The Canadian Rockies are full of backpacking opportunities which are well-traveled but secluded. One scenic route is the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. I have had the benefit of backpacking many of the trails in the Canadian Rockies. However, I have never managed to make it out to the Skyline Trail. Also, the limited number of backpackers permitted on the trail at one time ensures a relatively private trip, and the elevation of the trail provides unparalleled views.
I grew up hearing my mom, and my almost ninety-year-old Grandma tell fond stories of a woman I resemble but never knew. Auntie Marion died at a young age, and Grandma says I am like her: willowy, possessing a keen outspoken mind, and having a propensity to be something of an "old maid" with unusual hobbies (like photography and backpacking).
Auntie Marion hiked the Skyline Trail many years before I was born and I wanted to see what she did and bring my grandmother back the photos. As you might have guessed, Grandma enjoys seeing her grandchildren living and progressing. I can't help but want to bring photos back to see her smile.
Planning and Preparation
Aside from booking permits, I needed to do little in preparation for the Skyline Trail. In March, I booked permits for a mid-August trek (and by that time in the summer my gear and my physical conditioning is in a relatively "grab and go" state). Considerations for the Skyline Trail which I did not plan for every other trip of my summer included: a high alpine route, snowstorm, bears, and caribou.
I have one friend who agreed to head out with me on this trail. We'd do a full gear split and work as a team to prevent redundancy. When I booked permits, I only had the option of a three-night booking due to available campsites. We'd stay at Little Shovel, Curator, and Signal Road Campsites. Also, with short days and ample daylight hours, this hike would be a fast, light and relaxing "milk run."
The Skyline Trail has limited campsites. Campsites are booked in advance, on a first come, first serve basis. Booking starts online in January. In this area, I expect snowstorms at any time.
In addition to booking permits, I recommend booking a campsite near Jasper if you need to stay overnight prior to arrival at the trailhead. Also, camping in the area is limited and can be full and booked well in advance. I booked Pocahontas Campground off Highway 16.
A bus from Maligne Valley Direct Shuttle can be scheduled from one trailhead to the other to facilitate the use of one vehicle for transport to the trail. If you are in the townsite without a vehicle, you can hop on the shuttle in Jasper and shuttle to the trailhead and back. I booked the earliest bus (9 AM) from the Signal Mountain Trailhead to the Malign Lake Trailhead. Parking at both trailheads is limited, and I recommend booking the bus and arriving early in the morning or late in the afternoon to ensure a parking space.
Also, the least elevation gain route starts at Maligne Lake hiking northwest towards the Jasper townsite. The Maligne Lake start route is the most popular option but is certainly not without elevation gain. Starting from Maligne Lake gains 2700 ft (820 m). Starting from Signal Mountain Fire Road gains 4450 ft (1350 m) of elevation.
Aside from the constant threat of high winds and summer snowstorms, the Skyline Trail has very few major concerns. Campsites are semi-primitive and have bear hangers, cook areas, tent pads, and open-air pit toilets. The Skyline Trail bans dogs, fires, horses and mountain bikes at all times. The area around the Skyline Trail is environmentally sensitive, and there are limited trail use permits issued.
Skyline Trail Day 1
On August 23rd, I worked until 6 PM, then bolted out of my office to meet with my hiking partner and to stuff the last of the gear into the truck before scrambling down the highway. From my office to Pocahontas Campground is about five and a half hours of driving. After having put in a twelve hour day at work, I was barely functional to assemble my tent when I arrived at my campsite shortly after 12:30 AM.
Trailhead to Evelyn Creek
After a cup of coffee and a decent breakfast, I felt more up to the task of packing and arranging gear. By 11 AM, I was at the trailhead and heading upwards. This day, in terms of distance and difficulty, was going to be easy. The trail was cool and boggy from a snowstorm which had clouded in and cooled off the area in the preceding two days. I thanked my lucky stars I had not booked my passes for two days earlier.
During inclement weather on this trail hikers either: hunker down in a campsite for a couple of days till it passes, or take one of the escape routes off the trail: Wabasso Trail or Watchtower Trail.
Little Shovel Campsite
Though sunny and mid-afternoon when I reach Little Shovel Campsite, the wind is biting and the temperature hovers around 45 ºF (7 ºC). The forecast is for fair weather, but the chill in the air has me less than confident that that will be the case.
Leave No Trace and Other Trail Courtesies
Disappointment washes over me at Little Shovel Campsite (5.2 mi/8.3km). Remnants of another hiking group including food garbage and glass jars make me say, "I'm lucky I'm not dealing with habituated bears as well as Jays." On top of an inordinate amount of trash, there is vandalism to some of the facilities.
Also to my chagrin, an obnoxiously loud and rude group of American hikers joins me at Little Shovel. Instead of taking one of the vacant campsites where they will bother no one they park their tent next to mine and proceed to make excessive and irritating noise for the rest of the day. No offense to my American friends; most of you are lovely to have around. Unfortunately, some Americans live up to the Canadian stereotype of being inappropriately loud and inconsiderate of other trail users.
When I return to my tent around dinner time, I find my neighbors setting up to cook next to my tent. I give them the evil eye until they sheepishly wander to the cooking area and leave me and my tent in peace. Sadly, they do not know better than to cook next to a tent in grizzly country. After having met several Grizzlies this summer, I am beyond irritated someone would be that irresponsible.
I think my Auntie Marion would have been sad to see Little Shovel Campsite in this state. I spent most of my day reflecting on how much I have learned about conservation and courteous trail use. Why don't trail users know this stuff? Why don't backpackers who know better, do better?
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