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Some Call it North America's Most Spectacular Hike; Story and photos by Lee Juillerat
HighOnAdventure.com   June 1, 2013


Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park

Hiking along the expansive Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park


It was time to wake up and get going. We packed, gobbled a hearty breakfast and, immediately after walking out the door of the Shovel Lake Lodge, hiked the half-mile hill back to the Skyline Trail junction and began our 16-mile-plus day with an eye-opening, lung stretching, relentless uphill climb to The Notch.


The scenery helped soothe the effort. Part-way up, the trail sidled alongside blue-blue Curator Lake, its deep blue color made even more resplendent by the raw, nearly barren, wide-swept landscape. Atop The Notch—at an elevation of 8,733-feet it's the highest point along the Skyline Trail—we caught up with hikers who had left earlier that morning. While the older members of the group kicked back and enjoyed the views, their teen and 20-something sons scrambled up and down neighboring high spots. We paused to look southwest toward Big Shovel Pass and visually traced the trail that cruises from the pass to the Shovel Lake-Curator Campground junction.



Skyline Trail

There are many high points along the Skyline Trail


The Notch is the geographic highpoint, but during a two-day backpack along the 29-mile long Skyline Trail, highlights just kept coming. Before a two-week visit to the Banff-Jasper area, every book I read touted the Skyline Trail as North America's most spectacular hike. Located in Jasper National Park, it sounded too good to miss.


The trail didn't disappoint. Our first day's trek along the trail, about 12-1/2 miles from our starting point at the Maligne Lake Trailhead to the Shovel Pass Lodge, had made good on those promises. During the early miles, the trail weaves gently uphill through forested woods, passing Lorraine and Mona lakes and the Evelyn Creek Campground.



Peaks of the Queen Elizabeth Range

Peaks of the Queen Elizabeth Range


Above tree line, the sights were suddenly spectacular. Near Little Shovel Pass the scenery turned magical—a panorama of jagged, snowy mountains near and far, including the snarly toothed peaks of the Queen Elizabeth Range.


    Hiker crossing stream

                                   In the Snowbowl                                                         Stream crossing


The mood changed as the trail bent and weaved through open meadows as it snaked into Snowbowl. The trail dipped along the creek. Even with relatively low water, we tip-toed across a meandering stream and verdant, boggy meadows to and past the Snowbowl Campground. From there we followed the trail that winds gently uphill through wind-battered terrain with sights of distant surreal, impossibly gnarly mountains that were at once terrifying, appealing and forbidding. In the misty distance, they looked borrowed from The Lord of the Rings.



Flowers decorate the trail


The sights kept emerging as the trail stayed above timberline along wildflower-lined expanses. A passing storm brought thunder and lightning until, in a flash, the skies turned blue. We returned to the trail that worked its way gradually uphill to Big Shovel Pass. Later, I learned the two Shovel passes get their names from a 1911 incident when pioneer outfitters, the Otto brothers, were hacking the first trail over the range. According to "The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide," when the snow was deep that their horses could go no further "they ingeniously hacked a pair of shovels out of the native timber below and managed to scratch a trail through the snowbanks. These wooden shovels were erected below the pass and supposedly stood for many years as a monument to the Ottos' arduous haul."


Big Shovel, Alberta

Sights from Big Shovel

Our trek wasn't arduous or a haul. From Big Shovel Pass to our junction with the Shovel Lake Lodge, where a cabin with beds and lodge with home-cooked meals, the trail glided along a raw, less than welcoming landscape that was tantalizing and intriguing.



Welcome cabin in the woods, Alberta   

Welcome cabin in the woods, kicking back


That night, dinner at the Shovel Pass Lodge was tantalizing and intriguing. The sumptuous feast included lemon chicken with capers, Caesar salad, green beans with almonds, rice, a chickpea salad and for dessert, a “prehistoric” apple pie. The food looked so delectable, and I was so famished, that by the time I remembered I wanted to take photos, the plates were empty.



View of distant  lakes


The trail below


The Skyline Trail gets its name from a nearly 3-mile section of trail northwest of the Notch along a crest that offers 360-degree views of Mt. Edith Cavell, Mt. Robson and Jasper park. Where it drops and switchbacks toward Centre Lake and the basin floor, we passed through nonplussed bighorn sheep that only blinked as we paused long enough for photos.




Hikers making their way                                         Gurgling streams soften the landscape


As we dropped into the basin, the flora came alive with paintbrush, lupine, bluebells and pulsatilla. We rock-hopped near Centre's outlet, then followed the trail north into subalpine zones of fir trees, passing Tekarra Lake and Tekarra Campground, gradually ascending flowery slopes to Signal Mountain.


It's at Signal Mountain the trail transforms, plunging more than five toilsome miles along a former fire road until, finally, reaching the Maligne Canyon parking lot. Because we had used the Maligne Lake Shuttle the day before, our car was waiting. We'd barely stored our packs and changed out of our boots when - KA-ZAAM!  Thunder, lightning and pounding rain slammed from the sky.


Welcome back.


If You Go


The Skyline Trail can be covered in two days, but three would be more relaxing. The Shovel Pass Lodge is a comfortable option but the second night would require an overnight camp. If not staying at the lodge, camping options include Little Shovel, Snowbowl or Curator campgrounds the first night, and Tekarra or Signal Mountain campgrounds the second night. Reservations are suggested because of the trail's popularity and short season.


Mountain lodge porch

Lodge porch


For information about the Shovel Pass Lodge, which has seven guest cabins, visit their website at www.skylinetrail.com, call toll-free 1-888-852-7787 or email skyline@telusplanet.net.


Mountain view

The views seem endless

Helpful guide books include Lonely Planet's "Banff, Jasper & Glacier National Parks" and the delightfully irreverent "Don't Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies: The Opinionated Hiking Guide," published by hikingcamping.com.


About the author


Lee Juillerat is a writer-photographer who works for a daily newspaper in Southern Oregon. He has written two books about Crater Lake National Park, is a frequent contributor to various historical journals, edited several books and has written and photographed hundreds of stories for various magazines, including Northwest Travel, Oregon Coast, Sunset, Range, and Alaska and Horizon Airlines in-flight magazines, among others. A co-owner of High On Adventure, he has been producing photo-stories since 1997. He can be contacted at 337lee337@charter.net.

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