Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, after visiting Jasper National Park in the early 1900s, summed up his experience in a guest book entry at Jasper Park Lodge that read as follows:
“An adaptation of an ancient story occurs to me:
A New York man reached Heaven, and as he passed the gate, Peter said, ‘I am sure you will like it.’
A Pittsburgh man followed, and Peter said, ‘It will be a very great change for you.’
Finally, there came a man from Jasper Park.
‘I am afraid,’ said Peter, ‘that you will be very disappointed.’”
If you’ve ever been to Jasper National Park, this statement requires no further explanation. Jasper’s beauty draws millions of visitors from around the world every year, each keen to set foot on the Park’s epic mountain trails, or be awed by stunning views of turquoise-coloured glacial lakes and snow-capped peaks. And when the sun sets on those lakes and mountains, another side of Jasper’s beauty reveals itself: millions of stars that light up the night sky in what is the world’s largest accessible Dark Sky Preserve. But those stars seem to sparkle even brighter come October, when this mountain town hosts its annual celebration of the night skies: the Jasper Dark Sky Festival.
Jasper’s Dark Sky Festival
It’s been more than a decade since Jasper National Park was accredited as a Dark Sky Preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and because the town of Jasper is located within this preserve, it strives to ensure that its light pollution is kept to a bare minimum. But the town has gone one step further than merely supporting the Preserve with low-impact lighting solutions: shortly after the Park received this designation, Jasper began creating programming for locals and visitors so they could take advantage of this opportunity to better appreciate the dark skies above.
This was the birth of the Jasper Dark Sky Festival, an annual celebration of all things celestial, which has evolved over the past 12 years to become Canada’s premier event of its kind. The Festival runs for about 17 days in early-to-mid October (in 2023, a third weekend was added to the festival to add even more events). The festival truly offers something for everyone, from cultural events and presentations that are decidedly grown-up, to family-friendly activities organized through the Jasper Planetarium and local businesses.
Henk, being a long-time astrophotographer, was in his element and as excited as a kid when we learned we would be visiting Jasper for the Festival, and we were both keen to experience some of the grown-up activities that were on offer there as well.
The Stars – as in Celebrities – Come Out to Play, Too
You don’t have to be an astronomer or an astronaut to enjoy Jasper’s Dark Sky Festival. But you can probably count on seeing both of these types of ‘stars’ here, because this Festival draws big names in the worlds of science and space. In the past, Jasper has played host to Chris Hadfield, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and even George Takei (Sulu from the original Star Trek series). This year, the 2023 Festival kicked off with The Honourable Marc Garneau, the first Canadian in space, as a keynote speaker at the local Rotary Club’s fundraising event.
Accomplished, eloquent and personable, Garneau kicked off the Festival with a meet and greet and a presentation that left everyone a little bit star-struck, as he spoke about the role Canada has played in advancing the study of the universe with technical contributions like the Canadarm and imaging sensors for the James Webb telescope. It was particularly enlightening to hear from a former astronaut, as Garneau has a unique perspective on the planet, having orbited it when he took part in 3 separate space missions. His is a global view you can only get from having seen our blue planet from that far above it, and like so many other astronauts, Garneau cannot fully describe the feeling that comes with that unique experience, other than to be awed by it.
For those of us tethered to the ground, we will have to content ourselves with the view we have from below – but we can get to experience a little of that awe by booking a Jasper SkyTram Star Session, which brings visitors a full kilometre closer to the heavens for a special dark sky evening under the stars.
SkyTram ‘Star Sessions’
In the summer tourism season, Jasper’s renowned SkyTram shuttles people up to the top of Whistlers Mountain to take in the spectacular views of the town and its surrounding peaks, a must-do experience for every visitor. But come autumn the SkyTram becomes a different type of shuttle: one that takes visitors one kilometer closer to the stars for a star-gazing evening on the peak.
Partnering with the Jasper Planetarium, Skytram offers visitors the chance to book a ‘Star Session flight’ package during the months of September and October, that includes a ticket on the SkyTram to the top of the mountain, plus access to multiple interactive stations set up around the Tramway platform and surrounding terrain.
Here, astronomers and science experts from the Planetarium have set up telescopes and informative displays to help visitors understand more about the universe and the stars shining down on our world. There are even photographers on-site who can help you capture images of the night sky.
Dinner and a Stellar Show
Every Star Sessions package includes these activities, but you can also add a dinner at the top of the mountain for an even more memorable evening. Henk and I got to enjoy this experience as guests of Jasper Tourism, and because we were booked for an early dinner, as a bonus we got to enjoy a beautiful sunset from our cantilevered perch next to the restaurant’s window. The timing for our early Star Session Flight couldn’t have been better, as we watched the skies and the surrounding mountains transition from golden hour through shades of deeper and deeper blue.
Our perch also gave us a great place to watch for local wildlife, and sure enough, as we waited for Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) to appear, another ‘ursa minor’ showed up: a black bear that was showing no signs of hibernating as he hopped over the rocks and scree on the mountain slope below us, eventually popping into what must be his over-wintering den.
If this wasn’t enough of a treat, our 4-course meal in the SkyTram restaurant, the Summit Café, was another: I don’t know how they manage to cook salmon and steak so perfectly 3300 feet up a mountain, but kudos to the chef and the kitchen for turning out a truly elevated dinner to pair with the celestial ‘show’ that followed.
TIP: It can get pretty chilly at the top of a mountain even in early September, so even though there are warming fire pits around the top of the Tramway boardwalk, be sure to bring your warmest clothing so you can stay comfortable while enjoying the stars. Yes, even a toque!
Jasper Planetarium Events
Most people may not realize that the town of Jasper has a permanent Planetarium, located on the grounds of the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Not a lot of towns with a population of 5,000 people can boast a star-gazing facility like this, never mind one with the largest, most powerful telescopes in the Rockies.
The Planetarium offers programming throughout the year, but the Dark Sky Festival is its time to really pull out all the stops, and this October there was even a partial solar eclipse happening which kept the staff busy during the daylight hours as well.
On the day of that eclipse, even though clouds threatened to obscure the sun entirely, patience and a little skill paid off and Henk was able to capture the moon’s ‘bite’ out of the sun, and thanks to the Planetarium staff providing all visitors with proper glasses, we were all able to safely watch the eclipse. Rarely do we get the opportunity to witness this kind of phenomenon, and I think we all felt that child-like wonder that comes with this kind of experience.
TIP: Because the skies are not always cooperative, the Jasper Planetarium offers a 2-year rain check on its Telescope Experience, meaning you can return anytime within 24 months when the weather is clearer. If you are staying in Jasper for several days, you might want to book your Planetarium Experience for the first day or two so you have extra days during your visit if you do need to use that rain check right away.
Symphony Under the Stars
The premier grown-up event of the Jasper Dark Sky Festival has to be the one that brings world-class music and starlight together on the shores of Lac Beauvert at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge: the annual Symphony Under the Stars.
Once a year on the opening weekend of the Festival, the Jasper Park Lodge plays host to the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra who travel to this mountain town to perform a live concert on the lawn of the Lodge property. Under a canopy of twinkling stars, two dozen world-class musicians entertain the audience with a celestial concert showcasing classical favourites along with more accessible interpretations of modern music. In its inaugural year, Symphony Under the Stars drew about 140 people, but the event has become so popular that in 2023 it welcomed more than 800 audience members from across the country.
Being part of that audience is an experience Henk and I will always remember; the strains of violins and cellos filling the air as more and more stars filled the skies, the audience cuddling up under blankets to enjoy the music and the night air as they sip a glass of chilled wine. This is no ordinary concert, and this is certainly no ordinary venue: the Symphony Under the Stars is a one-of-a-kind experience that people book to celebrate a special milestone in their lives – or to create a new one they’ll remember for years to come.
TIP: For an even more elevated Symphony Under the Stars experience, the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge offers VIP packages that include premium seating at the concert with access to a complimentary bar, overnight packages that include lodging, and pre-and-post-concert add-ons like dinner and exclusive receptions.
Jasper Dark Sky Festival Photo Events
It’s one thing to admire the night skies accompanied by music by Mozart or Bach; it’s quite another to try to capture those night skies in a photograph. Fortunately the Jasper Dark Sky Festival draws all kinds of astrophotographers and experts to share their knowledge with visitors who are keen to capture the Milky Way, starry reflections in glacial lakes, or even the elusive Aurora Borealis, should it choose to make an appearance.
Henk and I attended a Science for Lunch presentation by ‘Aurora Chaser’ Jeanine Holowatiuk from Saskatchewan, where she shared her experience and tips on how to adjust apertures, prevent batteries from freezing, and even what to wear when trying to capture that perfect Northern Lights image. (The oohs and aahs that came from the audience when Jeanine showed some of her photos were both appreciative and envious!)
There are also photo tours and workshops happening throughout the Festival, which can help beginners learn new skills, or more experienced photographers improve their techniques. Henk definitely falls into the latter category, so he was thrilled to join an astrophotography tour with Jasper local Mike Gere of Jasper Photo Tours, who offers not just astro tours, but wildlife and waterfall photo tours as well. Mike not only knew some of the best places to go in the area for dark sky images, but he was happy to share his knowledge and techniques for capturing the perfect Milky Way reflection, painting with light, or just composing a more interesting foreground. Henk had definitely met ‘his people’, and I think the results speak for themselves.
Adult Beverages, Indigenous Experiences and More
On our weekend visit, Henk and I only touched on some of the experiences visitors can have at the Jasper Dark Sky Festival. With 3 weekends of special programming and ongoing nightly events, the nights – and days – are literally packed with activities, and the local businesses are enthusiastically on board, too.
Every year, the Jasper Brewing Company offers a specialty brew made just for the Festival, like their 2023 Ursa Major Berry Lemon Sour beer. They also create fun, dark-sky themed merchandise specifically for the Festival.
And Alberta’s Dark Sky Distillery (who make ‘Aurora Gin’, the official spirit of the Festival) offers tastings of their spirits and cocktails at the local liquor store in Jasper.
The Dark Sky Festival also includes Indigenous storytelling events that provide a different interpretation of the heavens, music events where attendees can dance under the stars, a trivia contest with a coveted ‘Orion’s belt’ going to the winner, and even a drone show (with special permission from Parks Canada of course, as drones are prohibited in all National Parks.)
A Premier Festival in a Pristine Park
With the calibre of speakers, presenters, activities and of course, the spectacular skies themselves as the real draw, it’s no wonder the Jasper Dark Sky Festival has built such a stellar reputation (pun intended). There’s no doubt that this small town Festival has become THE destination for anyone who longs to connect with the cosmos in one of Canada’s most beautiful locations – because if you thought Jasper was one of Canada’s most heavenly locations to visit in the summer, come in October and look around.
Better yet, look up.
Where to Stay: If you are attending a premium event like the Jasper Dark Sky Festival, why not spoil yourself with a stay at a world-renowned property as well, the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Not only does this historic property provide a wide range of luxurious accommodations in its main Lodge and standalone cabins, its spectacular location absolutely cannot be beat. Set on the turquoise waters of Lac Beauvert and only a few minutes drive from town, the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge offers its guests all the amenities you would expect in a luxury property, with the warmth and personal attention of staff who obviously love working here as much as their guests love coming here (some of whom have been returning for generations).
TIP: Because October is shoulder season, rates are more affordable at many of Jasper’s hotels and resorts, so this is the perfect time to indulge in a top-tier accommodation.
Where to Eat:
Jasper Brewing Company makes more than just great craft brews and clever, cheeky merchandise: their casual food menu is packed with internationally and locally-inspired comfort foods that are perfect for hungry star-gazers, whether you come for lunch or happy hour before its gets dark, or afterwards for their late night offerings.
If you are a pizza lover, Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria on Patricia Street is where you’ll want to go. Everything here is as authentic as possible, from their Campania tomatoes to the oven itself, both of which are imported from Italy. There are great lunch combos and pastas, too, if you want more than just pizza.
For fine dining, check out Aalto at Pursuit Collection’s Pyramid Lake Lodge. With equal attention given to ingredients from the land and the water (whether that be lake or ocean), Chef de Cuisine Shane Rutledge serves up plates that are as beautiful to look at as they are to taste. (Henk and I got our first taste of Rutledge’s cuisine last year when he was working at another property and we were equally impressed with his talent.)
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.