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Maligne Canyon in winter: Visit on your own or join a guided tour?

Are you thinking about visiting Maligne Canyon in winter? Here’s all you need to know about the Maligne Canyon ice walk.

Maligne Canyon is spectacular all year round but becomes absolutely astonishing in winter when it showcases several icefalls. There are well-marked trails you can follow to explore the canyon. It’s also possible to join a group tour.

In this Maligne Canyon blog post we will discuss both options and explain what to expect with a group tour, known as a Maligne Ice walk.

Once you’ve read this article, you’ll know everything you need to know about Maligne Canyon in winter.

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In a hurry? Here you will find the most important information about visiting the Maligne Canyon in winter

  • You can visit Maligne Canyon all year round.
  • Can you do the Maligne Canyon ice walk without a guide? Yes, it is possible to visit the Maligne Canyon for free and do the Maligne Canyon ice walk without a guide. The official trail follows the upper rim of the canyon and brings you to the 4th bridge where you can descend in the canyon. However, park rangers recommend against it and it can indeed be dangerous to descend into the canyon on your own. Because of the dangers, and also because there are some things you would miss if you go without a guide, we recommend joining a guided tour.

Check prices and availability:
Maligne Canyon Ice Walk

What is the Maligne Canyon

The Maligne Canyon is truly one of the masterpieces created by Mother Nature.

It’s over 50 meters (160ft) deep and has several narrow parts where the towering walls are even more impressive. At the far end of the canyon, near the first bridge, is a 25 meter (82ft) tall waterfall.

But more water flows out of the canyon than flows in. This is something unique about the canyon.

It is formed by the Maligne River.

This river first flows to Medicine Lake, a seasonal lake that can be seen in spring and summer when there is a lot of melting water. It is usually gone by October. This is because underneath the lake is a giant underground cave system that takes the water to the canyon. The drainage pipes arrive in several areas in the canyon. This underground tunnel network is a miracle in itself.

Summer

When you visit the canyon in summer you will witness a wild gushing stream at the bottom of the canyon.

Winter

In winter the experience is much more serene. It can perhaps best be compared to a walk through a scene from the movie Frozen.

The river is hidden under a thick bed of ice and the canyon walls are decorated with massive icefalls where the water used to flow in the canyon.

The canyon is about 3.5 kilometers (2.1 miles) long.

Huge icefalls in the Maligne Canyon in Jasper Canada
The icefalls are huge

Can you do the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk on your own?

The Maligne Canyon trail is one of the most popular trails in Jasper, both in summer and winter.

It stays open year-round and is usually quite heavily trafficked.

So much that we recommend going early or late if you want to avoid the crowds.

The official and popular trail follows the upper rim of the canyon. From the many bridges, you get nice views of the canyon but not as impressive as what you see when you do an ice walk at the canyon bottom.

Park Rangers recommend against it, but it is possible to do the Maligne Canyon ice walk on your own.

If you follow the trail along the upper rim towards the 4th bridge there’s a gate to go to the bottom.

The gate has a warning sign that highlights the dangers of venturing out on the canyon bottom on your own.

The sign at the entrance to the bottom of the Maligne Canyon
The warning sign at the gate to the bottom of the canyon

You can only go to the canyon bottom in winter.  In summer the floor of the gorge is completely occupied by the river.

This makes it all the more worthwhile to do this part as it is a unique chance to see Maligne Canyon from another perspective.

The dangers shouldn’t be taken lightly. The conditions of the ice change every day. The guides know this canyon like the back of their hand because they come here every day. They know where it is safe to stand and where the ice is too fragile.

Because the river is fed by water from the tunnels it never completely freezes.  You walk on a layer of ice while the river flows underneath it.  If you accidently step on thin ice there is a real risk of getting your feet wet.

However, safety is not the only reason why we recommend a Maligne Canyon ice walk tour. There are even more benefits to visiting the canyon with a guide.

The Maligne Canyon ice walk is more than just a walk. During your tour, your guide will take you, if the conditions allow it, behind ice falls and into caves. Places you will likely miss if you do the hike on your own.

Read Also:

If you are looking for more fun winter hikes in Jasper, click here. 

We usually prefer to do as much as we can independently but we agreed that we would have missed a lot had our guide not been there.

Here’s what you can expect if you join a tour.

A narrow passage in the canyon
A narrow passage in the canyon where you need to sit and slide.

What to expect when joining a Maligne canyon ice walk tour?

Here you can read our full Malige Canyon ice walk review.

Before the start

You will be picked up by your guide at the hotel and proceed to the Maligne Canyon.

Once at the canyon you have the time to don the warm hiking boots and the ice cleats that will be provided to you. You also get a helmet.

We were a small group of 4, the maximum group size is 12.

Once everybody was fitted out we gathered near the bridge where our cheerful guide took some time to give some info about the hike we were going to do.

The tour is mostly flat and anyone of normal fitness is able to participate. You may pass one narrow fissure where you need to sit and slide, a lot of fun and absolutely not dangerous, but that’s about the only “special” part of the hike.

During the tour

We started by following the upper rim trail. Along the way, we already passed some magical scenes, and cameras were taken out to capture the impressive beauty of this gorge.

As we got closer to the 4th bridge we started to see the first icefalls.

While we stopped to witness their beauty our guide told us more about their origin and the unique karst system that feeds the river. She told us that the ice falls will be even more impressive once we have descended into the canyon but nevertheless, we took more pictures.

Then it was time to descend into the canyon. This is of course the best part of the tour and I must say, even though we weren’t new to fairytale winter landscapes, it absolutely managed to impress us.

We started by going deeper into the gorge.

Depending on the time of the year, and the ice conditions, tours can go up to the 3rd bridge. We didn’t go that far and had to abort our hike near a popular ice climbing spot, a huge icefall.

The tour guide of our Maligne Canyon Ice Walk in Jasper
Our tour guide testing the firmness of the ice

The experience at the bottom was completely different from the first part of the tour.

It was a peaceful setting. The silence was only broken by the creaking sound of our footsteps on the ice. The towering walls of the gorge make you feel void and everywhere you look are amazing ice sculptures.

It’s only now that you get to see the ice falls from down below that you see how big and imposing they are.

While we continued to explore the gorge our tour guide points out various interesting aspects. She showed several of the caves that line the canyon.

These caves are framed by beautiful ice crystals, true works of art. If the conditions permit it’s possible to enter these caves and admire the crystals from up close.

If you’re lucky you will also be able to go behind a frozen waterfall. Just know that this all depends on the conditions of the ice. Late February, when we were there, it was unfortunately no longer possible.

We made a last stop at the Wedding Cake Falls and our guide pointed out the amazing blue colors of the crystal-clear water. Those who wish can quench their thirst with this pure and fresh mountain water.

By the time the tour comes to an end, you will have seen numerous beautiful ice formations and you will have learned a lot about the canyon, its unique karst system, and its history.

Check prices and availability:
Maligne Canyon Ice Walk

The wedding cake falls in the Maligne Canyon in Jasper
The wedding cake falls

Why we loved the Maligne Canyon ice walk tour

The Maligne Canyon Winter tour was absolutely worth it.

This is why we recommend that you join a guided tour:

  • Most people limit their visit to the upper rim trail. When you descend into the canyon there are fewer crowds, resulting in a more peaceful experience.
  • The ice falls, when seen from below, are all the more impressive
  • You can visit the canyon on your own but we would have missed the caves and would not dare to go behind frozen waterfalls without an experienced guide.
  • We already knew about the drainage system of Medicine Lake but during our hike we learned loads more about this complicated karst system that feeds the canyon. The Maligne Canyon is a canyon like no other and we got to appreciate this more thanks to all the interesting stories of our engaging guide.

What you need to know about the Maligne Canyon winter hike

How much time do you need

Tours spend about 3 to 3.5 hours in the canyon and that’s about the time we also recommend taking if you would visit it on your own.

How much walking is involved

You will walk approximately 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles). The trail is relatively flat for the most part, there’re slightly over 100 altimeters involved.

When to go

Tours are starting in December and normally go until at least mid-March.

We went in late February and by that time large parts of the canyon floor were already melted.

This limited the parts of the canyon we could explore. While our experience was still impressive, one we wholeheartedly recommend, we think it will only be better if you come a few weeks earlier.

If you take a guided tour you can go in the morning or afternoon. There is no substantial difference between the two tours, so you can choose what best fits your schedule.

If you plan on visiting the canyon on your own and want to avoid the tour groups you should plan your visit around noon when the morning tours are leaving and the afternoon tours haven’t yet arrived.

What should I bring

This depends on what you plan on doing.

If you stick to the upper rim all you need are ice cleats. Maybe this isn’t even necessary but it’s better to provide them as there can be some icy patches, especially in the somewhat steeper first part of the trail.

If you join a group tour, ice cleats, hiking boots, and helmets will be provided so all you need to worry about is warm clothing.

If you want to explore the canyon bottom on your own you will need to bring your own ice cleats and waterproof high hiking boots.

Both are a must.

Ice cleats because of some steep icy sections you need to pass.

The hiking boots because, depending on the condition of the ice, you may need to wade through water.

The helmet serves two goals. It will protect you from falling rocks and ice and also if you accidentally slip and fall.

Is the Maligne Canyon Ice Walk similar to the Johnston Canyon Ice walk?

Both tours cannot be compared. When you do a Johnston Canyon Ice walk in Banff you will follow the regular trail to the two falls.

When you visit the Maligne Canyon in Jasper in Winter, you have the unique chance of getting off-trail. (in a safe way!) Your guide will take you to more secluded areas of the canyon.

You get away from the crowds, can actually walk on ice, and will be able to see the ice falls from real close.

All fitted out and ready to explore the Maligne Canyon in Jasper
All fitted out and ready to explore the Maligne Canyon

What should I wear?

The hike is not really intense and you will stop several times. We recommend that you dress warmly, preferably in layers.

Waterproof shell mitts or gloves and a beanie are a good idea.

Do I need to pay to enter the canyon?

The canyon is located in the Jasper National Park. A park pass is required to enter the park but except for that, you don’t need to pay anything to enter the canyon.

If you want to visit the canyon with a guided tour you will need to buy the park pass separately. They aren’t included in the guided tours.

When joining a guided tour, should I book my tour in advance?

We visited the Maligne Canyon in February and had no problems joining a guided tour. However, when you visit during the peak season around Christmas or the Jasper January Festival, we would recommend booking your tour in advance.

We often book our tours through GetYourGuide. This way, you can secure your spot, but, might your plans suddenly change, you can usually cancel for free up to 24 hours before the trip.

Conclusion

The Maligne Canyon ice walk is an unforgettable experience and absolutely must-do while you are in Jasper.


Despite the fact that you can visit the canyon on your own, we did a guided ice walk. We also absolutely recommend it. Not only will you learn more about the canyon, the guide will also point out things that you would otherwise miss and you can, in a safe way, enter caves and go behind frozen waterfalls.

This will make your visit to the canyon unforgettable.

Read Also:

Wondering where to stay in Jasper? Here we share the best places to stay in Jasper for every budget. Looking for an Airbnb in Jasper or a vacation home, click here. 

If you plan on visiting Jasper and Banff, check out this Banff and Jasper itinerary. 

Driving the Icefields Parkway in winter? Check out this post.

Here is a list of more amazing Jasper winter activities. 

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