The Maligne Valley in summer is a delightful mix of gushing waterfalls, glacial lakes and woodland trails with great prospects for wildlife spotting. As you ascend the valley from Jasper, you will be treated to dramatic mountain views and endless photo opportunities as you pass canyons, lakes and mountains. Mist fills the air as you gape in awe at the volume of water cascading through the Maligne Canyon before you reach Medicine Lake and marvel at incredible mountain reflections. The piece de resistance is at the very top of the road. Maligne Lake wows with its jagged peaks, numerous forest trails and quaint relaxation spots at The View restaurant, Lake House café and Waffle Hut. This post highlights three things to in Maligne Valley on a self-drive tour (plus one paid activity) and highlights the benefits of a DIY tour.
This Maligne Valley self-drive tour requires a car (obviously) and it is advisable to book in advance. Use Rental Cars to investigate car rental options but beware Jasper is not a budget car hire destination. If only two people travel together it may be better value to take an organised tour. Many operators offer organised tours from Jasper to the Valley. So, if you prefer to sit back and relax then this might be the best choice for you. Get Your Guide gives you plenty of tour options and allows for convenient bookings and mobile ticketing which saves time. However, with a self-drive option, you will have much greater control over timings and can time your visit to avoid crowds.
This tour assumes you have a base in Jasper. We stayed at the Tonquin Inn which is on the edge of town but has huge comfortable beds. You can check out your options here. The Fairmont Jasper is undoubtedly the most luxurious place to stay in town but it is also more remote and has a price tag to match!
The three free principle attractions in the Maligne Valley are the Canyon, Medicine Lake and Maligne Lake. However, the real star of the show is simply the 40km drive through the valley passing charred forest, glaciers, dramatic peaks and waterfalls. This is not a road to rush and if you take your time, you may be fortunate enough to spot wildlife including bears and elk. Even at a slovenly pace, you will have plenty of time to enjoy each of the three stops.
Incidentally, if you prefer video to the written word check out this video from the Pursuit Collection Youtube channel.
The first free attraction in the Valley is the Maligne Canyon. This canyon is the deepest accessible canyon in the Canadian Rockies. Its highest point is 50 metres at the Second Bridge but six bridges in total cross the canyon along its 3.7 kilometres length. They allow for a bird’s eye view of raging torrents, fast flowing river waters and tumultuous waterfalls and rapids.
We parked in the lot by bridge 5 and ascended the canyon following route 7, the Canyon Path (Sentier du canyon in french). This route is 2.9km in length but if you want to lengthen the route slightly, park by bridge 6 and hike the full 3.7km. As you climb, you will spot incredible views of water gushing through the narrow canyon. The summer glacial melt floods into the canyon in a raging torrent. It thrusts through crevices and erupts in tumultuous whirlpools and eddies before tumbling over rocks and down the hillside. The bridges become progressively higher as you climb and the views more spectacular hence why I recommend you ascend (you can also descend from the Wilderness Kitchen car park). Don’t miss bridge four which has magnificent views into frothing waters forcing through the tiny gully below.
The hiking path along the Canyon can be muddy, wet and slippy in parts as you climb over rocks and gravelly sections. Hiking boats are a necessity, not crocs and plimsolls as we saw many visitors wearing.
The Wilderness Kitchen
Once you reach the top car park, the Wilderness kitchen welcomes the weary (only open from lunchtime) with a huge stone fireplace, cosy chairs and a terrace overlooking the falls. There is also a well stocked gift shop to browse for souvenirs.
Descent of the Maligne Canyon
You can return to Fifth Bridge along the road but I recommend following 7f or 7h to return. These trails take a higher route away from the water and are quieter. From these paths you will have superb views over the forest and snow topped peaks in the distance. The Canyon path, by contrast, gives you much better views of the canyon waters at very close quarters.
Once you have had your fill of the hiking trails around the Canyon, jump back in the car and head up the road towards Medicine Lake. This ‘disappearing lake’ is something of an oddity. Virtually overflowing when we visit, in autumn and winter the lake all but dries up. Maligne Lake feeds into Medicine Lake which in turn feeds into a series of underground caverns that disperse into the Maligne canyon. In winter however, as the glacial melt ends, the lake retreats and the canyon waters slow to a trickle eventually replaced by a series of frozen waterfalls which attract ice climbers in winter.
When we visit the lake is simply stunning. In contrast to the charred forest devastated by forest fires, the brilliance of the lake captivates. The mountains reflect in the lake in a series of blue hues, like a monochrome rainbow. It is truly magical – medicine for the soul!
Medicine lake to Maligne Lake
Maligne Lake is the final free stop and a further 22 km up the road. There are no petrol stations, cafes or restaurants in between so bring food and water if you want to hike Medicine Lake.
That 22km stretch of tarmac is an absolute delight. It is surrounded by jagged sheer mountains, sprinkled with snow like Christmas cake icing, high above the valley floor. Gurgling Maligne River descends the valley next to the road carving its way through unspoiled forest in brilliant turquoise hues. Rocky outcrops and big slabs of rock hang above the valley floor whilst waterfalls spill through steep gullies onto moraine covered hillsides below. The entire valley is jaw dropping!
Hiking trails on Maligne lake
Maligne Lake is yet another showpiece. There are several hiking trails around the lake but note even in the height of summer, these are relatively quiet. Ensure you know what to do in the event of a bear encounter and bring bear spray if you plan to hike. We hiked both the 3.2km Mary Shaffer trail and the 2.6km Moose Lake trail. If you have to choose, opt for Moose Lake. Although we were not fortunate enough to see Moose, the lake is a deep emerald shade and other than bugs (yuk!) we were the only visitors.
The Mary Shaffer trail quickly heads away from the lake and heads inland through the forest. On wet days it can get very muddy and you will need to allow more time than the trail map suggests. Use you can the trail map to plan your visit as it indicates the difficulty and length of different trails.
Cruise tours on Maligne Lake
If you prefer something more relaxing, you can opt for a 1.5 to 2 hour cruise on the lake. You can pre-book tickets from around £60 which will save you time on the day and mean that you guarantee a cruise place. The cruise will also give you access to parts of the lake that are inaccessible on the hiking trails but this is one thing to do that is certainly not free.
Maligne Lake facilities
Once you have hiked or cruised around the lake you can indulge in the Waffle House, café, restaurant, gift store or even hire a kayak at the boat house.
Note, there are also plenty of bathrooms in the Lake House so there is no need to wait in the long lines in the car park.
Maligne Valley wildlife
Keep your eyes peeled as you drive through the valley as you may spot deer, bald eagles (look for their nests by the waters edge) and bears. As we drove down the hillside from Maligne Lake we experienced a surreal moment. We looked up and there in front of us was a big black mass in the top of the tree. We couldn’t quite believe our eyes and had to blink to see if we were dreaming. There really was a full grown whopping black bear in the very top of a towering 15 metre tree. He chomped his way through leaves and branches as a growing crowd of visitors stopped to admire him. He was clearly used to the attention as he nonchalantly ignored us and focussed on the task in hand. Incredible!!
Even more incredible however is that we completely failed to spot the cubs that were in the tree below their mummy. We only discovered these the following day when chatting to our hiking guide and a quick review of my video showed those babies clearly!! You can’t really see them in this photo but it shows how easy it is to miss the wildlife if you pay insufficient attention.
We did this trip on both a self-guided tour and on an organised tour (largely because neither of us read the small print on a trip we booked months ago). This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we saw the valley on a dark and brooding day and on a day bathed in beautiful sunshine. The valley was stunning on both days but as you can see it looks very different in diverse weather conditions. Whenever you visit, I doubt you will be disappointed.
If you have visited the Valley I would love to know what you thought and whether you had any wildlife encounters.