Banff vs. Jasper
Jasper is one of the most underrated and under-appreciated towns in the Rocky Mountains. Many people visit for a day or two at the end of their Banff trip, but rarely, if ever, do I hear of anyone visiting the Rockies for the sole purpose of checking out Jasper. It’s a big shame though, because there are enough things to do in Jasper to easily last you a week (or many years in fact), particularly if you’re an outdoor enthusiast.
For some reason, Jasper has a reputation for being Banff’s quieter and less exciting sister, but that’s far from the truth. It’s a big mistake to compare the two side by side.
Both have completely different vibes, and comparing the two is like taking a pro skier and a pro snowboarder and asking who’s better? If you really want the complete Rockies experience, then you seriously can’t afford to skip Jasper!
The difference between Banff and Jasper
The truth is, Banff is designed for tourists and has been attracting families since the 1800’s. It’s a ‘mountain Disneyland’ designed to expose tourists to the outdoors in manageable and bitesize chunks. Sure there are extreme hikes and activities, but for the most part there are gentle bike paths, mountaintop 4D cinemas, buffet breakfasts and enough ‘drive up’ viewpoints to keep you occupied for days. Banff was always a tourist attraction first, and a town second.
Jasper, on the other hand, was a functioning community long before it became a tourist attraction. In fact it was originally intended as a safe stopping point for trains as they transported valuable silk from west to East. As a result, the atmosphere is completely different and it isn’t designed to be as ‘soft’ as Banff. The community is permanent and, naturally, the less transient nature makes it a lot more family oriented, calm and friendly. If the 100mph party attitude of Banff is not your cup of tea, I can guarantee that Jasper is going to suit you much better.
So what can you do in Jasper then? and why should you spend more than a couple of days there? With the help of Tourism Jasper, we’ve put together a list of our favourite things to do in Jasper and will leave you to be the judge!
35 Things to do in Jasper
Yes, you might not have heard about it, but Jasper has it’s own ski resort called Marmot Basin. It’s a long drive to get there from Calgary or Banff (4 or 5 hours), especially in Winter, but if you come for a week we promise it’ll be worth it. The great thing about Marmot is that it rarely has day trippers, so the majority of skiers are Jasper based. Jasper can only hold a maximum of around 3,000 visitors, so on any given day there can only be very few people on the slopes. What does that mean then?
It means you’ll feel like you have the whole mountain to yourself. If you’re used to skiing in Europe where you’re constantly dodging other skiers, then Marmot is going to blow your mind.
The design of the resort means that any run funnels you back to the bottom (perfect for families trying to keep an eye on kids), and they recently opened a brand new piece of terrain (Tres Hombres) – the first in 14 years.
Marmot Basin also has a very long season, meaning you can mix activities that typically have two different seasons. We came in April (traditionally the quietest month), and were skiing in t-shirts in the morning and rock climbing in the afternoon. Where else in the world can you do that?!?
2. Rock Climbing
Until very recently, Jasper was never really on the map for rock climbing. Not because rock climbing isn’t great, but because nobody had really ever mapped it out. All that changed recently when Francoise LaPlante of Rockaboo Mountain Adventures published his epic climbing guide to Jasper. He mapped out more than 600 insane climbing routes that could keep most people busy for the rest of their lives.
As a result of the book, Jasper is rapidly becoming a mecca for climbing. Whether you’re interested in trad or sport climbing, Jasper has routes to challenge any ability. Unlike more famous spots in Canada and the US though, you’re virtually guaranteed to have whichever route you choose to yourself.
As we mentioned, our April visit was perfect for a spring climb, and we found a fantastic slab of south facing rock for an afternoon session. Having never climbed on a real outdoor rock before, I was a little nervous, but the area we chose was perfect for inexperienced climbers like me (Juno Wall). I seriously recommend giving it a try (and definitely recommend using Rockaboo), even if you’ve never done it before!
3. Ice Climbing
Ice climbing is one of the most quintessential activities in the Rockies, especially in Jasper. As you can probably imagine, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to frozen waterfalls in Jasper. Rockaboo Mountain Adventures took us out on a spring day and it was honestly one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a long time. It’s utterly unique and tests muscles you never thought you had!
While it’s a technical sport, it’s nowhere near as tough as rock climbing, and even the most unfit person should be able to climb something on their first day. This particular ice climb is called “Edge of the World” and can be found on the way up to the Marmot Basin ski hill.
As we mentioned, the winter season runs pretty late in Jasper, so a lot of ice remains even as the temperatures start to warm up. Whereas if you try ice climbing in Jan or Feb you might end up with frozen fingers and PTSD, ice climbing in spring is an absolute pleasure. I’d highly recommend a March/April ice climbing excursion!
4. Cross Country Skiing
Cross country skiing is an extremely popular Canadian pastime and it’s definitely worth giving a try. It’s a lot of hard work but strangely relaxing, especially once you find yourself out in the wilderness.
There are over 300km of XC skiing trails in Jasper, there are plenty of routes to play around with. Popular sites include Maligne Lake, Athabasca Falls/ Whirlpool Valley, Pyramid Bench, Cavell Road and Evelyn Creek. You can find detailed information about routes and trail conditions on the Parks Canada website here.
Is there anything more Canadian than canoeing on a beautiful blue lake?
There are several places you can pick up a canoe in Jasper, our favourite being at Pyramid Lake. The stunning mountain backdrop makes it an absolute pleasure. If you only book for an hour, check the wind and be sure to give yourself enough time to get back. Our experience tells us that fighting the wind on the way back can take twice as long and 10x the effort!
6. Stand up paddle board
Paddle boarding in Jasper is a relatively new initiative, but you can easily rent paddle boards from Lake Edith on the outskirts of town. There’s even a SUP / Yoga class if you’re feeling particularly adventurous. You can check rates out here.
7. Pyramid Lake Island
Pyramid Lake Island is definitely a hidden gem in Jasper, and something we didn’t discover until after a few visits. The island can be accessed by a small bridge across Pyramid Lake, and there’s a short path around it. There are a few interpretive signs along the walk and there’s even an outdoor ceremony area that’s rentable for the perfect outdoor wedding in Jasper!
8. Maligne Canyon (& Ice walk)
Maligne Canyon is one of Jasper’s most famous attractions. In summer the canyon is full of water, so visitors must walk along the top (along the five bridges interpretive walk). Gaze down into the incredible slot canyons as the water rushes through!
In winter the water freezes up and the canyon becomes accessible from below. You can walk on top of the frozen river and peer up at the incredible eroded canyon walls. It’s also a very popular ice climbing spot in the winter that can make for some pretty spectacular photos! The Maligne Canyon ice walk can be self guided or you can join a tour where you’ll be provided with ice cleats. We self guided and found it perfectly manageable but others understandably prefer the support of a tour guide!
Read our more detailed blog post here
9. Spirit Island and Maligne Lake
Perhaps one of the most famous and iconic sites in Jasper. You can access Spirit island either by taking the ferry to the far end of Maligne Lake, or by paddling there with a canoe. Be warned, it’s a 14km paddle (one way), and it’s known to get pretty choppy/windy!
If you’re not interested in going all the way to Spirit Island, you can always stop in at the Maligne Lake Cafe and enjoy the views from the shores of Maligne Lake. It’s a long drive to Maligne Lake from Jasper, but the drive is absolutely breathtaking and well worth the effort.
10. Heli Tours – Heli Hiking
As we mentioned, one of the best ways to view the Rockies is from above. We went for a ride with Rockies Heli, based in Nordegg, and went for a flight over the 6 glaciers. It’s truly an epic experience, and you’ll have a chance to admire the mountains from a perspective that few will ever see!
Rockies Heli also offers heli hiking, which involves flying to a remote spot with the helicopter and hiking from there. It allows you to experience parts of the back country that few ever have a chance to see. As there was still a little slow left when we went, we strapped on some snow shoes and hiked to a beautiful waterfall. A breathtaking experience that I’d happily repeat!
Hiking in Jasper is a must. There are a few hikes that should be on everyone’s bucketlist, and Jasper holds more than a few. Top hikes in the area include the following:
- Cavell Meadows
- Sulphur Skyline Trail
- The Skyline Trail (44km – multiday hike)
- Sunwapta Peak (hard)
- Opal Hills
- Tonquin Valley
- Valley of the Five Lakes (read more about our experience here)
- Bald Hills
- Whistlers Mountain (can skip the hike with the Skytram)
12. Hot Springs
Although the area isn’t particularly well known for hot springs, there is still at least one hot spring in the vicinity; Miette Hotsprings. Miette is roughly an hour’s drive from the town of Jasper but is well worth the effort if you’re aching after a long day on the slopes. While it is a natural hot spring, the springs are developed and built into a swimming pool.
Cycling is a big deal in Jasper, and no matter what the season, you’ll always find people out and about on their bikes. there are 3 popular types of cycling in Jasper;
- Mountain biking – there are plenty of great mountain bike trails for all abilities in Jasper. Check here for some popular routes
- Road cycling – road biking is incredibly popular in Alberta, and there are plenty of great roads to explore in these parts. For the most ambitious road cyclists of you, the road between Banff and Jasper (Icefields Parkway) has become enormously popular in the summer months. Otherwise, the Maligne Lake Road is also extremely popular. Watch out for wildlife though!
- Fat bikes – Fat bikes are growing in popularity, and if you haven’t seen them before they’re quite a sight to behold. Bikes with extra large tires, otherwise known as fat bikes, will help you stay buoyant in the snow and explore some otherwise inaccessible trails!
14. SCUBA diving
I bet you didn’t expect to see SCUBA diving on the list, but yes it’s definitely possible to go for a dive in Jasper! Actually the water is so clear in Jasper that you’ll be amazed by the visibility.
One of the most popular sites in Jasper is the site of the failed WWII experiment, “Project Habbakuk”. Incredibly, Patricia Lake was used for the development of a floating aircraft landing strip made out of wood and ice – essentially a smoothed over iceberg for planes to land on. The project was eventually scrapped and has long since sunk, but you can still explore the remains that lie at the bottom of Patricia Lake. You can also take a number of different PADI dive certifications. Check out Jasper Dive Adventures for more details.
There are two very famous waterfalls in Jasper National Park; Sunwapta and Athabasca Falls. Both lie along the Icefields Parkway shortly before reaching the town of Jasper. Waterfalls don’t get much more picturesque, so make sure you stop in enroute to Jasper. Both waterfalls are just a stone’s throw from the edge of the highway, so there’s really no excuse!
Snake Indian Falls is another major waterfall in Jasper, but we wouldn’t recommending spending time on it if it’s your first visit to the area. The trail is 52km round trip (far faster if biked), on a fairly flat hike through the trees.
16. Jasper Skytram & Whistlers Mountain:
If you’re looking for views without having to hike, the Jasper Skytram will suit you down to the ground. The skytram runs every 8 minutes, and will take you almost to the peak of Whistlers Mountain. If you feel like pushing a little further, it’s a short hike to the summit where you’ll have panoramic views of the entire area and will even be able to see Mt. Robson on a clear day. You’ll also be able to spot the chairlifts from Marmot Basin if you look hard enough!
Once you’ve bagged the peak (take snowshoes if it’s snowy), you can stop in at the cafe on the top for some lunch. They do a mean Elk meatloaf and their hot chocolate is pretty damn good too.
17. Mt. Edith Cavell and Angel Glacier
Mt. Edith Cavell is one of our favourite spots to visit in Jasper. The road is normally closed in winter, but it’s well worth waiting for. Once you’ve parked, head up the path for a stunning view of Angel Glacier (so called because it supposedly is angel shaped). It’s hard to gauge the scale of it as you stare up at it, but its size is astonishing. It’s so large, in fact, that when a large chunk broke off a few years ago, it caused an enormous tidal wave that flooded the valley. Best not to get too close!
From Mt. Edith Cavell, you can also access Edith Cavell Meadows; one of Jasper’s most popular and beautiful hikes. The hike gives an elevated view of Angel Glacier and Cavell Meadows behind.
18. Valley of the Five Lakes
Valley of the Five Lakes is one of our favourite and one of the easiest hikes in Jasper. The trail visits 5 lakes (duh), and has a total of 60m elevation gain. It’s very easy and some of the lakes have brilliant colours reminiscent of gem stones. The trailhead lies just off the Icefield Parkway, with a recently renovated car park that’s hard to miss.
19. Goats and Glaciers
We hadn’t really explored Goats and Glaciers until recently, but it’s a quick viewpoint from the side of the Icefields Parkway. It’s one of the simpler things to do in Jasper, but worth a stop nonetheless. The viewpoint gives you panoramic views of the Athabasca River and the surrounding peaks.
20. Wildlife Watching
Jasper is famous for its wildlife. It’s a little more remote than Banff, so your chances of bumping into wildlife (especially along the Icefields Parkway) are pretty good. While the chances of spotting something in Winter are generally quite slim, the sightings will increase as the weather improves. The most common sightings are deer and bighorn sheep, with the occasional moose mixed in too.
Check out our wildlife checklist for other animals you can expect to spot in the Canadian Rockies!
21. Jasper Planetarium
The Jasper Planetarium is an annual event put on by the Marmot Lodge Hotel beginning. It’s a temporary domed theatre that projects constellations and films onto its walls, tying in with the idea that Jasper is the world’s largest accessible astronomy park. Tickets are $29 for adults and $9 for kids and can be purchased here
22. Jasper Dark Sky Festival
Celebrating the world’s largest dark sky reserve, Jasper holds an annual Dark Sky Festival. Between October 12-21, 2018, head to Jasper and celebrate all thing celestial. There are talks from famous scientific figures (past speakers include Bill Nye the Science Guy and Brian Cox), symphonies under the stars, Astrophotography workshops, Astronomy tours, star sessions at the top of the skytram and much, much more. Book your tickets early because many of the events have limited tickets! Find out more about this year’s festival here.
Feel like having a day off? Why not check out the Jasper Yellowhead Museum and Archives for a glimpse into the past and Jasper’s origins. There are plenty of interesting photos and artefacts from Jasper’s early days.
24. The Columbia Icefields
This is probably the most spectacular part of Jasper. Falling just inside the Jasper Park boundary, the Columbia Icefields hold the Athabasca Glacier and the Saskatchewan Glacier. Experiencing the glacier can take several forms depending on your activity level:
- Wilcox Pass – a short hike that gives stunning views of the Athabasca Glacier from across the valley. Check out our post on the hike here
- Parker Ridge: This is another short hike that gives stunning views of the Saskatchewan Glacier. The views from the top of the hike are spectacular!
- Glacier Adventure Bus Tour – This is the bus tour that drives out onto the Athabasca Glacier. It’s fairly expensive but you’ll have a chance to actually walk on the glacier and experience it up close.
- Walking up to the base of the Athabasca Glacier: Do it the hard way. Park at the base of the glacier and walk up the moraine (big mound of dirt) to view the glacier for free. You can’t really walk onto the glacier from here unless you’re with a tour group, and it’s certainly not recommended (hidden crevices)
- Heli Tours – Probably the most decadent way of viewing the numerous glaciers in the area. Get a birds eye view! We did the 6 glaciers tour with Rockies Heli and loved every minute of it!
- Glacier Skywalk – Not the best view of the major glaciers in the area, especially considering the price, but it’s still an interesting experience. You even get to walk on a glass bottomed bridge! Read more about our experience here, and whether or not we think it’s worth it.
If you’re interested in reading more about the Icefields parkway, check out our guide to driving it
25. Train Tours
As Jasper is still a functioning train station, it will come as no surprise that one of the most popular things to do here is take a train ride. There are several options depending on whether you’re looking for a journey of several hours or several days.
The Rocky Mountaineer is a two day, 1 night journey travelling from Jasper to Vancouver. You’ll have a chance to slowly take in the incredible mountain views along the way and experience the journey as they would have in the late 1800’s. Prices start from $912 for the Silver Leaf package, and $1,247 for the Gold leaf package. The Rocky Mountaineer stops in Kamloops for one night, where you’ll be staying in a hotel. You can book your trip here.
Via Rail is another company that offers adventure routes, and this train has a variety of different routes ranging from Pan-Canada to Jasper to Vancouver. The experience is much the same as the Rocky Mountaineer, except you’ll be sleeping in the train along the way. The Rocky Mountain Adventure package costs $2,099 but includes 1 night on the train, 3 nights in a hotel, breakfast, a National Park pass and guided excursions. Tickets and more information can be found here.
26. Dog Sledding
There are plenty of dog sledding options up in the area, ranging from a 60 minute blitz to an overnight stay in a cabin. Before cars reached the area, dog sledding was the only way to get around, so what better way to experience winter! Typically, dog sledding outfits aren’t able to operate within national parks, so you might have to drive a little way from Jasper. Cold Fire Creek Dog Sledding has various options and lies around 120km from Jasper. Find out more here.
27. Ice Skating
There are numerous lakes where it’s possible to try ice skating in the outdoors. One of our favourite spots is Pyramid Lake, 5 minutes from the centre of town. Once the lakes are solid enough a path is cleared around the perimeter of the lake, creating one long, uninterrupted loop. Definitely worth checking out, and the best part is that it’s free (aside from skate rentals)! Skates can be rented in town from a number of different stores.
28. Have a spa day
What better way to relax after a long week of activities than with a spa day.
Jasper has 3 spas, so you’re spoiled for choice.
29. Canyoning – Ogre Canyon
Ok back to the adventures. If you haven’t tried canyoning before, you’re in for a treat. It’s essentially rappelling down a canyon and down a river. The highlight of the trip is rappelling the ‘turbowash’, i.e. rappelling down a waterfall.
The adventures in Jasper are all a little more extreme than the ones in Banff, and you’re going to love this if you’re an adrenaline junkie. Ogre Canyon is only one of several canyoning trips in Jasper, so explore the different options and pick the one that suits you best. Check out Rocky Mountain Canyoning for some of their options.
30. Motorcycle Tours
Harley Davidson tours have become synonymous with Jasper, and honestly, there’s no better way to explore the mountains than on the back of a Harley. We went on one of Jasper Motorcycle Tours spring sidecar tours, and honestly, I couldn’t stop grinning. First they dress you up in full leathers, and then blast you along some of Jasper’s most scenic roads. We saw plenty of wildlife (a moose, deer), and ended up at Medicine Lake to take in the views. Highly recommend this experience!
If you like camping, then you’re going to love camping in Jasper. Whether you’re camping near town, or along the Icefields Parkway, there’s no better way to feel closer to nature. Whistler’s Campground is closed for renovation during summer 2018, so camping in Jasper is vastly reduced this year. Book early to avoid disappointment!
32. White Water Rafting
With so much water around, there was always going to be white water rafting. There are several companies operating out of Jasper, and each will take you down the rapids on the Athabasca river. There are class 2, 3 and 3+ rapids, depending on the tour you take, but there’s generally a tour appropriate for all skill levels.
Another thing that comes with all this fresh water is an abundance of fish. If fishing is your thing, then you’re going to love it here. There’s a huge variety of fish out here, including pike, rocky mountain whitefish, rainbow trout, lake trout, brook trout and bull trout. Grab a fishing permit from the Jasper Visitor Centre and either find your own spot or take a fishing tour (try Maligne Lake for Trout!) . You can even go heli-fishing with Rockies Heli; they’ll drop you in the middle of nowhere for the most unique fishing experience money can buy!
The season generally runs from April to October.
In Alberta, it’s generally safe to assume that if there’s an old Fairmont, there’s probably a golf course attached to it. Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is no different. Built in 1925, the course took 50 teams of horses and 200 men over a year to clear the area. It’s truly one of the most stunning golf course backdrops in the world, and if Golf’s your thing, you really need to spend at least one day there.
Green fees run from $119 to $209 depending on the season, and there’s a decent discount if you can prove you’re an Alberta resident.
35. Horseback riding
There are two horse riding companies in Jasper, “Jasper Park Stables at the Fairmont Jasper” and “Jasper Riding Stables on Pyramid Lake Road“. Both offer tours around the 1,200km of trails in Jasper National Park and both companies offer tours for $47 per hour. It’s a great way to explore the mountains as the early pioneers did, and you’ll truly get to experience the wilderness in a way that simply isn’t possible in a car.
Spring in Jasper
One of the best discoveries we’ve made about Jasper is its Spring season. When most people think of April in the Rockies, they think of an awkward shoulder season where summer activities aren’t quite ready but it’s too warm for winter activities. Actually, in Jasper it’s quite the opposite. The winter and the summer activities are able to overlap opening up twice the number of activities that you’ll find in either or the peak seasons.
The fact that we were able to hike, bike, ski, rock climb and ice climb in the space of 4 days is practically unheard of. If you’re a true outdoors enthusiast and you’re looking to pack in the most activities possible, then I would seriously consider visiting Jasper in April.
As if that wasn’t enough, the misconception that a shoulder season is bad means that the slopes, trails and mountains are virtually empty. Seriously, our day up at Marmot Basin was like we had our own private ski hill. Hotels are also a lot cheaper and you’ll really be able to find that true sense of wilderness.
So what are you waiting for? Make Jasper a destination in your next trip to Canada, or, if you’re a local, make sure you stop in some time soon!
Our recent trip to Jasper was hosted by Tourism Jasper, but all opinions expressed are our own!