Recreational opportunities abound amidst Jasper’s spectacular mountain scenery. Travel Alberta
Move over Banff National Park …. Let’s shine the spotlight on its northerly Rocky Mountains neighbor, Jasper National Park.
By Alison Gardner, Editor, Travel with a Challenge
Images by Alison Gardner except where noted.
Jasper National Park has half the park visitors that Banff has, though it is double the size. The size alone qualifies it as one of North America’s largest natural areas. It sits at the top end of the three Canadian Rocky Mountain national parks (Jasper, Banff, Kootenay and Yoho) making up a spectacular UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site laced with jaw-dropping mountain scenery and watchable wildlife at every turn. Jasper National Park also boasts its own intriguing historical townsite in miniature that is gaining valuable ground as a destination base for outdoor enthusiasts and an anchor-point for the world-acclaimed Rocky Mountaineer train journey between Jasper and Vancouver on Canada’s Pacific Coast.
The most common way to enter Jasper National Park is from the south via the Icefield Parkway along the Rocky Mountain Great Divide highway that joins Banff to Jasper (290 km/180 miles). I entered the park from the east, from Alberta’s capital, Edmonton, a 3.5 hour drive of 362 km/225 miles. My knowledgeable, entertaining companion on this road trip was Wayne Millar, owner of Watchable Wildlife Tours. Of course, we did not drive directly, but took the better part of a day to meander through the park to famous canyons and picturesque lakes.
We stopped for all wildlife, whether feathered or furred, admiring grazing clusters of mountain sheep, deer, elk and plenty of birds without even leaving the roadside. Wayne’s deep appreciation of both the park’s nature and history quickly became mine too.
A gourmet riverside picnic lunch surrounded by mountain peaks is a Watchable Wildlife specialty.
We were chatting as Wayne laid out his gourmet lunch at a picnic table near a stream, when he exploded, “Well, I’ll be damned, this is so exciting!” I quickly swiveled 180 degrees to see a pair of harlequin ducks briskly navigating the choppy water of our stream, then without actually knowing why this was “so exciting”, I followed his lead, snapping photos until the ducks made a leisurely exit downstream, not nearly as excited as us.
“Just yesterday,” he explained as we calmed down over lunch, “a birding friend asked me to keep an eye out for this rarely-sighted bird, and here comes a pair right in front of our picnic table!”
Harlequin ducks are an exceptionally rare sighting in the park.
Back home, I read up on the harlequin duck (double-barreled Latin name, histrionicus histrionicus), commonly known in North America as Lords and Ladies. No wonder Wayne was excited – this finely-decorated creature is a “sea duck”, usually found near pounding surf and white water along the rocky shorelines of North America, Greenland and Iceland! Definitely a watchable moment ….
Jasper National Park is 5,000 square miles/12,950 square km with two million visitors annually. As a year- round destination, it is a land of shimmering glaciers, abundant wildlife, lakes and waterfalls, deep canyons, caves and alpine tundra. Parks Canada maintains 1,000 km of trails throughout the park, with 190 km of them in close proximity to the Jasper townsite itself.
While the last 200 years have seen a dramatic decline in wildlife in most parts of North America, healthy populations of plants and animals have persisted inside the park which is known to support 1,300 species of plants, 20,000 types of insects and spiders, 40 types of fish, 16 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 277 species of birds. It also hosts 69 different species of mammals including humans, elk, deer, moose, caribou, mountain sheep, mountain goats, bears, coyotes, wolves, beavers, lynx, cougars and wolverines.
Caption: Mountain sheep graze the park roadside.
After being inside the park boundary for many hours (remember, this is a huge park!), we drove into Jasper, resident population 4,700. Despite its perceived small town limitations, Jasper is a bustling, well-serviced gem, more laid back and less obviously geared to the multi-lingual power-tourist than Banff. It welcomes a cross-section of all ages in summer, with an increase in more intensely active younger visitors during the winter sports season. There are even three marriage commissioners in town that speak to the magic spell and fabulous natural backdrop for those romantically inspired!
I visited Jasper in late May, and happily fell in with its appealing relaxed and playful atmosphere. The sandwich board sign outside a delicatessen across the street from my hotel captured the mood …. “We are open from when we get here and closed when we leave.” Down the street at Evil Dave’s Grill, the menu tries to explain away a rather unlikely name by declaring red seal Chef Nicole and her team ensure that every item served “is wicked, including the Sinful Starters, Evil Entrees and Deadly Desserts.” Who Evil Dave is or was remains elusive!
This deli sandwich board sums up the laid back charm of Jasper.
The not-so-wicked owners of Evil Dave’s Grill, Mike and Cyndi Day, try out some of Chef Nicole’s fare!
Carrying on the fun while never underrating the mouthwatering menu, the most popular starter at Evil Dave’s Grill, www.evildavesgrill.com, is the Cowboy Sushi (grilled marinated beef tenderloin rolled with sushi rice and nori, topped with wasabi aioli). The most requested entree is the Malicious Salmon (blackened Atlantic salmon filet drizzled with sweet curry mayo, on jasmine rice). And the #1 dessert is the Mousse Head (white chocolate mousse served with wild blueberry compote). Not so evil is the popular gluten-free menu introduced after requests from regular clients. “The response has been very positive,” says co-owner, Mike Day. “The gluten-free community really promotes us to those facing this dietary issue.”
Still cruising the stroll-able main street, those visitors with a sweet tooth will want to detour into Candy Bears’ Lair, www.candybear.ca. That’s exactly what Japanese visitor Yuichi Tokunaga did, and he ended up buying the shop and settling in Jasper with his family! With aromas of chocolate, butterscotch and other more illusive flavorings swirling around the open shop space where his fresh-made creations come to life, Yuichi proudly pointed out the indisputable customer favorites – Black Bear Paws (dark chocolate), Grizzly Bear Paws (milk chocolate), and Polar Bear Paws (white chocolate), each realistically decorated with cashew “claws”. Or shopping for other animal feet, try three different chocolate variations of Elk Hooves as another popular choice.
Candy Bears’ Lair owner, Yuichi Tokunaga, proudly showcases his fresh-made treats.
1925 was the official year for completion of the Canadian National Railway Station situated in the centre of the new townsite of Jasper. The renovated historic station is still a centerpiece of the town center today. Rail travel was glamorous in the 1930’s and 1940’s and Jasper National Park was among the most popular destinations for celebrities and movie stars of that era. A short walk from the town, Fairmont-managed Jasper Park Lodge, www.fairmont.com/jasper, is undoubtedly the accommodation of rustic elegance and charming cabin architecture that has welcomed the world to Jasper for nearly nine decades, mainly by rail in earlier times, more often by road today.
Park Place Inn is Jasper’s newest boutique accommodation treasure. Park Place Inn
However, there is a large choice of accommodation around the townsite to suit all budgets. Since I generally lean to the “small is beautiful” philosophy, I was delighted to discover the centrally-located Park Place Inn, www.parkplaceinn.com, Jasper’s newest boutique hotel which has spared nothing in terms of luxury and distinctive furnishings and amenities while still retaining an intimate, friendly atmosphere, even in the inn’s public spaces. It is plain to see that the designer has put a lot of thought into each decision, and the results are definitely pleasing and relaxing.
Only five minutes walk from the railway station, the two-floor Park Place Inn has just 14 all-non-smoking accommodations, with three different categories (six Heritage Rooms including one handicap equipped room, six Heritage Deluxe Rooms and two Heritage Luxury Suites). Despite the inn’s recent launch, there has been a real effort to capture a sense of Jasper’s heritage in each uniquely-designed room, hallway and lounge. No meal service is offered, but that is hardly necessary since the main street immediately in front bristles with open eateries from dawn till well after dusk.
Jasper travel info: www.jasper.travel, www.explorejasper.com and www.visit-jasper.com.
Jasper National Park: http://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ab/jasper/index. Two of many park highlights are: Maligne Canyon and Athabasca Falls.
Travel Alberta: www.travelalberta.com.
Photo: In different seasons, Athabasca Falls ranges from raging torrent to picturesque trickle.
On the Rail Trail:
VIA Rail Canada, www.viarail.ca/en, offers transcontinental train travel between Toronto, Jasper and Vancouver. Travelers 60 years of age or over save year round on the adult regular fare in Economy class.
Rocky Mountaineer, www.rockymountaineer.com, offers GoldLeaf and RedLeaf rail vacation packages between Jasper and Vancouver, British Columbia and between Banff and Vancouver. See our companion article about riding the rails with the Rocky Mountaineer on a two-day journey from Jasper to Vancouver.