Even for the most experienced travelers, Jasper National Park can be overwhelming – more than 1,100 kilometers of mountains, lakes, valleys, rivers and glaciers, and more than 100 kilometers of trails winding through them.
There’s nothing wrong with exploring all of this beauty on your own, but if you want to maximize your vacation experience, if you want to see the places your fellow travelers don’t even know exists, then there’s only one course of action: hire a tour guide.
“We take people to spots they wouldn’t find on their own,” says Paula Beauchamp, owner and sole proprietor of Walks and Talks Tours (780-852-4994).
To be sure, there’s no end of places to find just off the major highways. And you’ll have no trouble filling your vacation from travelogues and tourism information. In a place as huge as Jasper, hitting the highlights alone could keep you occupied for any length of time.
Maps, however, will only take you so far.
Yes, there’s a reason certain features are highlighted on maps. Whether it be the vast expanse of the Columbia Icefields – feeder for at least eight glaciers – or the soothing warmth of the Miette Hot Springs; the odd and majestic Medicine Lake, which sometimes disappears completely, or the cozy, picnic-friendly lakes Edith and Annett; or any of a dozen other must-see destinations, you just can’t go wrong on the map.
But sometimes it’s not just what’s on the map, it’s what’s in between those places on the map. It’s the journey to get to those places and the history behind them. It’s the stories you hear and the people you meet that can make an already great vacation the most memorable you’ll have.
“It’s basically a learning experience, about the plants, the animals, about the differences between pine, fir and aspen,” says Beauchamp, whose company specializes in personalized tours, as opposed to taking large groups.
And it’s an experience you’ll never forget, if Beauchamp has her way. “(My guests) can sit back and enjoy the views while I do the driving,” she says. “People go away appreciating a lot more why Jasper is such a unique place.”
Those views have drawn travelers for more than a century to Jasper. Such features as huge waterfalls, sheer glacier walls and steep mountains do not always lend themselves to easy exploration though, and trained Alpine guides from Switzerland were brought in to help people discover this mountain range which rivals the greatest in Europe.
Today’s guides follow that tradition. They have years of expertise and of knowledge to share. They can show you a Jasper the unguided traveler just won’t see.
Beauchamp, for example, has been leading tours in Jasper for the past 25 years, the last 12 as Walks and Talks owner. She’s been hiking these trails since she was 5 years old.
Most hotels offer guided tours to guests, a good way to hit the highlights of the park. But a personal guide can take you beyond the common trails to the spots no one else knows. You can hire professionally certified mountain guides directly through the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) and certified interpretive hiking guides though the The Interpretive Guides Association. Keep in mind that only fully fledged mountain guides (the highest certification from the ACMG) are legally allowed to take you off trail in the national parks.
Beauchamp emphasizes the personal touch. Her tour “groups” average about 5 people. “I like to keep it simple,” she says. “I don’t like to be in a bus.” Additionally, she has her favorite spots, but as much as possible she wants the guests to pace the expedition. If you have a question, you can ask her; she’ll be right there to answer. “I don’t want to speak into a microphone.”
The Mountain Heritage Guide program, offered by Fairmont’s Alberta resort hotels, organizes guided interpretive hikes. Call 403-522-3511 for more information.
Other tour agencies in the area include Banff-based White Mountain Adventures: 1-800-408-0005 – the company also offers private guides.
To hire a certified mountain guide, contact the ACMG directly. Call 403.678.2815. To hire an accredited interpretive hiking guide, contact the Interpretive Guides Association directly. Call 403-760-2854.