While Jasper National Park is spectacular anytime, our favourite season by far is fall. The weather is still pleasant, summertime crowds are gone, trees turn a glorious gold, and elk are ready to rumble. The annual elk rut, or breeding season, reaches its peak. Guys try to impress the gals with ear-piercing bugling, strutting, and generally showing off. This inevitably leads to conflicts between rivals as they compete to be head honcho of the harem.
We watch as one imposing bull elk stands high on a ridge overlooking a herd of females grazing next to the river. He seems on edge, sensing trouble as a younger bull slowly and tentatively makes his way towards the herd. In an instant the older bull charges, running full speed down the ridge to confront the intruder. Antlers rattle and clatter as they go head to head, and for a few seconds they lock horns literally as well as figuratively, their multi-point racks becoming so tangled that they have trouble pulling apart. The battle rages until the young upstart concedes defeat and wanders away. The old bull may not relax for long, however. Not far in the distance, bugling echoes through the valley, as yet another interloper announces his presence.
The most remarkable part of this wildlife drama is that we’re watching from our vehicle, on a pull-off along the Yellowhead Highway only a couple of kilometres outside Jasper townsite. While elk are common to many parts of North America, Jasper is considered a prime spot to see the rut because so much action happens in easily accessible places. Elk could be anywhere, though some of their favourite haunts are close to town, especially just northeast where the Yellowhead Highway parallels the Athabasca River. We forget about sleeping in while staying at the aptly-named Wapiti Campground (wapiti is another word for elk). Early every morning we’re jolted awake by loud bugling, and it’s not unusual to see elk wandering through the campsites.
While elk steal the wildlife show in the fall, the park is home to bears, moose, whitetailed and muledeer, wolves, mountain goats, and myriad other critters. Bighorn sheep often make an appearance; a favourite area tends to be along the highway near the turnoff to Jasper Park Lodge. Hoary marmots are entertaining to watch anytime, but in fall they look like fluffy overstuffed toys as they fatten up for winter.
A mountain specialty is the pika, the smallest member of the rabbit family, but looking more like a giant mouse on steroids. An almost surefire place to find these little guys is Medicine Lake, about halfway along Maligne Lake Road. The parking lot at the west end has a short staircase leading down to the shore and a jumble of boulders where the pikas like to hang out. Listen for their high-pitched calls and watch for movement as they quickly dart around the rocks.
The 50-kilometre-long Maligne Lake Road is a popular day trip for both wildlife and scenery. An autumn bonus is that part of the road passes through aspen forest that can be a riot of gold, framed by distant Pyramid Mountain. The route parallels the Maligne River that plunges 23 metres over a series of drops in a narrow gorge. In places the canyon is only a couple of metres wide, but can be over 50 metres deep. Just upstream, Medicine Lake is peculiar in that the Maligne River flows into it, but instead of having an obvious outlet, the river flows underground, emerging again at Maligne Canyon.
The road ends at Maligne Lake, the largest lake in the park and the largest glacial-fed lake in the Canadian Rockies. This is an excellent place for hiking, with a network of trails ranging from easy two-hour strolls to more challenging backcountry treks. Another option is a Maligne Lake boat cruise, taking you farther down the long, narrow lake famous for its spectacular views.
Our favourite fall colour excursion is the short drive northwest of the townsite to Pyramid Lake. Prime time is first thing in the morning when the low sun washes warm tones over reddish-tinged Pyramid Mountain, and the usually calm water reflects the golden forest. Patricia Lake, a smaller lake along the way, can be every bit as photogenic as Pyramid Lake itself, depending on light conditions.
Another day trip is about 30 kilometres south to Athabasca Falls. While that may sound close, we find that we need most of the day to do it justice. The mighty Athabasca River funnels into a narrow gap as it thunders over a 23-metre drop, against a magnificent mountain backdrop. Walkways and lookout points get you up close to hear the roar and feel the spray. Don’t miss the walk just downstream where the river has carved a steep canyon full of wild contours.
The main route to the falls follows Highway #93, the famous Icefields Parkway connecting Jasper and Banff National Parks. Paralleling it is Highway #93A, the old highway, so it’s easy to make a loop route. An excellent side trip off the old highway is the winding switchback road to Mount Edith Cavell, with a gorgeous picnic site overlooking the impressive 3,300-metre peak.
Jasper is the largest park in the Canadian Rockies, so this is only a sample of the mind-boggling array of special places to explore. While nothing is certain weather-wise, the second half of September is the best bet for finding a combination of reasonably warm weather, fall colours, and plenty of elk shenanigans. But be prepared for anything; we have also experienced full-on blizzards in September. If you plan to camp, check the Parks Canada website to see which campgrounds are open at that time of year.
For more details, see the Parks Canada website www.pc.gc.ca
Robin & Arlene Karpan are freelance travel writers, photographers and book publishers based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. They specialize in the natural world: nature and wildlife photography, wilderness areas, hiking, canoeing, and travelling off the beaten track. Their extraordinary work has appeared in hundreds of publications around the world and we are happy to feature them here on Roadstories.ca