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Canadian Rockies Trail Guide

Day hiking Jasper’s Skyline Trail

Backcountry campsites have become more difficult to reserve on the most popular trails in the Mountain Parks. An increasing number of hikers are resorting to long-distance day hikes to experience the Rockies’ most scenic trips. We explore the advantages and disadvantages of 40km+ day trips.

Chris Espinel in the midst of his 44km day hike of Jasper’s Skyline Trail. Photo courtesy of Chris Espinel.

Anatomy of a long day hike

On August 3, 2023, just a couple days shy of his 76th birthday, Invermere’s Chris Espinel headed off on a day-long trip over Jasper’s 44-km Skyline Trail. Chris is a very experienced hiker, so his preparations for the trip and its execution provide an excellent case study for long-distance day hikers.

First off, Chris kept an eye on the weather forecast and was flexible enough to complete his hike when conditions were ideal. When he got to Jasper, he booked an early morning cab ride with a local shuttle service.

Since you need an early start, you’ll need accommodation or a front country campsite near the start of your hike. For Chris, that meant booking a spot in a Jasper hostel so that he could get to the south trailhead at Maligne Lake first thing in the morning. It was still dark when he parked his car at the Maligne Canyon trailhead, and his shuttle drove him 39km to Maligne Lake.

Chris started his hike at 6:21 am. Thanks to excellent weather conditions, he made good time past Lorraine and Mona Lakes and up to the crest of Little Shovel Pass. When he reached Big Shovel Pass at km 17.5, he discovered a flaw in our trail guide.

Our guidebook lists an elevation gain of 820m from the Maligne Lake trailhead to The Notch. However, we forgot to mention an elevation loss of 80m between Big Shovel Pass and the headwaters of Wabasso Creek.

That may not sound like much, but when you’re heading into a gruelling climb from Wabasso Creek to the 2510m crest of The Notch, and the halfway point of your day, it comes as an unpleasant, thigh-busting surprise.

Needless to say, Chris completed the final 22km of his day along the crest of Amber Mountain, over the long, steady descent past Centre Lakes and Tekarra Lake, and down the switchbacking remains of the old Signal Mountain fire road.

He arrived at the Maligne Canyon trailhead at 7:05 and drove back to a much-needed restaurant meal in Jasper. According to his smartphone, the hike took a total of 12 hours 44 minutes, which included 1.5 hours of “rest” time.


Day hike considerations

I’ve always been partial to long day hikes ever since I came to the Rockies. But work on multi-editions of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide made backpacking more reasonable. However, the advantages of long-distance day hikes are more attractive in recent years when you’re battling convoluted reservation systems and nightly camping fees in the Mountain Parks.

I defer to an article by Christopher Schopf entitled “How many miles can you hike in a day” (carandtent.com): Expert hikers can hike over 50 miles a day while above-average hikers generally hike a bit over 24 miles a day. Beginner hikers should expect to hike much less. I’d recommend that a beginner plan for about 10-12 miles a day.

My own longest day hike totalled 50kms (31mi) with an elevation gain of 1188m (3900ft) to a 2410m (7910ft) pass approximately halfway through. (But I was much younger than Chris Espinel.)

Day hikers have the advantage of travelling light. A small daypack with a few basics are all that’s necessary, and lightweight hiking shoes (running shoes should suffice on most “glamour” trails). And as mentioned, you should plan your trip when the weather is favourable.

Your “basics” should include a headlamp and a back-up light of some kind, both with fresh batteries. Even in the middle of summer, your hike might end up finishing after dark.

Since most long-distance hikes are one-way, you’ll have to arrange transportation, perhaps staging two vehicles with a hiking companion at either end of the trail.

If you are going solo, like Chris, you’ll need to park your car at one end of the hike, ideally at the day’s end trailhead, and catch a ride to the other end. (Try to book a shuttle; don’t depend on hitchhiking.)

And like Chris, record your trip digitally and photographically with a smart phone (don’t carry several pounds of camera gear, like I did throughout much of my hiking career).


Backpacking advantages

Of course, many people hike to camp and are willing to suffer the indignities and uncertainties of making reservations. Being able to relax in camp at day’s end and enjoy sunsets and sunrises in the backcountry are an important part of their wilderness outings.

And if you want to explore side trips beyond the main route, like the lakes above Egypt Lake or scenic viewpoints above Berg Lake, then camping is a necessity.

Longer, marathon trips (anything over 40kms) also require multi-day outings. Age restricts our hikes as well; it’s far easier on elderly legs to limit our backcountry days to 15kms or less, despite the weight of packs digging into our shoulders.



We’ve mentioned a couple long day trips on this blog, In addition to the description of Chris’s hike on Jasper’s Skyline, we’ve highlighted the Bow Valley Highline Trail. Dan Durston’s 40km day on Kootenay’s seldom-travelled Ottertail Pass route was published last October.

Berg Lake in Mount Robson Provincial Park is the most popular backpack in the Rockies. So popular, that Robson instituted a free registration for the many hikers making the 40km round trip to the lake and back in a day. Natasha Alden and Cameron Seagle describe their Berg Lake day trip on the Banff Blog (though I don’t think there are many hikers who complete this gruelling trip in 8 hours, like they did).

Considering how difficult it is to get to Yoho’s Lake O’Hara these days (lottery), I consider this a prime candidate for an extended day hike. The 11km access road is a minor inconvenience and speedily hiked both going-and-coming. You can even complete the full Alpine Circuit for a 34km day, or experience a more casual day to one of our favourites, Opabin Plateau. (We’ve day hiked the road on a couple occasions, including a day when we missed the last bus down from the lake.)



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