Jasper National Park is the largest of the Canadian Rocky Mountains Parks, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its natural beauty is heart stopping, with white-carpeted glaciers, crystalline lakes, evergreen forests, and craggy mountaintops silhouetted against brooding skies.
While Jasper National Park is a wonderland for hikers, there’s also scope for gentle strolling to accessible views rather than strenuous hiking and mountain climbing, and meeting locals rather than grizzly bears, plus these other wonderful activities.
1. Ride The Rails
The railway opened Jasper National Park up to tourism in 1911, and today waves of tourists arrive on the luxurious Rocky Mountaineer or Canada’s VIA Rail. Trains enter Jasper National Park via the historic Yellowhead Pass, allowing passengers to view wilderness inaccessible even to hikers.
Those arriving by car can still ride the rails with a half-day tour on VIA’s Skeena Train from Jasper to Dunster and take a bus back. Freight trains take precedence, so allow five to six hours -- or there’s an even longer version of this tour if you’re interested. You can also enjoy trainspotting at Jasper’s heritage station. Freight trains are up to 2.6 miles long and make great video clips.
2. Wander Jasper Township
Jasper township is inside Jasper National Park and so surrounded by nature that visitors are often puzzled by how to open Jasper’s bear-proof trash bins. You can walk Jasper’s entirety in 15 minutes, and with shuttles or tours to most of Jasper National Park’s major attractions, a car is not mandatory but will provide better accessibility. (Rental cars are available, but be sure to book in advance).
Jasper has stunning Arts and Crafts movement-inspired buildings: the Heritage Fire Hall (1936), the CIBC Bank Building (1928), the Heritage Railway Station (1925), and the Park Administration Building (circa 1914), now the Information Centre, are among them. Free historic walking tours leave from the Information Centre (nightly at 7 p.m. in summer).
3. Look Down On Toy Trains And Tiny Hikers
The Jasper Skytram is evidence you don’t need to hike to conquer a mountain. The highest and longest aerial tramway in Canada whisks passengers 7,424 feet (or nearly a mile and a half) up Whistlers Peak in minutes. Enjoy views over lakes, forests, and six mountain ranges. Even lengthy freight trains appear like a child’s train set at your feet. From the end of the tramline, there’s still a steep climb to the summit.
But stepping out from the Skytram, you’ll find yourself on a platform offering vistas over the Athabasca Valley. I, for one, just stayed put. Know that the Jasper Skytram is like a mobile sardine tin in peak season, but the thrill, and views, are worth it. And spare a thought for those hikers looking up and thinking, “Gosh someone’s found an easier way.” (Keep in mind that the Skytram is closed November to March.)
4. Glide On Water
The 90-minute boat cruise on Maligne Lake to Spirit Island offers postcard-perfect views. Glaciers create rock flour by sandpapering rocks as they pass. The sunlight reflecting on these particles in the water creates the turquoise-jewel-like color. Nearby is the historic Maligne Lake Chalet (1927). Enjoy informal meals on the terrace overlooking one of the world’s best views.
Or float down the Athabasca River. No paddling required -- at least by you -- so relax and enjoy the views and commentary while spotting wildlife such as elk, moose, and bears along the shore. For full immersion, take a dip at Miette Hot Springs.
5. Connect With Nature
Strenuous hiking involves walking from a lower to a higher elevation, and slogging away at it for hours. It’s a fitness feat requiring training, but Parks Canada ensures nature is accessible to all, and there are plenty of short strolls and meanders available, too. There’s a paved pathway at Athabasca Falls, the most powerful falls in the Rockies. Maligne Canyon has an asphalt path near the restaurant to great views of the Maligne River. It’s a gentle walk if you don’t go past the second bridge. Jasper’s sidewalks are ramped at intersections and crosswalks. Jasper Discovery Trail is a paved walk around the town’s perimeter. While it’s 5.2 miles with some uphill sections, there are several exits back to town. Bicycle rentals are also available.
6. Nature As A Driving Force
Jasper is the starting point for the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) -- one of the most spectacular drives in the world. Wending through the southern end of Jasper National Park, it connects with the world-famous Lake Louise (three hours away). You see a glacier, and then another, and another until you lose count. Think of every superlative imaginable, triple them, and you have an inkling of this stunning drive. For non-drivers, there are coach tours and even sidecar tours.
I experienced this drive on the Brewster Express shuttle to Calgary Airport. I couldn’t get out at whim, but the driver pointed out important landmarks, and there were leg-stretching stops at Lake Louise (edged by a wall of tourists), Banff (far busier than Jasper), and the Columbia Icefields.
At the Columbia Icefields Information Centre, there’s an air-conditioned/heated sno-coach and, down the steep hill, through mountain scenery to the Athabasca Glacier, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stand on a glacier without hiking there. A walk on the new glass walkway (similar to the one at the Grand Canyon) is included in the admission cost. There are many similar views along the roadside that Mother Nature provides for free.
7. Eating In Jasper, Alberta
Jasper has many restaurants. Unable to choose, I took a three-hour downtown Jasper Food Tour that included snippets of town history, local insights, and dishes in four iconic restaurants paired with alcoholic drinks. It was a flat, easy walk in between sittings. Restaurants were a mixture of high-end and local favorites. Estelle was a charming guide who taught us there’s more to Canadian food than poutine. The tours host a maximum of 12 people and are customizable to accommodate different dietary requirements and restrictions.
The town favorite is Bear Paw Bakery and its sister cafe, The Other Paw. Expect incredible cinnamon sticky buns. At the SnowDome Coffee Bar you can order bear art on your latte and wash your clothes (yes, it’s also a laundromat!). My go-to in Jasper was The Spice Joint. There’s something warming about a Jamaican hotspot in Canada. I loved the music, the Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee, and the homemade Jamaican-style patties.
Drinking In Jasper
Jasper Brewing Co. brews its beer with glacier water. At De’d Dog locals hang and drink with friends -- some of them deceased. A memorial board has photos of the dearly departed and their stories. Many died young in mountain sporting accidents. For a northern lights cocktail, head to Evil Dave’s Grill. Also, while a chain, Earls has two happy hours and an upstairs section with views.
Favorite Local Cuisine
Try the bison and wild boar bacon meatloaf at Evil Dave's or Eggs Jasper at the Athabasca Hotel for perfect hollandaise. Track down Tekarra, a cabin in the woods for Canuck cuisine and poutine that comes with smoked gouda and bacon jam. For special dining, head to the award-winning Becker’s outside of town. There is a strong Greek heritage in Jasper, and you’ll find some excellent Greek restaurants as well.
8. Shopping In Jasper, Alberta
Expect mostly outdoor wear and souvenir shops. Slightly unique are:
Our Native Land
Handmade First Nation pieces including ammolite jewelry (vibrant colored gemstones only found in Southern Alberta), fur-lined moccasins (some really cute kids’ ones), carvings, sculptures, and Navajo pendants are available in this quaint storefront.
Memories fade, but artwork is a constant reminder of nature’s beauty. Jasper Artists Guild is located at the Jasper Library and Cultural Centre, and members’ paintings decorate many restaurant walls. Mountain Galleries at the Fairmont (in Jasper Park Lodge) is a stunning space dedicated to Western Canadian artists.
It’s always great to give back to the community where you are a guest. Money raised at the Information Centre from the sale of nature-based gifts goes back to the park. This shop is run by Friends of Jasper National Park. The volunteer-run Jasper-Yellowhead Museum sells books and crafts by local artists.
A lot of shopping in Jasper relates to bears. Hikers buy bear spray or bear bells that they attach to their packs. Take a bear bell home as a novelty item. As a non-hiker in Jasper, you definitely not only survived but thrived.
Time Your Visit
Jasper has 5,200 residents, and Jasper National Park receives 2.45 million yearly visitors -- accommodation fills up fast.
With my train fare booked, I began searching for digs a month beforehand. After 20 knock-backs, it became clear there was “no room at the inn.” Someone suggested a new hostel, but all the single rooms were taken. Clicking on the shared dorm option, I had visions of mashing strangers’ faces as I clamored over them dragging my bung knee onto a top bunk.
Thankfully, a last-minute reprieve came in the form of a basement room at ABC Accommodations. It had its own entrance and the online photos did not do this well-decorated accommodation justice. Such options are listed through Jasper Home Accommodation Association (JHAA). If you arrive in Jasper without a booking, good luck; the Information Centre does keep a last-minute vacancy list, often for places outside town.
Peak season in Jasper National Park is mid-June to early September, so begin booking your accommodations in January. You might land a room at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge with its world-class golf courses or Whistler’s Lodge, which has roof hot tubs overlooking the mountains.
Wintertime is popular with skiers, but hotel deals coincide with Jasper in January. Spring is less busy and a good time to see wildlife. Fall, except for that first week in September when I was booking, is also quiet.
Jasper has the second-largest dark sky preserve in the world. You can see the Andromeda Galaxy on a dark night and northern lights every six weeks or so. There’s a Jasper Dark Sky Festival every October: Guided walks and telescopes are set up for star spotting. Past highlights have included events hosted by Bill Nye, Star Trek’s George Takei, and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra performing under the stars.
Also read up on these five things to do in Alberta, Canada. Yes, a visit to Jasper makes the list!