Opal Hills is a green oasis in the middle of the Canadian Rockies near Maligne Lake. This is not a long hike but the trail is steep! When we visited, it was our second hike of the day (after Bald Hills), so my legs were a little tired and I found it pretty tough. Still the gorgeous flower-filled meadows were well worth the effort. If this was our only hike of the day, I would be very tempted to leave the main path to try for some of the ridgelines and peaks.
The lady that named this area, Mary Schäffer, was a really adventurous woman. To her, these mountains may have been mere hills (maybe because they were not covered in glaciers!?) but make no mistake, this hike reaches high alpine meadows. Opal Peak is 2840m (9317ft) high – so it’s more than just a hill!
Opal Hills Loop – the basics
Elevation gain: 517m
Time: 2.5-3 hours
What to bring:
The 10 Essentials (as always)
Bear spray and money for waffles
Facilities: Toilets at the trailhead, plus a waffle house nearby!
Dogs: No dogs allowed in this area.
How hard is it? It’s listed as difficult on the Parks Canada website. It is very steep and a bit of a challenge on the uphill section, but it never gets technical. The walk in the meadows is a pleasant stroll.
Extra Notes: Sometimes this trail is closed in July or August due to bear activities. Check the Parks Canada website before you go.
Opal Hills – Getting started
The trail starts at almost the same place as Bald Hills. From Jasper, take Highway 16 North, then turn right onto Maligne Lake road. Follow the road the whole way to Maligne Lake (44km.) There are a few different car parks, Opal Hills is closer to the two car parks on the left right by Maligne Lake.
Hiking with besties!
I should mention that we got to do this hike with our friends Lisa and Dan. They had just finished the Skyline trail that morning, so we met up for waffles before this mini adventure to Opal Hills. Lisa is a hiking superstar, and you can read her blog: West Coast Hiker Girl.
The trail starts off nice and easy along the Mary Schäffer loop near Malign Lake. This will take you to some open meadows where you might see moose (if you’re super lucky – we didn’t. Sob) You’ll have a quick peek at Opal Hills above the treetops up ahead.
The steep climb
The trail up to Opal Hills is the steepest trail near Jasper (according to the sign at the trailhead.) There aren’t many switchbacks, so you just need to put your head down and stomp up. At least while you’re looking down, you might find wild strawberries.
Views for miles
Once you’ve made it above the trees, you can turn around to see layers and layers of mountains. Well, you can if it’s not too smokey! There is a loop at the top of the trail. We went right to follow the loop anticlockwise (so we could be heading uphill for the steepest section.)
Maligne Lake viewpoint
We missed this – but if you turn right and follow a small trail before turning left for the main loop, there is a gorgeous sounding viewpoint over Maligne Lake.
Highlight – Opal Hills Meadows
The best part of this fabulous trail is the loop around the meadows below Opal Peak. Don’t go looking for actual opals – Mary Schäffer named these hills for the colours – red rocks, green meadows striped with snow and wildflowers. It is very different to the other grey limestone peaks that line Maligne Lake.
Continue on to the peaks?
We only had a few hours to spare, but it looks possible to hike up 4 of the peaks just beyond the meadows. If we come back to this area when it is less smokey, I would love to attempt some of those.
Opal Hills Wildflowers!
The main reason people slog up this steep trail is to see the spectacular display of wildflowers. We visited in August when they were a little past their best, but there were chunky patches of bright pink fireweed, red paintbrushes and yellow mountain arnica.
The most beautiful section of the trail lasts for about 2km. You’ll be smelling the flowers and greeting the local ground squirrels. THIS is why you might want to hike up to Opal Hills.
Opal Hills vs Bald Hills
There are two famous trails at this end of Maligne Lake; Bald Hills and Opal Hills. They are both wonderful hikes and strong hikers can easily do both on the same day. Bald Hills was longer, but Opal Hills is steeper, so they it felt like about the same amount of effort. If you can only do one, I thought the views (and squirrels) were a bit better from Bald Hills, but the wildflowers were better from Opal Hills. Either options is going to be a great day out.
Opal Hills Geology geek-out
You may wonder why Opal Hills looks so different to the surrounding Rockies. As the snow from the Late Wisconsin Glaciation receded (the most recent glacial period in North America – 10,000 years ago.) It caused some unbelievably massive rockslides; Limestones and quartzite tumbled down to Maligne Valley leaving the brownish-red siltstone exposed at the peaks. After tens of thousands of years of erosion, this siltstone made better soil than the limestone-heavy mountains nearby. That is why these meadows are so lush, green and full of flowers.
If you follow the loop anticlockwise, the descent is steep, but not too dangerous. Keep going until you meet up with the main trail, then follow that back down to Maligne Lake.
Finish with a waffle
Once you make it back down to Maligne Lake, there is a waffle hut! This is mostly there for the busloads of tourists that visit for boat tours on Maligne Lake (so don’t expect waffles after all hikes near Jasper!) We did this the wrong way around and went for waffles before our hike – but at least the sugar rush helped to power us up the trail.
Quiet views by Maligne Lake
It’s always nice to dip tired toes into glacial lakes at the end of a hike. There were quite a lot of people by the Maligne Lake boathouse. But (top tip…) if you walk slightly further around the lake to the Bald Hills trailhead, there were very few people there. You don’t have to go very far to find a quiet place to stare at the mountains while you soak your feet.
Maligne Lake is a beautiful area, and I love that there are two such fantastic day hikes that start at the same location. My previous post about the Bald Hills was great fun for seeing so many critters (squirrels, pikas and marmots.) But Opal Hills took the crown for bright wildflowers. This trail will make your calves ache on the ascent, but it is so worth it once you reach the loop at the top.