What comes to mind when you think of the Canadian wilderness? Soaring snowcapped mountains? Stunning turquoise lakes? River valleys packed with abundant wildlife? If so, you’re in luck, because Jasper National Park is all of that.
Set on the mountainous border between the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, Jasper’s 11,000 km² (4247 square miles) make it the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies. It also ensures that, even though this park receives around 2 ½ million visitors each year, there’s always somewhere close by to experience true solitude. No wonder this park is also a UNESCO world heritage site.
Jasper National Park takes its name from Jasper Hawes, who operated a trading post here on behalf of the North West Company. The area was designated a park in 1907 and was declared one of Canada's first national parks in 1930. Jasper’s history as a resort town can still be seen in the quaint townsite’s charming train station.
Jasper National Park offers so much to see and do that you’ll never need to worry about running out of activities. Summer or winter, Jasper is an unforgettable destination for an outdoor vacation. And there’s no better way to experience this great Canadian wilderness than in an RV.
The closest major city to Jasper National Park is Edmonton, AB. Note that close, in this case, means 365 km, or 226 miles. Fortunately, it’s an easy drive along Highway 16, with most of it quite flat until you reach the mountains themselves. The highway is generally well-maintained, meaning that it’s kept clear during the snow-filled Alberta winters. But that also means that there is often construction during the busy summer season. For most of its length, Highway 16 is a four-lane highway, so take it slow and let others pass.
Access to Jasper’s major campsites is also quite simple. Instead of heading into the town of Jasper itself, take a left at the lights onto the Icefields Parkway, also known as Highway 93. Whistlers, Jasper’s largest campground, is just off this highway. Be advised that before you reach the campground, you will be charged an entry fee at the tollbooth.
If, on the other hand, you’re approaching Jasper from Banff National Park and the other parks to the south, you’ll be taking the Icefields Parkway in the other direction. For a trip that begins in Calgary, this is the route you’ll most likely take. The Icefields Parkway is a tourist attraction all by itself, but know that this mountain road, while well-maintained, has plenty of hills to climb. You’ll want to take it slow anyway, to enjoy the majestic mountain scenery and abundant wildlife on this route. When winter comes, this road is often closed due to hazardous weather, so check ahead before you make your trip. And bring your patience with you; weather changes quickly in the mountains, and even the best forecast may not be reliable.
VIA Rail offers regular rail service to Jasper via Edmonton from the east or Vancouver from the west.
Pocahontas’ 140 sites are tucked away from the rest of the park on Miette Road. There are no fancy services here, but you will find running water, flush toilets and fire pits. It’s really more of a tent campground, but it will accommodate smaller RVs, up to 27 feet in size.
Wabasso’s 231 sites offer gorgeous views of the raging river and the surrounding mountains. Some sites have electrical hookups, so if you have an RV smaller than 27 feet, this could be a good option for you. Toilet and shower blocks are available for the comfort of all campers. You’ll also find wood for sale if there isn’t a fire ban. In national parks, you pay for a fire permit and can then help yourself to the chopped wood available at the campsite. It is not permitted to bring firewood into the park, and the areas of dead trees ravaged by pine beetles should be enough to tell you why. It is also not permitted to gather firewood from the park’s forests.
Between the road and the river, Wabasso offers an idyllic place to camp. Don’t let Highway 93A fool you; it’s generally a quiet road without much traffic. It’s also prime bear foraging habitat, thanks to the berry bushes along the road. Be very careful with your food in any Jasper campground, but especially if you’re staying at Wabasso.
Just a short drive down the road from Whistlers, Wapiti (the native word for elk) is a smaller, but still large, option for RV camping. Sites can accommodate RVs over 35 feet in length, and some offer electrical hookups. There are also showers and toilets serving the 362 campsites.
Wapiti offers a pleasant location on the banks of the river. Some sites offer a view over the Athabasca River’s raging waters. Tall pine trees provide plenty of shade, but also minimize the amount of undergrowth that might otherwise offer privacy. Still, sites are laid out with sufficient space that you shouldn’t feel too exposed.
Unique among the campgrounds of Jasper, Wapiti is also open during the winter. Seventy-five sites stay open for those willing to brave the cold. Winter camping is first come, first served only, whereas reservations are most definitely recommended in the summer.
Jasper’s largest campground has 781 sites and hosts the largest sites in the park. It is also the only campground that offers full hookups. Due to Jasper’s popularity, these sites fill up fast, and reservations are strongly recommended. The largest sites are over 35 feet in length, but if your vehicle is longer than 50 feet, you may want to call ahead and confirm that they have space for you.
Whistlers Campground is home to both RV and tent sites. It offers shower blocks and has a playground for children. Park staff put on informative and entertaining shows all through the summer, making this an excellent place for families. It’s also the closest site to the town of Jasper, so you can walk into town for dinner if you’ve had your fill of hot dogs grilled over the fire.
Whistlers is a treed site, but there isn’t much undergrowth to provide privacy. Despite the campground’s massive size, the individual sites are fairly well spaced out, so you shouldn’t feel as though you’re sharing with your neighbors. As with all of the campgrounds in Jasper, pets are allowed but must be kept on a leash at all times. Dangerous wildlife such as bears can be spotted even in this large site, and dogs can quickly get themselves into trouble. For the same reason, it’s important to never leave food outside either your RV or a food storage locker. Hungry bears make poor dinner guests.
The 62 sites at Snaring offer a mix of open and shaded spots. Some sit along the river and almost all offer dramatic views of mountain peaks. Flush toilets and drinking water are available here, as is firewood. There is also a communal outdoor kitchen that can be used for food preparation. But like all campgrounds in Jasper, be careful with your food. Bears are extremely common during the spring, summer, and fall, and won’t hesitate to enter a campsite in search of food.
If you value peace and quiet in a campsite, Kerkeslin could be what you’re after. This lesser-known campground is less popular than its busy neighbors and is favored by those who want to get away from it all. Water, firewood and toilets are all available, but don’t expect to find any hookups here. It’s better suited for smaller RVs of 25 feet or less.
When staying at a site like this, remember that your neighbors are here for peace and quiet too. Like in all Jasper campgrounds, generator use is only permitted from 8-9:30 am and from 5-7pm.
Jasper is a designated Dark Sky Preserve, where artificial light sources are kept to a minimum. Combined with the park’s northern latitude, this means your chances of sighting the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are good. This spell-binding phenomenon is difficult to predict, but winter is generally the best time to see it. The swirling green sky above the glowing white mountains of Jasper is a sight you will never forget if you’re lucky enough to witness it for yourself.
In summer, Maligne Canyon is a torrent of racing water. The deepest canyon in the Rockies is one of the most popular destinations for hikers thanks to its waterfalls and bridges. But in winter, the canyon takes on a new dimension. The river freezes, and it becomes possible to walk along the floor of the canyon, surrounded by the cliffs above.
Walking on ice isn’t for everyone. Sturdy shoes and a good sense of balance are prerequisites. Tours are available that will explain more about the geology and natural history of the area, and will also take you to some of the most spectacular areas of the canyon. But it’s possible to go alone, too. Just make sure that you stick to areas where the ice is thick enough to walk on safely. It’s also recommended that you bring a helmet and watch for ice climbers above you.
Alberta winters are long and cold, and heavy snowfall is a sure bet in the mountains. As the summer crowds dwindle, the park stays lively as skiers come from around the world to practice their sport in Jasper.
Marmot Basin offers alpine skiing in a developed resort. If you’re not a practiced skier, lessons are available. You can also rent gear in case you didn’t bring your own.
For a more backcountry experience, cross country skiing is an option on many trails throughout the park. With fewer visitors - and fewer bears - you’ll be able to enjoy the crystal-clear air and stunning scenery of the Great White North.
High in the mountains above the Icefields Parkway, the ice and snow don’t melt even in the height of summer. Utilizing specially designed vehicles, tours take visitors up into the Columbia Icefield to walk on the surface of the glacier itself. It’s an experience not to be missed as you stand on thousands of feet of ancient, groaning ice. The views are stunning, and the cool air is a refreshing way to escape the heat in the valleys.
Nothing says wilderness quite like an up-close encounter with the majestic wildlife that inhabits the mountains. And wildlife sightings in Jasper are almost inevitable. Elk are routinely seen in the town of Jasper itself, hanging out on the southern edge where the presence of humans protects them from predators. Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep are regularly encountered on the highway near the eastern entrance to the park, so drive carefully. Bears are frequently spotted throughout the park. Drive Highway 93A close to sundown in spring and summer, and you can almost guarantee a sighting of a black bear.
Keep your eyes peeled on the Icefields Parkway. Not only are bears regularly encountered here, but the cliffs above the road are home to agile mountain goats. Less frequently, but still regularly encountered animals in the park are grizzly bears, wolves, and mountain lions.
Remember that wildlife is wild, and needs to stay that way. Never feed wildlife of any kind; once an animal starts to see humans as a food source, they have to be destroyed. The best way to see Jasper’s wildlife is from your car, and that’s safest for you and the animals.
The hiking opportunities in Jasper are virtually limitless. Easy hikes include the 5 mile(8 km) Jasper Discovery Trail, the 1 mile(2 km) Red Squirrel Trail or the 6 mile(9.5 km) Wapiti Trail. The 3 mile(4.5 km) Valley Of The Five Lakes Trail will give you stunning views of the striking, almost otherworldly glacial blue lakes of the area. Or if you’re after something more challenging, the ten kilometer/six mile Bald Hills Trail provides a workout for your legs.
Ever seen fossils on top of a mountain? The Rockies are a young range by mountain standards, and the entire area was once a shallow sea. The Wilcox Pass trail takes you above the treeline to rocks studded with the remains of the strange creatures that once swam through what is now a mountain range.
This is just scratching the surface of the trails available in Jasper National Park. Pick up a trail guide at the information center and start exploring.