Maligne Lake – A Unique Experience

The serene, still waters of Maligne Lake wait to welcome you, an appropriately stunning end to a journey filled with stunning sights.

The serene, still waters of Maligne Lake wait to welcome you, an appropriately stunning end to a journey filled with stunning sights.

JASPER, Alberta – Maligne Lake. Even for a place as picturesque as Jasper National Park, it’s something special indeed.

Whatever brings you to Jasper, be it scenery, wildlife, fishing, rafting, and/or historical interest, Maligne Lake and the road leading to it offer it in spades.

The scenery speaks for itself. Like wildlife? Grizzly bears, black bears, moose, elk, white-tailed, deer, bighorn sheep and mountain goats are among the larger animals commonly seen at the lake and on the road leading to it. In fact, they’re so common that park officials feel it necessary to remind everyone: stay in your vehicles when you see these animals, and please keep a safe distance between them and your cars.

Fishing … but wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Best to take it one step at a time. It’s most certainly a journey worth taking.

You’ll find access to the road about 5 km east of Jasper on Highway 16. Maligne Lake Road itself is built along the glacial valley that separates Maligne Range from the Queen Elizabeth ranges. It covers 46 kilometers (29 miles), and you’d be hard-pressed to find 46 more interesting kilometers in the Canadian Rockies … or anywhere else, for that matter.

You’ll cross a bridge fairly quickly; immediately thereafter, you’ll notice a road branching off to the right. Take it and you’ll wind up at the Jasper Park Lodge, one of the “it” destinations in Jasper. Not bad for something that began as a tent camp, eh? That road in itself is worth taking. It crosses the road that leads to lakes Edith and Annette, glacial kettles formed when huge blocks of ice left behind by retreating glaciers melted and overlying material collapsed into the resulting chasms. Now fed by springs, the small lakes are warm enough in the summer to swim in comfortably, making them a popular day-use destination for visitors and locals alike.

One more note about this side road: as you near Jasper Park Lodge, you’ll see the shores of Mildred Lake. (If you want to fit in with the locals, refer to it as “Laundry Lake.” It’s right next to the lodge laundry department.) Keep an eye on the lake’s center. You may see the water spout. When the nearby golf course tightens the taps on its irrigation system, the water backs up and eventually spews high into the air over “Laundry Lake.”

Once you pass the road to Jasper Park Lodge, there’s another side road that will take you to the Fifth and Sixth bridge picnic area. Whether you plan to stop or go on, if you’re interested in the history of the area, tune in to AM 1490 (AM 1230 for French). Parks Canada radio broadcasts a show about early adventurers in the area.

For the next highlight on Maligne Lake Road, keep a sharp eye out. There’s a sign that indicates a viewpoint to the left. We promise it’s there, though it’s not easy to spot. It’s worth the detour, though; the road leads to a brilliant panorama of the Athabasca Valley and Jasper township.

This is the Hanging Valley viewpoint. No, it’s not a valley replete with gallows. The Maligne Valley is a textbook example of a hanging valley. Such a thing comes about when two glaciers of different sizes carve out valleys near each other. The Athabasca glacier, as it retreated, left behind the Athabasca Valley. The Maligne glacier, which was just a tributary of the much larger Athabasca glacier, carved out the Maligne Valley as it retreated, smaller and higher than the main valley below – thus, a hanging valley.

In many places, the panorama would be the highlight of any drive; on Maligne Lake Road, you’re really just getting started. On the road, just past the Hanging Valley turnoff, you can turn left into the Maligne Canyon day-use area. It’s very much worth it; you can see one of the marvels of Jasper National Park. With the Maligne Valley left stranded so far above the Athabasca Valley, the Maligne River carved the Maligne Canyon to drain from the upper valley to the lower. There are areas where the canyon is just a few meters wide but up to 50 meters deep.

It’s a stunning sight, the canyon. It’s worth climbing the trail, but be careful; it’s well-kept, but steep, and pay attention to the barriers put up along the trail. They’re there for your safety. Many photographers have lost their lives climbing over them to get an even better view.

The next marvel on your trip on Maligne Lake Road is Medicine Lake. The lake is formed by glacial runoff from the surrounding mountains that runs down through a network of underground caves every summer. Here comes the fun part. The lake itself is constantly draining – water from it resurfaces below Maligne Canyon more than 17 kilometers downstream, making it the longest underground drainage system in the country. In the months leading up to the summer, the runoff from above runs into the lake faster than the lake drains. In fact, in the spring, the lake is there in its full glory. But, by September, as the runoff tapers off, the lake rapidly drains, and in autumn Medicine Lake is completely empty.

Fascinated by the phenomenon, some people have tried to plug the drain below the lake. One attempt was made using old mattresses, and the other was made using magazines, of all things. Neither, it must be reported, were successful.

If you’re into whitewater rafting or kayaking, the next turnoff on Maligne Lake Road is your destination. The waters of the Maligne River are warmer than freezing – sometimes, and only by a few degrees – but the turnoff is still one of the area’s most popular adventure destinations.

All right, movie fans, the next attraction is for you. The road crosses a bridge over the Maligne River at kilometer 41. If you look upstream from the bridge, you’ll see a large rock in the middle of the river. The rock was showcased in the 1953 film “Rose Marie,” which starred Howard Keel and Ann Blyth. Oddly enough, the film wasn’t actually shot here. But the remake of the ’53 original was.

And, at last, you reach Maligne Lake. Quite a journey, isn’t it? There’s so much to see on the way, it’s almost easy to forget where you’re going in the first place.

Until you get there, that is.

The first thing you’ll notice about Maligne Lake is that it is a photographer’s dream location. To the left: Leah Peak, Samson Peak and Mount Paul. To the right: Mount Charlton, Mount Unwin, Mount Mary Vaux and Llysfran Peak. Sitting in between, one of the most beautiful vistas to be found anywhere in the world.

Oh, and remember the fishing? Hope you bought your fishing license. The lake has been stocked since the early part of the 20th century and now teems with life. Dinner awaits!

Even if you’re not into fishing, be sure to go on one of the boat tours on the lake. You’ll get to visit Spirit Island, a trip that, like the drive to get here, is truly not to be missed.

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