Skyline Trail (ultra) Run

Not only was the weather absolutely fantastic this past Saturday in Jasper National Park, Canada, but the trail we ran earned itself the #1 spot on our list of “best trail runs ever”! This is the kind of trail that I would travel exclusively to run. And here’s why:

  • at 45km, it’s a long but manageable distance that is long enough to challenge but short enough to still enjoy 100%
  • 80% of the trail takes you above treeline and offers absolutely fantastic views of the Canadian Rockies in all directions
  • point-to-point trails are always more fun than out-and-backs
  • all sections of the trail are very runnable and in excellent condition (a few rocky, muddy and snowy sections sprinkled throughout but nothing too crazy)
  • there are enough stream crossings several km apart so we were able to pump and refill our water bottles easily thus enabling us not have to carry too much

A note about the distance and direction of the trail:

  • Most hikers (and runners) cross the trail from South to North (in other words, starting at Maligne Lake and finishing in Jasper town). This is the “easier” direction as there is less elevation gain. Simply because we needed to organize the logistics of a point-to-point trail, it worked out better for us to run it from North to South which meant we had a significant net elevation gain overall. In the end, we absolutely loved this direction and would really recommend it. Plus, there’s something really fun about setting a gorgeous lake as your final objective rather than just a bunch of cars parked at the trailhead.
  • Every sign post and map that we consulted stated a different total distance of the Skyline Trail. Some say it’s 44.1km, others reckon it’s an even 45km, and some (like the one in the picture below at the Northern trailhead) indicate it as 48km to Maligne Lake, so who knows!

 

Ok, let’s begin! The trail starts off with 8.4km on a winding fire road that ascends a good 1,000m until the junction with Signal Mountain. Here, you finally leave the trees and wide trail behind and begin the amazing journey on the alpine single track. And after the first 1 hour and 10 minutes of nonstop uphill running, we enjoyed a bit of a break as the trail leveled off for a few kilometers.

 

The crisp and fresh wind began to pick up as we ascended another 500 vertical meters.

Running on the barren ridgeline before “the Notch” (which at 2510m is the highest point of the trail) was incredible and exceptionally windy. There were moments when we had to tighten our hats or even take them off, duck our heads and lean into the headwind as hard as we could. When the trail veered slightly east the wind would sideswipe us causing one foot to hit our other calf on each step. We hooted and hollered as our eyes watered and we battled to maintain forward progress and were SO glad it was a gorgeously sunny day! This is not the kind of place to be when it’s raining or worse!!!

From the top of The Notch we could see our approximate half-way mark: Curator Lake.

As we made our way down, we thanked a few groups of hikers coming up for their applause and saluted a pair of guys who were also running (from south to north). Everyone was in such good spirits on this gorgeous trail and perfect day.

After a much enjoyed downhill to the lake, we focused our 2nd of 3 uphill objective: Big Shovel Pass (2320m). Our legs were still feeling strong, we were making good time at this point and were now well passed the toughest sections of the day. From here on it was just a matter of pushing through the imminent onset of muscle fatigue that comes with long-distance running – pain that would be very much worthwhile for all the epic views and the unbelievable experience of our journey.

From the top of Big Shovel we scouted the next section ahead down into serene alpine meadows and up towards the final climb of Little Shovel Pass. (The faraway snowy peaks on the far left side of the picture below are on the eastern shores of Maligne Lake, our finish.)

On this section of the trail, the meadows were abloom with every colored flower imaginable! It could not have been more idillic!

Little Shovel!!! Boy were we happy to get to that top of that pass! It was the smallest of the three major climbs of the day but it was the hardest just because it was the last. Our uphill run was reduced to a shuffle and eventually a hike. But the snowy peaks that just a while ago looked so far away where now looking big and within our reach. We figured we had less than 2 hours to go and aaaaaaallllllll downhill baby!!!

So we ran and ran and ran and started getting a bit silly singing songs from the movie Grease 2 to get us through the final few miles of muddy trails back down into the forest. With about 5 kilometers to go we checked the time and set on a goal to finish before the clock hit 5:00PM. We had under half an hour to do it.

Hidden from our view until the very last moment, there she was: Maligne Lake! The finish!!!! 6 hours and 45 minutes of awesomeness! And what could possibly be a more amazing finish line than the shore of this iconic Canadian Rocky Mountain lake?! :-)

We had a little over an hour to spare before our shuttle was supposed to pick us up from the south trailhead and take us back to our car at the north end. Unfortunately, the shuttle never came. Thankfully the kind employees at the visitor center lodge 1km down the road gave us a lift back once they closed up the shop at 7pm. A 45km run back on the road or trail would have no longer been fun. Back in town the next morning we were a bit disturbed that the staff at the shuttle/tour office didn’t seem too apologetic or concerned but they gave us our money back easily enough.

And now we’re taking the next few days off to let our legs recover before the race coming up this weekend in Montana!!!

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