Turn a New leaf in Jasper

Bella Falk takes a road trip in Jasper, Alberta, and finds herself falling for the many joys of the season

As the taxi winds through Jasper National Park, bright sunshine illuminates the fresh dusting of snow on the mountaintops.

On both sides of the road, silver-trunked aspens crowd the verges, their leaves radiant in shades of amber and gold.

I sigh with frustration. “It’s too much!” I complain to Heather, my driver. “Please can you stop?”
She obligingly pulls over so I can stand in the middle of the road to take some photos. It’s midday, but there are few other cars.

“Fall is the perfect time to come to Jasper,” she tells me. “Not only do you get these incredible colours, but there’s less traffic.”

From taxi drivers and receptionists to guides and waiters, everyone says the same thing: autumn is hands-down the best time to visit Jasper. In fact, I hear it so often that I’d think they’ve all been briefed – except I can see for myself.

With crisp mornings and mild days, glowing foliage and surprise wildlife encounters, Jasper in autumn is the best of all worlds.

Leaf lake

Hiking without the crowds

Spanning over 4,200 sq ms and reaching 3,782 metres at its highest peak, Jasper National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and heaven for outdoors enthusiasts.

The park is overflowing with jaw-dropping landscapes and alfresco activities: from easy sightseeing paths around Athabasca Falls and the dramatic Maligne Canyon to hiking to Mount Edith to mountain biking through the Valley of the Five Lakes to kayaking on Pyramid Lake.

In summer, more than a million visitors throng Jasper’s hotels, trails and car parks, and temperatures can top 30 degrees.

In autumn, however, guests can enjoy milder weather, bright days and cosy evenings, with none of the heat, crowds and potential wildfires that can occur in the peak season.

Many tours and services close for the winter, but most stay open until mid-October, allowing visitors to enjoy the park’s autumnal splendour in peace.

Boat cruises across the vivid green Maligne Lake to Spirit Island, one of Canada’s most photographed places and a spiritual site for the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, run until early October, while the switchbacked road up to the glaciated face of Mount Edith Cavell stays open until the first week of October or the first snowfall.

Leaf wildlife

Autumn wildlife

Another great reason to visit Jasper in autumn is the wildlife.

The park is home to more than 50 mammal species, including grizzly and black bears, moose, elk, cougar, and bighorn sheep.

While guests may stumble across animals by simply exploring the park, the best way to see Jasper’s fauna is to take one of Sundog Tours’ wildlife trips.

“Fall is amazing for wildlife,” says our guide, Ben. “It’s elk rutting season; at this time of year they’re everywhere, even in the town.

You have to be careful though, as they can be very aggressive! There’s also a good chance to see moose and bears, as they’re actively feeding and preparing for winter.”

On our three-hour drive around the park, we spot dozens of elk, the males sporting magnificent antlers, as well as bighorn sheep perched precariously on a cliff face, and my highlight, a glimpse of a black bear and her cub as they disappear into the forest.

Dark skies, night photography

By the time I meet Mike Gere, who runs Jasper Photo Tours, I already know what he’s going to say. “Fall is best!” he grins.

“Best for the colours, the misty mornings, the more civilised sunrise and sunset times, and the dark skies. For astrophotography it’s perfect: night-time temperatures are still above freezing, and you may even catch the Aurora Borealis,” Mike enthuses.

As well as being the largest National Park in the Canadian Rockies, Jasper is the world’s second largest Dark Skies Preserve, where light pollution is strictly controlled to protect the region’s pristine views of the heavens.

The Jasper Dark Sky Festival runs for two weeks in October, with photography tours and astronomy talks, telescope sessions at the Jasper Planetarium; and on selected evenings in September and October the Jasper Skytram offers late stargazing experiences.

Jasper Photo Tours run bespoke wildlife, landscape and night photography workshops to suit all skill levels. Mike takes me to Pyramid Lake for an astrophotography lesson – showing me how to set up my camera for the best star images and giving me tips on how shoot the Milky Way.

It feels almost spiritual to be alone in such a peaceful location, with the mountains reflecting off the mirror-calm water and not a sound apart from the occasional splash of a fish. But the heavens don’t want to play ball: it’s overcast and there aren’t many stars.

Undeterred, Mike teaches me the art of light painting – filling in the trees and bridge on Pyramid Island with an eerie glow from his torch. And when the bright four-fifths moon rises we capture that too, every crater and valley crisp through his 800mm lens.

Leaf woman

Indigenous experiences

That same moon watched over Canada’s Indigenous communities for thousands of years before white settlers arrived. Today Indigenous tourism – that is, tours owned and operated by Indigenous people, not those simply about them – is growing, with many guests keen to learn about Canada’s diverse First Nations cultures.

One of Jasper’s leading lights is Matricia Brown from the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation in northern Alberta – her Indigenous name is Isko-achitaw waciy (She Who Moves Mountains). Matricia runs Warrior Women, offering Indigenous cultural experiences including fireside chats, workshops and the one I do – a medicinal plant walk.

Tours are tailored to the seasons and since, it’s October, Matricia teaches us about the autumnal plants we find.

There are tiny white snowberries, which can be used to treat eye infections, and rose hips, which bloom after the first frost and are made into a tea with anti-inflammatory properties. “Many modern medicines contain the same active ingredients as these plants,” she explains, “but they focus on the symptoms, not the cause. We want to treat whole package – body, mind and spirit – so we use the whole plant.”

After only a few days, I’m convinced. With mild weather, vivid colours and fewer people, autumn in Jasper has won me over.

My only problem is this: getting places took me ages as I kept having to get the taxi to stop for another photo.

10 Reasons to sell the Rockies in Autumn

Changing colours. The Rockies are beautiful year round, but autumn colours make them spectacular.

Snow-capped peaks. The mountains get their first dusting of snow, adding to the photo opportunities.

Milder weather. Cooler temperatures are much better for hiking and biking, with less risk of wildfires.

Dark skies. With longer nights, autumn is the perfect time to enjoy Jasper’s world-famous stargazing.

Northern Lights. Darker skies also bring a chance to see the stunning Aurora Borealis.
Autumn wildlife. Rutting season means elk are out in force, while bears are busy fattening up for hibernation.

Fewer tourists and families. Schools have gone back, so prices fall and places are less crowded.

Less traffic. Summer roads are busy with sightseers, but driving in autumn is a breeze.

Wellness. On grey days Jasper’s spas offer the chance for cosy relaxation.

Autumnal ingredients. Jasper’s excellent restaurants serve seasonal local produce like pumpkins, mushrooms and apples.