Assembling a Rocky Mountain bucket list is easy. This area of Alberta is filled with iconic things to do and see. The only challenging part about that list is narrowing it down and deciding what to do first. Don’t you worry, we’re here to help you out and bump a special item to the top of your Rocky Mountain bucket list.
Hidden away in Jasper National Park is a wild maze of rock walls, ice caves, fossils, sparkling ice formations, and frozen waterfalls. The Maligne Canyon Icewalk is one of the most unforgettable things you can do in Alberta. You’ll find yourself in the deepest canyon accessible in the National Park and trust us when we say you won’t believe your eyes. Truly, this experience will make you feel like you’ve landed on another planet. There are countless guided tours that you can take advantage of, or you can take yourself on a self-guided tour to this enchanting destination. So, let us paint a picture for you.
Unlike most of the hikes around Alberta, this one is best explored in the winter, particularly from December to early April, depending on the weather. This is an “icewalk,” after all, so you’ll need to go when the temperatures have dropped below freezing, and the area is safe for exploration. The experience is different every year, and it changes substantially throughout the season as the ice formations thaw and freeze, so you might want to write this item on your bucket list more than once.
Maligne Canyon can be experienced from above, on a hiking trail through the canyon that takes you over six different footbridges. Or, you can venture deep down into the canyon for an ice walk right on top of the frozen river. If you opt for the ice walk, you’ll start by crossing the Fifth Bridge and then making your way up the river. Even in the winter, you may see the water running underfoot. As you walk, you’ll be treated with views of frosted limestone, breathtaking ice caves, crystal-like ice formations, and frozen waterfalls.
This canyon started as a cave system under glaciers. Throughout time, icemelt carved a deep canyon into the bedrock, forming the setting for this beautiful hike which is as much as 55 meters deep in some places. So, you can only imagine how grand the waterfalls are. You can expect to gaze upon frozen waterfalls that tower as high as 30 meters with walls of icicles on all sides. This impressive sight is something you won’t soon forget. You can even venture in behind the waterfalls on some of the guided tours.
The entire hike will take you under 4 hours. While it’s short in distance, it does require some careful footing, and, of course, you’ll want to stop and look around a whole bunch. While we’ve likely got you convinced to go, you might be wondering how. Of course, we’re going to give you the scoop.
Because it’s up to Mother Nature to decide when that ice will freeze, there’s no exact timeline as to when you can visit. While the season for a safe ice walk can come as early as December, you’ll need to endure enough cold days for the ice to become thick enough to walk on. We’d suggest waiting until a bit later in the winter to be safe. If spring comes early, this could present another problem, so you should consider going right in the dead of winter to ensure it’s safe and you won’t be disappointed by poor conditions.
Now, let’s talk about tours. While guided tours aren’t mandatory, it’s always a good idea to book a tour if you’re not familiar with the area or the Icewalk itself. If you do go solo, you’ll want to do your research, be prepared, and be incredibly careful as you go. However, we will say that tours are a safer option and can offer a more immersive experience that will help you learn interesting facts about your surroundings and ensure you don’t miss any of the coolest sights along the way.
There are many tour operators in the area that offer ice walks, and many hotel concierges can help you pick one. There are tours that include lunch, tours with multiple time options, and even twilight tours with headlamps. You’ll have no problem finding an amazing tour, but be sure to shop around and read those reviews before you make your decision.
If you go without a tour guide, you’ll need to park at First, Fifth, or Sixth Bridge. The parking lot at First Bridge has a restaurant and a hostel, so it’s a great option. Though, it does require a bit of a steep walk to get down to the bridge. The entrance to the Icewalk is a gate between the Fifth and Fourth Bridges. Another great thing about this experience is that it’s free to go on a self-guided tour, though you do need a Park pass to visit. Overall, the walk is on the easier side with very little elevation gain.
Last but absolutely not least, let’s talk about what you need for this journey. For this adventure, you’ll need ice cleats or crampons. It’s an ice walk, so you better believe it’s slippery. As with any hike, proper footwear is your best friend, and this goes double for winter hikes. Another key thing to bring is a walking pole or two. This will help protect you from falls and keep your balance along the way. It also keeps pressure off of your knees as you hike, so that’s a nice bonus. While you won’t see everyone wearing helmets, they are recommended because there is always the risk of icefall. If you’re planning to walk near the waterfalls, we’d highly suggest wearing head protection. Otherwise, be sure to pack layers, snacks, and lots of water. A headlamp and physical map can’t hurt, either.
Britanny Burr is a freelance writer and a contributor to Great West Media. This story was written for the 2023/24 Cool Winter Guide advertising feature. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff.