Updated: Apr 25, 2021
There is a place in Jasper National Park where no roads lead; A natural sanctuary surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks and water the colour of emeralds.
At 22 km in length, Maligne Lake is the largest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies and tucked away deep within the backcountry lies one of the most photographed natural landmarks in the world. The infamous Spirt Island.
"An image that truly captures the spirit of the Canadian Rockies"
I've been dreaming of visiting Spririt Island since I moved to the mountains a few years ago. In the late fall of 2020, my dream finally was realized as we secured two nights and three days paddling Maligne Lake. Below is a recount of our trip.
We began our journey on Maligne Lake with the stars.
We initially set our alarms for 330am, but hit snooze for another hour to let a weather system clear overhead. When we woke for the second time, we stepped outside of our camper van to clear skies and immediately forgot our sleepy eyes and started packing with excitement. We carried the canoe to the waters edge, and set out into the darkness.
Disclaimer: Maligne Lake is one of the coldest lakes in the rockies and conditions can change suddenly and abruptly. Both experienced paddlers and photographers looking to catch best light, we took full responsibility and understood the risk. Parks Canada does not recommend paddling in the dark or in bad weather. Please be advised.
Our journey was as beautiful as it was eerie. Our headlamps were tiny beacons in the pitch black of the night. We could make out the dark silhouettes of mountain peaks, the new moon and a spatter of stars amongst clouds in the sky. A soft breeze and the consistent lulling sound of the dip and pull of the oars as we cut through the surface of the water was the only thing we knew for sure. But we kept paddling.
We did our best to stay as close to the shoreline as we could, as recommended by Parks Canada, all the while trying not to imagine the depth and coldness of the lake. What a thrill. But I can't tell you how relieved I was when the sun began to rise on the horizon.
Although our main objective and the reason we left so early was to watch sunrise at Spirit Island, we misjudged our paddling time and instead watched the colours explode in the sky from our canoe.
"There is something about the sunrise and the way the skies change colour like fire in the fall months of September and October. It really is the most breathtaking experience, one that I hope everyone has the chance to witness at least once in their lifetime".
We stopped paddling and took it in, coasting along as our cameras clicked away in unison. It was spectacular beyond words, and we were buzzing with energy and anticipation for what was next.
We arrived at Fishermans Bay (13 km) soon afterwards and thought of pulling in to set up camp, but decided to carry on to Spirit Island as it was only a short 2km away. Once docked on the island shores, we enjoyed a peaceful and solitary few hours exploring this jewel in the heart of the Rockies. It's not often you find yourself as one of only two people in an area as busy as Spirit Island. It was a surreal experience, and an absolute dream come true.
Although overcast, we couldn't help but appreciate the magnificent colours of fall and how they stood out in beautiful contrast to the colour of the lake.
The journey was already worth our efforts and we were only a few hours in.
Satisfyingly exhausted from lack of sleep and 15km of paddling, we headed back to Fishermans Bay to set up our home base for the next few days. We cooked breakfast and enjoyed a good cup of coffee before slipping into our sleeping bags for the most wonderful mid morning nap. Is there anything better?
After a few hours we woke up and sat by the lake watching the tourist boats as they whizzed back and forth across the bay touting visitors to and from Spirit Island. We couldn't help but feel grateful for our mornings experience.
To fully appreciate the beauty of this area, I highly recommend booking yourself a campsite. Even if its only for one night, you won't regret it. The true treasures of Maligne Lake reveal themselves with time. Details and information on booking below.
We sipped tea and filled up on snacks as we waited for our friends arrival. As a group we had planned on traveling back to Spirit Island to photograph the sunset.
It did not disappoint!
We stayed well into blue hour, working with the unique clouds overhead while using our head torches to light up the lake.
The quiet was deafening without the constant humming of boats during the day. It was pure magic and we had a difficult time tearing ourselves away.
After our starlit paddle back to the campsite, we spent the remainder of the night by the fire warming ourselves from the chill of the lake and fall weather.
Maligne Lake allows fires from 6am to 11pm, and truly makes the backcountry experience that much sweeter.
We cooked up a delicious charcuterie board, compliments of Phil, and devoured chocolate for desert while enjoying conversation and storytelling with our fellow campers.
Backcountry nights after a day of exertion and a belly full of food sit different. We immeditaley drifted off to sleep with the distant call of loons and the smell of burnt firewood.
Looking back on this experience, I have to admit that the second day on the lake was our absolute favourite. We woke up at the crack of dawn, packed the canoe for the day and paddled by headlamp to the Valley of the Gods for sunrise. We sat on the shoreline, brewing our morning coffee and preparing breakfast and took in the grandiosity of the mountain peaks. The water was incredibly calm and reflected every cloud and colour in the sky.
The lake remained like glass for the majority of the day as we leisurely paddled our way down to Cornet Creek.
Maligne Lake is home to grizzly and black bears, mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep and moose
A few days away from October 1st, I'll never forget how brightly the sun shone that day. It was a true gift for fall in the rockies and warmed our backs as we sat first class to the wildlife wandering on the shores. We stopped at the day use areas to eat lunch and skip rocks on the beach. It was the most relaxed I had felt all summer.
As you reach the end of the 22km paddle, you can see the melt-water channels of the Coronet Glacier. Although we never stayed overnight here, it wasn't difficult to see why Coronet Creek is such a destination in itself. What better place to hike, fish, and relax by the fire. You literally feel removed from the rest of the world and can enjoy natures pure beauty at its finest.
We spoke to a local man that had been visiting Maligne Lake every year for the past 20 years. He had hiked nearly every peak in the valley and offered so much knowledge and information on the area. I'm kicking myself now for not having wrote everything down...but who brings a pen to the backcountry.
In all honesty, encounters such as these might be my favourite thing about escaping the hustle and bustle of civilization. You just never know who you’re going to meet and I cherish these conversations and moments with strangers bonded by the love and respect for nature.
After learning how to gut fish and checking out the surrounding trails, we ventured back to Spirit Island to meet up with our two friends and spent the remainder of the day basking in the midday sun.
Another 15km or so that day in the canoe, sleep came quickly and easily. But we had one more mission!
Before our 13km paddle back to the launch site, we decided to take advantage of every minute and paddled once again to the Valley of the Gods for sunrise. Luck really seemed to be on our side this trip as once again we were treated to an array of orange and pink simmering in the skies!
We knew not to linger long as a bad weather system threatening high winds and possibly snow was heading our way. But such moments are difficult to tear yourself away from.
We sat and enjoyed the peacefulness of our surroundings, watching as our friends fly fished from the shores. The water was like glass. We finally made our way back to camp to pack up the remainder of our gear and started paddling back towards the boat launch.
It took us nearly 3 hours to paddle in and just over 4hours to paddle home. The lake was white cap ridden and we battled what felt like gail force winds the entire journey home, but we made it safely and came back with memories and photographs to last a lifetime.
Thinking of booking a trip to Maligne Lake?
Booking a Reservation
Go to Parks Canada Reservation Service
When booking a trip to Maligne Lake, securing a reservation may be you greatest challenge. As soon as the reservation line opens with Parks Canada, this highly sought after spot is booked out within minutes. If you’re not one of the lucky few that manages to be first to the punch, try not to worry. If you allow some flexibility in your schedule, and don’t mind visiting outside the busy months of July and August, the cancellation line will more often then not present a few opportunities later in the season and without the crowds.
There are three designated campsites along Maligne Lake which you can base your stay on experience and/or paddling level.
Hidden Cove. 4km from launch site, this small four-site campground is aimed for novice paddlers and families
Fishermans Bay. At 13km from launch site, this campground is tucked away into a small cove on the east side of the lake. The world famous Spirit Island is another 2km paddle from here.
Coronet Creek. At 21.3km from launch site, this campground is the perfect place to do some angling, hiking or relaxing.
There is a 6 night maximum stay at the campgrounds, two nights maximum at each site.
It is worth noting that Maligne Lake is one of the coldest lakes in the rockies and traveling in poor weather on the lake is not recommended. Weather can change suddenly, so it is important to paddle close to the shoreline and always wear your life jacket. Parks Canada also recommends getting an early start, as the lake is generally calmer in the mornings, becoming more choppy as the day wears on.
Whether you fish with a guide or by yourself, you’ll need to obtain a Parks Canada Fishing License $10 a day or $35 a week. Licensing is available at the park information centre or On-Line Sport and Tackle in Jasper.
Looking to extend or broaden your vacation experience? North Campervans offers affordable and inclusive packages with water and land sport equipment.
There are a few local outfitters that provide rental services in Jasper. See below to name a few.
Will Current outfitters
Maligne Lake Boat Rentals
Rates may vary between kayak and canoe rentals. Kayaks are somewhat more expensive than canoes.
We booked with Pure Outdoors for two nights and three days and conveniently picked up our canoe at the Maligne Lake Boat Launch. We paid around $210 and would certainly return based on our wonderful experience.
Be Bear Aware
Maligne Lake is truly a backcountry paradise. But as with any adventure into the backcountry, it is important to be aware of wildlife and practise proper camping etiquette. Carry bear spray and store food and drink in bear caches provided at the designated campsites. Pack away garbage and refrain from keeping scented products in your tent. Make sure to take out what you pack in and practise no trace rules.
Do your own research
With any adventure, the more research you do on an area, the more comfortable you’ll be during the experience. Know your own physical limitations and take your time. Consider safety and always carry a first aid kit. Look into purchasing or renting an INreach device or satellite phone in case of emergencies. The investment can save a life.
We try to carry as light as possible on our backcountry trips, and this canoe camping trip was no different. However, if you want to bring extra supplies/equipment, books, delicious food, firewood etc, use the space of the canoe to your advantage.
We use a two person lightweight tent, a sleeping pad, -10 sleeping bags and camp pillows. We always bring a first aid kit, Garmin INreach device, emergency blanket, tarp and enough food supply to last one or two days after our anticipated return.
We carry a Jet boil and/or camp stove, water purifier for drinking water, matches, dry bags, garbage bags and lots of warm layers. I personally pack two sets of base layers, ice breaker or merino wool socks, a fleece, packable down jacket and a shell. A rain poncho is a great addition to canoe camping.
We chose to make home base at Fishermans Bay. But, If you are fortunate enough to book more than two nights, I would definitely recommend staying at least one of those nights at Coronet Creek. The informative sites are correct…Once you leave Spirit Island behind and enter through the Valley of the Gods, this is where you will find the true tranquility of the lake.
Written by Jenna Dixon
Images by Jenna Dixon and Peter O'Hara