Your reward for the long drive up the Icefields Parkway is the neat little town of Jasper, Alberta. I made this my home-base for three nights, which is plenty of time to get to know the area — especially in winter.
Jasper’s business district lines up along Patricia Street, a one-way road that’s just one block away from Connaught Drive. There’s a good supply of gift shops and restaurants along this street, as well as a couple of hotels.
Connaught also has some businesses along one side, but the town’s railroad tracks are on the other side.
It’s a big rail yard, and chances are pretty good that you’ll be able to take some good train photos over the fence.
VIA Rail’s “Canadian” line passes through Jasper. The line runs from Vancouver, through Jasper, and on to Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and Toronto. The “Skeena” line also begins here, and runs to Prince Rupert. If you arrive in town on the train, you’ll get off here, at the Jasper Station. It was built in 1926, when the previous station burned down.
Jasper pays homage to its First Nation residents, with this totem pole, near the train station.
[tmt_info =””]When this totem pole was erected in 2011, it caused some controversy — because it was carved by artists from the Shuswap Nation, off British Columbia’s north coast, and not a group closer-by. The new totem pole replaces one that was nearly a century old, and had begun to rot.†[/tmt_info]
Head back towards Patricia Street, and you might come across Jasper the Bear. He’s a cartoon character, that became a regular feature in Maclean’s Magazine (a Canadian weekly news magazine) during the 1950’s and 60’s. Jasper National Park adopted Jasper the Bear as its official mascot, and put up the statue in 1962.
When in Jasper, you can stay in a hotel, but you’re going to pay a lot. Because of the city’s location inside a national park, land use is highly regulated — so they just can’t build one hotel after another, to accommodate all the area’s tourists. Local residents have solved the problem, and developed a good way to earn some extra cash, by offering their spare rooms for rent. They’re not quite “Bed and Breakfasts” — in most cases, no breakfast is served — but otherwise, the concept is the same. During this visit, I stayed at the Seldom In, which is located on the corner of Aspen Avenue and Geikie Street.
There are good things, and bad things, about spending a few nights in this arrangement. First, the good: you’ll save money — quite a bit of it. Instead of paying $125 or more for a hotel room (yes, that’s about the cheapest available), you can find a nice room for $50 to $75 (Canadian Dollars). The Seldom In charges $65 per night during the winter months, but since I was staying for three nights, Doug and Sherrill gave me a $10/day discount.
The other big benefit to staying in a place like Seldom In: you become friends with the people you’re staying with. I didn’t get to meet Sherrill, but Doug was always around to give me advice on spotting wildlife, hiking, and places to drive. We even spent some time discussing Canadian politics and the health care system! And, he loaned me water-proof boots and ski poles, for help hiking into Maligne Canyon, one of the things you simply must do, while in Jasper in winter.
Okay, now the down side. It’s a little weird staying in someone else’s house. You have to share a bathroom and common areas with other guests. The only TV is in the living room, downstairs. Doug is a quiet guy, which is okay, but sometimes the house is eerily quiet. On the first night, I felt uncomfortable making any noise in my room, since I didn’t know who else was around, or how far the sound would travel. (On my previous visit to Jasper, I stayed at Roony’s Accommodation, which had a private entrance for guests. Unfortunately, the guest rooms were in the basement, and while they were clean and comfortable, I wasn’t thrilled with staying below ground.)
All the positives outweighed the negatives, though. And, having a friend in town came in handy, when I needed advice on getting a leaky tire repaired, and when I was hungry for a pizza.
Doug even gave me a ride to L&W Restaurant — a Greek place that also served up — Doug promised — the area’s best pizza. Indeed, it was very good, but expensive — just like everything else in Jasper (with a tip, almost $20).
After a snowfall…
Doug told me that, about a week before my visit, the weather had been beautiful, and he had started to think that springtime had arrived. Of course, my timing was a week off. I quickly learned that weather forecasts didn’t mean much up here — it could snow at any time, and local residents wouldn’t be the least bit surprised by several unexpected inches piling up outside.
When I awoke, after my first night in Jasper, I felt like Ralphie on Christmas morning, peering out his bedroom window at a freshly-frosted alley. Indeed, the alley behind Seldom Inn looked a lot like that familiar scene from A Christmas Story.
And so did the rest of the town. I took a walk, just to enjoy the fresh snowfall. Tree branches were perfectly powdered…
… as were fences…
… and even fire hydrants.
How many times do you think Jasper the Bear has been buried by snow?
Doug told me that, after spending decades in Jasper, he sees the signs of climate change. At one time, winters were remarkably brutal here — with temperatures plunging to 40-below, and staying there for weeks. Nowadays, he told me, Jasper’s winters were much more comfortable. Subfreezing temperatures were still common, of course, but the bitter cold didn’t stick around like it used to.
Wildlife in Jasper
I can almost guarantee that you will run into some wildlife during a visit to Jasper — and no, I’m not talking about Jasper the Bear.
There’s a reason for those slow speed limits on Highway 16 (the east-west highway through town). It’s very common for cars to encounter a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep.
And they don’t particularly care that your car is bigger than they are. Several times, I spotted them wandering alongside, or across, the road, just a kilometer or two east of Jasper, near the turnoff to Maligne Canyon.
You’ll be able to take some great pictures without getting out of your car.
Early on Day 8, after my first try at driving down to Maligne Canyon (and around the time that I discovered that leaking tire), I spotted these guys along the Athabasca River, near Highway 16, and at first I thought they were wolves — but now I’m fairly certain that they are coyotes. A wolf sighting would be very rare, while coyotes are more common, and are less fearful of humans. Coyotes have a snout that looks a bit more fox-like, and on closer examination, I think that description better fits these animals.
There were about half a dozen coyotes hanging out along the banks of the river. They would stop for a while, then perk up, and walk or run a short distance.
Clearly they were looking for something, and were oblivious to all the traffic that was stopping at the side of the road to watch them.
You’re likely to see some other creatures, too. Doug gave me a long list of animals that he’s seen around town. He told me, just a week or two before my visit, a bus full of tourists had seen a cougar, feasting on a carcass near the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. He also told me he had spotted wolverine, which made me giggle a little, as I imagined the X-men character roaming around town.