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Visiting Spirit Island on Maligne Lake is one of the best things to do in Jasper National Park. And if you follow this Spirit Island travel guide I can guarantee that you’ll have the experience of a lifetime!
Spirit Island is one of the most iconic landmarks in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. This off the beaten path island has captured the imagination of many artists throughout the years and became incredibly famous after Peter Gales’ image of Spirit Island hung in Kodak’s Colorama showcase in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal in August and September of 1960.
And then Apple used an image of Spirit Island when they launched their 2014 iPad model to showcase its heightened photography capabilities.
The only way to reach this mythical spot is by boat and everyday a bunch of overpriced tourist boats head out on Maligne Lake to drop off about 50 people all at once.
But what if I told you there was another way? That you can actually see this place for yourself without any other tourist around and have the experience of a lifetime?
In this guide I will tell you exactly how we spent the most magical morning at Spirit Island and how you can have the exact same experience!
- A little history about Spirit Island
- How to reach Maligne Lake
- How to reach Spirit Island
- When can you visit Spirit Island on Maligne Lake
- The best way to visit Spirit Island in Jasper National Park
- Our magical visit to Spirit Island on Maligne Lake
- Essential Tips for a Canoe Trip to Spirit Island on Maligne Lake
- What to wear on an overnight canoe trip to Spirit Island in Jasper National Park
How To Visit Spirit Island On Maligne Lake By Canoe
A little history about Spirit Island
Spirit Island isn’t actually a real island! It’s tied to the mainland by a slim spit of land, but if the water level of the lake is high you can’t actually see it. Spirit Island sits in the heart of what’s called a “box canyon”—a narrow canyon with a flat bottom and vertical walls.
Now, where did Spirit Island get its name?
Spirit Island itself has its own Romeo & Juliet-style tale to go along with it. As told by an old First Nations myth, a boy and girl from two different tribes met on Spirit Island once a week. Although they soon fell in love, their tribes remained enemies. After the girl confessed the story of her forbidden love to her father, the chief, he banned her from ever returning to Spirit Island. Heartbroken, her lover continued to visit the island, hoping to meet the girl once more. He never saw her again and died on that very island. Legend has it that his spirit still haunts the island, desperately searching for the girl to this very day.
On a side note, the word Maligne is French for malignant or wicked. The lake was named after a Belgian 19th century missionary, Father Pierre-Jean de Smett, who used this word to describe the dangerous river that flows from the lake.
The island is a spiritual place for the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, who believe mountains are physical representations of their ancestors. The fact that Spirit Island is surrounded on three sides by the same mountain range is very rare and makes it particularly significant to the Stoney.
How to reach Maligne Lake
Maligne Lake is located in Jasper National Park and about 75 minutes driving from the town of Jasper itself. There are a ton of options for hotels in Jasper or you’re traveling with an RV or camper you can stay at Wapiti Camping or Snaring River Campground.
From Jasper you need to take the scenic 48km long Maligne Lake Road so you may want to calculate in some extra time so you can stop to take some photos along the way.
On the evening of our adventure we parked our camper on the small parking lot next to Maligne Lake. technically it’s not allowed but there’s literally no one there and there are toilets on site. We saw a couple of other camper vans do the same thing but we did make sure to have dinner in Jasper before we went. This way we didn’t have to cook dinner on the parking spot.
How to reach Spirit Island
Well, there’s pretty much only one way to reach Spirit Island and that is by boat. Maligne Lake is open to paddlers and electric motors only. Aside from the tour boats and Parks Canada’s rescue boat, gas-powered motors are not allowed on the lake.
There is no hiking trail leading up to this place and as far as boats go there are three different options that you can choose from:
1. Take a Maligne Lake Cruise to visit Spirit Island
One of the most popular ways to visit Spirit Island is to book one of the official cruises.
I honestly don’t recommend this way cause the boats only start running by 9am and can hold up to 40 people per boat for sure. There’s only a small viewing platform from where you can admire the island and there wouldn’t be anything magical about it when one boat arrives after the other. Plus, you only get 15 minutes on land with the regular cruise.
If you want 30 minutes you need to book the Premium Cruise which costs a lot more.
But if renting a canoe and paddling yourself isn’t your cup of tea then this is the only way to go.
2. Rent a canoe for 1 day
Rent a canoe for 1 day and paddle 28km there and back: this is exactly what we did and we rented our canoe from Pure Outdoors and had the best experience! I will explain later on in this article what we did exactly! Renting a canoe for 24 hours will cost you €100.
3. Go backcountry camping at Maligne Lake
Rent a canoe for multiple days and try to score one of the camp sites near Spirit Island to go backcountry camping.
There are 3 backcountry campgrounds along the length of the lake. Each site needs to be booked in advance with Parks Canada and due to the area’s popularity, trips are limited to six nights with two at each campground. You can make Maligne Lake camping reservations at Parks Canada’s website.
Hidden Cove Campground
Hidden Cove is Jasper’s newest campground and is designed to be a beginner, family-friendly destination and is only 3.5km away from the pier at Maligne Lake.
Fisherman’s Bay Campground
This campground is about 13 km away from the dock and it’s where almost everyone spend their first night camping when visiting Maligne Lake. From here it’s only 20 minutes paddling to reach Spirit Island.
Coronet Creek Backcountry Campground
You can find this campground all the way at the back of Maligne Lake and is only accessible by a 23km paddle from the dock.
When can you visit Spirit Island on Maligne Lake
Like I mentioned earlier you can only reach Spirit Island by boat so you have to time your visit when Maligne Lake isn’t frozen anymore. Your ideal months for visiting would be halfway through June, July, August and September.
When planning your trip you also need to take the weather into consideration. You want to aim for clear days and clear nights. This means less chance of winds that can cause a current on the lake. Trust me, you want crystal clear water if you’re going to paddle 16km one way.
Maligne Lake is one of the coldest lakes in the Rockies. Traveling in poor weather on the lake is not recommended since the weather can change suddenly.
The best way to visit Spirit Island in Jasper National Park
In my opinion, the absolute best way to visit Spirit Island, is to rent a canoe for 2 days and try to snatch one of the campsites at Fisherman’s Bay. There are only 8 camping spots so once reservations open you should make sure that you’re on their website cause these spots tend to sell out within the hour.
Important info – Fisherman’s Bay is a backcountry campground so you need to have a backcountry permit.
In 2022 the reservations launched on February 2, 2022 at 8 am MST. Keep an eye on the Parks Canada site to check for reservations for 2023!
If you’re lucky enough to grab a spot you can head out in the afternoon to Fisherman’s Bay, set up camp and then paddle to Spirit Island for sunset. Afterwards you can head back to your tent, have a good nights sleep and paddle back to Spirit Island for sunrise. Afterwards you can grab breakfast at the campground and return to the docks.
But the biggest downside to this way of visiting Spirit Island is that there is no way of knowing what the weather will be like so many months in advance. If you don’t want to take any risk you’ll have to do what we did!
Our magical visit to Spirit Island on Maligne Lake
Describing our visit to Spirit Island as one of the most spectacular moments of our entire Canada road trip would still be an understatement. It was a once in a lifetime experience that I would honestly never do again but I am so so happy that we took a chance and jumped into this adventure!
During our trip I almost didn’t plan anything from before but I knew that if we wanted to canoe to Spirit Island for sunrise the weather had to be clear! So when we arrived to Jasper and I looked up the weather forecast for the next days I got very, very excited!
Now all we had to do was find a good rental company for a canoe!
Where to rent a canoe to paddle to Spirit Island for sunrise
There are several rental companies in Jasper but I highly recommend Pure Outdoors! Their shop is located in Jasper and they will transport your canoe to Maligne Lake for you. I called them the day before we needed the canoe and they still had one left!
💡 TIP – If you’re traveling in high season like July or August you may want to reserve your canoe a couple of days in advance!
We were told to come by the store that same evening to get our gear (paddles and lifejackets) and after we explained our plan to the owner he gave us a ton of advice as well! We got the key to our canoe and he told us the exact spot and number to grab our canoe at Maligne Lake.
Next up was the stunning drive along Maligne Lake Road. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled on the road cause you might even spot a black bear or a moose when driving this scenic road in Jasper National Park.
We made our way to the parking lot at Maligne Lake and arrived around 9pm. Since we had a very early wake up call we tried to get as much sleep as possible. This was our itinerary for the next day:
- Get up to leave for Spirit Island at 1am
- Paddle 14km in a canoe: it usually takes between 3,5 to 4 hours
- Watch and photograph the sunrise at Spirit Island
- Paddle 14km back to the Maligne Lake docks
When we got up in the middle of the night is was pretty dark but since it was a clear sky the stars where lighting up the snow capped mountain tops. We unlocked our canoe, loaded it up with our gear and got on the water. To say the first couple of meters of paddling were a struggle is an understatement cause we pretty much just went in circles. Luckily we got the hang of it after a while and were able to paddle on in a somewhat straight line.
Around 3am the first light started to come and in the background we could hear wolves howling. We were paddling in the middle of the lake in a straight line but I still looked around to see if could see anything on the shore.
The first 11km are definitely the hardest, after that the lake becomes more narrow and there’s a lot more to see!
About 3,5 hours later we made it to Spirit Island! It’s important to know that you can’t walk on the island itself but right across from it they made a viewing platform.
The next 2,5 hours felt like magic. It was just the two of us and the lake was a perfect mirror. Slowly the sun started to rise and we took over a thousand photos!
We decided to start paddling back around 7am. That way we wouldn’t encounter too many tourist boats. On our way towards Spirit Island the water had been super calm which made it super easy for us to paddle through. Of course once the tourist boats start running all of this calmness disappears.
Luckily we already made good progress and by the time the tours started we only had a couple of kilometers to go.
A little before 10am we arrived back on shore and honestly by that time I couldn’t feel my shoulders anymore. We safely stored the canoe away and locked it again, drove back to Jasper, had a couple of beers and slept for 12 hours straight :p.
Essential Tips for a Canoe Trip to Spirit Island on Maligne Lake
- Be prepared and be honest about your canoe experience. 28km is a very long way and if I am being honest I was only able to do this because of Christof’s arm strength. I also paddled a lot but you simply can’t compare us in strength…
- Dress warm! Maligne Lake is the coldest lake in the Canadian Rockies and during the night the temperature can definitely go below zero, even in the Summer months. I will list the exact items that I wore and brought with me below!
- Bring water and snacks! You’ll be out on the water for a very long time so make sure to bring enough food to regain some energy!
- Maligne Lake is a curved lake but it’s better to draw a straight line from the dock to Spirit Island and paddle in that direction. Otherwise you’ll add 30 to 45 minutes extra to your canoeing.
- Put the smallest person in the front of the canoe.
- Wear a life jacket at all times.
- Make sure your paddle matches your length (they usually check this at the shop).
- Bring mosquito spray. Once the sun comes up, the bugs come out.
- Make sure to bring sunscreen if you’re canoeing during the day.
What to wear on an overnight canoe trip to Spirit Island in Jasper National Park
This is an exact list of the clothes that I was wearing during our sunrise adventure to Spirit Island in Jasper National Park:
- Fjällräven Abisko Trekking Tights in Black – These tights are perfect for hiking in colder weather so I opted to wear these since we would be sitting still for a very long time.
- Fjällräven Expedition Pack Down Jacket in Dandelion – I freaking love this jacket! It’s super easy to tuck away in my backpack as well and gave enough warmth during the coldest hours in the night.
- Fjällräven Ovik Knit Sweater – The perfect wool and warm sweater.
- Danner Mountain Light Boots – My favorite pair of hiking boots and the warmest shoes I had with me. Plus your canoe is bound to get wet on the inside from all the paddling so you want to wear waterproof shoes.
- And make sure not to forget a thermal long sleeve, a pair of gloves and a woolen hat or headband to keep your ears warm.
- Thermopads – These babies were a lifesaver! We were pretty warm during the canoeing itself but once we arrived at Spirit Island our limbs completely froze and both of us started shaking from the cold. You can simply shake these little bags, put them in your gloves and they give off heat.