Maligne Lake Cruise | How to visit Famous Spirit Island in Jasper
In Canada last summer, my dad insisted on taking us on a Maligne Lake Cruise in Jasper National Park. His exact words being, “Lake Louise is junk.”
Admittedly, I had some doubts about this. Not just because Lake Louise is one of the most stunning pieces of natural landscape I’ve ever seen, but because my dad’s poetic imagination can veer towards hyperbole at times. I was dead wrong though. Maligne Lake left me breathless in ways that Lake Louise could never dream of doing (as much as I hate admitting my dad was right). 😉
Jump to what you want.
What’s so special about Maligne Lake anyway?
You’ve probably heard of Lake Louise. After all, it’s maybe the most famous lake in the Canadian Rockies, acclaimed worldwide for the incredible colour of its glacial water and stunning mountain backdrop. It’s near and dear to my heart too. After all, it’s where my hubby proposed to me.
But what if I told you that Maligne Lake really does put Lake Louise to shame?
In 1908, her first sight of this incredible body of water caused explorer and artist Mary Schaffer to say “If Lake Louise is a pearl, Maligne is the entire pearl necklace.”
And you know what? She was absolutely right.
It’s not just because Spirit Island, one of the most photographed places in Canada, can be found on Jasper’s Maligne Lake. It’s because the colour of the water on this massively long finger lake shifts from emerald to blue to turquoise right before your eyes. Surrounded by a truly awe-inspiring and rare box canyon that Mary Schaffer called “The Hall of Gods,” you really expect Zeus, Apollo and Aphrodite to take a seat, while you watch.
Words simply cannot do justice to the flawless grandeur of Maligne Lake (neither can my pictures). It’s just one of those places you simply must see with your own eyes.
A Maligne Lake Cruise: the best way to see Jasper’s Spirit Island
Chances are you’ve seen images of Spirit Island without actually knowing its name. A photograph of Spirit Island by Peter Gales hung in New York’s Grand Central Terminal as part of Kodak’s Colorama showcase in the 1960s. And in 2014, Apple used a picture of Spirit Island to show off the photographic capacity of their latest iPad.
For most people, the best way to see Maligne Lake and Jasper’s famous Spirit Island is via a Maligne Lake Cruise.
In fact, the ONLY way you can set eyes on this iconic image, is from the water. For the Stoney Nakoda First Nation that originally inhabited the Jasper area, Spirit Island is sacred. They believe that mountains are physical representations of their ancestors, and Spirit Island is surrounded on 3 sides by the exact same mountain range. This is incredibly rare and makes it hallowed ground – one that should be revered, but never walked upon.
Booking a Maligne Lake Cruise
Sure, you can see Maligne Lake just by standing on the dock. It’s still undeniably stunning, but you’d be missing out. The best parts of the lake, the parts that’ll stay etched in your memory long after you’ve left – like the Hall of Gods and 3 massive glaciers – can only be found 45 minutes into a Maligne Lake Cruise. Because it’s a massive finger lake stretching 22.5 km long, you’re truly only seeing the tip of the iceberg if you stay on dry land.
On the cruise, you’ll learn about the lake’s history, it’s wildlife, what makes Spirit Island so famous, and why the forest around Maligne Lake is a tinderbox just waiting to be lit. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and light-hearted, plus had great suggestions for what and where to eat in Jasper.
I usually just show up in places and hope things work in my favour… and to be 100% honest, it usually does. However, in this case, it’s not only to your advantage to plan in advance, it’s almost necessary. You can just show up at the lake, and hope there are still tickets available, but I personally wouldn’t chance it.
Tickets for JUST the Maligne Lake Cruise are $85 per person, if you buy them independently, on-site. That is, if they’re not sold out. The extra $30 or so you’d spend for a pre-paid tour, which includes transport back and forth from Jasper Town an hour away, plus a few other stops, really makes it worthwhile AND great value.
The tour will pick you up from your Jasper hotel, stop at the Maligne Canyon for a 30 minute hike (also gorgeous), and Medicine Lake, before departing for Spirit Island on a GUARANTEED cruise of Maligne Lake.
This is one of the best things to do in Jasper, and the cruises will undoubtedly sell out, especially in the busy summer months. Be sure to reserve your Maligne Lake Cruise tour well in advance.
Maligne Lake Canoe Rentals
It’s also possible to see Maligne Lake and Spirit Island independently. For most people, a Maligne Lake Cruise is the best way to go, but if you’re more of a DIY person about the wilderness type, you can rent canoes, kayaks or rowboats and paddle there yourself.
Look out for the historic boathouse on the shores of Maligne Lake to reserve your boat by the hour, or for the day. Availability is limited, and on a first-come, first-served basis, with prices starting at $60 per hour. You’ll want to start early anyway, because paddling to Spirit Island can take 4 hours, each way.
CHECK OUT THESE OTHER GREAT TOURS IN THE JASPER AREA.
Maligne Lake Weather
Pray for clear skies along the way, because according to our guides, the area only gets 4-5 days of full out sun per year. You won’t be any less awed during your Maligne Lake Cruise though. The “Hall of Gods” box canyon is so majestic that a cloudy day simply can’t diminish it. But a sunny day just makes it that much better.
To say we got lucky is an understatement. The rain stopped the moment we stepped on the boat, and started again the moment we got off!
The weather is super unpredictable in the Rockies, so make sure you show up prepared. I’d bring an umbrella, warm coat, cover for your camera or phone, and maybe even a change of socks.
How to get to Maligne Lake & Spirit Island in Jasper
Maligne Lake is located 44 kilometres south of Jasper town. It takes approximately 1 hour to drive there on your own.
There is no public transport to Maligne Lake, but there are shuttle buses geared towards hikers doing the multi-day Skyline Trail available. Buses depart Jasper Town at 9AM, and arrive at Maligne Lake an hour later. A one-way adult ticket costs $33 + taxes. However, unless you plan to spend the night at the historic Maligne Lake Chalet, or are ACTUALLY hiking, the shuttle is useless for a day trip. The return to Jasper Town is at 10AM, and costs an additional $33.
If you reserve a Maligne Lake Cruise in advance, transport to and from your Jasper hotel is included (and it’s a lot cheaper and more convenient).
Where to stay in Jasper Town
I’ve personally stayed at the Athabasca Hotel in Jasper. It’s one of the few budget friendly options in town (not including dorm / hostel beds), and it does sell out months in advance. If you’d like to stay there, book as early as possible, especially for the summer season.
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