Alberta 2012: The Maligne Canyon

Waterfall along the Maligne Canyon

Later in the afternoon Doran and I visited the Maligne Canyon, said to be one of the most spectacular gorges in the Canadian Rockies. This gorge is about 1.2 km long and 55 metres at its deepest point, with the glacier-fed Maligne River running through it. The water of the Maligne River is a unique green colour, which is caused by an abundance of fine clay particles and rock powder suspended in the water. Although some photos I’ve seen show the river as a clear, emerald green colour, the water was a frothy, milky green when we visited.

We started our hike at the parking lot near the Fifth Bridge. A total of six bridges cross the river along the trail, allowing hikers to look directly down into the gorge. The sixth bridge is downriver, while the other four bridges are all upstream. The trail starts on the other side of the suspension bridge, which swayed a bit as we crossed it.

Doran pointed out this beetle resting on the handrail. It looks like a lot like a Buprestid beetle I photographed in Ottawa a few years ago.

Beetle on a Highwire

The river churned below the bridge, flowing so swiftly that I became slightly dizzy looking down. After we crossed the river I stopped to take a picture of the bridge.

The Maligne River

We stopped to check out the large trail map on the other side of the river. As it was getting late in the afternoon we didn’t want to hike too far, so we decided to walk to the Fourth Bridge and back. Unfortunately the trail map had been overly simplified, as we came across a number of small side trails that weren’t shown on the map. They weren’t marked, either, and while we did come across a couple of small signposts along the way showing tiny, detailed maps of the area, complete with the names of each trail, they were less than helpful in trying to figure out if we were on Trail 7g, 7f or 7h, etc. This was the second source of disappointment for me; I was hoping for the simple, clearly-marked trails of Algonquin Park or Point Pelee where I could walk a simple loop without worrying about getting lost or whether we had to turn around and walk back the same way.

Maligne Canyon Trail Map

In the end we figured we couldn’t go wrong if we followed the path along the river’s edge. The trail starts off close to the water, but quickly climbs above the water level as it enters the gorge. The ascent wasn’t bad, but it was definitely steeper than any of the trails in Ottawa. The views, of course, were worth it!

Looking Down at the Maligne River

The Maligne Canyon (which is pronounced the French way, Ma-LEEN) is interesting in that it is narrower at the top than at the bottom. In some places the gap between the canyon walls is only 2 metres across. This rules out the theory that the gorge was formed by a waterfall that has eroded its way upstream, much as Niagara Falls has done. Geologists now believe that the gorge was once a large, underground cave passage in the limestone, tall and narrow like many other such passages in the Canadian Rockies.

Canyon Wall along the Maligne River

Before the last ice age ended 14,000 years ago, the Maligne Valley was buried under a glacier about a kilometre thick. Glaciers move, and the heavy ice and rock at the bottom of the glacier eroded the valley floor until it broke into the cave, tearing the roof away. The glacial ice invaded the passage, grinding much of it away until the climate warmed and the remaining ice melted away. What was left – or so the geologists theorize – was the Maligne Canyon.

Rapids along the Maligne River

Another interesting thing about the Maligne Canyon is that more water appears to flow out of the gorge than flows in at the ground’s surface. Most of the water in the canyon area flows underground through a cave system that carries it from Medicine Lake 14 km away to Maligne Canyon’s many springs. The cave is about 30km long and runs from the floor of Medicine Lake all the way to the Athabasca River.

Rapids along the Maligne River

Geologists have proved this by putting small, nontoxic quantities of red rhodamine dye into Medicine Lake and observing where it appeared at springs in Maligne Canyon and other places, such as Lac Beauvert by Jasper Park Lodge. The dye showed up at these springs and Lac Beauvert about 12 to 24 hours later in the summer, and five to nine days later in the winter.

Glacier Water

The gorge was breathtaking, with its rushing water and steep walls. In some places the walls narrowed, forcing the large volume of water through a series of rapids. These areas are fenced off, as a fall here could prove fatal.

We came across one waterfall, not as spectacular as some of the falls further upriver, but still quite pretty. We didn’t go much further, but turned around when we started getting tired and hungry. This meant missing out on some of the more spectacular waterfalls; in the winter they are frozen, and people can hire guides to climb down into the canyon to view the ice formations and explore the caverns.

Waterfall along the Maligne Canyon

I also missed two of the birds I wanted to see, the Black Swift and American Dipper. Both nest in the Maligne Canyon, the swift on recessed ledges where they cannot be seen from above, and the dipper in mossy balls hidden behind waterfalls. I learned later that the best time to see the Black Swifts is at dusk, which in the mountains is around 10:00 pm!

Waterfall

We took a different route back, a sandy trail that clung to the side of the mountain above the gorge. We found some flowers growing here, and some more blue butterflies, including another Northern Blue. I saw a couple of Cedar Waxwings fly over and heard a raven croaking in the distance, and that was all the wildlife we saw in the canyon.

Wildflowers along the Maligne Canyon Trail

Wildflowers along the Maligne Canyon Trail

Northern Blue

Some dark, thick clouds began moving in, and I began to worry that we might get caught in a storm. As the trail was so narrow, with nothing but steep slopes above and below it, there was nowhere we could seek cover if it did begin to rain. Still, the sunlight shining through the gathering clouds was quite beautiful. You can see we are still above the trees in this photo:

Rainclouds over the Mountains

We made it back to the car before the sun was swallowed up and a light rain began to fall. On our way back to the highway we found a pair of female elk grazing next to the road, so we stopped to take a few pictures before heading back to the cabin.

Female Elk

The Maligne Canyon is gorgeous. If I were able to do it again, I would park next to the tea house near the First Bridge and explore the gorge from the other end. There are several waterfalls, pools, and sinkholes around the first four bridges, which area all quite close together. Perhaps a return trip is in order…!

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