It may seem counterintuitive to head north for the earliest hiking in the Rockies, but Jasper’s Athabasca Valley is always the first to provide dry, snowfree trails and mild weather in May. Aside from being over 300 m (1,000 ft) lower in elevation than Banff, this section of the Rockies is less prone to those late-season, upslope snowfalls that always seem to plague the southern Front Ranges.
As of this posting, all the lower trails in the Athabasca Valley are in great shape (see Jasper Trail Report). Here are three favourites, including a short hike, a day trip, and a multi-day backpack. (Trail numbers referenced to full descriptions in the 9th edition of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide.)
Old Fort Point Circuit—3.8 km. This is my favourite short hike in the Athabasca Valley. You can either make a quick jaunt to the summit in less than a half hour or complete a full circuit up and over the ridge in 1.5 hours. A wonderful panoramic perspective of the valley and a great place for spring wildflowers. (Trail 94)
Overlander Trail—15.5 km. This is an excellent, early-season arrangement hike. Park one vehicle at either the north or south trailhead, then drive the other around to the opposite end and hike back above the Athabasca River and beneath the Colin Range. Again, you’ll have lots of open views and meadows with spring wildflowers. Also a popular mountain biking route. (Trail 114)
Snake Indian Falls—26.5 km (one-way). Imagine, a multi-day backpack over dry, snowfree terrain in May! This trip covers the easternmost section of the North Boundary Trail, and the spectacular Snake Indian Falls makes a fine destination at this time of year. There are several campgrounds along the way, at Celestine Lake, Shalebanks and Seldom Inn. Insider tip: skip the Seldom Inn hiker campground and continue beyond the falls to Seldom Inn Horse Campground. It is a more attractive base camp, but you’ll need your own bear-proof food canisters to stay there.
If you want to backpack to Snake Indian Falls before the Victoria Day weekend, then you can add 13.5 km to the journey by hiking the still-closed Celestine Lake Road to the Snake Indian River bridge trailhead. This narrow, gravel road is actually quite attractive with fine overviews of the Athabasca Valley and open montane grasslands (more spring flowers). The road is popular with mountain bikers at this time of year and, in fact, you can bike all the way to the falls if you’re strong enough and so inclined. (Trail 128)
Check in at the Park Visitor Centre trail desk to reserve campsites in the Snake Indian Valley and for more information on the Celestine Road and its alternating one-way schedule for vehicles after Victoria Day.
And with all the above hikes, check yourself carefully for wood ticks. The tick season is upon us and most certainly in the Athabasca Valley.
For more spring hiking inspiration, check out the very lively Jasper Trail Alliance-Facebook site to see how the Rockies’ most active outdoor community is making the transition from winter to summer.