8 things to do by moonlight in Jasper

January 22, 2018

Come winter, the sun goes down over Jasper National Park by mid-afternoon. That makes for some loooong winter nights. Locals know that’s no bad thing. This is the world’s largest accessible Dark Sky Preserve, where 11,000 km2 of night sky goes practically unsullied by artificial lights. Up here, you’ll soon get used to seeing the Milky Way spilled across the sky like a bucket of stars. If you’re lucky, you may even see the northern lights pulsing overhead in a riot of green iridescence. Life doesn’t shut down when the sun goes down. Here are eight awesome things to do in Jasper that go way beyond the après scene.

1. Spot the nocturnal wildlife

Animals that won’t be hibernating or hanging out in a groggy torpor (we’re looking at you, black bears and grizzlies) include the elk who chill in the valley bottom on the west side of town, the bighorn sheep at Old Fort Point, mountain goats at the aptly named Goat Lick (head to kilometre 38 of the Icefields Parkway), foxes and pine martens on the Discovery Trail, and… cougars. Real, live cougars. If you see their tracks in the snow, though, it might be smarter to head in the opposite direction.

Here are some tips from Parks Canada on staying safe while observing the local wildlife.

Fox

2. Spend the night at an HI wilderness hostel

Going off-the-grid in an HI wilderness hostel surrounded by billions of stars can only ever be a good life decision. HI Maligne Canyon is closest to the town of Jasper, while HI Mount Edith Cavell is about as remote as they come in winter (you’ll have to hike, ski or snowshoe the 11 km in, and it’s closed until February 16). HI Athabasca Falls and HI Beauty Creek along the Icefields Parkway are easy to get to but still perfect spots for late-night skywatching by the campfire.

Why not spend one wintery week exploring them all? Check out the winter hours for the wilderness hostels, and pick up a Wilderness Hostel Season’s Pass for possible savings.

3. Stand outside and just listen

After a fresh snowfall (which happens often in Jasper), the world really does quieten down. That’s because snow absorbs sound waves. Science! This is especially true when it’s the fluffy powder every snowboarder worth their salt dreams of, and once night falls and daytime’s noises come to a standstill.

Night Sky

4. Go night skiing or snowshoeing

While the local ski hill, Marmot Basin, doesn’t offer night-skiing, you can still get your snowy adventure fix under the stars in Jasper. Strap on your boots and go for a cross-country ski or snowshoe with your pals.

Guided by the light of the moon, the ascent up to Moab Lake from Whirlpool Winter Hub will be an unreal experience. Head out when the moon is full for extra brilliance (January 31, March 1 and March 31 in 2018), but always gear up with enough lighting to guide you home, and stick to the trails.

5. Explore ice caverns by headlamp

Not too far from town, Maligne Canyon freezes over in the winter, leaving towering natural ice sculptures in the 30-metre-deep canyon. Head out on a headlamp-lit guided walk and then spend a toasty evening by the fire at HI Maligne Canyon across the road? Yes please!

HI members get discounts on guided walks in Maligne Canyon through both Maligne Adventures (20% off) and Sundog Tours (15% off). Both do tours that start in the early evening, long after the sun has set.

Maligne Canyon

6. Learn all about the night sky at the Jasper Planetarium

Don’t fancy heading out in the cold? Head to the Jasper Planetarium at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, and an astrology expert will tell you all about the constellations and guide you on a live virtual tour of Jasper’s night sky. You can also check out the skies through the largest telescope in the Rockies.

7. Seek out the northern lights

Check a forecasting site like Aurora Watch, and if it gives the green light (sorry), you could well be in for a show.

It’s true that you can see the northern lights right from the heart of town, but for the best views you’ll want to go to a spot where light pollution won’t get in the way. Make the ten-minute drive up the hill to Pyramid Lake Island for some of the clearest skies around, and maybe, just maybe, a night spent watching green and pink chutes of light pulse and dance among the stars. Wow.

Northern Lights

8. Photograph the night sky

Step out the front door of your HI hostel and you’re pretty much guaranteed fabulous skies to photograph. Other wicked spots to check out include Columbia Icefields, on the road to Banff National Park. Its glaciers are more than 10,000 years old, and the skies above them are some of the darkest on the planet.

You’ll want a DSLR for the best images. Keep your exposure less than 25 seconds so the constellations don’t go out of focus, turn your aperture to its lowest setting and bring a tripod so you can keep things steady.

For ideal photography conditions, check the lunar calendar first. It’s best if there’s no moon. That way the sky will be darker, and you’ll be able to capture many more stars. Saying that, local dark sky photographer Ryan Bray has a tip for when the lunar gods don’t cooperate. “Simply set up your camera on a tripod, snap a landscape shot when the moon is out, wait till it sets, then snap another image to capture the stars. Then when you’re editing, combine the two images to create a stunning shot that stands apart from the rest.”

Go Explore!

HI Canada has five hostels in Jasper National Park. HI Jasper, just outside of town, plus four wilderness hostels.

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