Jasper National Park forms the northernmost component of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks system, and is the largest, wildest and most forbidding of all the parks. With spectacularly jagged mountains, unusual geological formations and a history of adventure and conflict, it is the wild sister of its sibling, Banff. While Banff has been recognized as an international luxury destination for over a century, Jasper has been known for its harsh terrain, strange landforms and abundant wildlife.
The townsite of Jasper, in a valley carved by the Athabasca River, is located at the junction of the Icefield Parkway and Yellowhead Highway, and huddles against the eastern face of the Princess Lakes Bench and Pyramid Mountain. Only about 1,000 people call this town home all year long, but during the winter ski season and in the summer the population swells to 10 or 15 times its normal size, with visitors from around the world. Most of them come seeking the isolation and spectacular scenery that has made Jasper famous, as well as the exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities.
Skiing, hiking and climbing are popular activities year-round, due to the high altitude glaciers and wide diversity of terrain. In the summer, whitewater rafting, horseback riding and mountain biking are excellent ways to see the backcountry. If you are planning on coming to Jasper, don't forget your camera, as the snow-capped mountains and unique quality of light in the area make for very impressive photographs.
Most Jasper businesses are located along Connaught Drive and Patricia Street, which run parallel to the railway tracks that stretch alongside the Athabasca River. Between the main shopping district and the mountain lie the homes of the locals, as well as the aquatic center, museum and library. Bars and restaurants are scattered along Patricia Street and can also be found on Connaught Drive. The Jasper Jasper Park Information Center is located right in the center of town, where Miette Avenue meets Patricia Street. The Information Center is the best place to find information about the hundreds of activities and attractions found in the park.
Many of the hotels can be found at the north end of town on Connaught Drive, as well as near the Pyramid Lakes Road. A unique feature of Jasper is the Approved Accommodations: private homes that have suites available for rent to tourists. They are sanctioned by the Chamber of Commerce and are usually cheaper than hotels. This can be a real lifesaver when all the other rooms in town are booked.
When visiting Jasper, it is important to know about the town's permanent residents: the elk and bears. Excellent wildlife photography opportunities abound in and around town, and a few simple rules will ensure that both you and the animals have an enjoyable experience. When taking pictures, use a telephoto lens and keep at least 50 meters (150 feet) away. Never feed or attempt to get close to any wildlife, and make sure that you consult Parks Canada about proper wildlife safety precautions before heading off into the woods. Elk are often seen in town, wandering through backyards and even down the main streets of downtown. But remember that these animals are not tame, and that they may attack if provoked. You don't have to panic if you see one; just keep a respectful distance and avoid disturbing them.
The town of Jasper is dwarfed by the vastness of the park stretching out on all sides and makes an excellent base for exploring the park's many attractions. Major roads run east, west and south of the town, and a drive along any of the parkways or highways will open up boundless outdoor opportunities.
To the northeast of the Jasper townsite, the Athabasca River runs down the center of a valley, and separates the town from the Maligne Lake Valley to the east, as well as Maligne Canyon and the Jasper Park Lodge . The trails around the lodge and Maligne Lake are excellent for hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter.
Following the Yellowhead Highway north from town will take you out of the park and through the town of Hinton and eventually to Edmonton. Some of the most unusual landscape in the park can be found along this stretch of highway. To the north lies Jasper Lake and the surreal Jasper Sand Dunes, as well as the Miette Hotsprings . The shore of Jasper Lake offers some exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities, as bighorn sheep and mountain goats enjoy feeding and sunning themselves on the cliffs alongside the Yellowhead Highway. For a refreshing dip, stop by the Miette Hot Springs, located just off of the Yellowhead highway before Hinton. The 40-degree Celsius (104-degree Fahrenheit) water will soon chase the chill of the mountains away.
To the west of Jasper lie the Monashee Mountains, a rugged and isolated range. The mountains are home to heli-skiing, a popular activity. There are also whitewater rafting opportunities, and the chance to see Mount Robson, an imposing block of granite that is the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies.
To the south of town, you will find the Whistler Gondola, Jasper International Hostel and Marmot Basin Ski Area . Farther south is the Icefields Parkway, one of the most spectacular drives in North America: a 300 kilometer (180 mile) stretch of highway winding toward Banff beneath soaring peaks and massive glaciers.
Halfway between Jasper and Banff is the Icefield Center , where you will find a Parks Canada Information Center.
Jasper is well known as an international resort destination offering cuisine from around the globe. The boisterous ski town serves legions of thirsty skiers with ferocious appetites for food and drink. The town is relatively quiet during the daylight hours, which gives food connoisseurs the opportunity to sample Jasper's finest fare in peace. Things get busier when the ski lifts close for the night and the bars open their doors. Most of the independent restaurants can be found on Patricia Street or Connaught Drive in the heart of downtown.
Any self-respecting Alberta restaurant has steak on its menu. Albertans are very proud of their beef and manage to integrate it into almost every meal and dish. While steak is the backbone of most menus, you can usually find some more exotic dishes. Buffalo, caribou and elk are often featured and provide a flavorful alternative to beef. Other common entrees include British Columbian salmon, halibut and shrimp, along with locally raised duck and goose. There is no roast hound at the The De'd Dog Bar & Grill , but you will find a cozy local hangout that is always open, with some of the fastest service in town.
Jasper has managed to keep almost all of the large chain fast-food restaurants out of town, so the selection of greasy burgers and fries is limited. On the plus side, there is a constantly-changing assortment of small restaurants which, for a dollar or two more, will serve you all your favorite short-order foods with far superior ingredients. There are no “greasy spoon” diners in town either; wherever you go, you can be assured of a fine dining experience. If your tastes are a little more international, most restaurant genres are well represented. Excellent Greek can be found at the Kontos on Patricia Street. If you just can't be kept away from your e-mail responsibilities for a few days, there are several Internet cafes, including the Soft Rock Internet Cafe . If a steaming bowl of noodles and prawns is more your style, the Denjiro Japanese Restaurant lends a zesty Eastern spice to the mountain air.
One advantage to being such a small town is that everything is very close together, and all of the bars are within walking distance of the downtown hotels. The Jasper nightlife is not as consistent as that in Banff, and some nights the bars are virtually deserted. On other nights, particularly after a unusually large snowfall at the Marmot Basin Ski Area , it is tough to find room in any of the more popular establishments. The D'ed Dog Cafe, Atha-B Tavern and Peter's Place are the three most boisterous nightclubs; they keep many exhausted skiers on their feet and dancing long into the morning hours. For a more relaxed lounge atmosphere, the Whistle Stop Pub, conveniently located on the main floor of the Whistle Stop Inn on Main Street, has all the dark oaken decor and even darker Irish beer you can handle. This pub is frequently visited by film crews and extreme skiers, and it is not unusual to see world-class daredevils pounding back ale after spending a long day defying death on the slopes.
There are very few martini lounges and other more refined drinking establishments in Jasper. If you are in the mood for a relaxed evening, most hotels have guests-only lounges, which serve vintage wines and scotches and occasionally, micro-brewed beers.
While drinking in Jasper, it is a good idea to get to know a few of the locals. Every bar or lounge in town has a particular night of the week when you can expect to find more action than any other. Ask around at the ski shops or in the cafes to find out the most recent scoop on the nightlife. The locals are very proud of the rough and ready nature of their town and quickly convert many tourists.