Overview and Route Information
Do you want to get close to a glacier, close enough to see and hear huge blocks of ice falling from it and down a mountainside? Do you want to stand beside the strangely colored waters of a glacial pond with icebergs (small ones-- we're not talking the polar seas here) dotting its surface? Do you want to walk through alpine and subalpine meadows filled with stunted trees and fragile wildflowers, meadows with thrilling views of sheer, glaciated mountains?
If you're in the Canadian Rockies, all of this is but a hike or climb away. But what if you don't know the area well and don't have much information about it? What if your time is limited and you can only spend a few hours out of the car? (Underplanning for time out here was a serious mistake I made my first time in the Canadian Rockies.)
You can stop at the Icefield Centre below the Columbia Icefield and go to the Athabasca Glacier to find most of what the first paragraph decribes, you and seemingly 800,000 other people. There's nothing like the grinding of the snowcoaches up and down the glacier and the loading and unloading of tour buses to give that real wilderness feel. What is one of the most stunning sights along the Icefields Parkway is, in summer, a circus unless one visits at daybreak, when few or no other people will be around.
Or you can head north to the Jasper area and visit Cavell Meadows, which is a destination inside Jasper National Park. Take note-- this spot, too, is not secret, and if you arrive after 9 A.M. on a nice day, you may find a full parking lot. But that lot is far smaller than the lot at the Icefield Centre is (that parking area resembles a shopping mall's), the area is more remote as it is not directly off the Icefields Parkway, and the access road is too rough and narrow for tour buses.
The glaciers and mountains around Cavell Meadows are not as big and spectacular as those around the Columbia Icefield, and you cannot safely or sanely walk onto a glacier here as you can at the Athabasca, but the area is otherwise much nicer to visit if your interests and time allowances limit you to just two or three hours.
Path of the Glacier Loop
This one is quick and easy, but it still has excellent scenery, and it is great if you have young children with you. The loop is just 1.6 km (1 mile) and has little elevation gain. The loop, marked with interpretive displays, leads to Cavell Pond, fed by the dirt-covered Cavell Glacier. There may be small icebergs floating in the greenish water, which gets its color from sediments deposited by melting ice. Above you is a sight that will get a lot of attention from your ears, eyes, and camera-- the Angel Glacier. Seeming to hang from the mountainside, the glacier sits in a cirque between Mount Edith Cavell (left) and Mount Sorrow (right), supported (so it seems) by its "wings." An interpretive sign explains and shows how this glacier has shrunk, but it is still a magnificent sight. You will probably hear the thunder-like sounds of massive blocks of ice falling from the glacier. Some goat trails climb closer to the ice, but climbing them could turn out to be deadly because of the falling ice.
Cavell Meadows Loop
This longer loop includes the Path of the Glacier Loop but climbs higher, reaching into the alpine zone (this route is also part of the approach to the east ridge of Edith Cavell). It is 8 km (about 5 miles) and has an elevation gain of about 600 m (app. 1800') if one follows a spur to a highpoint in the meadows. Because of the length and elevation gain, the hike probably is not suitable for smaller children, but it is a reasonable objective if you are carrying a child on your back.
The trail breaks off from the Path loop on the east side of the loop, just before Cavell Pond. As it climbs, there are nice views down to the pond and the cravasses of the glacier that feeds it. There are also excellent views of Edith Cavell, Angel Glacier, and Mount Sorrow throughout the hike as it passes from subalpine forest to the treeline zone and finally to the alpine zone. Look for alpine plants and flowers, and take care to stay on the trail to avoid damaging the fragile ecosystem here.
Getting There7.5 km south of Jasper, before the Icefields Parkway crosses the Athabasca River, turn south onto Highway 93A. After 11.7 km, the Cavell Road branches to the right just past a bridge over the Astoria River. Follow the steep, narrow, and winding road to its end at the parking area for Cavell Meadows. From Jasper, allow about 45 minutes to an hour to reach the trailhead, which is at about 1800 m elevation (app. 5200').
The Cavell Road is paved, but it is rough in sections due to broken pavement, and the switchbacks are too tight and narrow for vehicles over 7 m (about 22') in length. Drop trailers off at the parking lot near the start of the road.
The Cavell Road is normally open from early June until mid-October, but that can vary depending on snow conditions. At the edges of the "open" season, it is best to contact the park (see links section) for current road-conditions information.
Red Tape, Camping and Lodging, Links
April 1, 2007- March 31, 2008 fees for Jasper are $8.90 (Canadian) per person per day and $62.40 for an annual pass good for 27 national parks.
More about fees, including current information
This is grizzly country. It is unlikely that you will encounter a bear on such a popular trail, but it is still good to know how to act around bears (so if you don't know what I mean, stay away from here until you do). And it is better to have pepper spray and not need it than it is to need it and not have it.
Camping and Lodging
Whistlers and Wapiti are the closest campgrounds. Some sites are reservable. The Mt. Edith Cavell Hostel is just minutes from the trailhead and within easy walking distance. The Jasper townsite has a plethora of hotels and lodges.
More on Jasper camping and lodging
Jasper National Park