About 25 years ago, when my hair was much darker and my wife's hair color had achieved a perfection that will never change, we took a trip to Banff National Park. We stayed for several days and liked it, of course.
It being our first time in Alberta, we drove up to Lake Louise, about an hour north, had lunch at the famed Chateau Lake Louise, did a short hike along the equally famed Actual Lake Louise, then headed north again on the glorious Icefields Parkway to Jasper National Park.
There, at Jasper, we rented a modest cabin with great views of mountains and water and trees, sat on the front porch, gazed at the beauty surrounding us, held hands, listened to the quiet, hiked a little, stayed for just two nights ... and realized we'd done this trip all wrong.
"I've heard it over and over and over again," says Todd Noble. "When they get to Jasper. ... "
OK, here's the deal — and let's make this clear: There's nothing wrong with Banff National Park or the town of Banff within it. That park's scenery is gorgeous. The castlelike Banff Springs hotel — a Fairmont, like the luxurious Chateau to the north and the less-palatial Jasper Park Lodge farther up the road — is justifiably celebrated. You can dine well and shop well at Banff, and in winter, the skiing is first-rate. There's a reason nearly 4 million vacationers vacation there annually and good reasons many of them at least make a quick stop at Lake Louise.
And then, 180 miles north of Banff — if they think of it — there's Jasper.
"And then," says Noble, "they get up here, and they go, 'Holy smokes! We should've booked more time in Jasper!' They get up to Jasper, and they just realize, '[mild curse word]!' "
Now understand, Noble is general manager of the Jasper SkyTram, which, at a reasonable cost, shuttles people a few at a time 7,500 feet up Whistlers Mountain and back. So he has a vested interest.
But he's right: mild curse word.
Mike Gere, like many people in a lot of seasonal tourist places, works a couple of jobs in Jasper. When he isn't doing freelance photography or photography workshops, he's doing — well, this.
"It's funny," says Gere, who, as he spoke, was calmly steering a large rubber raft, a passenger and a dog named Ginger among rocks and swirls on the Athabasca River's bouncy near-Class II rapids, "because my own story of coming to Jasper is like that."
An Ottawa native, he was in his teens when the family drove across Canada to the Rockies, found Banff crowded and rainy (the crowds were inevitable; the rain was a fluke) and cut their planned weeklong stay to three days. But Jasper. …
"We had a really nice campground, creek running through it, beautiful forest, beautiful weather — we just loved everything about Jasper. Jasper stuck in all of our heads so much that when my sister and I moved out of the house, my mom moved here. A little while later, my sister moved here."
Then Gere, now 41, followed. And stayed. This is his 10th season guiding for Jasper Raft Tours.
"I just really love it out here."
Worth the drive
Everyone, once they get out here, seems to love it. Yet Banff National Park, half the acreage of Jasper, draws twice as many visitors.
Part of it, everyone says, is convenience. The nearest international airport to Banff (population 8,000) — in Calgary — is only two hours away from that park. On the other hand, the international airport nearest Jasper (population 5,000) — in Edmonton — is a four-hour drive from Jasper; Jasper to Lake Louise is 144 miles.
The fact that most of those 144 miles are on the scenic mountain-lined Icefields Parkway is a good-news/bad-news proposition. The good news is the scenery. The bad news is the scenery.
"From Lake Louise to Jasper, straight shot — 2½-hour drive," says Noble. He tells people to allow a whole day. They think he's nuts. He's not. "Because you're going to be stopping every other kilometer to take pictures and see the sights and take it in. It's a day well spent."
One of the stops surely would be the Columbia Icefield, the mother of eight glaciers (though not one itself), about 65 miles south of Jasper town. Bruce Freeman, long ago from Philadelphia, has been hauling people on humongous vehicles to the edge of the ice field, and explaining ice science to them, for a decade.
The ice field, marvelous as it is, and its glacial offspring are not doing well.
"In the last five years, we've really noticed the difference," says Freeman. "We're having these beautiful days, which are absolutely horrible for the glaciers. The sun is heating up all this rock."
Could it be. …
"There are natural cycles," he says, correctly anticipating the rest of the question, "but we're certainly not helping by what we're doing. The only thing we can control is our own consumption of fossil fuels."
And as long as we were in the neighborhood, we stopped at the Glacier Skywalk (brewster.ca; tickets are sold as a combo with a ride on the humongous ice field vehicle), a mostly steel pathway miraculously invisible (almost) from the parkway. It features a chance to lie flat on your tummy on something clear and look straight down into Sunwapta Valley.
Back toward town, there are motorcycle tours. "Bears love the sound of the motors, especially Harley motors," says guide/biker Rob Logan (jaspermotorcycletours.com). And there are hikes, guided and unguided: Paula Beauchamp (walksntalks.com) has been leading guests through Maligne Canyon, one of the park's better walks, and on other trails since 1995.
And there's that Jasper SkyTram, which may sound like just another offseason ski lift — or a duplicate of Banff's Gondola — but is neither.
"Once you get to the top with the Banff Gondola, you're at the top," says Noble. "But with the tram, you can get off the boardwalk and access a natural alpine hiking trail on the summit — another 600-foot vertical gain. The sense of accomplishment that most people get is amazing, you know?"
So like Banff, Jasper has ... well ... stuff. And mountains and waterfalls and trails and wilderness and lakes and rental canoes and, of course, bears and elk and bighorn sheep and other critters. These are national parks in the Canadian Rockies.
But there's a difference. Beauchamp knows Banff well but grew up in Jasper, and here she stays.
"In the late '80s, our government put a [building] moratorium on all the towns in national parks, but Banff had already exploded," she said. "Banff has become really, really busy."
Jasper? No explosion. Still mellow, relatively unrushed.
"It's one of the Rockies' best-kept secrets," said Gere, the river guide. "Don't tell anybody."
Well, OK — but I'll tell everybody this: A framed color photo of my wife and me in Jasper, near that cabin, has been atop our bedroom dresser for about 25 years.
We look at it a lot.