If you are in Jasper, you have to drive Maligne Lake Road. No matter what time of year it is, this is a day trip you have to take, and this is one of those things you do if you are flat out wondering, what to do in Jasper!
Now, an underground river ends just east of Jasper; feeding massive amounts of water into the Athabasca River where it will continue across Alberta to Lake Athabasca. Maligne Lake Road follows it back through a breathtaking journey, that is occuring underneath you.
This twisting road starts with a turn off the Yellowhead highway just north-east of Jasper, where you immediately cross a steel bridge over the daunting Athabasca river. Then you’re off on a winding adventure that is full of exhilarating views.
Driving along Maligne Lake Road is hard. I say this because it’s almost impossible to keep your eyes on the precarious road ahead, and this is bad because you don’t want your car to plummet over the edge of a cliff. I had a momentary flash of that scenario as my car veered a little too close to the edge as I admired the staggering peaks around me.
Maligne Canyon’s Geologic History:
At more than 50 meters deep in places, Maligne Canyon can make you dizzy even if heights don’t affect you. Looking down into the deep crevices below you can see the rushing water that has slowly eaten away at the limestone causing waterfalls.
Maligne River goes completely underground around this area, and this canyon is a glimpse into the destructive power of water. Water can be classified as one of the deadliest and strongest forces on the planet and it definitely shows here.
The water flows and falls through the canyon, continuously eroding away at the rock around it. This rock is part of the Palliser Formation, a late Devonian geologic formation that is made up of limestone and dolostone. Limestone is a sedimentary rock made up of Calcium Carbonate/ Calcite (CaCO3). Limestone is typically made up of fragments of marine skeletons, such as coral. Being made of CaCO3 means that limestones are easily eroded and quite soft. On the Mohs hardness scale, CaCO3 is a 3/10. It’s quite soft and therefore susceptible to be broken down by powerful water.
The limestone is the reason that Maligne Canyon is so deep. If a harder rock was in the area, then the river would continue running over it as it does downstream of Medicine Lake where it is a full river. As Maligne River flows from Medicine Lake it quickly pushes through the rock, disappearing underground and eventually intersecting with other underground streams. This is another reason that the water is so powerful in Maligne Canyon.
Visiting Maligne Canyon:
There are numerous turnoffs into various parking lots around Maligne Canyon. During the summer it is packed with tourists attempting to take a photo of the water and cliffs. In spring, the water rushes through more violently as the snow melts and makes its way from the mountains. However, the intensity of the canyon can be seen at any time, and you can even take tours through the canyon floor during the winter when it is a frozen wonderland!
Bridges make their way, crisscrossing the canyon to get ample views. You can walk all of them which will take you about an hour each way. It is recommended to start at parking lot 6 for the best round trip hike through the canyon. This lot is clearly marked to the left as you drive from Jasper.
Apparently, people have an urge to drive as quickly as they can down Maligne Lake Road. I pulled over into the viewpoint for Medicine Lake solely to get an SUV off of my tail. Honestly, this is a windy mountain road and speeding really isn’t recommended. I had been on the hunt for a lake where the mountains made a reflection (without Photoshop of course) and this is picture perfect.
Walking down the path, you clamour over small boulders to get to the edge of the lake, which it turns out, is not a lake at all! Medicine Lake is actually an area where Maligne River overfills before it disappears underground through the rock. There is too much water running through into a small opening and the area of Medicine Lake fills with the extra water.
If you visit at different times of year this is strikingly apparent. Visiting during the spring and high runoff periods, you’ll notice a high water level. However, on my last visit of this season, there were small lines of water running through the large sandy bottom.
Journey to Maligne Lake:
This is a long, beautiful drive. There isn’t a lot to stop and do for the next 40 or so kilometres. Though if you want to do a wonderful hike, I can’t recommend Jacques Lake Area enough, check out my blog post here. There are quite a few viewpoints to take in the mountain peaks, Maligne River and so forth. I recommend stopping every once in a blue moon just to enjoy the scenery.
Driving into the Maligne Lake parking lot in peak season, is as hectic as Lake Louise, seriously though. You park your car and get out, maybe you’ll pay the absurd amount of money to take a boat cruise across the lake to see some of the insta-worthy sights.
This is where I recommend taking a walk through the area. Enjoy the colour of the water and the wooded area around.
Maligne Lake is 22 km long and fed and drained by the Maligne River. According to Parks Canada, Mary Schaeffer mapped the trail to the lake in 1907 after hearing about it from Samson Beaver who had seen it in the distance. It became a popular destination soon after and now is one of the must-sees in Jasper National Park.
Being the largest lake in Jasper National Park, Maligne Lake sits in a valley that was carved out by valley glaciers. During the last ice age, a terminal moraine was deposited to the north which keeps the lake where it is.
A terminal moraine is a group of unconsolidated sediment and glacial debris that was deposited at the end of a glacier. So after the glacier moved through the area it deposited this sediment into a large moraine. Moraine sediment can be anywhere from silt to large boulders.
Maligne Lake is surrounded by high mountain peaks including Mount Brazeau and Monkhead. Anywhere you look you will see towering mountains.
The Mary Schaeffer walk starts by turning left from the parking lot. You walk along the water bank, following trail markers until you get to the first part of the lake Mary Schaeffer arrived at. From there you can walk into the woods and through the surrounded tree area and experience fields, bushlands and mountain views. All up the whole loop takes around an hour.
The entirety of Maligne Lake Road is geologically beautiful and something not to be missed if you are in Jasper National Park.
I do this drive every time I head into the national park. I think it is a flashback in time, and also a great place for amazing photos!