Alberta 2012: On Top of Whistlers Mountain

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

The next morning was mostly sunny and clear, so Doran and I decided to take the Jasper Tramway up to the top of Whistler’s Mountain. The Jasper Tramway is the longest and highest guided aerial tramway in Canada and takes visitors from an altitude of 1304 metres (4279 ft) above sea level to 2277 metres (7472 ft) above sea level in about seven minutes. On a clear day a 360° view of six mountain ranges, glacial fed lakes, the Athabasca river, the Jasper town-site, and Mount Robson in nearby British Columbia is possible. It costs $30.95 per adult, or $35.00 with breakfast included, so we paid the extra money to have breakfast at the Treeline Restaurant in the upper station.

With two trams running up the mountain we didn’t have to wait long before it was our turn to board. The tram was crowded, and everyone had to stand (there are no seats) but the guide was both funny and knowledgeable which made the journey enjoyable. The ride up was smooth, although the tram slowed and dipped as it passed the only tower. We passed through three different ecozones on the way up to the top (the montane, subalpine and the alpine itself) but didn’t see any wildlife during the trip. Once we reached the top Doran and I decided to eat our breakfast first while the other tourists explored the top of Whistlers Mountain. The bacon and eggs were decent, though it was a little disconcerting when the restaurant kept shaking!

Jasper Tramway

I had been warned that it is often about 10°C colder at the top of the mountain than down in the valley, so I made sure to dress in layers. As soon as we went outside we found ourselves on a boardwalk system maintained by Jasper Tramway. We were advised that it was possible go beyond the boardwalks and hike to the summit of Whistlers Mountain, but that to do so was at our own risk.

Boardwalks on top of Whistlers Mountain

Boardwalks on top of Whistlers Mountain

Although a bit hazy, the view from the top was stunning. The Jasper townsite lay nestled between the Athabasca and Miette Rivers, with Highway 16 running to the bottom left and Highway 93 threading its way to the bottom right.

Jasper Townsite

From the top of Whistlers Mountain we could see the differences in the colour between the rivers and lakes. The Athasbasca River was a muddy gray-green colour, while the five lakes to its right (from top to bottom: Lakes Edith, Annette, Trefoil, Mildred and Lac Beauvert) are a deep, clear blue-green.

Athabasca River and Lakes

The trail winds up the mountain and to the summit on the right. We could see tiny ant-sized people making their way along the trails from the restaurant while we ate and while we hiked the trails. The peaks to the right appear to be Muhigan Mountain, Arris Mountain, Basilica Mountain and Roche Noir according to my map though I am not sure which is which here.

View atop Whistlers Mountain

The alpine is Jasper’s most fragile life zone. Only plants and animals that are tough enough to survive the extreme temperatures and weather live here, and only if they remain undisturbed. There are several signs warning against walking on the vegetation, noting that while it is able to survive the cold temperatures of the mountain top, it is still too delicate to survive being trampled on. I saw two different kinds of flowers growing along the summit, both of them small, low-growing mounds containing lots of blossoms. The first, Moss Campion (Silene acaulis) is native to the mountains of the west and grows in rocky exposed sites, cliffs, and rock crevices of the mountain tops. This plant may also occasionally be found on gravel bars along shady streams at lower elevations in the same mountains.

Moss Campion

White Dryas (Dryas octopetala), also called Mountain Avens, is a low-growing, prostrate evergreen shrub of the tundra that can form large colonies. A member of the rose family, it is usually found on limestone outcrops above the treeline and on rocky scree slopes. It is heliotropic, which means that the flowers track the movement of the sun across the sky from east to west during the course of the day. The flowers follow the sun’s movement in order to maximize the amount of sunlight reflecting off the petals and onto the mass of pistils at the center of the flower.

White Dryas

It is about a 1.5 km hike from the upper station to the summit of Whistlers Mountain, with about a 200-meter gain in elevation. The panoramic view from here is said to be outstanding, and on clear days you can see up to 80 km away. The hike to the summit takes approximately 30 to 45 minutes in good weather, but the climb is steep, there are no railings, and the air is dry and thin. I didn’t make it too far before I decided to stop and let Doran continue on without me; besides, my acrophobia was beginning to get the better of me, for the higher I went, the less secure the ground sloping beneath my feet to the mountain’s edge appeared to be. Still, I made it quite a ways above the upper tram station as evidenced in this photo:

Upper Terminal of the Jasper Tramway

I was hoping to see some alpine wildlife at the top of Mount Whistlers, such as Hoary Marmots (their whistling alert call is what gives Whistlers Mountain its name), White-tailed Ptarmigan, Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, ground squirrels, Pikas, Bighorn Sheep, or Mountain Goats. The only birds I saw were a couple of Pine Siskins flying over, identified solely by their cheerful call notes. I didn’t see any mammals in the rocky slopes of the mountain until we were back at the tram station, where this cute Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel came looking for handouts.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

It had only one ear, and approached a couple of people before investigating a tourist’s discarded backpack on the ground. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, and thought it was an over-sized chipmunk given the stripes along its sides. It wasn’t until I got back to the cabin and checked the brochures and park guides we had picked up and identified it as a Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel. While it looks quite similar to a chipmunk, this squirrel can be differentiated from chipmunks by the lack of any stripes on the face.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

This western squirrel inhabits mountain slopes and foothills, alpine tundra, open areas in coniferous forests, rocky outcroppings and slides, margins of mountain meadows, and campgrounds. It lives in burrows beneath rocks, stumps, logs, bushes, or cabins, or in rock crevices. The Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel is active mainly between March and November at low elevations, with a shorter season in the mountains and areas with abundant snowfall. Omnivorous, its diet includes seeds, fungus, leaves, flowers, fruits and roots, arthropods and meat, including carrion. This species is not of conservation concern as it is locally abundant and populations are distributed evenly over good habitat.

He was certainly very charming, and it was very difficult not to give in to his silent entreaties for handouts. Feeding wildlife is not only against the park rules in Jasper, but also does more harm than good.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

I didn’t see any marmots or pikas on the rocky slopes near the upper station. These were two species I was hoping to find on top of Whistlers Mountain as they are both found on rock slides and talus slopes in the alpine zone from 6,000 to 8,500 feet (1,800 to 2,500 meters). While descending in the tram, however, I spotted a small rodent scurrying across the top of a flat rock before disappearing. In retrospect, I am guessing this was a pika.

Jasper Tramway

On our way back to the cabin we came across a single female elk grazing next to the road, this one with a radio collar around her neck for tracking purposes. So far we’d seen elk every day while in Jasper National Park; while I wasn’t becoming blasé about them yet, they were becoming as common as the White-tailed Deer back home in Ottawa and I was hoping to see something new. I still asked Doran to stop so I could take some pictures because I knew I would miss them once I returned home.

Female Elk with Radio Collar

Female Elk with Radio Collar

Back at our cabin, we were eating our lunch when I heard an insistent tapping outside. I went out to have a look, and found a large, beautiful male Pileated Woodpecker working on a snag behind our cabin! There were a number of holes in the stump, suggesting that the Pileated Woodpecker dined there often.

Pileated Woodpecker

I snapped this photo once he reached the top of the snag. Note the ant on the underside of its bill!

Pileated Woodpecker

The Columbian Ground Squirrel was hanging out behind our cabin in his usual spot, so I took a photo of him too. This made it a two-ground squirrel day!

Columbian Ground Squirrel

Taking the tram up to the top of Whistlers Mountain was an awesome experience, in every sense of the word. In retrospect I wish I had hiked all the way to the summit; this is just another reason why a return trip is necessary in the future!


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