake Boat Launch parking lot on the northwest corner of the lake. This is the same starting location for a row on Maligne Lake. While this lot isn’t as busy as the main Maligne Lake Lot it does fill up so an early start is recommended. However, if you only own one vehicle and need to shuttle between the trailheads we suggest parking at the end of the trail at the tiny Signal Parking Lot. This lot is predominantly used by backpackers so the lot stays full. If the parking lot is full, street parking is common but get your vehicle completely off the road as it is very busy.
If you do not have a second vehicle and need to set up a commercial shuttle the Maligne Adventures is a great option. We chose to take our chances with hitchhiking from one trailhead to the other and had very little difficulty catching a ride. Most people traveling the Maligne Lake Road are headed to Maligne Lake so it is very likely that any car that stops to pick you up is heading in your direction. Before COVID I would have said to just hitchhike, but for the next few years, I think catching a ride could be difficult. You may just want to set up a shuttle service.
Skyline Trail Dangers
With nearly 16 miles of the Skyline Trail being above treeline, the real danger is the weather. The middle section of this hike between the Snowbowl and Tekarra Campgrounds sees nearly 11 miles without a tree for protection. Afternoon thunderstorms in the Rocky Mountains are common. Whenever you make this crossing you should endeavor to reach the Tekarra Campground area before those storms have a chance to arrive. There is one option to bail out should the weather look like it is going to turn bad and that is the Wabasso Trail (#101) which descends to the Icefield Parkway where cell service is available. Some Skyline Trail guides might also recommend the Watchtower Trail (#102) as an escape route but this is not wise as the trail remains above treeline for a long way.
Camping permits are required for all backcountry campgrounds in Jasper National Park. The permits are specific to the campground but not a campsite. Reservations for these permits typically become available in mid-January and are snatched up quickly. The best campgrounds will be booked out on the weekends within an hour. We wrote this Canadian Rockies permit guide to help you prepare for the process. The Canadian Parks System typically announces the dates for the following year in December. So make a plan but check back in mid-December to ensure you are ready the morning the reservations become available.
Skyline Trail Guide to Campgrounds
You must have a permit to camp on the Skyline Trail. Likewise, camping is only permitted in established campsites. Please use good Leave No Trace practices while enjoying the backcountry. All distances listed are from the Maligne Lake Boat Launch Trailhead. All the campsites on the Skyline Trail come equipped with bear boxes, barrel toilets, picnic tables, and have access to water.
Evelyn Creek is a small 4-site campground next to a beautiful creek. It is best used by beginner backpackers not interested in taking on the Skyline Trail. However, it might be useful for those getting a very late start. There is only about 400′ of elevation gain in the 3-mile hike to this campground.
The Little Shovel Campground sits just below the treeline with 8-campsites. The water source is a small spring but the views are really beautiful with overlooks of the Bald Hills and Maligne Lake. This campground is best used by those with late starts or those looking for more seclusion than the popular Snowbowl Campground.
Snowbowl is a very popular campground on the Skyline Trail. The trail distance and elevation gain makes for a very reasonable destination for the first night. It also isn’t so far that if you are hitchhiking between the trailheads that you feel anxiety about catching a ride.
Curator is a beautiful campground sitting adjacent to a small tarn just below the treeline. There is a massive waterfall plunging from the mountains to the north. The downside of the Curator Campground is that it sits about 3/4 of a mile off the Skyline Trail. It also requires descending 450′ and gaining it back the next day. Still, it is excellently positioned to get an early start on climbing the steepest section of the Skyline Trail up and over The Notch.
The Tekarra Campground sits in the trees directly adjacent to the Skyline Trail just before it crosses over a wide section of the creek below Mt. Tekarra. It is a beautiful place to camp but its relative position to the trail does make it a busy place in the wilderness.
The Signal Campground has four campsites buried about a fourth of a mile off the Skyline Trail in the trees. This site would only be good for those backpacking up the old fire road which is the final 5.25 miles of the trail. It is not a scenic campground and it is too close to the Signal Trailhead to be of much use when backpacking the Skyline Trail.
Backpacking Gear & Logistics for the Skyline Trail Guide
The Skyline Trail is a high alpine trail making it a perfect adventure during the short Jasper summer season. It is important to gather an accurate weather forecast before setting out on the trail. When backpacking in the Canadian Rockies it is important to be prepared for all weather conditions. Over the course of many seasons, we have fine-tuned our backpacking gear list for such mountain activities. However, there are a few things about the Skyline Trail that you should take into consideration when preparing for your journey.
Great News! Every campsite on the Skyline Trail comes equipped with bear boxes for storing your food. There is no need to pack your heavy bear canister. This is bear country so make sure you keep food and cooking utensils inside the bear boxes when not in use.
All the campsites on the Skyline Trail have easy access to water. Bring your water filter and you are ready to go. Water between the campgrounds can be spotty so it is best to fill up at each campground and carry the needed amount for the day.
Each of the campgrounds on the Skyline Trail comes equipped with barrel toilets. If you have never come across a barrel toilet, prepare yourself. They are open-air toilet seats elevated above a giant barrel. They kind of look like bleachers. This is so the barrel can be capped off and picked up by helicopter when full. While this is a great leave-no-trace system in a fragile alpine environment, it is not glamorous. Men and women use the same set of toilets wide open to nature. While they are located away from the main trail and camping areas it is possible for fellow hikers to catch a glimpse of your bare nature.
Recommended Skyline Trail Itinerary
It is not uncommon for runners to take on the 28-mile Skyline Trail in a single day. However, with a fully loaded backpack, most hikers will choose a 3-day itinerary. Here is our suggested Skyline Trail Guide itinerary.
Recommended: 3 days, 2 nights
1st Day: Maligne Lake to Snowbowl Campground
Distance: 7.5 miles
Approx: 1,900′ of elevation gain
The first day is fairly easy. We recommend parking at the Signal Parking lot so your vehicle is waiting for you at the end of the trail. Enjoy a moment on Maligne Lake before starting the climb up to the Snowbowl Campground. Stop at both Lorraine and Mona Lakes. The two lakes are surrounded by lush forests and beautiful mountains. Once past Evelyn Creek, the trail climbs steeply up through the treeline and over Little Shovel Pass (7,387’) before descending into a large alpine bowl. The Snowbowl Campground is tucked into the trees on the east side of the trail.
2nd Day: Snowbowl to Tekarra Campground
Distance: 12 miles
Approx: 2,600′ of elevation gain
The second day is the most challenging and you should get a very early start. Almost the entire day is spent above the treeline and you should endeavor to finish the 12-mile adventure before any early afternoon storms have a chance to develop.
First, you pass through the Snowbowl before climbing on a long slanted incline up and over Big Shovel Pass (7,611’). Next, you give up nearly 2/3rds of those hard-earned gains as you pass through an alpine slope to Curator Lake. The Wabasso Trail escape route is located just before arriving at the lake. Once at the lake the real challenge of the day begins. Over the next mile and a half, the trail climbs nearly 1,200 feet over the pass known as The Notch (8,201′). The final 650 feet of which is gained on very loose scree making it that much more challenging. Once over The Notch, it is an easy 2-mile stroll at altitude over Amber Moutain before the trail begins a four-mile moderate descent back to the trees and the Tekarra Campground.
3rd Day: Tekarra Campground to Signal Parking Lot
Distance: 8 miles
Approx: 950′ of elevation gain
The final day starts by boulder hopping across Tekarra Creek before skirting and climbing around the adjacent mountainside. Once over the ridgeline, you get two more miles of alpine terrain with overlooks of the Athabasca River Valley. The trail then officially ends as it intersects the Old Signal Mountain Fire Road Trail. A right here will descend a long 5-mile, winding wide path through the trees all the way down to the Signal Parking Lot. However, we recommend adding on a 1.5-mile (total) roundtrip up to the Signal Mountain Overlook. This is the end of the Fire Road and is the best scenic overlook of the town of Jasper. It is beautiful and well worth the extra 250′ of elevation gain.
2-Day Alternative Itinerary
You could also go extremely lightweight and take on the Skyline Trail as a two-day adventure. Stay in the Shovel Pass Lodge just below the Curator Campground. The lodge provides shelter so no need to carry a tent. They also provide dinner, breakfast, and a packable lunch. They even have a freight service for you to send your other gear to and from the lodge on a packhorse. You could take advantage of this service and only carry a small day pack for the entire trail.
After the Skyline Trail Guide
Jasper National Park has many campgrounds. While some are first-come, first-served, this is a very popular park and camping reservations are highly recommended. The Whistlers Campground and Wapiti Campground are the only two campgrounds with hot showers and good cell service. Reservations for the Jasper campgrounds go quickly and typically open in mid-January. Check out our Canadian Rockies Guide for more reservation details.
Our favorite hotel in Jasper is the Pyramid Lake Resort. It sits on the lake directly below the stunning Pyramid Mountain. The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is a close second with many activities available directly on the property including golf and canoeing. For more affordable accommodations look at the town of Hinton located to the east of the park.
Jasper National Park is a landscape with an abundance of epic trails and amazing adventures. The Skyline Trail, not to be confused with the Sulphur Skyline Trail, also located in Jasper, stands out above the rest. It has the most mileage located above the treeline of any trail in the park. This provides beautiful unobstructed alpine views for nearly 16-miles. While it is a tough trail the elevation and distance are mild for such an epic adventure. If you are looking for an amazing backpacking journey when visiting Jasper National Park this is a must-do adventure and we hope this Skyline Trail Guide helps.