The Old Highway, Jasper National Park
Jasper National Park, Alberta
If you like to avoid major highways in Jasper National Park for the peaceful meander of a Canadian Rockies backroad, then Highway 93A or “the old highway” is for you. Part of the original Banff/Jasper Highway, it now sees much lighter traffic.
The views on 93A open up almost immediately. The road climbs above the surrounding valley, providing perfect panoramas of the Jasper townsite. The work of the glaciers is visible in the broad sculpting of the Athabasca valley. Across the valley, the Maligne Range forms a formidable barrier.
Hidden behind their rugged facade is Maligne Canyon and Maligne Lake. An optional side trip at kilometre 2.4 (1.5 mi.) takes you towards Marmot Basin Ski Area. Portal Creek trailhead, at the 7 km (4 mi.) mark along this side trip, is one of two main trailheads for the expansive Tonquin Valley. Hidden 20 km (12 mi.) along the creek and over Maccarib Pass, it is one of Jasper’s most popular backcountry destinations—winter and summer.
The ski hill’s 48 runs offer a vertical rise of 701 m/2,300 ft. From snowmobile access in the 1950’s, the hill expanded with a T-Bar in the 1960’s, and has continued to grow over the years. Highway 93A passes the junction with Cavell Road at kilometre 5.2 (3.2 mi.). Kilometre 8.2 (mile 4.3) solves the mystery of why the townsite often seems alive with members of the British military.
This British Army Camp provides a base for extensive mountain training. The soldiers descend upon the townsite on regular occasions to take over the Laundromat—not to mention several local watering holes. Wabasso Campground, at kilometre 9.2 (5.7 mi.), offers a quiet alternative to Jasper’s busy urban campgrounds. The Whirlpool and Athabasca Rivers meet at the “Meeting of the Waters” at kilometre 14/8.4 miles. Although quiet today, this site formed a major junction for countless fur trade expeditions. Here they would leave the Athabasca River and follow the Whirlpool River upstream towards Athabasca Pass.
First discovered in 1811, by David Thompson, one of Canada’s premier fur traders, explorers and map makers, it became the standard route of travel west for many years. Normally, at the junction of Athabasca Pass, fur brigades from the east met other traders from the Columbia. Goods were exchanged, and the traders would turn around and retrace their steps in the opposite direction.
With the Oregon Treaty in 1846, the 49th parallel was set as the international boundary, and the mouth of the Columbia became American territory. Soon, the Athabasca Pass route was all but abandoned as travelers began to traverse the Yellowhead Pass. Another short backroad at kilometre 15.2 (mile 9.4) follows the Whirlpool River for 6.9 km (4.3 mi.), ending within a kilometre of Moab Lake.
For the more adventurous traveler, the road also forms the trailhead for the 43 km/27 mi. trek to Athabasca Pass. Leach Lake at kilometre 19.6/12.2 mi.(don’t worry—it’s not named after those slimy blood suckers—leeches), provides a lovely spot for a relaxing picnic. This lake is most likely a glacial kettle formed from large chunks of ice buried by retreating glaciers. As the ice melted, the material above the former ice block collapsed into the void. The water moved to the surface, creating a tiny pond. Many of the smaller lakes in the Rockies were formed in this way.
Another former fireroad at kilometre 23/14.3 mi., climbs 5.5 km (3.5 mi.) up the lower slopes of Mount Fryatt. From the trailhead at road’s end, a short, steep trail climbs to the former site of the Geraldine Fire Lookout. From this lofty vantage point, the valley is spread beneath you. A second trail climbs higher up the slopes of Mount Fryatt towards a narrow glacial valley containing the Geraldine lakes. Shortly beyond the Geraldine Fireroad, Highway 93A meets the main portion of Highway 93 at Athabasca Falls.
Don’t miss this dramatic falls which cuts a gorge through thick layers of quartz sandstone. The true power of water is experienced as the river plummets amidst a thunderous roar. For your own safety, please avoid climbing over the many retaining walls. The rocks are constantly bathed in water vapour which supports a growth of slippery algae. One misplaced step can make you a permanent part of the mountain landscape.
From the junction with Highway 93 at kilometre 24.1 (mile 15), you can continue south towards the Columbia Icefields or return north to Jasper.
Highlights: Views of the Athabasca Valley, Portal Creek Trailhead, Marmot Basin Ski Area Road, Cavell Road, Wabasso Campground, Whirlpool River, Athabasca Falls.
Activities: Sightseeing, photography, walking, hiking.
Location: A few kilometers South of Jasper.
Time: Minimum of one half-hour.