Sunday September 24, 2017 (Canada)
We woke early in the morning to take a look at the Athabasca Glacier up close and personal-like. The nice thing about the icefields region is that there isn't really much accommodation there. Just a couple of small campgrounds. This means that most people trying to get to the area have to drive from either Jasper or Banff, and either way it's at least an hour. Thus, you can wake up at a semi-reasonable hour and still have plenty of time to check out the glacier without the crowds!
One downside of early mornings at the Athabasca glacier is that the sun doesn't really hit it until the afternoon at this time of year. It still looks cool, but doesn't make for a great photography subject. We parked in a lot very close to the glacier and did the short walk to see the face. All along the walk are small signs indicating the (very significant) degree to which the glacier has receded over the years. The modern day parking lot is located in a spot that would have been completely underneath the ice a generation ago. The massive Visitors Centre across the highway would also have been encased in ice in the late 1800s. It's kind of depressing to walk along the signposts indicating the location of the glacier terminal at different dates. I visited the area as a kid, and even since that time the glacier has receded several hundred metres.
After seeing the glacier up close we opted for a grander view. Right at the entry to the Wilcox campground where we were camping is the Wilcox Pass trailhead. The hike is a fairly short ascent (5km one-way) to an incredible viewpoint overlooking several glaciers. The wind at the peak was really movin'! Amazing, too, how you could look over the edge and suddenly feel the temperature drop as you felt the cold air being blown onto you directly from the glacier in the distance. We really enjoyed the hike, and Sandra felt it was one of the best "bang for the buck" hikes we've ever done. Not a huge distance, not overly challenging, but fantastic views nonetheless! For bonus points, we even caught a small herd of mountain goats grazing in the fields on the way down. No lovely pictures (darn my lack of telephoto!), but a fun little treat to add to an already-wonderful hike.
Before arriving in Jasper proper we stopped at Horseshoe Lake. It's a short drive from the town and is a quick walk from the mostly-unmarked road turnoff. The fun thing about Horseshoe Lake is the cliff jumping! It's a small freshwater lake lined with rocks varying in height from a few feet up to several metres. Daredevils such as ourselves can choose a height they're comfortable with and jump into the (very, very cold!) waters below. The lake was busy, mostly with small groups of young folks enjoying the cliffs. We stuck around only to jump in together, have a frantic swim, and then promptly exit the water before losing all feeling in our extremities.
From Horseshoe Lake we proceeded to Jasper to check in at the Wapiti campground just outside the town. Our first order of business was to lock down a mountain bike rental for the following day, as Jasper is renowned for its mountain biking trail system. Our mission was fairly trivial to accomplish: tons of places in town rent bikes! We found Jasper to be an interesting contrast to Banff. Whereas Banff is super-touristy (but pretty classy all in all), Jasper felt a bit more like the Niagara Falls of tourist destinations – the place that won't stop hawking cheap, tasteless T-shirts and crappy fridge magnets. One thing I did love about Jasper was the fact that it's a dark sky preserve – they actively limit light pollution in the area, which means the night sky views are great!
We don't have any pictures from our day mountain biking. We had a wonderful time, although some of the terrain was pretty extreme for us road-biking types. There were multiple sections that we decided to just hop off the bikes and walk beside them. I'm not entirely clear on whether it's expected that people are able to sustain a climb up such steep slopes, but I'd love to see it happen! We gave up and used the heel-toe express. The fun part about walking your bike up elevation, though, is that you get to have a blast on the way down! Sandra and I are both very new to mountain biking, and we really enjoyed the change of pace from the long distance road cycling we'd been gutting through just days previously.
Unfortunately, by the 29th of August we really started to see some haze from the BC wildfires. We're very glad we got to do the Wilcox Pass hike before the smoke arrived, but most of the scenery surrounding Jasper became hidden behind a veil of grey by our second evening.
From Jasper we depart for Kamloops via Mount Robson. We'll officially be entering British Columbia!