Skyline Trail

Getting There

Mt Robson (3954m) - highest peak in the Canadian Rockies

The Athabasca River near Jasper

Maligne Canyon Wilderness Hostel

It was a long drive from Vancouver to Jasper. We had planned on a more leisurely two-day trip, but hadn't realised that this was a public holiday weekend in Canada. As a result our planned walk on the Skyline Trail had to be quickly brought forward one day - the campsites were booked out for the weekend. Still, I prefer a long day in a car to crowded campsites and time passes quickly when surrounded by the magnificent scenery of British Columbia and Alberta.

We reached our destination, the Maligne Canyon Wilderness Hostel, in the late afternoon with plenty of time to prepare for the walk next day and have a good rest. The only downside was that the weather forecast (which seemed to be different every time we checked) was now promising a bleak few days of showers and rain. Perhaps this was payback for the excellent weather I had experienced on the West Coast Trail, perhaps it would change again for the better. There was no point worrying - we put our wet weather gear at the top of our packs and went to bed.

The Maligne Range - The Skyline Trail follows its ridgeline for much of its length

Day 1 – Lake Maligne to Snowbowl Camp (12.5km - 510m ascent – 110m descent)

After a chilly 15 minute wait outside the Maligne Canyon Wilderness Hostel, where we had spent the night, we were picked up by the Maligne Lake Shuttle Bus for a 30 minute drive to the Skyline trailhead, close to the northern shore of this beautiful lake. We had 14 fellow passengers, most of whom were also heading off on the Skyline Trail. We checked our packs, making sure that the bear-spray was accessible (there be grizzlies in these mountains) and set off.

Don't forget the bear spray!

The fair Nello setting out on the Skyline Trail

The sun broke through the grey ceiling of cloud soon after, but was gone again within a few minutes – such would be the pattern of the day's walk. We set a brisk pace, stopping to pass the time of day with a mule deer that crossed the path ahead to graze on the track verge.

Mule deer

The smooth earth path led us gently upwards beneath a canopy of scrappy spruce trees. The understorey was very open with the odd bush giving some texture to the carpet of mosses and low herbs that covered the lumpy forest floor.

Reflections on Lake Lorraine

Evelyn Creek

The odd yellow or mauve daisy and mushrooms, coloured from yellow, tan, dark brown and even pink, with sizes varying from a pikelet to a pancake in dimensions brightened up the green of the forest floor. Soon we passed a small cascade, followed by a tiny green reflecting pond, then Lake Lorraine off between the trees, and finally the biggest lake along the track, Lake Mona, which we made a short detour to visit. Climbing around the edge of this lake, we pushed on to Evelyn Creek, rushing down from the heights above on a shallow stony bed.

Path up through the spruce

Once we had crossed it on a wooden bridge, the climb became a little more earnest, as a series of switchbacks took us steadily up the spur to Little Shovel campsite, a good spot for an early lunch beneath the spruce and under the watchful gaze of a red squirrel. Stop in this weather and you quickly chill down, so we layered up and headed on, gradually climbing up through a spruce forest that was becoming shorter with altitude.

View south from above the trees

Heading towards Little Shovel Pass

Close-up of the distant mountains

The grandeur of the Rockies

Flower meadow near Little Shovel Pass

Views were opening up over mountains near and far as we traversed a broad slope before turning away from the valley. We had now passed the tree-line and found ourselves crossing a broad meadow, scattered with buttercups and the burrows of marmots and ground squirrels. The residents of the afore-mentioned were out and about, enjoying a brief spell of sunshine as we made our way across the undulating meadow.

A self-indulgent marmot

Columbia ground-squirrel

This led us to Little Shovel Pass, from where we looked over an enormous bowl sloping away to the south-east from an impressive blocking cirque of mountains – no wonder the track chose to take that direction too, leading us down to a narrow ravine and creek, scattered with alpine flowers. We followed the creek, then forded it. A few hundred metres further on we were back in the trees - in a grove of spruce that held our campsite for the night. It was good to be able to pitch tent before the grey skies delivered the precipitation that they had long menaced.

Looking out over The Snow Bowl from Little Shovel Pass

Fording a branch of Jeffrey Creek

Path across the alpine meadows of The Snow Bowl

First campsite at Snowbowl

Nello hoists the food bag up the bear-wire

We had arrived at 2.30pm – thence began a series of weather-dependent activities as cold and showers alternated with sunshine and warmth. Showers – sit under a spruce tree and boil the billy, sun – head down a little creek to get some water, showers – back into the tent to snuggle into a sleeping bag, sun – out to the table to write these ramblings, showers in the middle of dinner preparations – back beneath the spruce to eat, fine weather – off to bed just in time to settle in and listen to the patter of more raindrops on the tent fly. 

The afternoon of cloud and showers ....

Trowel Peak

.... alternating with warm sunshine

Fetching water

Soon after, as the evening light  was fading,  we heard the footsteps of some other hikers who had walked in in the rain – it would not have been much fun pitching a tent  in the dark and rain, but, as we learnt next morning, they had even less fun, having met a grizzly bear on the track some 500m before the campsite. Luckily it wasn't interested in a couple of cold drenched hikers for its supper. Now – where did I put that bear-spray?

Day 2 – Snowbowl Camp to Tekarra Camp (a day in the clouds) (19km - 660m ascent – 700m descent)

All night long the rain bands passed by, interspersed with clear periods, so that, when we awoke and shook the ice crystals from our tent fly, the world looked a little different. It had been a cold night (sub-zero would be a good estimate given the ice) and the mountains about us now had a light dusting of snow on them. Cloud bands still rolled by, creating mists in The Snowbowl, but the rain appeared to have gone. Considering that the forecast for the day had been heavy cloud and rain, this had to be a bonus.

Dawn light on the snow-dusted mountains

Mountain mist magic

We enjoyed breakfast in the sunshine, then packed up as cloud moved in to blanket The Snowbowl and obscure the peaks before setting off for the highlight day of this walk. Not long after crossing the small rise that led out of camp, we left the spruce grove and entered a large meadow sloping away to the east. We walked quickly along the track, lined with small black-headed sedges, across a vast expanse of green grass and herbs scattered with pink, white and yellow wildflowers.

Heading off across the alpine meadows

Our spirits were buoyed by the fact that, on this side of the ridge, the cloud was lifting to reveal the peaks and expansive alpine meadows ahead, while framing the more distant mountains and ranges in billowing white.

A branch of Jeffrey Creek

The fog returns

Antler Peak playing hide and seek

Crossing another branch of Jeffrey Creek

As we headed down to Jeffrey Creek, a low mist swept in to play hide and seek with the nearby Antler Mountain, before once again blowing away to reveal the magnificent landscapes in sunny splendour. The theme for the day’s walk had been set.

The route up to Big Shovel Pass

Amongst the golden daisies

From the creek, a long and steady climb along the eastern flank of the valley brought us to the 2320m saddle of Big Shovel Pass, where a magnificent spectacle awaited us. The valley below was filled with billowing white cloud, seemingly generated by the towering pyramid of Curator Mountain just to our left.

Panorama of Curator Mountain (2624m) generating its own cloud (from Big Shovel Pass)

We had defleeced for the climb, but now found ourselves chilling down quickly in the icy breeze, so back came the fleece, beanies and gloves for a long traverse across the compact scree slopes. This was a barren landscape, brightened by a scattering of green cushion plants spattered with the pink of tiny flowers. It was easy walking, but soon the cloud that we had admired in the valley rose up the slopes to envelop us in a thick fog.

Crossing the barren scree slopes

Heading into the mist

The rock garden below Curator Lake

We pushed on in this surreal environment, crossing an area of rocky outcrops, where curious orange boulders seemed to glow in the swirling mist. On reaching a track intersection, we turned right to head upwards through the rocks towards The Notch, the gateway to the high crossing. Nearing Curator Lake, visibility had dropped to 20-30m and it looked like we might not see it. However, the fog suddenly left stage right to reveal the lake waters below. It also revealed The Notch way above, a narrow pass with a crescent shaped cornice of snow guarding it, and the steep climb up to it through a jumble of boulders and scree.

Curator Lake... I think

In the thick of the fog near Curator Lake

The cloud parts to reveal The Notch (2510m)

The fair Nello climbing The Notch

We took off a layer of clothing yet again and got stuck into it – slow and steady as the climb seemed to add a few more kilos to the weight of our packs. The mists came and went as cloud swirled by from over the pass, but just as we were nearing the top it dramatically lifted to show the magnificent mountain cirque surrounding Lake Curator, now far below, in all its splendour – a superb alpine scene.

At last a panoramic view of cirque surrounding Curator Lake (from The Notch)

We pushed on a little further from the pass after layering up to keep out the chilly air and find a spot for lunch in the lee of the wind. The views soon disappeared as cloud rose from the Athabasca Valley and mist swept across the slopes. We ate quickly and headed on, traversing a barren shaly slope where not even cushion plants deigned to grow. It was like a Martian landscape, made even more alien by the continuous comings and goings of the mists sweeping across the slope.

The Martian landscape north of The Notch

Reaching the ridge, the cloud suddenly cleared again and yet another magnificent spectacle appeared – a deep valley cutting into the mountains to the east, a small milk-green lake below and backed by the dark brooding peak of The Watchtower.

Nello on The Skyline

Even though a wall of cloud blocked out the broad Athabasca Valley to the west, it was breaking up as it swept over the ridge to periodically open up views of the narrower valleys to the east. Someone was clearly smiling on us!

We could also see the path ahead and realised that we were now on the “sky” part of the Skyline Trail – the track following the top of an impressive ridgeline to Amber Mountain. As we wandered along, the pattern of fog and wonderfully framed views continued.

Path up to the top of the range

The cloud lifts to reveal The Watchtower (2791m)

Cloud-framed view from The Skyline down the Excelsior Valley

Skyline panorama - beautifully barren

Eventually we started to descend, passing through a series of hollows and then winding through a curious garden of pika-peeping rocks. This brought us to the point where we would finally leave the ridge. Ahead we could see Tekarra Lake in the valley below and, as the cloud lifted, the impressive ramparts of Tekarra Mountain to its left.

The rockscape of Amber Mountain

Portrait of a peeping pika

Looking back towards The Watchtower from the east side of Amber Mountain

A series of long switchbacks led us down off the ridge, above the emerald waters of Centre Lake to the valley floor. It was at this point that the fair Nello noticed that the mountains had gone from moody to downright cranky, as the cloud behind turned dark and menacing. The race against the rain began and we hurried along the path towards the Tekarra campsite - the rain started at 4.10pm – we reached camp 15 minutes later (we have no complaints with a silver medal).

Centre Lake below Centre Mountain (2700m)

Another furry marmot

Tekarra Mountain (2693m) towering above Tekarra Lake

Tent site with a view at Tekarra

A variant on the bear pole with rain shelter

I managed to pitch the tent, fly first to keep the inner tent dry, and we moved in to the distant peal of thunder as the rain became quite heavy. The campsites, scattered in a grove of spruce for shelter, are designed well here, with mounded clay beds to ensure water runs away in all directions. As always, the sun returned, so we could fetch water and get ourselves sorted out for dinner, which of course signalled the return of the rain.

Pine martin

Luckily, one of the other hikers had erected a tarp over a table and we could eat beneath it as the rain pelted down, followed by a quick wash-up, hoist the food bag up the bear pole and scramble into bed. Such is camp life on the Skyline Trail.

Tekarra Mountain after the storm

Snow clouds obscuring Tekarra Mountain

Red riding hood sitting on the throne

I love moody mountains and we felt privileged to have had such an amazing crossing. Sometimes perfect weather is not the best way to experience the landscapes of the high country.

Day 3 – Tekarra Camp to Northern Trailhead (14.5km - 140m ascent – 1030m descent)

Morning found us lying in our tent watching the raindrops fall and coalesce to form moving pools on the roof of the fly. Luckily, we had managed to get up, get dressed and visit the throne before the rain started or it could have been very uncomfortable. It wasn’t the start to the day we had hoped for and, when a break finally arrived and we were getting our breakfast organised, there was a new twist on the weather – snow! Not much and not settling but snow nonetheless. Well, they say it can fall at any time of year in the Rockies and here was the proof. When the white cloud finally shifted, the mountains around were dusted with a light snowy coat.

Icy morning at Excelsior Mountain (2744m)

Even the ground squirrels huddled up

The sheer walls of Tekarra Mountain

Packing up a wet tent in zero degree temperatures is not a lot of fun, but we finally headed off with fingers and toes chilled to the bone. Fording the shallow stream beneath the misty shape of Tekarra Mountain, we started the long but gentle climb around steep flanks below its impressive rock face, and soon our extremities had warmed up again.

View back over the Tekarra Valley toward Centre Mountain
The north side of Tekarra Mountain from Signal meadows

Crossing the slopes of Signal Mountain

The track took us high above the valley, its slopes densely covered with spruce forest, while the cloud lifted to reveal the snow-capped tops of Excelsior and Centre Mountains dominating the valley. We gradually, turned northward to reach an area of alpine meadow on the far side of Signal Mountain, where we were greeted by an icy wind – I don’t think I would like being on the exposed ridges of the Skyline today.
A land of cloud and forest

A tarn on Signal Meadows

Looking out over the valley north of Jasper

This section was our last chance to stroll the open tops of this trail, as the track perambulated through the meadow, passing small tarns and patches of alpine herbs still in flower. The distant mountains appeared and disappeared as the billowing cloud rolled along the valleys.  The cold and wet start to the day was already forgotten in the majesty of these mountain vistas.

The Athabasca River through a gap in the clouds

Cloud billowing about the mountains of Jasper National Park

View north from Signal Mountain

Start of the Signal Fire Trail

Eventually, the track began to wander downwards, leaving the meadow to pass through stunted spruce groves and finally enter the full spruce forest - our long descent had begun. We soon joined up with the abandoned fire tower access trail, a broad and even surface that was to be our way home. After a quick detour to Signal Mountain campsite for an early lunch we set off for the 2 hour descent.

This part of the track is described in most guide books as tedious and we tried to make it not be, appreciating the change in vegetation from spruce to pine, the glimpses of mountains through the gaps, the odd raspberries to graze on and the vague sense that there were bears out there (it is a “high bear activity” area), but in the end it became just that, tedious. The lower part of the track seemed to have no end and the return of passing showers did not help, but eventually we rounded a bend and there was the trailhead – our journey through the clouds on the Skyline Trail was over.

Descent of Signal Mountain

The bare rock face of the Colin Range through the trees

In many ways we were fortunate, as the weather could have been much worse (had it listened to the forecast) – the edge of a thunderstorm, a few snowflakes, just a few showers while we were out on the track and the magic of the swirling mists that hid and then revealed the superb alpine panoramas of this trail made it a hike to remember.

Pine forest near the end of the trail

There was really only one downside – the fair Nello and I had left some cans of beer in the hostel fridge to fete our successful hike only to discover that they had “gone missing” while we were out walking! Still, traditions must not be ignored, so we wandered over to the nearby Maligne Canyon Visitor Centre and celebrated with a glass of chilled Kokkanee lager.

Maligne Canyon (a bonus to the Skyline Trail)

Maligne River above the canyon

Our wander over the road to the visitor centre for a celebratory beer had an added bonus – it gave us the chance to wind down from our Skyline Trail adventure with a short stroll along this incredible natural feature.

The landscape around the canyon

Walls of the lower canyon

The Maligne River has ornately carved an exceedingly narrow canyon into the sandstone, deep whirlpools and powerful waterfalls within its smooth grey water-sculpted walls and rimmed with mosses and stunted spruce, like a Japanese garden. It is well worth visiting despite the crowds of tourists that come to see – an illustration that, in the world of canyons, bigger is not necessarily better. Hopefully, these few images show why.

A few images of the magnificent upper section of Maligne Canyon as it slices its way through the limestone bedrock