Jasper National Park Nature Guide
Although the peaks of Jasper National Park are not particularly high, they are among the most spectacular along the range’s entire length. About 100 million years ago, layers of sedimentary rock–laid down here up to a billion years ago–were forced upward, folded, and twisted under tremendous pressure into the mountains seen today. The land’s contours were further altered during four ice ages that began around one million years ago. The last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago, and the vast glaciers began to retreat. A remnant of this final sheet of ice is the huge Columbia Icefield; covering approximately 325 square kilometers (125 square miles) and up to 400 meters (1,300 feet) deep, it’s the most extensive ice field in the Rocky Mountains. As the glaciers retreated, piles of rock melted out and were left behind. Meltwater from the glaciers flowed down the valleys and was dammed up behind the moraines. Maligne Lake, like many other lakes in the park, was created by this process. The glacial silt suspended in the lake’s waters produces amazing emerald, turquoise, and amethyst colors; early artists who painted these lakes had trouble convincing people that their images reflected reality.
In addition to creating the park’s gemlike lakes, the retreating glaciers carved out the valleys that they ever-so-slowly flowed through. The Athabasca River Valley is the park’s largest watershed, a typical example of a U-shaped, glacier-carved valley. The Athabasca River flows north through the valley into the Mackenzie River System and ultimately into the Arctic Ocean. The glacial silt that paints the park’s lakes is also carried down streams into the Athabasca, giving the river a pale green milky look. Another beautiful aspect of the park’s scenery is its abundance of waterfalls. They vary from the sparkling tumble of Punchbowl Falls, where Mountain Creek cascades down a limestone cliff into a picturesque pool, to the roar of Athabasca Falls, where the Athabasca River is forced through a narrow gorge.
Elevations in the park range from 980 meters (3,215 feet) to more than 3,700 meters (12,140 feet). That makes for a wide range of resident plant life. Only a small part of the park lies in the montane zone. It is characterized by stands of Douglas fir (at its northern limit) and lodgepole pine, while balsam poplar, white birch, and spruce also occur. Savanna-like grasslands occur on drier sites in valley bottoms. Well-developed stretches of montane can be found along the floors of the Athabasca and Miette River Valleys, providing winter habitat for larger mammals such as elk.
The subalpine zone, heavily forested with evergreens, extends from the lower valley slopes up to the tree line at an elevation of around 2,200 meters (7,220 feet). The subalpine occupies 40 percent of the park’s area. The dominant species in this zone is lodgepole pine, although Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, poplar, and aspen also grow here. The park’s extensive stands of lodgepole pine are inhabited by few large mammals because the understory is minimal. Wildflowers are common in this zone and can be found by the roadside, in clearings, or on riverbanks.
Timberline here lies at an elevation of 2,050 to 2,400 meters (6,275 to 7,870 feet) above sea level. Above this elevation is the alpine zone, where the climate is severe (the average yearly temperature is below freezing), summer is brief, and only a few stunted trees survive. The zone’s plant species grow low to the ground, with extensive root systems to protect them during high winds and through the deep snow cover of winter. During the short summer, these open slopes and meadows are carpeted with a profusion of flowers such as golden arnicas, bluebells, pale columbines, and red and yellow paintbrush. Higher still are brightly colored heather, buttercups, and alpine forget-me-nots.
Wildlife is abundant in the park and can be seen throughout the year. During winter many larger mammals move to lower elevations where food is accessible. February and March are particularly good for looking for animal tracks in the snow. By June, most of the snow cover at lower elevations has melted, the crowds haven’t arrived, and animals can be seen feeding along the valley floor. In fall, tourists move to warmer climates, the rutting season begins, bears go into hibernation, and a herd of elk moves into downtown Jasper for the winter.
While the park provides ample opportunities for seeing numerous animals in their natural habitat, it also leads to human-animal encounters that are not always positive. For example, less than 10 percent of the park is made up of well-vegetated valleys. These lower areas are essential to the larger mammals for food and shelter but are also the most heavily traveled by visitors. Game trails used for thousands of years are often bisected by roads, and hundreds of animals are killed each year by speeding motorists. Please drive slowly in the park.
Several species of small mammals thrive around campgrounds, thanks to an abundance of humans who are careless with their food. Columbian ground squirrels are bold and will demand scraps of your lunch. Golden-mantled ground squirrels and red squirrels are also common. The least chipmunk (often confused with the golden-mantled ground squirrel thanks to similar stripes) can also be seen in campgrounds; they’ll often scamper across your hiking trail, then sit boldly on a rock waiting for you to pass.
Beavers are common between the town of Jasper and the park’s east gate. Dawn and dusk are the best times to watch these intriguing creatures at work. Wabasso Lake, a 2.6-kilometer (1.6-mile) hike from the Icefields Parkway, was created by beavers; their impressive dam has completely blocked the flow of Wabasso Creek. Also common in the park’s wetlands are mink and muskrat; search out these creatures around the lakes on the benchland north of the town of Jasper.
Five species of deer inhabit the park. The large-eared mule deer is commonly seen around the edge of the town or grazing along the north end of the Icefields Parkway. White-tailed deer can be seen throughout the park. A small herd of woodland caribou roams throughout the park; they are most commonly seen during late spring in the Opal Hills or along a signposted stretch of the Icefields Parkway. The town of Jasper is in the home range of about 500 elk, which can be seen most of the year around town or along the highway northeast and south of town. Moose, although numbering fewer than 100 in all of Jasper, can occasionally be seen feeding on aquatic plants along the major drainage systems.
In summer, mountain goats browse in alpine meadows. A good place for goat watching is Goat Lookout on the Icefields Parkway. Unlike most of the park’s large mammals, these sure-footed creatures don’t migrate to lower elevations in winter but stay sheltered on rocky crags where wind and sun keep the vegetation snow free. Often confused with the goat is the darker bighorn sheep. The horns on the males of this species are thick and often curl 360 degrees. Bighorns are common in the east of the park at Disaster Point and will often approach cars. An estimated 2,500 bighorn reside in the park.
Numbering around 100 within Jasper National Park, black bears are widespread and occasionally wander into campgrounds looking for food. They are most commonly seen along the Icefields Parkway in spring, when they first come out of hibernation. Grizzly bears are occasionally seen crossing the Icefields Parkway at higher elevations early in summer. For the most part they remain in remote mountain valleys, and if they do see, smell, or hear you, they’ll generally move away. Read the Keep the Wild in Wildlife before setting out into the woods; the pamphlet is available at information centers throughout the park.
Several of the park’s resident species keep a low profile, usually out of sight of humans. Populations of the shy and elusive lynx fluctuate with that of their primary food source, the snowshoe hare. The largest of the big cats in the park is the cougar (also called the mountain lion), a solitary carnivore that inhabits remote valleys. Jasper’s wolves are one of the park’s success stories. After being driven to near extinction, the species has rebounded. Five packs now roam the park, but they keep to the deep wilderness rarely traveled by people. While not common in the park, coyotes can be seen in cleared areas alongside the roads, usually at dawn and dusk.
The pine marten is common but shy; look for them in subalpine forests. The short-tailed weasel—a relative of the marten—is also common, while the long-tailed weasel is rare. At higher elevations look for pikas in piles of fallen rock. Hoary marmots live near the upper limits of vegetation growth, where their shrill warning whistles carry across the open meadows; The Whistlers area, accessed by tramway, supports a healthy population of these noisy creatures.
The extensive tree cover in the lower valleys hides many species of birds, making them seem less abundant than they are; 248 species have been recorded. The two you’re most likely to see are the gray jay and Clark’s nutcracker, which regularly joins picnickers for lunch. Also common are black-and-white magpies, raucous ravens, and several species of ducks, which can be seen around lakes in the Athabasca River Valley. Harlequin ducks nest in the park during early summer. A stretch of the Maligne River is closed during this season to prevent human interference.
The colony of black swifts in Maligne Canyon is one of only two in Alberta. Their poorly developed legs make it difficult for them to take off from their nests in the canyon walls–they literally fall before becoming airborne. High alpine slopes are home to white-tailed ptarmigan, a type of grouse that turns white in winter. Also at this elevation are flocks of rosy finches that live under overhanging cliffs. In subalpine forests the songs of thrushes and the tapping of woodpeckers can be heard.
At dusk, great horned owls swoop silently through the trees, their eerie call echoing through the forest. Golden eagles and bald eagles can be seen soaring high above the forests, and around a dozen pairs of ospreys are known to nest in the park, many along the Athabasca River between town and the east park gate.