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Maligne Canyon is one of the most impressive attractions in Jasper National Park and a true Alberta bucket list experience. In winter, the canyon becomes a surreal, icy wonderland, with 30+ meter frozen waterfalls and walls of hanging icicles at every dramatic turn in the narrow gorge. This is why it is considered one of the most impressive things to do in Jasper in winter.
It is possible to admire these frozen waterfalls from the six pedestrian bridges and walking trail up the canyon. However, when the ice is thick enough, you can walk right on the frozen river itself, called the Maligne Canyon Icewalk.
While a guided experience like this one is safest, it is still possible to do a self-guided Maligne Canyon Icewalk tour. We even did the ice walk with our kids, only 5 and 6 at the time.
Despite being their first winter hike, and with a frigid temperature of -20°C that day, our kids LOVED the Icewalk. Yes, we took a wrong turn and got a little lost, but only so that I can now tell you how NOT to do that (I swear!)
To this day, the Icewalk remains one of our most memorable experiences in Jasper with our kids. Since then, I’ve returned on my own to venture even deeper up the canyon and get more photos. It’s remarkable how different the frozen canyon looks year after year, as you’ll see in some of the photos in this article of the same spot in different years.
Below I’m going to cover how Maligne Canyon was formed, the best time to do the Icewalk, reasons to use a guide, what equipment is needed, where to park for the Maligne Icewalk, how to find the Icewalk entrance, and finally, the walking route we took with our kids.
How Was Maligne Canyon and the Icewalk Formed?
Incredibly, Maligne Canyon (and much of Jasper National Park and Alberta’s other Rocky Mountain national parks, including Banff and Waterton Lakes) was at the bottom of a tropical sea that divided North America until around 100 million years ago.
After that, the continents collided and forced the Rocky Mountains upward. This is why fossilized coral and marine animals like crinoids have been found in the Medicine Lake and Maligne Lake areas.
Maligne Lake is the source of Maligne River, which flows on to Maligne Canyon. The valley in which they sit was carved out by massive glaciers in the last several ice ages. Today, Maligne Lake remains the largest of Jasper Nation Park’s lakes.
Water flows from Maligne Lake to Medicine Lake. After Medicine Lake, amazingly, all the water disappears underground for 14 km (9 mi) before reappearing in several spots at Maligne Canyon.
Both Medicine and Maligne Lakes can be reached by following the Maligne Lake Road past Maligne Canyon. It’s a beautiful drive, and Maligne Lake is home to one of the most incredible views in the Rockies, Spirit Island, which you can reach by ferry in summer. Besides the ferry ride, there are several other fun things to do at Maligne Lake in summer.
Maligne Canyon actually started as a cave system under glaciers. Meltwater from glaciers has over the course of several millennia (and ice ages!) carved a deep gorge into the soft karst bedrock below, 55 m (180 ft) deep at some points.
The glaciers rubbed the roof off the caves, and eventually melted away, while the stream continues to carve the subsequent gorge deeper and deeper. In summer and fall, the water flow is at its highest, forming some of Alberta’s most beautiful waterfalls as it flows through the gorge.
Around October and November, the creek slowly begins freezing, while the canyon’s many waterfalls gradually transform into frozen cascades. Many smaller stream which flow from the sides into the canyon, most of which originate at Medicine Lake, also become gorgeous walls of hanging icicles, making this one of the most beautiful places to visit in the Canadian Rockies.
When Is It Safe to Do the Maligne Canyon Icewalk?
Once the ice on Maligne Creek becomes thick enough, it is possible to walk right on the frozen creek. However, there is no precise date when this becomes safe enough to do. There needs to be enough very cold days in the season to build up to a thickness that can safely support your weight.
This can happen as early as December in a colder year, but I would recommend waiting until January to be sure. January to March are the best months, but by late March and early April, it can start getting dodgy again.
The biggest concern is that underneath the ice, the river is still flowing! If you fall through the ice into the freezing water, there’s a good chance you won’t be seen again anytime soon.
You may notice that in some sections lower down toward Fifth Bridge, the water isn’t flowing at all–some former waterfalls are totally dry. Don’t be fooled by that–it’s because the water has gone underground for that section. In the main Icewalk section, around Fourth and Third Bridges, icy cold river water is still flowing beneath the ice.
Is a Guide Needed for Maligne Icewalk?
The simple answer is that no, a guide is not needed to do the Maligne Canyon Icewalk. We did it on our own with two young kids. However, if you want to do it on your own, you are taking a risk (as the signs clearly point out).
You can minimize the risk by dressing appropriately, using the necessary equipment (see the following section), only doing this hike when the ice is thick enough, not getting close to the sides or going under frozen falls, and just overall being very careful and safe.
Having said that, there’s no denying that you’ll probably have a better and more risk-free experience if you go on a guided walk like this one. The guides know what they are doing (while most visitors really don’t). They know the best spots, and they can point out cool things you’ll probably never notice (like fossils!)
I have nothing against guided tours, and I’d recommend going on one if you want to get more out of the experience, or if you want to guarantee a safer experience. I only wrote this guide for those who intend to do it on their own.
What Equipment is Needed to Do the Maligne Icewalk?
If you’re planning to walk right on the frozen creek, ice cleats/crampons are essential. This is because the frozen creek is extremely slippery. It’s not always flat, either–have you ever tried walking up or down a hill made of pure, smooth ice?
You don’t need really fancy crampons like the ones used by ice climbers. Simple ones that slip around your boots and have little metal spikes on the bottom will do. We got ours (including some very simple kid-sized ones, see picture below) at Mountain Equipment Co-Op in Edmonton, and they did the trick. They didn’t cost too much, either.
Just make sure they are tight enough on your shoes–we saw many lost ones on the walking trail through Maligne Canyon.
By the way, if you’re from Edmonton like us, check out my guide to the best winter activities in Edmonton!
If you only plan to walk the trail up and down Maligne Canyon, and not walk on the frozen creek, then ice cleats are not as essential, but still very helpful. Parts of the trail are a little steep and can become quite slippery, so ice cleats will definitely save you from a fall or two.
A walking pole is another very useful item that can further protect you from falls. Finally, while you won’t see too many people wearing them, helmets really should be worn on the Icewalk portion, especially if you’re planning to go deep into the canyon (which we did not do) or anywhere near the frozen waterfalls or walls of icicles.
Where To Park to Access the Maligne Canyon Icewalk
There are three main parking lots providing access to Maligne Canyon. These are at First, Fifth, and Sixth Bridges.
The parking lot at First Bridge at the top of the canyon (furthest from the Yellowhead Highway) is the main parking lot for Maligne Canyon. It is the largest and even has a restaurant and a hostel. Most people choose to park here, especially in summer, because the gorge is at its most dramatic around the First, Second, and Third Bridges.
However, if you’re coming in winter to do the Maligne Canyon Icewalk, I don’t suggest parking at the First Bridge parking lot. This is because you will be walking downhill into the canyon before reaching the entrance to the Icewalk.
That’s fine, but what sucks is that at the end, after you’ve finished the Icewalk and feel tired, you have to walk uphill back to your car, which can be slippery and very tiring. If you’re fit and/or used to hiking in winter, then it’s no big deal. But if you’re visiting with elderly or kids (like us), or aren’t an experienced hiker, then I don’t recommend it.
Instead, do yourself a favor and park your car at Fifth Bridge, which also has a decent-sized parking lot and an outhouse. Then you’ll be walking upstream/uphill, but very gently so, as the lower portion of the canyon isn’t steep at all. The beauty of this is that, at the end of your Icewalk, it will be a very easy, downhill walk back to your car at Fifth Bridge.
From the parking lot, you cross Fifth Bridge to the other side of the river, go up the hill until you reach a fork, where you’ll right and follow the river upstream. From Fifth Bridge to the entrance to the Icewalk, it took us about 30 minutes (with young kids). Much of the scenery along the way looks like in the above photo, and there are various points where you can see the river.
There’s yet another small parking lot even further downstream (and very close to the Yellowhead Highway) at Sixth Bridge, but there’s no reason to start further down there for the Icewalk, unless you want to enjoy the total lack of crowds between Sixth and Fifth Bridges in winter. It’s actually a very lovely area, but it will take you longer to get to the Icewalk.
Where Does the Maligne Canyon Icewalk Start?
The entrance to the Maligne Canyon Icewalk is not clearly marked. Although popular, it’s not an official trail, and park operators probably don’t love the fact that masses of people do it, so they definitely don’t advertise it.
The main place that most people access the Icewalk is a gate that is located between Fifth and Fourth Bridges, on the north side of the river. It is much closer to 4th bridge, so if you’re walking downhill from the First Bridge Parking Lot, you’ll see the gate soon after passing Fourth Bridge. If you’re starting from Fifth Bridge like I recommend, keep reading below.
You can see what the gate looks like in the pictures below photo. After you climb through this gate (note the hole in the fence), you’ll descend a small hill to the river, then turn left and walk upstream through the canyon toward Fourth Bridge. The scenery gets dramatic almost immediately.
Note that sometimes the gate is open, while other times it’s closed and you’ll have to climb over it or through the hole in the fence (see picture below).
IMPORTANT: If you start your hike at Fifth Bridge, there are two other similar looking gates before you reach the correct one. Don’t go through them!
They are too early, and you won’t be able to reach the famous Icewalk section because you’ll come to a dead end at a large frozen waterfall. See pictures of the wrong gates below.
We reached the first gate 20 minutes after starting our walk from Bridge 5, and the second one another 5 minutes later. The correct (third) one was just two minutes after that one.
After we mistakingly took the second incorrect gate (third picture below), we did indeed reach the frozen river and walked on it upstream for several minutes. It was beautiful (though not as dramatic as the main Icewalk section further upstream), and totally devoid of people. So it wasn’t a total disaster.
If you want to escape the crowds, you may want to check it out, but you’ll have to backtrack after a while to get out, or climb out of the steep gorge like we did.
As you can see from the above photos, you can enjoy some fine scenery on the river if you take the second gate. But after we reached a froze waterfall blocking the way, we finally realized we’d gone down onto the river too early.
We didn’t want to backtrack, so we climbed up the snowy side of the canyon to get back onto the trail. Then we found the correct gate a few minutes further down the trail.
Still, this all made for a fun family adventure. But the point is: DON’T take the first or second gate, unless you want to have a little side adventure like we did.
Doing the Maligne Icewalk with Kids
From the CORRECT entrance to the Icewalk, we did like most people do and began venturing upstream in the direction of Fourth Bridge. I didn’t expect for my kids, who had zero winter hiking experience at that point, to be able to make it very far, especially with the super cold weather that day. Because of our little detour, we’d already been hiking for a good hour before we finally reached the Icewalk.
However, the kids had so much fun sliding around the ice that they got a second wave of energy at that point. They didn’t want to turn back!
As empty as these photos might seen, there were actually quite a few people there, including several guided tour groups.
Despite the kids’ insistence to press on, we didn’t go too much further up the canyon, anticipating the disaster that would ensue if the kids reached their point of exhaustion before getting back to the car.
After reaching a particularly impressive frozen waterfall that we could even climb in behind (see picture below), we decided to turn around. A year later, I returned on my own to venture further up the canyon (see pictures further below), only to realize we had missed the best part!
The canyon becomes even narrower and taller after that frozen waterfall you can go behind, so make sure you press on to that section. Within a short time, you’ll be able to see Fourth Bridge high above.
After that, the narrow section continues for some time, with some of the most dramatic views to be had. Approaching Third Bridge, you’ll reach some especially tall (30-meter) frozen waterfalls where ice climbers can often be seen doing their thing.
Before reaching Third Bridge, the Icewalk may become impassable, depending on the season. I reached a frozen waterfall that I could have climbed, but decided not to. Some people say that under certain conditions, you can even make it past Third Bridge. Just be careful!
Looking back at the trip with the kids, even though we didn’t make it to the most epic section, our decision to turn back when we did proved to be a good one.
By the time we we got close to the parking lot, Lavender’s hiking style had been reduced to short, repeated bouts of running, each followed by a dramatic collapse into the snow.
It was then that I was especially glad we hadn’t parked at Bridge 1 – I probably would have been carrying her all the way back uphill to the car if we had. At least going downhill, she had gravity on her side.
Just before Fifth Bridge, we enjoyed amazing views of Pyramid Mountain poking up beyond the trees (visible in the above photo).
All in all, we spent around 2.5 hours on the hike, which I considered a major success, especially considering that it was quite a cold day. The kids happily accepted their reward of BeaverTails is Jasper town after the hike!
When I returned the following year to do the hike without kids, I completed it in 2 hours. That included going much further up the canyon than I had with the kids, and many stops for taking pictures.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Maligne Canyon’s Icewalk is an experience of a lifetime. It was definitely one of the coolest things we’ve done in Jasper with our kids. If it makes you feel less anxious, or you want to get the most out of your experience, then do consider going with a guide.
If you prefer to do it on your own like we did, then please be safe! Also see my other ideas for fun things to do in Jasper in winter. I hope this guide provided all the info you need to have a fantastic Jasper Icewalk experience!