Maligne Canyon Walk

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Maligne Canyon Walk

Maligne Canyon - Jasper National Park
Maligne Canyon - Jasper National Park. Wendy Bumgardner © 2014

Maligne Canyon in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada is a dramatic scenic walk in a narrow, deep limestone canyon. A stream rushes down the canyon that is 50 meters / 165 feet deep, often hidden far down below. You can enjoy the views from the bridges that span the canyon.

It's worth a visit on any trip to Jasper, but it is especially a good choice for a walk if you encounter a day when the clouds are hiding the mountains. You'll be looking down for the views and not up. The walk has numerous stairs and inclines and only a short distance is paved.

Where it Starts: The Maligne Canyon Restaurant and Gift Shop, a 10-minute drive from the town of Jasper on Maligne Lake Road. Observe the speed limit strictly as this is an area with a lot of wildlife. You don't want to chance hitting any, so be prepared to brake for deer, elk, bear etc. You will need a national park pass to park, but there is no other admission fee. The gift shop/restaurant is open April 1 - October 31. Restrooms are available when it is open, 8 am - 8 pm June through August and 9 am - 6 pm spring and fall.

Distance and Difficulty: You can enjoy a walk of various lengths, even extending it for a hike, from a kilometer/half mile to see the canyon around the first two bridges, to 4.2 kilometers/2.6 miles for a round trip to the fifth bridge. Hikers can continue to the sixth bridge for a 14 kilometer/8.7 mile walk and hike. The elevation change for a walk to the fifth bridge and back is 100 meters/330 feet. The route includes many inclines and stairs and is not wheelchair/stroller accessible for most of its length.

Time: Allow 30 minutes to 1.5 hours to enjoy the walk (depending on how much distance you wish to do) with frequent stops to appreciate the views and snap selfies.

Trail Surface: The walk begins on pavement and changes to a natural rock surface (limestone). The park brochure warns that it can be slick in any weather. In winter, you can enjoy a snow and ice hike along the bottom of the canyon.

Footwear: Trail shoes or hiking sandals are preferred if you are going to continue past the pavement.

Signs, Maps and More: You can rely on the signage for this walk. You don't have to worry about getting lost as there is only one route, and all paths lead back to the parking lot. The St. Albert Trekkers offer the walk as a five kilometer or 10 kilometer map-guided seasonal volkssport route. You can download the map from their web site. Register at Totem Ski Shop, 408 Connaught Dr., Jasper, Alberta T0E 1E0 for IVV volkssport credit and to sign the liability waiver.

Pets: Dogs are allowed on leash. Bring along a plastic bag to pack out any doggie doo-doo and keep the canyon pristine.

Water and Snacks: You can buy water, drinks and snacks at the gift shop/restaurant at the start. There are no water fountains or snack bars, so carry along a bottle of water if you want to spend time enjoying the view. You will lose water faster at high altitude, even on cool days.

Enjoying the View: There are benches along the route, but you will be enticed to keep exploring further into the canyon to see more views of the rushing water and narrow canyon walls.

Safety: There are hand rails and fences on the trail past the first three bridges. Children and pets need to be kept under control to avoid any tragedies.

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Maligne Canyon's Secrets

Maligne Canyon Waterfall Near First Bridge
Maligne Canyon Waterfall Near First Bridge. Wendy Bumgardner ©

What created this very narrow, very deep canyon? The surrounding area is full of oddities as lakes and the Maligne River drain into a karst cave system, disappearing and reappearing. The word "maligne" is archaic French for "evil." The name of nearby Medicine Lake also denotes the fear and wonder the native people had for the strange waterways.

Maligne is pronounced mah-leen, just in case you want to sound like you know what you're talking about.

The rock here is Palliser limestone, which is easily carved by water. There is a cave system in the limestone, with the Maligne River disappearing into it at Medicine Lake to reappear from springs above and in Maligne Canyon. More water flows out of the canyon than flows into it from above, due to the springs feeding it en route. On the trail near the gift shop, you can see where the river is running more broadly and only slightly downhill and then enters the cramped canyon.

The canyon is definitely a gorge produced by running water acting on limestone, but was it carved above ground or below ground? It may have been first a cave, but glaciers ground off the roof of the cave and so we see what was once hidden underground. The 25 meter/80-foot high waterfall you see from the First Bridge probably was never powerful enough to carve the gorge, especially since it only has flowing water from May through December.

The canyon walls are very steep and often you can't quite see the river far below.  You can hear it down there, and it entices you to keep walking down to the third and fourth bridge. At each bridge you are rewarded with views of the water rushing through the canyon.

Along the canyon you will see nesting places for birds, including ravens, black swifts and American dippers. You can also see hanging gardens where ferns cling to the walls of the gorge.

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