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Lovely tarn in upper Watchtower basin looking back the length of the valley. Watchtower upper left

Trip Summary

September 5, 2014

 

All along the Watchtower!  This rather classic Jasper trail was in the pipeline for a long time. In summer 2006 I day-hiked celebrated Skyline trail. Starting at 11am from Maligne Lake, it was steady moderate pace till completion - about 12hr day. Only break I took all day was near halfway point under Big Shovel Pass. I looked at Watchtower junction with longing, curious about terrain on east side leading down to Maligne Lake road.  8 years passed, but in early September 2014 I returned to hike Watchtower trail from Maligne road and finally reconnected with Skyline.

 

Watchtower is in stark contrast with uber-popular Skyline trail. While camp sites on Skyline must be reserved well in advance, you are almost guaranteed solitude on Watchtower. Trip is feasible as either day-hike or backpack.  If backpacking, campground in upper basin (~10 km from trailhead) is good base for further exploration of the area or even day-hiking into most popular central part of Skyline. With two cars, 1-way crossing from Maligne Lake road to Athabasca River Valley via Wabasso trail is also possible. Due to budget cuts, Watchtower trail is not maintained anymore by Parks Canada and slowly falling into dis-repair with several bushy and boggy sections in upper basin.  Foot bridge across Maligne river near trailhead has collapsed and is not scheduled for repair requiring rock-hop right at the start; during spring runoffs it might not be possible.

 

Drive Maligne Lake road 18 km from Yellowhead Hwy and turn into parking on the right (west) side. Rock-hop Maligne river and continue along well-defined trail rising diagonally to the mouth of Watchtower basin. Hike along Watcthower creek to upper basin following flags and cairns. Higher up trail disappears but way is obvious. If going for the campground watch for faded wood sign and flag indicating the spot to cross the creek.  Logical turn-around point for day-hikers is set of lovely tarns and rock-garden below moderate angled scree slope leading to Watcthower col.  Otherwise trail beaten in scree leads to the col then drops on the other side and connects with Skyline.  Ridge leading north from Watchtower col also can easily be hiked for long time offering fantastic views of Maligne range and Skyline; this is recommended option when backpacking.

Gallery

 
Remains of footbridge over Maligne river near trailhead
 
Hiking along Watchtower creek in mid valley
 
Old sign and flag point to Watchtower campground
 
Campground has 4 pads, picnic benches and bear hang
 
Rock garden below the col. Watchtower upper center
 
Flower fields with Colin range on the horizon
 
Fantastic hiking in upper Watchtower Basin
 
Watchtower TarnWatchtower Tarn Very photogenic alpine tarn in upper Watchtower basin

Abstract

Overall Difficulty

D4

Non-bridged creek crossings. Moderate angle trail hiking. Boggy and bushy sections. Scree plod to Watchtower col.  Maligne River crossing at trailhead; might be impassable during spring runoffs

Snow Factor

S3

Trail not usually done in winter.  Steep but short ascent from upper basin to the col - assess conditions properly

Scenery

Upper basin is very scenic with meadows, creeks and tarns. Great views of Watchtower, Colin and Maligne ranges.

Trail/Marking

Good/Poor

Trail not maintained by Parks Canada deteriorates and disappears in upper basin. Occasional faded flags and cairns

Suggested Time

8-10hr

Day-hike return time to Watchtower col.  If backpacking, allow 3-4 hours to campground

Elevation

Start: 1390m     Max: 2360m     Total: ~1000m

Round Trip: 28km

Gear

Hiking boots and poles; snowshoes in winter. Gaiters very helpful for boggy sections in mid-basin

Water

Maligne river at trailhead, Watchtower creek till upper basin.  Carry 1-2L

Dog Friendly

Yes

No on-leash restrictions. Standard griz-country travel precautions