In summer, Jasper, Alberta teems with tourists who come from around the world to hike, paddle and enjoy the scenic splendour of Jasper National Park — the largest of the four national parks that make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks.
When the temperature drops, this charming small town is transformed into a frosty wonderland where winter sports enthusiasts of all kinds, hailing mostly from Alberta, come to play in the snow, visit galleries, sip local brews, soak in spas and generally chill out.
The mountain town especially springs to life during “Jasper in January,” an event-packed 18-day annual festival that shakes up the town with culinary celebrations, street parties, winter games and events at Marmot Basin Ski Resort. (This year’s fest just launched and runs until January 28.)
Here are a handful of highlights from my recent visit to Jasper during January, as well as a few things to look out for during this year’s festival.
The epic Icefield Parkway (Highway 93 North) between Lake Louise and Jasper is one of the most spectacular drives in Canada, a huge attraction unto itself.
Built as a Depression-era make-work project in the 1930s — where two teams of labourers, one starting from Jasper and the other from Lake Louise, built a road up the spine of the Rockies and met in the middle — the Parkway in winter can be a bear.
Leave the white-knuckle driving to the pros. SunDog Tour Company‘s shuttle buses ply the routes between the Edmonton and Calgary International Airports and Jasper, with points in between, and their drivers know the road intimately. They carry chains and satellite phones because you’re often out of cell range.
Sit back, ogle the icefalls, the glaciers, the soaring mountains and the occasional, attention-seeking bighorn sheep.
Bonus points: In a heart-clutching moment after arriving at my hotel, I realize I’d left my camera on the bus. SunDog staff retrieved it and dropped it off at my hotel early the next day. They’re that nice.
Warm and welcoming, the Sawridge Inn and Conference Centre Jasper at the east end of the townsite is popular with business types, families and snow hounds. It’s nabbed several environmental and management awards.
Owned and operated by the Sawridge Cree First Nation of Slave Lake, Alberta, which also owns three other hotels in the province, these accommodations pay subtle tribute to their First Nations roots with a natural yet modern decor featuring local wood and stone accented with fireplaces and Indigenous art.
Rooms are spacious and spotless, with lots of plug-ins at desk level for all of your requisite electronic devices. Friendly staff are there to answer your every question. And you can soothe your end-of-day sore muscles with a massage in the spa or spend time in the pool, Jacuzzi and eucalyptus steam room.
Bonus points: The dry mountain air leaves you parched but this hotel’s got you covered with complementary lemon water and iced tea in the lobby, plus a soothing line of peppermint-sage amenities from Mother Earth Essentials in the guest rooms. Mother Earth Essentials is the brainchild of Edmonton’s Carrie Langevin, who comes from a long line of Cree medicine women. A packet of wild rose and cranberry infused Epsom salts for the bath was especially welcomed after an active day spent in the frigid outdoors.
THE BIG OUTSIDE
Located 20 minutes south of Jasper on Highway 93A (the old Jasper-Banff Highway), this area is a mecca for cross-country skiing. The 14-km Whirlpool Trail offers gentle terrain with river views, while the longer 23.2-km Cavell Road option gives advanced skiers a lung-conditioning 550-metre climb with the reward of breath-catching views.
You can also snowshoe the 3-km Athabasca Falls River Route with its panoramic views from along the river’s south edge.
This year during Jasper in January, join Parks Canada’s senior interpreter Brian Catto at Whirlpool Winter Hub for a variety of programs, including a Dark Sky Snowshoe which runs January 12, 19, and 26. (And also February 16 during Family Day Weekend.)
This night time snowshoe adventure is a chance to immerse yourself in the dark, far from light pollution, and experience the star-rich and moonlit skies of Jasper National Park. Catto will teach visitors about nocturnal adaptations that help animals of the park (humans included) see in the dark.
Bring your snowshoes, if you have them, or borrow a free pair from the Whirlpool Winter Hub.
Want to really get into winter? Park Canada offers “Learn to Winter Camp” program on Jan. 21 and Feb. 18. The course teaches winter camping safety, which extra gear you’ll need to bring, how to layer properly and what food to pack. Word has it, there’s a hearty meal in it for all who attend.
Bonus points: The public can take a peek into the world of wildlife research in Jasper National Park with a wildlife snowshoe program, Jan. 14, 21 and 28 and Feb. 18. It’ll include some basic tracking, using tools and equipment that parks experts employ, and a visit to a wildlife camera site.
Orso, or “bear” in Italian, replaced the venerable hotel’s more formal Edith Cavell dining room in 2015 with a relaxed, luxurious vibe and a contemporary take on Northern Italian fare.
The hotel’s executive chef Christopher Chafe imported what he describes as a beautiful but difficult Italian pasta machine (European wiring). They worked out the kinks and now all of the pastas are freshly made in house.
We indulge in a four-course dinner, including a sumptuous East-meets-West tagliatelle with lobster claws, lobster reduction and pancetta.
The latter, aka Italian bacon, is smoked and cured in the hotel kitchens using pork raised at Twin Meadows Organics, a farm just over the B.C.-Alberta border near McBride.
Farm and hotel have formed a partnership: Twin Meadows supplies Fairmont JPL with heirloom produce and some meats; in turn, the Fairmont JPL provides the farm with waste vegetable oil to power its farm equipment.
Bonus points: The Tarte de Nero with Pistachio Ice Cream and Biscotti Crumble, essentially a dark-chocolate tart, will leave you swooning.
Editor’s note: Thanks to writer Valerie Berenyi and to our partners in tourism, who did not review or edit this article before publication, for making our latest post at Toque & Canoe a reality. For other stories by our senior editor, check out Wilderness City and Beyond, Puss’n (hiking) boots, Cold Land Warm Heart and Hotel Arts: The smart hipster’s sexy new hang-out.
Founded by two Canucks on the loose in a big country, Toque & Canoe is a blog about Canadian travel culture.