Jasper, Alberta is a small town in the Rocky Mountains a few hundred miles north of the Washington/Montana border. The area has been officially designated as a dark sky preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and the town has taken large efforts to control light pollution so visitors can have an unfiltered view into the cosmos.
The town of Jasper is in the middle of the Jasper National Park, so light pollution is already at a minimum, but the town has even gone as far as replacing street lamps with models that minimize shooting light upwards. These permanent measures make it so that visitors get a clear view year-round, not just during the Jasper Dark Sky Festival (http://jasperdarksky.travel).
While Jasper appears to be remote, it is particularly easy to get to from Houston. The closest major cities are Edmonton and Calgary. Both of which have daily non-stop flights from Houston. You are looking at a multi-hour drive to get to Jasper, and I recommend making that drive from Calgary. While it’s a little bit further away, you get to drive through Banff National Park and up the Icefields Parkway. The drive is an absolute stunner. The few hours between Banff and Jasper are nothing but incredible mountains, beautiful lakes and scenic views. It’s considered one of the top 10 most scenic drives in the world, and I completely agree. It’s a very easy drive and there are many turn-offs to take photos of the mountains. There is the chance of some winter weather in October, so I would recommend renting a car with four-wheel drive.
Every October, the city of Jasper assembles many speakers and activities so that people of all ages can learn more about the stars. The program mostly focuses on weekend visitors, and each of the two weekends provide different speakers. While I missed Bill Nye (The Science Guy) who entertained the first weekend, I was able to see George Takei, famous for playing Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek during the second weekend. While he isn’t a scientist, he gave a rousing speech on his personal history and told us stories about his experience on Star Trek. The other highlighted event was the next day and was called Spacetalks. It featured a panel of 4 speakers, the president of a science museum in Edmonton Alan Nursall, science journalist Nadia Drake, an aspiring Canadian astronaut named Ross Lockwood and NASA’s Bobak Ferdowski, the systems engineer famous for his signature mohawk haircut and work on the Mars Curiosity and Cassini-Huygens missions. They talked with each other over several pre-arranged topics, but also took questions from the audience. This was my favorite event of the weekend, and I highly recommend attending.
One of the best things about the Dark Sky Festival is that you can completely personalize your itinerary. They publish the schedule a few months in advance and you purchase tickets for exactly what events you want to attend. While the speakers may be the highlights for me, there are wine tastings, yoga, an inflatable planetarium, star gazing at the top of the Jasper Skytram and more.
While most events take place in the evening or at night, that leaves you plenty of time to explore the stunning outdoors around the city. Temperatures hovered around 50 degrees during the day (and 30 at night) so not too cold for hiking and exploring. Patricia and Pyramid Lakes are just a few minutes from downtown while Medicine Lake is less than an hour. While it is possible for there to be snow, the weather was mild enough to still greatly enjoy being outside.
The town of Jasper is certainly aimed at tourism, which mostly comes during the summer time. With it being the shoulder season, hotels charge much less from their peak summer rates, so you can expect a discount. Certainly on flights as well. I stayed at Whistler’s Inn (http://www.whistlersinn.com) and it is in a great spot in the middle of lots of restaurant choices. The rooms were clean and mine even had a fireplace. With Jasper being surrounded by stunning mountains, you don’t have to make sure that you have a room with a view because they all do!
Jasper may be small, but it’s not too small to have it’s own brewery. We walked over to Jasper Brewing Company (http://www.jasperbrewingco.ca) and had a glorious dinner. For a relatively small brewery, they had half a dozen different beers on top and they were all very good. Definitely recommend spending at least one meal here.
If you are on less of a budget, the one place to stay is the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. It’s a little out of the way, but the property is absolutely stunning. I had lunch there one day in the Emerald Lounge and they’ve done an incredible job giving you the feel of being in a mountain lodge with all of the benefits of wonderful food and customer service. The town is not walkable from the Fairmont, but if you want more of the resort vibe, then this is a very special option.
Jasper has a wonderful local tourism board. Their website is www.jasper.travel and they can help you choose a hotel, plan experiences or provide any other insight you may need. They live in the community, so fully expect excellent advice.
It was difficult to leave Jasper after only a long weekend, but getting to drive the stunning Icefields Parkway on the way back to Calgary gave me solace.
All photos by Wilson Calvert.