Monday, January 11, 2016

Athabasca Falls of Jasper, Alberta

down the wrabbit hole

The Jasper area of Alberta's Rocky Mountains is often overlooked in favor of the more popular tourist destination of Banff. I myself, a resident of Alberta, Canada, am guilty of choosing to visit Banff over Jasper in the past. However, a quick trip in May of 2015 with my family convinced me that Jasper has a lot to offer, and is often times more appealing to visit. It is beautiful, clean, and not as busy as the more touted Banff region.

My husband had never been to Jasper, and I had last visited when I was still in elementary school, so for both of us, the trip was a fun treat. During our road trip, we stopped to walk the Glacier Skywalk, located along the Icefields Parkway highway (otherwise known as AB-93) just outside of Jasper. This excursion set us up nicely for our mountain experience. We had our fourteen-month-old with us, so the rest of our first day in Jasper was spent unloading our never-ending baggage and setting up the hotel room. No need for a blog post on that!

jasper alberta canada
Athabasca Falls in Jasper, Alberta is thunderous and breathtaking

The next morning, we headed down the Icefields Parkway towards Athabasca Falls as early as our babe would let us. I had read it is better to arrive early in the day to avoid large crowds, so that is what we, the ever obedient tourists, did. The drive to the falls from the town of Jasper is about 28 minutes, driving south down the Icefields Parkway. If you turn left at the "Athabasca Falls" sign, you'll enter a large, looped parking lot and it will be obvious that you have arrived. The sign off the highway isn't terribly large or glamorous, so keep your eyes peeled.

Once parked, we secured our 1 1/2 year old into the hiking carrier and began our trek. The falls are free to visit, including parking, so it was just a matter of getting out of the car and going. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect regarding the duration and difficulty of the hike to the falls, but I needn't have worried. The 'trails' around the falls are literally wide, smooth, paved sidewalks designed for hundreds of tourists to access at a time. The falls are about a five minute stroll down one of these paved trails from the parking lot itself. I wouldn't even call the venture down to the falls a hike. I could have easily done it in heels and an evening gown. Nevertheless, it was still very beautiful.

jasper alberta canada
My family (including one unborn Parker) enjoys our first view of the Athabasca River

The paths are nicely maintained, and of course, placed very strategically. Around the first bend, you get a clear view of the Athabasca River, a distant glimpse of the mouth of the falls, and can see the sunlight sparkling in the spray. There is a look-out point placed just so, where you can take a selfie or family photo with the falls in the background.

jasper alberta canada
Peeking at Athabasca Falls through its unusual gorge walls

After that first look, you cross a sturdy bridge that spans the Athabasca River as it continues downstream. The water is a vibrant, glacial, icy blue, bubbling with white froth. You can hear the roar of the falls echoing through the undulating gorge walls, carved by millennia of water run-off.

jasper alberta canada
Rock formations surrounding Athabasca Falls

Once you've crossed the bridge, you walk for a little bit more before finding yourself at the mouth of the waterfall itself. The freezing water thunders down, wetting your skin with escaping droplets. Various lookout point jut along the retaining wall, allowing visitors to get great photographs from multiple angles. It isn't a record-breaking drop (it is a Class 5 waterfall with a drop of only 80 feet), but the curious rock formations along the sides of the waterfall make for a majestic scene. What makes Athabasca Falls so famous is the force at which the water is jettisoned through the relatively narrow waterfall mouth - this waterfall moves with deadly strength.

jasper alberta canada
The mouth of the Athabasca Falls

There are beautiful flat rocks overhanging the waterfall, and they appear to give visitors a foothold for an amazing view of the drop below. However, several signs warn that the rocks are extremely slippery, and that many unfortunate people have slipped over the edge after ignoring or not seeing the park's warnings. (I read somewhere that at least ONCE a YEAR someone dies trying to explore these rocks. Once a year! People, please be careful!)

jasper alberta canada
A beautiful memorial - please stay behind the retaining walls when visiting the falls

There are other trails to venture down, once you have finished with the waterfall. One trail, a for-real dirt-packed root-infested trail, leads down past the mouth of the waterfall, along the river into the woods. We followed that one for a short distance, hopping down off the trail after awhile to scrabble along the rocky beach beside the river. The view of the Rocky Mountains from the river's edge is incredible, and it was fun to sit on the larger rocks and relax in the sun for a spell.

jasper alberta canada
The rocky beach of the Athabasca River has a great Rocky Mountain view

You can also explore the river downstream from the waterfall. A trail leads you into an old river tunnel, carved ages ago by the rushing waters of the Athabasca River before it was eventually diverted into its current course. It was my daughter's favourite part of the trail, since she is obsessed with rocks.

river rocks jasper alberta canada
A pathway carved by the river eons ago

The path takes you around a rocky precipice (where I will warn you, the path gets a little narrow - we had to back up at one point to let a family come through before we could continue) to a giant bowl of water where the gorge empties itself of the rushing river. It is calm and quiet at this part of the trail, but there weren't any places to simply sit and relax, so we turned around and went back the way we came after enjoying the scenery.

athabasca falls canada
The beautiful blue area where the gorge empties

There are also some prominent potholes dotting this area of the gorge. I was curious to see them, so we followed one trail promising to take us to the largest of the potholes. It was extremely disappointing. People had been using the potholes as giant garbage pails, and they were littered with pop bottles, wrappers, and cigarette butts. Pretty disgusting. (The behaviour more so than the garbage!)

All in all, we spent a few hours at the falls, strolling up and down virtually all of the trails. Our daughter ran around a little, collecting rocks and pinecones ("cones!"), and then it was time to head back into Jasper for lunch. I really enjoyed our foray to the Athabasca Falls and recommend it to anyone who visits the Jasper area. Just please don't climb the rocks, or litter when you visit! Stay safe and try to keep this treasure of an area looking pristine, because it is worth it.

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