The Overlander Trail – Are we there yet?
The dreaded chant drifting from the back seat for nearly every long-distance travelling family.
Funny that this was the first thought that popped into my mind as I stood at the remains of Moberly Cabin in Jasper National Park at the halfway point of our 18km day hike on the Overlander Trail.
The small information plaque in front of the roofless wooden remains explains that this was the home of the Moberly family until 1909. Once a year the family would make the three-month long trek to Edmonton to sell furs and get supplies.
Are we there yet?
It kind of takes on a whole new meaning in that context.
The Overlander Trail is an interesting hike for many reasons. It’s a mini thru-hike, with a trail head at either end of 15.5km. The northern end is at a pullout on the south side of Hwy 16 just east of the bridge over the Athabasca approximately 22km east of Jasper townsite. There are two pull outs; the eastern one (you can see one from the other) has the official signage for the Overlander Trail. The south end cam be accessed via the sixth bridge on the Maligne Lake Rd.
The trail is a true piece of local history, named for the Overlanders – a group of around 200 eager, wannabe prospectors that headed west for the gold rush in the mid 1800s.
Most hikers will use a two-car system, parking one vehicle at the north end of the trail, piling into the other and heading off to start at the other end.
We were a group of three adults and four dogs and we decided rather than negotiate the vehicle swap we would just park at the north end, hike in a decent ways and turn back. Our guide book put the cabin at 8.3km from the north end so we tentatively decided that, if the trail was in good shape, we would hike to the cabin, have lunch and come back.
Armed with water, snacks, first aid, extra layers and bear spray we determined we were ready to go – we also determined we were well-suited hiking partners as we all erred on the side of over- preparing for our first hike of the season.
The north end of the trail starts off uphill. Really, really uphill. The switchback kind of incline that made me want to cry a little. Luckily, it didn’t last long and we popped out on top of a ridge I’d previously only seen from the highway, far below.
The highway can be seen from most vantage points on the trail as it travels parallel on the opposite side of the river. This is my only complaint about the trail as you are often still exposed to the sounds of traffic off in the distance.
The trail winds along the south facing slopes and, at times, becomes only a narrow track, completely exposed on a steep, rocky incline. It was those portions that made me question the many trail reports I had read calling it an ‘easy’ trail. Personally, I would not recommend attempting the trail unless you have a bit of hiking experience under your belt and are comfortable with heights. A slip and fall would have made for a very dangerous situation with certain injury and a difficult rescue. For me, this meant having my hiking poles. Without them, vertigo would have kept me from continuing.
There are many ups and downs on the trail, literally. My FitBit recorded us as climbing an equivalent of 187 flights of stairs. However, none of them last terribly long. Just long enough to make you stop for a rest and make that last push up the hill. The views from the open ridges are worth every step.
At our 6km mark we started spending more time in the trees, and passed through a couple of old burns before coming to an open field. The Moberly family homestead is at the 9km mark. It was the perfect location for a trail lunch.
Because of our in-and-out route, we travelled further than the 15.5km entirety of the trail, travelling 18km instead. The previously mentioned south facing nature of the trail makes it the perfect early- season hike and we even had purple wildflowers lining the path, despite it being late March.
I will definitely do this trail again throughout the year to see the landscape change with the seasons. Be sure to check on my 10 essentials list you should take on any day hike here.
15.5km one way, end to end
From Hinton travel approximately 50km west on Hwy 16. Park in pullout on south side of the highway before crossing the bridge over the Athabasca. This is the northern trailhead. The southern trailhead is at the sixth bridge on the Maligne Lake Road.
Significant uphill and downhill sections, although each is fairly short in distance.
Requires hiking experience for slightly technical portions on open slopes. Not suitable for small children.
Be Bear Aware!
This trail is well known as being a favourite for grizzlies, especially in the early season. Bear spray is a must, and make lots of noise along the trail. We were constantly whistling, ‘whoop-whooping’ and calling out loudly as we went.
Wildlife we saw:
A small herd of sheep across the river, three trail runners, two mountain bikers and one bald eagle.