We did the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park in August of 2010 with our friends of many trips, Kirk and Lora. We had selected this trip because we had read that it is one of the more remarkable backpack trips in the park and is known for its outstanding alpine views. In fact, 27 of its 44 kilometers are above the tree line where you can look around at the many peaks in this area of the park. However, we did have some concerns about that as we got ready for the trip. That summer had seen some serious forest fires and most of the views were obstructed by dense smoke that was just hanging around much of the region. When we arrived in Jasper the night before we hit the trail, we could barely make out any of the peaks around the townsite and we were a bit down because of that. Air quality was another concern as there were warnings about the particulates in the air and that people should avoid heavy exertion if possible.
Regardless, we were determined to make the best of it. Our plan was to have a slow and somewhat leisurely trip by doing the Skyline over four days and three nights, rather than rushing across in two or three days. This would make for an easier pace and give us time at each site to wander around and enjoy the experience. We had booked reservations at the Snowbowl, Curator, and Tekarra camps, which meant we had a plenty of time each day to reach the next camp. Each camp also had bear poles, tent pads, and picnic tables that were in good shape, which was a nice bonus because that is not always the case in the national parks.
Dawn of day one brought a lot of rain and as anyone who knows, getting motivated to head into the backcountry on a rainy day can be a bit hard. On the bright side, though, rain is about the best way to clear smoke out of the sky and as we discovered over the coming days, most of the smoke was in fact washed away and we were able to get some great views along the trail.
The trail runs roughly north to south with two trailheads that backpackers can start on. One is only a few kilometers south of Jasper and the other starts near Maligne Lake to the south. We opted to park our car on the north end and take a bus to the southern trailhead as this is the most popular way to do the trail. After parking and gathering our gear, the bus came along and we were on our way. A while later, the bus driver wished us luck and dropped us off in the rain at the trailhead.
The first section of the trail weaves up through the trees, passing the Evelyn Creek campsite along the way. This part was not very remarkable as we were mostly in the trees and there was not much to see, but the rain did largely stop and it wasn’t long before we shed our rain gear. Eventually we got ourselves above the tree line and were able to see more and more peaks around us.
As we crested over Little Shovel Pass, we began see more of the Bald Hills and the expansive alpine fields. This is also where we encountered our first wildlife; a hoary marmot. It was obvious this guy was acquainted with people as we wandered on over to us and we suspected he was looking for a handout. I bent down, offered my hand, and he promptly bit my finger. Lesson learned! Don’t mess with the wildlife!
Being that we were only going as far as the Snowbowl Camp on that first day, it was mid afternoon when we arrived. It was quite a busy camp but we were able to locate tent pads in short order and settle in for the rest of the day. We should note that the mosquitoes were terrible. While I initially scoffed at Raegan’s upper body mosquito mesh, I came to really wish that I had at least brought a mosquito head net along as they were unrelenting. We would agree that the Skyline Trail is one of the buggiest trails we have been on.
Fellow campers also made it known that many of them had seen a grizzly wandering along the trail shortly before we had arrived. We were glad we hadn’t encountered the bear.
The next day we headed to Curator Camp which was only about 16 kilometers from Snowbowl Camp. This entire day was in the alpine following a valley and we paused often to enjoy the views and takes loads of pictures as we were not really in a rush. There were many streams to cross, lots of flowers to see, and squirrels and marmots popping up all along the trail. We half expected to spot a grizzly out hunting, with the number of animals we spotted along the way.
We crossed over Big Shovel Pass a few hours into the day, where we had ourselves a lunch and enjoyed the views of Curator Mountain. At this point, the land was also becoming more barren as we continued to climb higher into the alpine. We also got ourselves a bit of a surprise as a trail runner went flying by on her way to do the trail in one day! Ambitious, but I would like to return to do the same. I can’t imagine there being many trails that one can run in a day that are as spectacular as the Skyline trail is.
The last couple of kilometers were almost completely free of vegetation and a little hard on the feet and ankles as we neared the camp. The trail in this section is on a slope and is not even, which means that you are walking kind of funny on a slant. With a light load, it’s probably not so noticeable but with big packs, we did find it a bit harder to traverse.
One of the drawbacks to the Curator Camp is that you have to descend several hundred meters to the camp down a rather steep, switchbacking trail to get to the camp itself. The camp is nicely laid out, though, with plenty of pads a reasonable distance from the food and bear pole area. There is also a horse camp nearby with some cabins and a lodge. Word has it that if there is anyone at the lodge, you can get a hot breakfast and a cup of coffee. There is no doubt that being able to have a breakfast of bacon and eggs would have been pretty sweet. We didn’t count on it, though, and brought along our own food. A good thing as the lodge was not open on this trip.
We only saw a number of goats at this camp and we were entertained by a fellow camper who told us his story of a grizzly encounter at this camp a few years before. Mainly it involved him being at the food area, his bear spray in his tent, and the bear in between. As he was here to talk about it, we know it ended without incident. While the camp from the previous night was infested by mosquitoes, we soon learned that the Curator Camp was infested by annoying red flies. While they didn’t seem to bite, they were constantly buzzing around our faces and getting into everything. Such as it is in the backcountry.
The third day was one of the toughest stretches of this trip with a climb over a section called the Notch on our way to the Tekarra Camp. This is the highest point of the trail and will usually still be snowbound throughout the year, although it is usually still quite passible. It should be noted that the Skyline Trail has been known to be snowed on all year long and we talked with some other campers who had been up in August and were snowed on one year. Luckily for us, we didn’t get snowed on. In fact, after the first day, we didn’t even see any more rain on this trip.
The ascent up to the Notch is a short but steep section where we gained a few hundred meters in a bit less than three kilometers. This is quite a scenic section as well as we were now beginning to be able to see the peaks to the south of us. We were also noticing that the views were starting to get obscured as it hadn’t rained for a couple of days. It wasn’t too bad yet, fortunately, and we could still see peaks all the way to the horizon.
With a final slog through the snow, we found ourselves at the top of the Notch, which is also the highest part of the Skyline Trail, coming in at 2480 meters. We stopped here for a break and some snacks and were soon joined by another group who were following behind us.
At this point, I did a quick scramble up the eastern slope to get a better view of the area and to see what lay that direction. I was rewarded with a pretty good view of the Watchtower and the valley below.
Feeling rested up we got rolling on the next stretch of the trail. This part was one of the most barren parts as we largely followed a ridge that the trail wound along on its way north. It was pretty easy going for most of the rest of the day as much of the trail here began to descend into the valley below Mount Tekarra.
We found ourselves again stopping often just to enjoy the splendour of being high in the mountains on a wonderful summer day. A few hours later, we began the main descent into the valley leading to the next camp.
Once down in the valley, we found ourselves crossing many little streams and going in and out of the trees. The trail was quite narrow and we were always making sure that we were making plenty of noise in case there was a bear along the trail. We did not see anything or anyone for that matter and soon found ourselves at the Tekarra Camp and its legions of mosquitoes. We enjoyed our last night on the trail and woke to a wonderful sunny morning with Tekarra lit up by the sun.
There were a number of groups aside from ourselves heading down on this day so we packed, had a quick breakfast, and were soon on our way. We find on the last day of a long trip that we really start to crave some seriously bad food such as hamburgers and fries. Trail food is all well and good but it sure is nice to load up on some grease when you exit the backcountry.
The first part of this day winds upwards for a while until you reach the Signal Camp. This would be the first camp that one reaches if they are coming up the trail from north to south. We gave it a quick look but didn’t really see anything remarkable about it as it’s largely surrounded by trees. We guess if a group got a late start on the northern trailhead it would make for a place to stay that one can reach in short order.
This was also the start of the most boring section of the Skyline Trail that we often read about before we made this trip. From the Signal Camp down to the car is along a fire service road for nine kilometers and there really is nothing to see, except for the many piles of bear crap that we passed along the way. The only good thing was that we were able to move fast and it was only a couple of hours more to the car.
And so ended our first and hopefully not last trip on the Skyline Trail. We have to agree with others that it really is one of the nicest trips we have made in the Canadian Rockies. Although the exit along the fire service road was quite boring, the many other, very scenic stretches more than made up for it. We think that in the future, we will do this trip again but will most likely do it in one or two nights rather than three.
Enjoy the Skyline Trail. It’s worth the trip!
And check out Explore Magazine’s excellent article about Alberta’s 25 best hikes!
GPS track and map
Max elevation: 2571 m
Min elevation: 1160 m
I am one of the founders of campingcanucks.com. I was lucky enough to grow up in Golden, British Columbia and have been camping, backpacking, and skiing pretty well all my life. I started climbing a few years ago which has opened up even more backcountry and alpine opportunities.
These days, I’m a systems administrator by day and a SAR volunteer operating as a ground search team leader, rope rescue member, swiftwater rescue member, and avalanche response team leader with Kamloops Search and Rescue.