The Whirlpool River, as seen from Old Highway 93A. is a picture of calm relaxation. It wasn't always this calm, though. Back in the early 1800s, fur trading expeditions were common in the area.
National Park is full of must-see destinations and ways to get to them.
But if all you want is a nice Sunday drive, a leisurely stroll along the road less traveled, then take a drive along “the old highway,” Highway 93A.
Highway 93A used to be part of the highway that connected Jasper and Banff. It now sees much less traffic, but the scenery along the route is no less spectacular.
The road out of Jasper climbs to an overlook above the town that gives you a look at Jasper, at the Athabasca Valley and at the Maligne Range beyond it. There’s a side trail nearby that leads to Marmot Basin Ski Area and a trailhead to Tonquin Valley, one of Jasper National Park’s most popular backcountry destinations in winter and summer. The ski hill there features 48 runs and a vertical rise of 701 meters (2,300 feet).
As you continue along the highway, you’ll pass Cavell Road, and you may notice a lot of British military vehicles. You’ll find the reason for it about a mile past the Cavell Road intersection, when you reach an army camp the British uses for training. The soldiers go into the nearby townsite to do laundry and for rest and relaxation.
Speaking of rest and relaxation, if you’re looking for some away from Jasper’s busier campsites, you’ll reach Wabasso Campground about half a mile past the army camp. It’s the perfect spot for the traveler who wants a little peace and quiet.
Next up on Highway 93, three miles or so beyond Wabasso, you’ll come to the junction of the Athabasca and Whirlpool rivers. It’s pretty there, and fairly quiet now, but it played a key role in the development of the fur trade.
The “Meeting of the Waters,” as the junction came to be known, was first put on the map by fur trader David Thompson. It soon became a linchpin of the westward trading route. Caravans would follow the Athabasca River to the Meeting of the Waters, then head upstream along the Whirlpool River toward Athabasca Pass. There they would meet traders from the Columbia and other western regions. They would exchange goods and then retrace their steps.
In 1846, however, when the Oregon Treaty set the 49th parallel as the international border, the mouth of the Columbia River became American territory. Traders soon thereafter all but abandoned the Athabasca Pass for the Yellowstone Pass, and the area became the quiet, beautiful setting it remains today.
Back on Highway 93A, there’s another backroad near the Meeting of the Rivers that also follows the Whirlpool River. It will take you within a mile of Moab Lake.
If you’re feeling adventurous, the backroad is also the trailhead for the trek up to Athabasca Pass. It’s a bit of a journey – 43 km (27 miles).
About a kilometer further along the highway, there’s a beautiful picnic area at Leach Lake. The lake is thought to be a glacial kettle: that is, a lake formed when ground material fell into a void created by melting ice left behind by a retreating glacier. Many such glacial kettles can be found throughout the Canadian Rockies.
A few kilometers past Leach Lake, you’ll come across a former fireroad that climbs 5.5 km (3.5 miles) up the lower slopes of Mt. Fryatt. The road ends at a trailhead you can climb to reach the former site of the Geraldine Fire Lookout. As you might expect, the vantage point gives you a panoramic look out over the valley. You can also climb a second trail that takes you higher up the mountain to the Geraldine lakes.
Once you pass the Geraldine fireroad, old Highway 93A rejoins Highway 93. But that’s just a sidelight. The main attraction here is Athabasca Falls, and they are spectacular. Water roars down thick layers of quartz sandstone. But be sure to stay behind the retaining walls. You might want to get closer, but the water vapor spewed by the falls promotes the growth of algae throughout the area. It makes handholds and footholds treacherously slick.
Thus you’ve reached the end of your journey along Old Highway 93 – and what an end it is. At the junction, you can return to Jasper. Or, if you’ve got time and you want to see more, you can head for the Columbia Icefields. All in all, it’s a drive that is simply not to be missed.