The sense of freedom felt as boundless as the alpine panorama spread before me. As with many keen hikers, the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park had been on my list for ages. And now I’m hiking the final steps to The Notch. At 2,510 m (8,235 ft), it’s the highest point on the 27.4 mile three-day backpack – and the highest of any hike in the park.
The Notch, a low saddle between ridgelines reaching toward the sky like stepladders of stone, is also the beginning of a section of trail that remains near the 8,200 foot level for three miles. Behind me stretched an expanse of snowy jagged peaks piercing the sky. Ahead toward the north, Mount Robson, the Canadian Rockies’ highest, glimmered like the biggest diamond in an ocean of sparkling gems.
As my hiking partners Leslie and her son Tom slipped off their packs to sit beside me, I could hardly believe it was only yesterday we’d parked our car at the Signal Mountain trailhead, just six miles from Jasper’s Information Centre. Hopping aboard a shuttle van we’d pre-arranged from town, we were excited to spot bighorn sheep and elk on the 45-minute drive to our starting point at Maligne Lake.
Running northwest along Jasper’s Maligne Range with 15.5 miles of its length at or above timberline, the Skyline can be hiked in either direction. Like us, most hikers take advantage of the higher starting point at the southern end. Equipped with food, tent, stove, down sleeping bags, rain gear, caps, gloves and sunscreen, we felt prepared for any surprises the weather could serve up; including, at this elevation, fresh snow in July!
The trail climbed gradually to Little Shovel Pass, where we gazed down on the deep aquamarine waters of Maligne Lake, the largest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies. Hiking past creek banks decorated with pink river beauty and yellow Indian paintbrush flowers, we descended the trail to Snowbowl Campground at the 127.5 mile mark for our first night. While clear skies brought crisp temperatures, the stars were simply dazzling.
The next morning, shortly after cresting Big Shovel Pass – named in honour of pioneer brothers who hacked shovels from native timber to scratch a track through snow while building the first trail in 1911– our route intersected the Watchtower Basin Trail, offering a long day hike from the Maligne Lake Road. Like the Wabasso trail, which connects the Skyline to the Icefields Parkway to the west, that trail offers an alternate route to reach the Skyline or to descend when stormy weather creates poor conditions in the high alpine.
But it was the section of trail beyond The Notch that stays in my memory: where we hiked eye-level with stately Mount Edith Cavell and spent lazy hours feeling incredibly tiny high above the Athabasca River winding like an emerald ribbon along the valley floor.
Arriving at Tekarra Campground for our final night, we were welcomed by many of the same campers from the previous night. They’d felt that sense of freedom, too.