This is part five in a series of postings on the sections of the Great Divide Trail (Section E of the Great Divide Trail). The other articles can be found as follows (Section A, Section B, Section C, Section D)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Section E on the Great Divide Trail is a study in contrasts. The stretch between Saskatchewan Crossing and the town of Jasper passes through remote areas of White Goat Wilderness Area and the decommissioned trails of the Maligne Valley. At the same time it also passing through the extremely popular Skyline Trail and Jonas Shoulder sections of Jasper. However, if you love hiking above the treeline, this is your section.
Leaving the resort at Saskatchewan Crossing, there is a short section of road walking along the David Thompson Highway. From the Owen Creek trailhead you’ll start your climb. The trail here is unmaintained and can be hard to follow. The creek quickly turns into a canyon as you struggle your way up to Owen Pass and tree line. For the next 12 miles (18km) you’ll parallel a stunning rock wall through the alpine and at 8480 ft. (2585m), the highest point on the GDT.
Height of the Canadian Rockies
One thing that surprises a lot of people who’ve seen the towering peaks of the Canadian Rockies, is their height when compared to the Colorado Rockies or Sierra Nevada. There are no 14ners in Alberta or eastern BC, with the highest mountain in the range being Mt. Robson at 12,989ft (3959m). What makes them different, is during the last ice age, glaciers carved out the valleys making the mountains much more prominent. The northern latitude and shorter glowing season also pushes down the tree line, making it 1500-2500 ft. (450-750m) lower than Colorado. Combined, these makes it seem like the mountains are much higher. On the plus side, this reduces the risk altitude acclimatization as you’ll never be over 8500 ft.
Up to Cataract Pass
Heading over 3 mountain passes, the trail drops back into the trees around Pinto Lake. You can exit the trail here by way of Sunset Pass which takes you back to the highway. The thru route takes you up the long Cataract Valley to a high pass and the border of Jasper National Park. Along the way you’ll have a chance to see ancient pictographs. Over Nigel Pass the GDT joins the well maintained (and more crowded) trails of the Brazeau Loop. Back into the alpine, the Jonas Shoulder offers spectacular views of the valley, however as the trail heads north, it becomes less travelled and once you pass the Poboktan Creek junction (another exit to the highway), it is no longer maintained.
The Six Pass Alternate
Reaching Maligne Pass, there are two options. The official trail heads down the valley, into forest and several un-bridged creek crossings. Folks have reported that this section of trail has started to deteriorate with GDT hikers being the only ones to really use it. A new and popular alternative is the Six-Pass route. Taking you along the Endless Chain Ridge this off trail route takes you through the high alpine. Basic navigation skills are recommended. As this alternate passes through sensitive caribou habitat, Jasper Park limits access to one party per day. It’s important to adhere to these restrictions as the alternative would be to close this area to hikers.
Enter the Skyline
Either path brings you to the popular tourist area of Maligne Lake. Shuttles are available to Jasper, there is a small gift shop, a lake tour and café. Maligne Lake is also the start of the extremely popular Skyline Trail. Spending most of its time above the alpine, people from around the world come to Jasper to hike Skyline. Permits can be hard to get, so some GDTers will hike the 30 miles (40 km) in a single day. A few popular tourist trails lead you from the end of Skyline and into the town of Jasper and the end of Section E.
Check out sections F and G here
Canada & US
Our Backpacking Trail Reports are mainly from Western Canada and the United States.
Our 2020 & 2021 backpacking hiking on the Great Divide Trail. View our planning and trail reports for sections A-G.