Distance: 28 kilometers round trip, allow 5-8 hours, day trip or overnight.
Access: Follow the Maligne Lake Road from Jasper to its termination point at the parking lot where the road ends. The canoes that are rented in town are locked up on this side of the shore. Walk from the parking lot to the shore just a little past the fishing dock.
Tip: Make sure you have some experience with paddling a canoe or kayak, or go with someone who knows what they’re doing. The lake is famously notorious for sudden weather changes and the waters can become quite dangerous in some areas. Pack light but make sure you have everything you need including emergency safety equipment. For information prior to departure, make sure to check in with the Jasper Information Center in town or the Curly Phillips Boathouse at Maligne Lake. Always check the weather forecast before leaving and bring enough supplies for whichever trip you choose to do.
Maligne Lake is one of the most visited lakes in the country. Not surprisingly of course. This easy access back country lake is the biggest in Jasper National Park, and one of the most beautiful. At 22.5 km in length, it makes for a perfect paddle trip as every inch of the lake is surrounded by glacier clad mountains that tower above you. Its most popular feature is also the most photographed in Canada- Spirit Island. Not really an island at all since it’s connected to the shore by a sliver of land, but it’s a sight to see after a long time paddling. It’s the perfect place to gain some perspective and just feel awe for a while. Most tourists will pay the $60 ticket and take the boat tour to the island, but the real adventurers will rent a canoe or kayak and paddle their way to the island.
I’ve done both (boat cruise and canoe), and obviously the canoe experience was much more exhilarating (and tiring) than the boat cruise. But what can I say, when mom and dad take me there for my birthday, it just wouldn’t be right to say no!
Some quick facts about Maligne Lake:
Min.-Max Width: 100m-2km
Max. Depth: 96m
Average Water Temp.: 4°C / 39°F (COLD!)
Canoeing or kayaking your way to the island will be an experience you’ll never forget. There are two campgrounds on the lake that are only accessible by boat, Fisherman’s Bay and Coronet Creek. You can paddle to Spirit Island in a day though if you start early and are fairly confident in your paddling abilities. We did our trip in one day. The experience will be much different if you choose to stay overnight at one of the campgrounds. As mentioned, there are tour boats that leave every half hour and they travel relatively straight down the middle of the lake. They are required to slow down when passing paddlers so that their waves do not disrupt them too much, just be prepared to deal with those waves. If you have an emergency flag down a boat, they can help you if needed. Read on.
Our trip began bright and early. At 7:00am we arrived at the lake and began packing out boat. The weather was beautiful; the morning light made for excellent pictures and the winds were calm so the water was crystal clear. We paddled half way (7km) and then took a break on the west shore. I recommend paddling on the north-east side of the lake as it is much more straight forward. If you choose to paddle the other side, you won’t want to follow the shoreline because it will take you another 2km to reach the island. After snapping our cameras we got back in the boat and continued for the next 7km. Before the island you must navigate Samson Narrows.
Samson Narrows is, as the name suggests, a narrow part of the lake. So narrow in fact (100m) that the tour boats cannot pass through if there is a canoe or kayak in the narrows. This area also creates a bit of a wind tunnel so the water tends to get choppy here. And for us, it certainly did. Once we got through the Narrows we continued on, the views getting even more spectacular, and finally came upon Spirit Island.
One thing to note: if you’ve gained all your knowledge of what Spirit Island looks like from the pictures on the internet, you may miss the island on your trip completely. The island is rather inconsequential unless you’re looking at it from the path on the shore (which is the view provided with the most photographs). Your only clue will be the dock and possibly a tour boat, if there is one at the time you get there. Right before reaching the island you’ll paddle around a great bend where suddenly the lake opens up and the mountains and glaciers are closer then you could have imagined. Spirit Island is 14km down the lake, if you want to continue to the end of the lake and stay at Coronet Creek Campground, another 8km will need to be paddled. But those may be the most glorious 8km of your life.
After Samson Narrows, the water changes. While it was clear blue at the beginning, it becomes the most incredible shade of turquoise and stays that way. The water also tends to be calmer there. What I’m trying to say is, do not forget your camera!
You can keep your boat near the dock that the tour boats use and wander the path until you find that famous view of the island. We stopped and made lunch on a bench after the tour group left the island. Yes we had the entire island to ourselves for about half an hour. It was great. If there are tourists at the island when you arrive, you’ll likely be the subject of many a photo-op. There is something so Canadian about people canoeing to an island apparently and if they’re foreign tourists, well all the better for them. Don’t be shy. Soak in the glory of having paddled yourself to the island!
So, after having spent some time on the island, snapping pictures, using the brand new restrooms (thanks Parks Canada), and eating our lunch, we decided to head back. This is when it got interesting. A very strong headwind had developed and our paddling pace was greatly reduced. The Narrows were extremely rough as was the rest of the lake. In times like this it is so important to stay close the shore. We were blown out a few times and it got crazy. This is also a reminder that if you have no experience paddling a canoe or kayak, to either bring someone who knows what they’re doing or to stick to the tour boats. We felt our lives flash before our eyes a few time as things got really bad. The sky started to get dark and when we looked behind us we saw the biggest, blackest cloud chasing our boat. Eventually we managed to make it around to Four Mile Point where the wind broke and wasn’t in our faces anymore. The rest of the paddle was calm and nice, though the cloud still loomed and we could see that it was bringing lots of rain with it. The water was churning and we were quite sure that if we stopped paddling we would capsize. Luckily for us, we’re both quite strong paddlers and we were okay!
Overall the trip took about 9 hours, including rests, an hour at Spirit Island, and paddling against the worst head wind ever. When we got to shore we were grateful to be done. Our arms and shoulders were aching from power strokes and we just wanted to go to bed. But first we had to drive the 44km back to town.
So the moral of this story is to be prepared for anything. But don’t be afraid to explore Maligne Lake via your own mode of paddling. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so take it!
Note: Do not use this blog post as your one-stop for information. Before paddling on the lake make sure to talk to the Jasper Info Center and do your research before heading out on the lake. Know your limits and stick to them. Mother Nature doesn’t always take into consideration your original plans.