Maligne Canyon in Jasper National Park is one of many awe-inspiring natural attractions for tourists and outdoor enthusiasts throughout the year. Maligne river rushes though the canyon during warmer months. In the winter though, the river completely freezes for a very short window of time. That window of opportunity might only last a couple weeks a year. The third week of February was my lucky date.
The canyon parking lot is located only about ten minutes north of the Jasper townsite. Follow Maligne Rd. and look out for a sign that indicates the parking for Malign Canyon to your left. The parking lot is surprisingly large and might even fill up on a weekend in the winter. Especially when locals and visitors form Edmonton know that the canyon is completely frozen.
Not to worry, there is overflow parking just before the primary parking lot. The crowds can be plenty on a weekend however I’m sure the weekdays are quiet like the rest of the Rockies during winter. The cold snap in Jasper this year was especially brutal. Locals had said the -45 degree temperatures were debilitating and seemed to last a lot longer than usual. This was all good news for me though, as I wanted to be sure the canyon would be completely frozen.
Sure enough, as soon as the cold snap ended, Jasper was met with an extremely mild day with above freezing temperatures. Just the one mild day would make the canyon surprisingly slushy and nearly too wet to navigate. I had driven a long way from Calgary though and decided I don’t mind getting wet and cold so long as the canyon is safe to travel in.
Common sense is not so common
I was really disturbed by the complete lack of safety considerations by the general public. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised anymore by the lack of common sense or regard for self preservation by the masses in the Canadian Rockies – however I am. The canyon is located immediately adjacent to the busy trail above. With hundreds of families and children above, I imagine it wouldn’t be very uncommon for kids to throw rocks over the edge, unaware of the many people in the canyon below.
Besides just the children throwing debris, the earth itself is effectively being swallowed by the canyon over time. There’s boulders wedge between the canyon walls, entire trees balancing and caught up in the debris overhead. Not to mention the occasional ice climber whacking chunks of ice down to the canyon below. Yet I saw nearly 100 people wandering around without helmets or crampons. Please use your head, and protect your head.
Exploring the canyon
Though the canyon was really slushy and there were some really deep areas where I had freezing water up to my knees, the canyon was magnificent. As soon as I stepped inside the first 100 meters or so, I got really excited about what photos I might make after dark. I knew the crowds would probably clear as soon as the sun set so I used my first tour through the canyon as a bit of a scouting mission for after dark.
The frozen river beneath your feet is difficult to navigate. Especially when it’s melting. The canyon is incredibly complex and there were a lot of startling signs that indicate the canyon could be extremely dangerous to travel inside of if you choose the wrong time to do so. There were a handful of outfitters and tour companies guiding tourists safely through the canyon. I would highly recommend going with an outfitter your first time.
After maybe 200 meters there’s a large frozen water fall that is around 100 feet high. There was a small group of ice climbers on the frozen wall as I travelled deeper into the canyon. Be mindful of the ice climbers and only pass when they are not actively climbing. Otherwise you might get a nice chunk of ice falling on your helmet, or your head if you chose to ignore my advice earlier!
After the large frozen waterfall the canyon walls get a little tighter and the earth above you begins to feel further and further away. The shape of the canyon walls here is really interesting. It’s an incredibly photographic area. It’s around here were the ice descended quickly into the void below, and above the void, more ice that seemed to be floating against the canyon walls. The ice would have frozen while the river was still far from the canyon floor. It didn’t look safe to walk on and the local outfitters had put up a sign warning not to travel further.
I headed back to my Jeep and decided to warm up and head back down after dark to create some night time compositions without the crowds. I was rewarded with a completely empty canyon.
Photography tips for shooting Maligne Canyon
Weekends are crazy, if you can, go during the week so you can create photos without competing with tourists. Otherwise, if you go at night during the weekend you will still likely be alone which is a great alternative if you can only go on the weekend.
Bring a fish-eye or super wide lens. I actually ended up strangely preferring a 24mm lens which I found did a really good job of balancing the perceived scale of the cave and not distorting reality. The super wide angle for me worked for a few vertical shots but I found the cave feeling smaller than it is in reality. It’ll come down to personal preference but having a wide and super wide will give you the variety and flexibility you need to get the job done.
Bring a tripod. Long exposure shots will help brighten the cave up even if it’s after dark. Even during the daylight it can be pretty dark in there and it’s better to slow down your shutter speed than ramp up your ISO. Having a tripod in Maligne Canyon is a great idea.
Shoot after dark. I haven’t seen many great photos from there after dark. It’s incredibly beautiful the uniqueness of the cave really shines at night.