Canoeing Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park is an incredibly beautiful adventure. For paddling enthusiasts, this is a must-see, must-paddle destination. At 22.5km, Maligne Lake is longest lake in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It is also the second largest glacier fed lake in the world! Paddling the length of the lake in a day is a reasonable quest. However, Maligne Lake is so stunning it makes more sense to take your time and make this a multi-day backcountry canoe trip. Jasper National Park is the world's second largest dark sky preserve and camping on Maligne Lake affords magnificent views of the starry nights and the Milky Way.
Maligne is a French word meaning malignant, or wicked. Hence it is pronounced like the French word, Mah-leen (like clean) lake. This tranquil lake is named after the Maligne River which flows into it. Unlike this peaceful lake, the Maligne River is more suiting of the name. The river was named out of anguish by a Flemish missionary who was extremely frustrated by his attempts to cross the river. Situated in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Maligne Lake is one of the most beautiful locations in the Rockies. It is home to Spirit Island which is one of the most photographed places in the country.
The boat launch and parking area are located across the bridge to the west of the main Maligne Lake visitor area. There is free firewood here for paddlers to take. It is recommended to pick some up as there isn't a lot at the campgrounds around the lake. With three campgrounds and four picnic areas to choose from, a multi-day canoe trip is quite enjoyable. Hidden Cove is the first campground and is located 4km from the launch point. The next campground is Fisherman's Bay at the mid-way point of the lake at 13km. The furthest campground is Coronet Creek which is 21.3km from the boat launch. The Northern half of the lake has 3 picnic areas, and the southern half has one.
Each of the campsites around the lake has an assisted accessible campsite. The trail leading to these sites is easier and has no roots compared to the trails to the other campsites. Additionally, each campground has a dock for ease of access.
Our original trip plan was for a 4-night canoe trip on Maligne Lake. We intended to find a front country campsite in Jasper National Park so that we could get an early start the next day. For day one our plan was to canoe to Fisherman's Bay for a night and to visit Spirit Island which is nearby. We would then continue onto Coronet Creek where we would camp for 2-days. This would give us enough time to hike the Henry MacLeod Trail. Then on the fourth day we would paddle back to Fisherman's Bay for one more night before heading out the following day. Since our trip was scheduled over the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend several nearby campgrounds were already closed for the season. That is when we decided to extend our trip to 5-nights on Maligne Lake by adding a night at Hidden Cove before heading to Fisherman's Bay the next day.
Hidden Cove is the cutest little campground. As the name would suggest, it is indeed located in a hidden cove. There are four campsites here, one picnic table and firepit in the shared area. This campground also has a cook shack which doubles as an emergency shelter. Since Hidden Cove is only 4km from the boat launch it took us about 47minutes to canoe to. This made it a reasonable choice for an early evening paddle after traveling to Maligne Lake that day. This is also a fantastic location for those new to backcountry canoe trips as it is an easy paddle, and the campground is very comfortable. Hidden Cove amenities include a barrel toilet, firewood, food storage lockers and an axe.
Many people paddle directly to Fisherman's Bay as it a 13km paddle from the boat launch which takes about 2.5-4 hours to paddle. From Hidden Cove, it is a little over 10km which took us just over 2 hours. Fisherman's Bay is located just past Samson Narrows which makes for an easy lake crossing when coming from Hidden Cove. It too is tucked into a quiet cove. This campground is larger and has eight campsites.
Spirit Island is one of the most photographed places in Canada. Walking on Spirit Island is forbidden as it is a very spiritual place for the First Nations people. Visitors can walk on a small trail on the mainland and take spectacular photos of Spirit Island. This place got its name for a heartbreaking First Nations Romeo and Juliette story that occurred here. Spirit Island was the meeting place for a young couple that had fallen in love. Like Romeo and Juliette, they were from rival tribes. When this young Juliette's father (the Chief) found out he forbid her from ever returning to the island. It is said that our Romeo, heartbroken he continued to visit the island never knowing what had happened and waiting for his love to return. In fact, he continued to return to the island for the remainder of his life and eventually died here. It is believed that his spirit is still on the island waiting for his Juliette to return.
There are two ways to get to Spirit Island, taking the Maligne Lake Cruise or your own boat.
Spirit Island is a 2km paddle from Fisherman's Bay. The advantage of canoeing to Spirit Island is that you can spend as much time there are you like and can be there when the tour boats aren't. That way you can have the whole place to yourself. Sunrise and sunset are magical times to be at Spirit Island.
The other way to get to Spirit Island is to take a Maligne Lake Cruise. There are two cruise options. The Classic Cruise is 1.5 hours and stops at Spirit Island for 15 minutes. The Premium Cruise adds in a stop at Pincushion Bay and 30 minutes at Spirit Island.
Coronet Creek Campground is located at the most southern point of Maligne Lake. It is a 21.3km paddle from the boat launch. From Fisherman's Bay it is less than 9km which took us under 2 hours to complete. There are 8 campsites here. In addition to the one assisted accessible campsite, this campground has a dedicated accessible pit toilet that has a padlock so that only those who need it can use it. There is a hiking trail on this end of the lake that is only accessible by first paddling to Coronet Creek, it is the Henry MacLeod Trail. It is also referred to as the Coronet Creek Trail.
The Henry MacLeod Trail is an 8km hike to a rustic wilderness campsite. The trail is not maintained, and reports say that it can be hard to follow at points. Since the trail follows Coronet Creek, you will soon find it again as long as you follow the creek. Someone has placed stone markers made from piles or rocks along the trail to help people navigate the path. In the fall when we visited the leaves had already begun falling from the trees and shrubs making the trail easy to follow. Beyond the campground, hikers can explore the moraines at the base of a glacier.
Since the Maligne Lake Backcountry Canoe Circuit is in Jasper National Park it is essential to make reservations and to purchase a Parks Canada Pass. Since each campsite is small and the circuit is extremely popular it is important to reserve early. We booked on the opening day of reservations and Thanksgiving weekend in October was the only time that was available for the trip we had planned.
Day Trip to Spirit Island, this is a 15km trip one-way. Plan to spend 6-8hours paddling plus additional time at Spirit Island and a picnic spot or two.
An overnight trip to Spirit Island is an excellent 1-night option would be to camp at Fisherman's Bay for a night. This would give paddlers the opportunity to experience Spirit Island at sunset and again at sunrise before paddling out the next day.
A 2-night family friendly trip could include spending the first night at Hidden Cove and then continuing onto Fisherman's Bay for a second night. This would break up the trip and still give the family plenty of time to explore Spirit Island. To break up the 13km paddle on the way out would be to stop at both Samson and Four Mile Picnic Areas.
3 or 4-night trips. With this amount of time, you could add 1 or 2 nights at Fisherman's Bay or Coronet Creek given you plenty of time to experience Maligne Lake in its entirety.
We arrived at Maligne Lake later in the day, so we chose to do the short paddle to Hidden Cove. We then canoed to Fisherman's Bay for one-night with a stop at Spirit Island before continuing to Coronet Creek for two nights. This gave us plenty of time to also hike the Henry MacLeod Trail. On the way out, we decided to add one more night at Fisherman's Bay along with another visit to Spirit Island.
Maligne Lake is a magical place. It is so peaceful, pristine, and beautiful it is hard to put into words. A multi-day canoe trip to Maligne Lake should be on every paddler's bucket list. Breaking the trip up into multiple days makes for easy paddling and relaxing camping, not to mention the opportunity to truly experience the lake and the world's second largest dark sky preserve.