Camping on Maligne Lake

Camping on Maligne Lake is the ideal way to experience Spirit Island, one of the most popular attractions in Jasper National Park which frequently lands on “Most Photographed Places in Canada” lists.  Tourists come to Canada from all over the world see this tiny island.  Set against a backdrop of turquoise water and surrounded by massive glacier capped mountains, it’s hard to blame them.

Most opt for a 90 minute boat tour that drops you off at a view point where you get a hurried 15 minutes to soak in the view and snap as many pictures as you can.  As we began researching it quickly became clear that not only was this an Alberta Bucket List destination, but that the most Zen way to enjoy this world class sight would be to paddle the length of the lake  and camp along the way.  No doing things the easy way in a tourist boat for us!

In choosing to paddle yourself there, you not only get to enjoy the picturesque setting of Spirit Island for longer than 15 minutes without fighting crowds for your perfect shot, but a canoe (or kayak) is the only way to see the rest of the lake past the island.  Shortly after leaving frenzy of the island behind, the views open up to the most breathtaking snow-capped peaks and the blissful sound of solitude which is most welcome after hearing the near constant din of the tourist boats up until that point. To call the views superlative would be insufficient. The mountains jut out from gem-hued water with such majesty it’s immediately humbling, as if you’re paddling among giants.

Spirit Island on Maligne Lake
Spirit Island

While most people believe that the show of Maligne Lake ends at Spirit Island, we would argue that after is where it truly begins. The roughly 7km from Spirit Island to Coronet Creek Campground is some of the most stunning mountain scenery we’ve ever seen, and we have seen our share. Few experiences compare to being in a canoe surrounded by mountains and glaciers for as far as the eye can see.

How to get to Maligne Lake

Maligne Lake is located in Jasper, National Park, which is about a 4 hour drive from Edmonton, Alberta or a 5 hour drive from Calgary, Alberta where the nearest airports are. While Edmonton may be a bit closer, driving from Calgary gives you the privilege of passing through Banff National Park and cruising the breathtaking Icefields Parkway, a route that is easily one of the most picturesque drives in all of Canada.

There are a number of options for hotels in the town of Jasper as well as great camping at Wapiti or Whistler campground  When we did our paddle, we stayed in town during the week but spent the night before our paddle at the Hostel International along the Maligne Lake Road to get an early start.

Driving to Maligne Lake from the townsite of Jasper will take about an hour and 15 minute drive along the Maligne Lake Road which has some stunning views so you may want to allow for extra time to drive the road in order to stop and take pictures.

The Maligne Lake Road could be a destination in it’s own right and Medicine Lake is one of the highlights of the drive.  During the spring, glacier run-off from Maligne River forms the lake and in the fall it drains through a series of underground channels, to the point where the entire lake can disappear into a mudflat. On this day, we were lucky to catch a perfect reflection in the still morning waters of Medicine Lake.

Medicine Lake Reflection on Maligne Lake Road
Mountain reflection on Medicine Lake

The History of Spirit Island

According to local Indigenous lore, the island is said to have been a meeting spot for two star-crossed lovers, where one lover waited for the other until he died, leaving his spirit behind.

In the 1950s, Kodak, looking to promote colour film for consumers, commissioned a photographer named Peter Gales to find remote and scenic locations worthy of their Colorama film.  Peter Gales snapped a photo of this tiny island and it became part of Kodak’s Colorama massive 18’ by 60’ display in Grand Central Station.  The image understandably inspired many to visit Jasper and Spirit Island making it one of the most photographed views in the Canadian Rockies.   Nowadays the island is featured in Travel Alberta’s “Remember to Breathe” promotions and used to market the Canadian Rockies internationally.

So with the destination in mind we finished our research, made our plans, and strapped a canoe down to our old, but dependable two-door 2003 Monte Carlo.  We may have gotten a few funny looks on our drive up to Jasper National Park.

Car with Canoe ready to go to Maligne Lake
Not entirely sure this car was made to haul canoes but it did the trick!

Backcountry Camping on Maligne Lake

There are 3 backcountry campgrounds along the length of the lake.  Each site needs to be booked in advance with Parks Canada and due to the area’s popularity trips are limited to six nights with two at each campground.

Hidden Cove Campground

Only 3.5km from the beginning of the lake, Hidden Cove is Jasper’s newest campground and is designed to be a beginner, family friendly destination.  We didn’t spend any nights here but we checked it out and while it was a little bit windy, it would be a great place to take the family or for a gentle introduction to the backcountry paddling experience.  It is well supplied with a shelter that you can eat your dinner in (or hide from the rain), fire pits, and room for a maximum of 14 campers.

If you aim to spend the night stick to the right side of the lake as it is hidden in a cove (guess that’s where they got the name!) and would be easy to paddle past. Keep your eyes peeled for the osprey, mergansers, and loons that all nest nearby.

Fisherman’s Bay Campground

A 14 km paddle from the Maligne Lake Dock, this is where most spend their first night on the lake.  With a late start and a headwind we easily made it there in a day with plenty of time to set up our tent and cook dinner before the sun set.   While, a little more rustic than Hidden Cove it’s a great backcountry campground with fantastic views of Mt. Charlton, Samson Peak, Maligne Mountain, and campsite locations right on the lake.

Campsite on Fisherman's Bay, Maligne Lake
Not a bad campsite!

Fisherman’s Bay is only a couple of kilometres from Spirit Island so if you get to the campground early and have energy to spare you could potentially tack on a trip to the island and back.

Coronet Campground

This is the end of the line.  At the end of the lake and only accessible by a 23km paddle from the dock, or 9km from Fisherman’s Bay, this campsite is quiet and situated in the most beautiful setting.   There are 6 campsites and like Fisherman’s Bay, it is equipped with the essentials – fire pits, picnic tables, bear-proof lockers, and pit toilets. Look out for the resident harlequin ducks that spend the summer near the campground, they are quite cute!

There is a hike you can take up to Coronet Glacier but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to check it out.  Maybe next time!

View from Maligne Lake Coronet Campground
Coronet Campground, the end of the line.

Navigating Maligne Lake

From the Maligne Lake Public Dock campsites are located as follows:

Hidden Cove Campsite: 3.5km
Fisherman’s Bay Campsite: 14km
Spirit Island: 16km
Coronet Creek: 23km

There are also several picnic locations you can stop for lunch or a break along the lake including Trapper Creek, Four Mile Point, Sampson Narrows, and Spindly Creek. Each are equipped with a fire pit, picnic tables, and pit toilets.

I wasn’t thrilled with the maps that were online so I put together a google map that outlines the campgrounds and picnic areas.

Locations on this map are approximate but it should give you the information you need to plan your own trip.

Our Canoe Trip on Maligne Lake

Our original plan was to paddle in to Coronet Campground, spend two nights, head back to Fisherman’s Bay, and then head the rest of the way out the next day.

In hindsight we were a little ambitious, as we had hiked the Skyline Trail (3 days, 2 nights) beforehand and needed more time to rest, recover, and dry out.  We’ve written before about the benefits of going off script while travelling so after eating some Parks Canada cancellation fees we re-booked.  The new plan was to paddle in to Fisherman’s Bay and set up camp on day one.  On the next day we would visit Spirit Island, continue to Coronet campground and then return to Fisherman’s Bay for the night.  On the 3rd day we would paddle back to the car and wrap up our trip.

Aside from the long day paddling to Coronet and back this was likely a little more realistic since the paddle all the way out from Coronet would have been a long one.  In hindsight, our recommended itinerary would be:

  • 1 night at Fisherman’s Bay
  • 1-2 nights at Coronet
  • 1 night at Fisherman’s Bay and paddle out the next day

This would be a manageable itinerary without long days of paddling, giving you time to relax at each campground, hike to Coronet Glacier, and plenty of time to enjoy the views including many pictures of  Spirit Island.  Staying at Fisherman’s Bay a couple nights would also give you the option to paddle out to Spirit Island for some amazing photos during golden hour, sunset or even at night.

We enjoyed our days in relative peace and quiet, admiring the views as we headed closer to the end of the lake.   Aside from the boats carrying tourists to Spirit Island, our sightings of people were few and far between. Those we did meet, including a pair of old fishermen friends who do the paddle every year, a couple incredible photographers, and the lovely folks who let us warm up by their fire after getting soaked on the way back from Coronet, filled us joy and good memories.

We saw a fair bit of wildlife including osprey, several loons, a harlequin duck, pine grosbeak, deer, and a moose along the banks.  Unfortunately we weren’t as lucky as others who have reported sightings of caribou, maybe next time. And there will be a next time, this is one paddle we could both see ourselves doing again and again.

Loon on Maligne Lake
Loon stretching his wings on Maligne Lake

Spirit Island

This is the part where we burst your bubble; Spirit Island isn’t even an island.  The proper term would be a peninsula but I guess the advertising executives at Kodak didn’t think Spirit Peninsula had the same ring to it.  They’re probably right.  Paddling by you could easily miss Spirit Island if you didn’t know what you were looking for but viewed from just the right angle (and there is a viewing platform for the tour boats so don’t worry, you can’t miss it) it is a sight to behold and you can understand why it’s one of the most photographed locations in the Canadian Rockies.

If you elect to take one of the boat tours you’ll only get 15 minutes on the island to snap some pictures and then you’re ushered back to the boat.  Those of us that go to the island under our own power can linger and soak in the view!

Maligne Lake Cruise Boat
Cruise boat pulling in to Spirit Island

Paddling to Coronet Campground & Return

Not only is it quiet after Spirit Island as the tour boats don’t go any further but some of the best views are actually after Spirit Island.  For the 7km paddle from Spirit Island to Coronet Campground you will be alone and surrounded by impressive glacier capped mountains.   As you get closer to Coronet the views just keep getting better; truly an excellent place to find your travel zen.

Mountain Views on Maligne Lake
Views after Spirit Island open up making it easier to find your travel zen.

We went to Coronet, made our lunch, and with rain on the horizon we jumped back in the canoe to start our return trip to Fisherman’s Bay.  Shortly after we pulled out the rain we were afraid of started pouring down and the wind shifted against us.  Maligne Lake has a reputation for winds that can shift at any time and we definitely experienced that.  At one point despite furious paddling we were not even moving!  We pulled to the side and thankfully despite the rain picking up the wind died down so that we could finish heading back to camp.  We made it and soaked to the bone and freezing we changed in to dry clothes and curled up in to our sleeping bags to warm up. Some lovely folks invited us to warm by their fire while we stoked our own  to cook dinner and some much needed hot chocolate.

After we had warmed up and got our own fire blazing, we met some new friends, Gavin “Fototripper” Hardcastle and Rachel Jones Ross of Astralis Photography.  A testament to the popularity of Spirit Island and the dedication of photographers to get the shot, they paddled out to Spirit Island in the rain hoping to get some starry pictures of the island but unfortunately there was too much cloud cover.  These two do photo workshops so if you’re in to photography at all check out their websites!  When they came back wet and cold we paid the fire-sharing forward, and invited them to drink some wine and chat for awhile before hunkering down for our last night on Maligne Lake.

Safety on Maligne Lake

Now is the time to discuss safety!  Maligne Lake is a gorgeous setting to canoe or kayak in, but in the mountains weather can change quickly and help is not nearby, so you do need to be prepared to take care of yourself.  We’ve gotten ourselves into less than ideal situations before, it can happen to you too!

  • It should go without saying but let someone know where you’re going, provide them a copy of your itinerary, and let them know when you plan to be back. You won’t have any cellular reception until you get back to the Jasper townsite so plan accordingly.   A Spot GPS would be beneficial.
  • Maligne Lake is the second largest glacier fed lake in Canada. The water is COLD.  If you take a spill hypothermia is a serious risk.  Wear a PFD and stay close the shore so that if something does happen you don’t have far to swim to safety.
  • The boats that head to Spirit Island and back leave a wake so again, paddle close to the shore rather than right along the path of the boats and you’ll be okay.
  • Wind is another factor you may need to contend with. We were lucky enough to get to paddle against the wind both ways AND deal with a storm on our way back from Coronet Campground.  Be prepared to paddle hard and for it to take longer than you expected to reach your destination.  Plan accordingly with food and warm clothes.
  • If you end up going through the Maligne Lake rinse cycle like we did, you’ll be very glad to have a second set of warm, dry clothes waiting for you in your tent or a waterproof bag.
  • Pack light enough to not overweight your boat, but do afford yourself some luxuries like a crib board, wine, or heaps of hot chocolate. No need to pack like you’re wearing it on your back for this paddle.
  • Start early as the water is often calmer earlier in the day.
  • Bear sightings have been reported at Maligne Lake so pack and know how to use bear spray. Store your food in the bear proof lockers that each campsite is equipped with.

Wrap Up

Whether you choose to explore Maligne Lake by taking one of the boat tours or follow our advice and book a backcountry campsite to paddle the length of the lake, it truly is an incredible destination.  Take lots of pictures if you do go camping on Maligne Lake, we’d love to see them!

Maligne Lake - Spirit Island View
This view of Spirit Island might look familiar.

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