Once a month, we’ll feature a wildlife hotspot. We want to aid you with getting ‘the shot’ in order to help rekindle your love for nature, to enable you to become inspired by wildlife and to equip you to become an advocate for a wilder world at home.
This month’s focus:
Jasper National Park is one of our favourite places in the world – a park home to plentiful wildlife, stunning landscapes and considerably fewer people than Banff or Yellowstone.
That being said, please don’t get the impression Jasper is the hidden gem of the Parks Canada system. It’s still a popular, well-visited wilderness. Every year, it seems, more and more people gravitate to Jasper and overrun wildlife hotspots like Maligne Lake Road.
While you can still find bears o’plenty on Maligne Lake, if you’re like us and don’t want to share the bear jam with fifty of your (least) closest friends, it’s imperative to explore new areas.
Enter Marmot Basin.
Approximately 5-10 minutes south of the Jasper townsite on the Icefields Parkway, you’ll come across the turn-off for Highway 93A. This is the old highway linking Athabasca Falls to the town, but it also serves as the access road to Mount Edith Cavell, as well as Marmot Basin.
Marmot Road is the first right turn when heading south on the 93A and immediately you start climbing toward what is, in the winter, the park’s ski resort (hardly ideal to have a ski resort in a park, I know, but it beats having three, like Banff).
The first stretch of the road is fairly well travelled by hikers trying to reach one of the two access points for the iconic Tonquin Valley. But after the trailhead, traffic all but disappears in the summer time and you’re left to enjoy wildlife sightings by yourself or with a handful of other animal lovers.
What will you find on the road?
When we were heading to Jasper in 2014, I started researching what was being seen by creeping the social media accounts of recent park visitors. To my shock, three people (over several months, in fairness), had seen a family of lynx on the Marmot Basin Road. And given how few people travel this stretch of pavement, I wondered if we’d have luck bottling lightening and finding the lynx if we gave the area a solid look.
Well, our inability to find lynx continued despite spending the better part of two weeks patrolling Marmot Basin, but we were rewarded with other stunning sights.
On multiple occasions we came across moose – including a cow with two calfs. In fact, if you look carefully, there are multiple natural salt licks to be found on the drive up the mountain, which clearly brought elk, deer and the aforementioned moose down to the roadside to feed.
Moose are not the easiest animals to spot in Jasper and this was without question the best location we’ve come across during our travels to the park.
It’s also a road that produced multiple sightings of grouse, including this family of ruffled grouse.
But the star attraction is, as always, bears. Though grizzly bears have been reportedly seen, we had great luck with black bears – especially one very special brown black bear and her cinnamon cub of the year.
The berry bushes (which appeared to rippen later than those on Maligne Lake Road) brought the bears out and over the numerous hours we spent watching this sow and cub, we only ever saw three other cars.
It’s always special watching bears, but it is especially wonderful when you get to turn your car off, not be fearful of someone acting inappropriately and just snap away as the bears do their thing around you.
Without question, Marmot Basin is the hidden gem within one of Canada’s increasingly popular mountain parks.
Location: Marmot Basin, Jasper National Park, Alberta
Accessibility: Just south of the Jasper townsite, off of highway 93A
Photographic Focus: Black Bears, Moose, and Grouse
Best Time: Evenings, 5pm-10pm
– I realize the irony of profiling a lesser known wildlife hotspot, singing its virtues largely because of the lack of people patrolling the road. I’m of the opinion that most people who read this site are respectful of wildlife (why else spend time reading lengthy articles like this one) or are at least willing to learn how to respectfully observe animals. I’m also of the belief that Maligne Lake is reaching carrying capacity and if visitors spend more time on this road, it would help alleviate some of the stress being placed on Maligne.
– One aspect working in this road’s favour is the lack of bus traffic – there is nowhere for buses to terminate or turnaround in the summer.
– The light usually starts to improve on this road earlier in the day thanks to the mountain’s shadow. By 5pm, you can usually find enough shade on a sunny day to capture decent images if you’re lucky enough to find animals out and about.
– The total time to patrol this road is considerably quicker than that of Maligne Lake. In other words, if you strike out, you have time to search other nearby hotspots, such as Highway 93A itself, or visit landscape photography hotspots such as Athabasca Falls or the Highway 93 bridge over the Athabasca River (more on this in another post).
– One final disclaimer: for whatever reason, I only discovered this road recently myself, so it doesn’t have the multiple-decade track record of other hotspots we’ve featured. As such, the spring, winter and fall might be equally spectacular for wildlife on Marmot Road, but I have not put in the time during these seasons to know for sure.