Maligne Canyon Ice Walk (For Free)
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During my warm-weather visit to the Canadian Rockies in 2009, there were plenty of times when I wondered what everything would look like, if I came for a visit in winter. But there was one place that seemed especially captivating. After walking along the top of Maligne Canyon, and peering down its rocky walls into the narrow slot, I found out about the winter ice walk. During the cold months, the Maligne River turns to ice. And instead of walking along the canyon rim and looking down, you can walk through the canyon, on the ice, looking up.
So as I prepared for this trip, I made Maligne Canyon a priority. I started searching for information on the ice walk, and all I could find were guided tours, charging about $55 per person. That seemed like a lot of money, especially for something that I could do on my own, for free.
My suspicion was confirmed by Doug, the owner of Seldom Inn, the guest house where I stayed in Jasper. He gave me a detailed explanation of how a solo hiker can get down into the canyon, and hike on the ice, following the same route that the guides would take. As an employee of the Canadian National Parks, he assured me that there was absolutely no reason to pay any kind of fee to access Maligne Canyon (other than the park admission fee). Of course, he gave the same warning as I will give: if you don't feel safe doing it yourself, you should pay for a guided tour.
Doug loaned me some ski poles and a pair of waterproof boots. I added my ice cleats to the boots, and I was ready to go.
Driving out Maligne Lake Road can be an adventure in winter. It does get plowed, but it's not the first priority. I drove out to the trailhead twice -- the first time was early in the morning, and only one or two cars had been on the road before me. I panicked, and managed to make a u-turn and get back to the highway. Later in the day, I tried it again. The road was much better, but the parking lot was still covered with deep snow and slush. I did not get stuck, but I easily could have.
At the parking area, you're a short walk away from Maligne Canyon's restaurant and gift shop, both of which are closed in the winter. So instead, locate this staircase, and start walking downhill.
There are six bridges that cross the canyon. First Bridge is near the restaurant. Second Bridge is downhill from First Bridge, and it's the first one you'll encounter, if you start hiking at the parking lot. You'll have to hike along the rim of the canyon, past Fourth Bridge, to gain access to the bottom of the canyon.
Each bridge gives you the chance to look straight down into Maligne Canyon. At Second Bridge, the depth is 51 meters (167 feet).
Once you're in the bottom of the canyon, you will not be able to hike up this far. As you can see, the bottom of this part of the canyon would be pretty difficult to navigate.
After you cross the canyon at Second Bridge...
... you'll hike down a fairly steep slope. In the summer, these are stairs, but in the winter, they're more like a playground slide.
In this area, you should start paying careful attention to everything below -- because in a few minutes, you'll be seeing it from the bottom of the canyon.
Here's a good example. This icy waterfall hides a frozen cave that's big enough to climb into.
I didn't see any ice climbers on these icy walls, but that could be because it was so late in the season. Even though the weather was still quite cold, there were signs that the ice was starting to soften.
Look at all those suckers, who each paid $55 for a tour! You might get some strange looks when you walk by them, as they try to figure out why you're down there without a guide.
Take a good look at the picture above. That fallen tree is important! It marks the spot where you enter the canyon.
Below Fourth Bridge, you'll come upon this bend in the fence, where the chain-link material has been peeled back. Notice how the paint is rubbed off the bars? This is your entry point.
Climb through the fence, using the tree to steady yourself. On the other side of the fence, there's a quick descent into the canyon, that can be slippery. If you're not comfortable with it, hike further down the canyon and look for another entry point.
Once you've reached the bottom of the canyon, you can either continue hiking downstream, or hike back up the canyon towards Fourth and Third Bridges. The canyon is more dramatic, upstream, so if you're limited on time, do that first.
The surface of the Maligne River should be nice and solid. If it's a warm day, you might encounter a layer of slush on top of the ice. In a few places along the trail, this slush could get several inches deep, which is why the waterproof boots are a good idea (as opposed to regular hiking boots). If you've paid for the tour, the guide will provide you with a pair of waterproof boots and ice cleats -- another reason why you might consider paying for a tour.
Heading upstream, into the deepest part of the canyon, the bizarre world of sculpted ice begins. Huge icicles flow over the rocky walls at this spot...
... and just a bit further, you'll come upon this strange scene. Water from melting ice is trickling down the walls, forming a small pond. That chunk of ice in the middle (that looks like it's sitting on a shelf) is suspended in mid-air -- the ice has melted from the bottom, but there's still enough to hold it in place.
Scenes like this one may be the best reason to visit Maligne Canyon in late winter or early spring. The canyon is constantly changing all year, but the changes are especially apparent when the melting begins.
Before long, you've reached Fourth Bridge...
... and as you pass directly underneath it, you're in a narrow, dark slot.
Keep hiking past more icy walls...
... and you'll see some amazing frozen creations, sculpted by nature.
In some places, the canyon is so narrow, that very little snow makes it down to the surface of the river, making it very easy to walk on.
Remember the ice cave I mentioned earlier? Here it is. Go ahead and walk inside...
... for a very neat view -- almost like you're in the mouth of an ice monster, about to be swallowed!
Another narrow, dark portion of the canyon is next. Once again, the ice here is bare, since no snow makes it down to the bottom.
It's easy to forget that there's running water beneath your feet. In this spot, for some reason, a hole had opened up in the ice. Don't worry, I didn't actually step in it.
The canyon makes a sharp turn at this spot, and the rushing water has carved out a huge amphitheater-shaped area, allowing you to step back from the ice for a moment.
Just before you get to Third Bridge, you reach the point where the tour groups turn around. It's a small waterfall, that requires a slightly risky climb up the ice. You can do it with ice cleats and some carefully-planned hand-holds. If you fall and slide, you'll need to be extra-careful to avoid a hole in the ice, that's been plugged by a huge tree branch.
For some reason, I didn't take a picture of this turnaround spot -- probably because I was too busy figuring out how to climb up it. I did, however, take a short video of the hole, just to capture the ominous gurgling sounds coming from within:
I made it safely past the turnaround point, just in time to hear a tour group arrive. I heard the guide explain that it wasn't safe to go any further, and there wasn't much more to see, anyhow. Ha.
Just around the corner from the turnaround point, there's a magnificent frozen waterfall. It's absolutely huge! And you can climb around to the back-side, underneath it.
Keep going, and the canyon turns into a big jumble of ice, downed trees, and difficult-to-navigate squeezes. But the beauty continues...
... with one frozen sculpture after another.
Just a few minutes beyond the tour group turnaround, you'll reach a spot that truly is impassable -- near Third Bridge. A big waterfall completely blocks the canyon. You would need ice-climbing equipment to climb up it.
So, I turned around, and hiked back down the canyon.
Below Fourth Bridge
The lower part of the canyon, downstream from the break in the fence, is a nice walk, but it's a little less remarkable than the hike upstream. The canyon isn't nearly as deep here...
... although you'll still need to squeeze through a few tight spots.
It's not long before the canyon widens out. In this area, there are several places where you can access the rim trail.
I ended my hike at this waterfall, which surprisingly was not frozen. Does it get icy during the coldest months? I don't know.
The least fun part of the hike is the trek back uphill, to the parking area. You don't have to follow the canyon rim -- there's another trail that swings away from the canyon, then reconnects near the trailhead. This alternate route might be a little less treacherous, since it crosses grassy ground, rather than ice-packed steps. But either way, you're still in for a climb to get back to the car.
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