Back in mid June, I was chatting with my buddy Lynn from Toronto when she asked me about some of the hikes I wanted to do. Having spent most of my time climbing in the Rockies, I didn't have a clear idea as to what I wanted to do but I listed the Skyline Trail as one of them. After all, the Skyline Trail happened to be one of the most popular hikes in the Rockies with a great view all around.
That's when she asked me if I'd like to do the Skyline Trail with her while she was here to visit in late July. I told her I'd think about it but within 24 hrs of that conversation, I had already booked 3 campsites along the trail.
After booking the reservations, I remembered that my friend Tomomi from Japan would be visiting me around that time. That made her an automatic participant for this trip. Did she have any camping gear? Did she have any camping experience? It didn't matter because she had no choice. In all honesty, she seemed pleasantly surprised when I told her about the trip... until she found out that we weren't staying in heated cabins along the way.
About 2 weeks prior to our start date, our 4th and final party member from Ottawa agreed to join. Terry was so excited about the trip that he went to MEC and became their best customer within a few hours. Visa sent him a thank you card as well.
Now, a little information about the trail itself. The Skyline trail is the most popular backpacking trail in Jasper national park. It's a trail which stretches 44km with trailheads at Maligne Lake (S) and the Maligne Canyon (N). The preffered direction is south to north since the southern trailhead is a few hundred meters higher than the north. Half of the trail is above the treeline which means that you get awesome views - at the expense of colder tempeatures. With a total of 6 campsites along the trail, one can do the trail at a snails pace or even in one long day. We decided to take a leisurely pace and do the trail in 4 days and 3 nights.
Due to the delicate nature of the trail, the "Leave no trace" rule is strongly emphasized. This means no campfires allowed and it also means packing out all of your garbage.
Well, enough of the introductory stuff, lets get on to the trip!
Day 1 was probably the toughest day of the trip. Not only did we drive 400+ km to Jasper and not only did we hike 11.8km, we did all of this with maybe 3 or 4 hours of sleep!
After waking up at 6:00 for a departure time of 7:00, we grabbed some left over pizza from the night before and made some last minute adjustments to our gear before loading our 2 cars. Fearing that we might be short on food, I make the mistake of tossing everything within sight into my mammoth 95L backpack. Two kinds of cereal along with various soups and noodles went for a free ride in my pack before returning to my cupboard at the end of the trip.
Due to some heavy traffic along Highway 93, we ended up arriving in Jasper at around 13:30 where we wolfed down a Gyro and Greek salad before continuing on to Maligne Lake. We decided to leave my car at the northern trailhead near Maligne Canyon and squeeze into the second car for 40 minutes as we drove to the southern trailhead. We all found it ironic that what took us 40 minutes would take us 4 days to complete.
Shortly after our arrival, we were greeted with a sudden downpour or rain. Was this a sign of things to come?
After taking a quick group photo, we began our journey at approximately 15:00. It was amazing how the smiles in our photo quickly dissapeared as we realized that we took the wrong trailhead to the Skyline trail. The two trailheads were only 40m apart but we somehow ended up on the wrong route which added an additional 500m along with a considerable amount of elevation gain and loss.
After arriving at Evelyn Creek, we merged onto the official Skyline trail which was soaking in mud. Upon passing the Evelyn Creek campground, a steady elevation gain along with a countless number of switchbacks led us to the Little Shovel campground where we filled our bottles with the first batch of mountain water.
Here's a picture of Terry pointing towards the west. I wasn't sure what he was pointing at but I was hoping he found a bus coming along our way. The picture on the right features Tomomi, Lynn and myself.
After passing a minor highpoint at Little Shovel pass (2240m), we dropped down to the Snow Bowl campground 1.6km away. This was the 3rd campground on the trail and would serve as our home for the night. It was just after 20:30 when we arrived so we covered the 12km in approximately 5hrs 30minutes. Not exactly a quick pace but a good job considering our long day.
The campgrounds along the Skyline trail were very basic - hence the designation "backcountry campground". The sites were composed of a small patch of uneven ground with just enough space for 2 tents. A small common area with 2 picnic tables, a food suspension cable and open pit toilet rounded up the facilities provided by each campground.
For this trip, I reserved two sites per campground since we had a total of 3 tents. The blue and yellow tent is my Sierra Designs Stretch Dome which was used by the girls. The brown tent is Terry's MEC Tarn2 while the green one is my Sierra Design Clip Flashlight. This arrangement worked out well since it gave everyone some privacy... from Terry's snoring.
Due to our late arrival that evening, our selection of campsites weren't that great. We were forced to set up our tents at the farthest sites from the common area before eating our first meal of the trip. After a quick meal consisting of freeze dried entrees and Watermelon Kiwi Koolaid & Rum, we quickly retired for the night at around 23:00.
Our first night wasn't as cold as I thought but it seemed to rain forever. The rain was very heavy at times but we all managed to keep dry thoughout the night.
The next morning, we emerged from our tents at a leisurely 9:00 and were greeted with a beautiful sunny day. The mountains around us were coated with a fresh dusting of snow and the clouds quickly blew away giving us clear blue skies.
The second day of our trip was the easiest day of our journey. It consisted of a 7.8km hike to the Curator campground with an elevation gain of maybe 100m at the Big Shovel pass. Unfortunately, the Curator campground was located about a kilometer south of the trail and involved a loss of around 100m. All the other campgrounds were located along the trail except for maybe the Signal campground which was a mere 3 minutes from the trail.
Due to our short day, we took our time and helped ourselves to a nice breakfast made up of scrambled eggs and backbacon stuffed in a pita. Lynn made herself some fresh brewed Starbucks coffee and seemed like she was in heaven as she took one of many sips from her ER mug. I'm surprised she didn't bring her own grinder and coffee beans. Maybe that's for her next trip.
Tomomi was an interesting girl. Not only was she a large eater but she seemed to be snacking on something at all times. She was like a steam locomotive which was constantly being stuffed with coal. She mentioned to me that she consumed 6 meal replacement gels in a matter of 3 hours on the first day... and yet she still had a proper meal for dinner. While we were packing on the Friday before the trip, I just couldn't understand the lack of free space in her pack. I realized afterwards that her pack was full of so many snacks that she could have opened up a stand on the trail!
Each campsite seemed to have a large steel drum which was securely shut with a padlock. I wasn't sure of what it contained but for some reason, I decided to sit on it when I fell off. Terry (who had his camera locked and loaded at all times) took a shot while I was helplessly sandwiched between the barrel and some saplings. Everyone else decided to have their pose on the barrel as well. Not exactly the most natural thing to sit on but I'm sure you'll agree that the background makes up for it.
We eventually left Snow Bowl at a leisurely 11:00 and took our time as we gazed at the many mountains and streams. The pictures above were taken between our campground and the Big Shovel pass. The total distance to the pass was 5.7km. Although the trail continued onwards towards the west, I decided to try a shortcut and angle diagonaly down towards the Curator campground.
Terry, Lynn and Tomomi seemed a little hesitant at first but they eventually followed me down. My diversion followed a small stream until we merged onto an obvious (but muddy) horse trail. A set of steep switchbacks then led us to our second campsite of the night - Curator.
The Curator campground was located about 200m away from the Shovel Pass Lodge. When hearing about this lodge, everyone seemed to have a different fantasy about this facility. Although nobody said anything out loud, I'm sure Lynn was dreaming of a spa treatment while Tomomi was dreaming about a vending machine full of snacks. I was hoping for a tall glass of Vanilla Coke and I'm pretty sure Terry was hoping that the lodge would turn into a night club after sunset. But alas, the lodge was just a rustic log cabin with not a single person in sight.
In retrospect, the Curator campground was probably the best campground along the Skyline trail. Sure, it added an extra 30min to our day but the campground was very clean and spacious with easy access to water. We were the first ones to arrive when we dropped our packs at 15:00 and were joined by maybe 4 or 5 hikers at most. Since we had time on our side, we made ourselves a large batch of Mapo Dofu for dinner before retreating for the night prior to sundown. We all knew that the 3rd day would be a long day.
Tomomi was an interesting girl. They say the human body generates the heat equivalent of a 100Watt light bulb. If that's really the case, Tomomi must create the heat output of an LED flashlight because she was always cold. When she went to bed at night, she'd place chemical heat packs on her body, wear 3 or 4 layers of clothing including my Mountain Hardware insulated jacket, wrap a scarf around her head and jump into the -30C 850 Fill Dryloft sleeping bag I lent her. She woke up every morning with a smile as she told me she didn't feel cold. No shit!
Day 3 was the mother of all hiking days. Not only did we hike 18km but it started off with a climb to the highest point of the trail - the Notch. The Notch sits at an elevation of 2480m and involved an elevation gain of 345m from the Curator camground over a distance of around 2km. Countless switchbacks eased the elevation gain but only prolonged the suffering. :)
Our final destination for the day was the Signal campground which was the last campground on the Skyline trail.
After a quick breakfast consisting of peanut butter pita and prosciutto, we started off at 8:30.
Here we see the girls raising their arms in celebration as they reach the notch. Tomomi sees some signs of civilization and seems to gain some energy. (Maybe she saw an ice cream truck on the Icefields parkway down below.) Lynn looks like she expended what was left of her energy to raise her arms.
The hike from the Notch was probably the highlight of the trip since the views along the ridge were simply breathtaking! (Hence the name Skyline Trail.) The 360 degree views around us gave me a newfound respect for the size of the Rocky mountains. The term ocean of mountains came to mind.
Mount Edith Cavell and its Angel Glacier seemed like a stones throw away while the town of Jasper looked like a toy village. Bright blue tarns spotted the landscape and patches of snow clung to the trail in defiance.
After taking in the views along the skyline, it was time to lose that hard gained elevation as we dropped down to the the valley below. The loss in elevation was made over a huge circuit full of switchbacks and a winding trail which seemed to go in every direction including up ! If one could stretch that winding trail into a straight line, it'd probably reach the highway.
Here are some of the locals we met while hiking towards the Tekkara campground. I nearly kicked the Hoary Marmot on the left since I didn't notice it 'till the last moment. The Columbian ground squirrel on the right is undoubtedly looking at Tomomi with a look that says, "Drop some snacks in my hole!". Interestingly enough, it was the three of us who had to hold Tomomi back as she tried to shove her hand down its hole to try and grab some nuts to eat.
After taking a late 16:00 lunch at the Tekkara campground, we packed up and continued onwards for the second to last leg of our journey. The Signal campground was still 5.6km away but we managed to cover this distance in less than 2 hrs.
The Signal campground was a sight for sore eyes but the mosquitos were simply relentless!
Mosquitos were present during our entire trip but they usually dissapeared at dusk and dawn when the temperature levels dropped like a rock. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case at Signal since the campsite was at a lower altitude with warmer temperatures. Clouds of mosquitos followed each of us around as we set up our tents and ate dinner. Each of us had some extra protein in our meals and drinks as mosquitos dropped into our bowls and mugs at a ridiculous rate.
Tomomi was an interesting girl. Not only did she have zero tolerance for alcohol but she seemed to have zero tolerance for spicy foods as well. A single grain of pepper would have her gasping for water so I was full of evil anticipation when I saw her pouring some boiling water into her freeze dried Tomato Chipotle Pasta. (She obviously didn't know that a chipotle was a fully ripened and smoked jalapeno pepper.) The 10 minute setting time seemed like an hour as I kept on glancing at my watch with an evil smile. Surely enough, Tomomi ended up doing a dance around the picnic table as she nearly tossed her cookies.
After our dinner of freeze dried entres, we quickly retreated into the large 3 person tent and finished off our koolaid and rum over some ghost stories. Lynn and Terry immediately took out their flashlights and started making scary faces with the light while I laughed my head off. Tomomi drank about one capful of rum and became drunk as her speech started to slur before passing out.
After agreeing to wake up at 7:30 the previous evening, Terry ended up waking us up at 7:00. And not only did he wake us up 30 minutes early, he was already packed and ready to go! We quickly realized that there's nothing better than a swarm of mosquitos to provide you with some motivation. In less than one hour, we were already on the trail to the dismay of Tomomi - who wanted a breakfast to eat.
The hike back to the northern trailhead was 8.3km and was fairly boring due to the lack of scenery. Terry and I still managed to cover this distance in around 2 hours. Perhaps it was the mosquitos - which were with us until we reached our vehicles.
A coyote greeted us at the northern trailhead as it came out of the bushes, yelped a word of congratulations and disappeared back into the woods. The girls arrived at the trailhead shortly after as we patted each other on the backs for completing the famous Skyline Trail.
Oh yeah, Tomomi was an interesting girl. Just as we were loading the car with our packs, she asks us if we want to eat some chocolate - the first time she ever offered us anything. What's up with that?
I just want to thank Terry Tam for hauling his Nikon D100 SLR throughout the entire Skyline trail. This journal wouldn't be possible without his great photographs and believe me, it wasn't easy picking out 55 pictures from the 400+ he took.
Thanks go to Lynn Liu for providing me with several photos as well.
Finally, thanks go to Tomomi for providing comedy relief during this trip. May your snacks be tasty and plentiful !
Oh. A quick disclaimer : All of the content on this site was written by myself with no input from the others. Any viewpoints, comments and bursts of profanity may not necessarily relect upon the others. :)
Feel free to send me mail if you have any questions regarding the trail or this trip in particular.