Our recent visit to Canada was two-fold – first, we visited the city of Edmonton, ate lots of food and took in a number of sights, and came up with a guide for things to do in Edmonton. And that was all a lot of fun.
I have to admit though that the part of the trip I was most excited about was our trip to Jasper National Park for the annual Dark Sky Festival. This should be fairly obvious – as a passionate landscape photographer, heading to somewhere as famously picturesque as Jasper was definitely going to excite me!
Of course, you might not have heard of the Dark Sky Festival. Don’t worry, I’m going to bring you up to speed on our experience, so you can figure out if this is something you might enjoy. Spoiler alert – most likely!
What is the Jasper Dark Sky Festival?
Held annually over two weekends in October since 2011 in the town of Jasper, Alberta, the Jasper Dark Sky Festival came about to celebrate the fact that the National Park of Jasper is a Dark Sky Preserve – meaning that you get incredible views of the night sky here, with limited light pollution. In fact, the town of Jasper itself has special street lighting installed, to minimise light pollution and maximise your celestial viewing experience.
Every year, the festival hosts events that aim to inspire and encourage people to get out and take a look up at the many marvels in the night sky above us, plus learn a little bit more about the universe around us through speakers, talks, and other events.
Obviously, with the name of my blog, we couldn’t turn down the invitiation to attend! Here were our highlights, to give you an idea of what to expect.
Highlights of the Jasper Dark Sky Festival
Rocket launches at the Big Bang Expo
One of the things about the Dark Sky Festival is that obviously it’s all about the night sky. So you might think there’s less to do during the day, what with it being light and everything.
As it turns out, while there is definitely more nighttime things to do there is also plenty to do during the day, even if the focus is on the night sky. A lot of the activity during the day focuses on Centennial Park in the centre of Jasper, a ten minute walk from the train station. Here there were science exhibits, folks with giant telescopes, and options for getting your hands dirty – we had a lot of fun playing with the self-made angry birds style catapult, as well as the static electricity generator (not the scientific term, I stress!).
However, the biggest draw by far was the option to make (and launch!) your own homemade rocket. This was a very popular option, particularly with families. Throughout the weekend we saw people making their own rockets with kits that you could purchase and then put together under the supervision of people who knew what they were doing.
Then, of course, the big event was the actual rocket launching. As well as the smaller rockets that members of the public could make and launch, there were also larger rocket launches going on. Watching the rockets launch was definitely a highlight for me, and I could tell the families were having a lot of fun too!
One of the most exciting parts of the Jasper Dark Sky Festival are the high quality of speakers that they line up for their evening talks. Over the two weekends of the festival in 2016, the headline speakers were Bill Nye, of Bill Nye the Science Guy fame, and George Takei, most notably famous for his role in Star Trek of course, but also a leading activist for various causes.
The weekend we were at the Dark Sky Festival we were able to see George Takei give his evening talk. This was a packed event, and turned out to be very interesting. George spoke about his fascinating life, both as an actor on Star Trek of course, but largely about his various activism passions, from his early days when his family was incarcerated for being Japanese-American during the second world war, through to his efforts on LGBT issues.
His talk was very well received, with people around me actually in tears for some of it. Moving stuff to be sure, and one we definitely enjoyed.
The other main evening talk that we attended was titled Space Talks. Featuring four incredible panellists, this was a very science oriented talk that tackled big questions around artificial intelligence, our quest for life in the universe, and our efforts at expanding our civilisation beyond our home planet. After short presentations from each member, the panel took a very large number of questions from the audience as well which was fantastic!
Again, this had a stellar line up of contributors. Bobak Ferdowsi, the Mohawk toting NASA system engineer who helped land the Curiosity rover on Mars. Nadia Drake, a science journalist, National Geographic contributor and also the daughter of the man who came up with the famous Drake Equation. Ross Lockwood, one of the few people who has an idea what living on another planet might actually be like, after he took part in the 120 day long Mars Analog study. And finally, the panel was hosted by Alan Nursall, head of Edmonton’s Telus World of Science and host of a science show on the Discovery Channel Canada.
The talk was fascinating, accessible to all, and definitely something I’d recommend.
Beyond the Stars at Lake Annette
All this talk of dark skies, and we’ve not even looked into the sky yet! Hopefully this proves that there’s no shortage of things to do at the Jasper Dark Sky Festival.
Still, a key part of the event is obviously getting out and looking up into the night sky, and the focal location for this was at Lake Annette, a few miles outside of Jasper town centre. This event started just after the George Takei talk ended, and there were free shuttle buses to get to the lake (see more on my tips for getting around below).
At the lake itself, low powered lighting installations lit the way to different areas of the lake shore, with everything from a camp fire sing along through to a series of high powered telescopes that folk could peer through to get a closer up look at objects of note in the night sky. We headed for the lake shore, where a number of photographers had set up shot, in order to get some shots of the beautiful milky way over the Canadian Rockies.
There was even a live-stream of the night sky onto the Jasper facebook page, which was pretty cool! This event was free, and definitely the most hands-on night sky focused of the events we went to. If you were only to do one event of the Jasper Dark Sky Festival, this would probably be my top pick.
The Jasper Planetarium
We were lucky during our visit to Jasper in that the weather was clear for the evenings we were watching the skies, and we had fantastic views. That isn’t always the case, but, there is a way whereby you can stargaze in Jasper whatever the weather outside or time of day.
That way is the Jasper Planetarium, a 35 person inflatable dome that will take you on a tour of Jasper National Park’s 11,000km dark sky preserve, all from the comfort of a chair. This is actually something you can experience year round in Jasper – just book online – and is a relaxing and informative way to get to know the sky a little better. We definitely enjoyed our experience, and can recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the skies above!
Star gazing in central Jasper
The last event we attended at the Jasper Dark Sky Festival was another star-gazing event like the trip out to Lake Annette, however this was held on the lawn just outside the Jasper Visitor Centre. Here, astronomers set up their telescopes, and members of the public could use them to inspect celestial objects. This was a nice way to end our festival!
What Else Did We Get Up To In Jasper During the Dark Sky Festival?
Despite being in Jasper for the Dark Sky Festival, we also found a bit of time to get out and about on our own. Here’s what we did.
Hiking to Old Fort Point
I was really keen to get out into the Jasper National Park during our time in Jasper. Despite a packed itinerary, we did manage a short hike, up a section of the Old Fort Point trail, just a couple of miles from the town of Jasper itself.
Here we were afforded stunning views of the surrounding landscape, plus we were lucky enough to run into some Bighorn sheep, which was pretty cool.
Learning about beer at Jasper Brewery
Since 2005 the Jasper Brewing Co has been brewing up beer for visitors and residents alike, and was in fact the first brewery in Canada to be situated in a National Park.
It’s still going strong today, and you can visit and take a tour of the brewery (as we did, including a sample of their excellent winter ale), plus just hang out and drink / eat at their on-site brewpub.
Enjoyed Lunch at the Lodge
The luxury Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge (check prices here), situated a few miles outside the town centre, has a stunning location by the shore of Lac Beauvert in 700 acres of beautiful mountain scenery.
The view from the dining room has to be seen to be believed, so naturally, we had lunch here. This was definitely a good idea – the food was delicious, and the cocktail selection wasn’t half bad either!
Took in the Art
If you’re staying at, eating at, or just vaguely near the Fairmont Jasper Park lodge, then I’d urge you to pop in to the Mountain Galleries Art Gallery, which is downstairs in the main lodge building, as we did. Here you’ll find a stunning selection of art from a wide variety of artists – in fact, the Mountain Galleries is one of the largest commercial galleries in Western Canada (they also locations in Banff and Whistler).
With a focus on supporting and promoting Canadian artists, you’ll find work in a wide variety of styles and materials. I was particularly taken by the work of artist Shannon Ford, who blends natural minerals and gemstone powders into her art pieces, to create really stunning works. Like this bear.
If you don’t quite have the time to get out to Jasper Lodge, then there’s also a small art exhibition space in the Jasper library, right in the heart of downtown, which is worth a visit too.
Visited Pyramid Lake
On our very last evening in Jasper, we decided that since we’d enjoyed the Lake Annette experience so much, that we would take advantage of the clear skies to head out to another nearby Lake – Lake Pyramid, for a bit of star gazing. This was about a 15 minute drive out of town, but well worth it – the beautifully still lake reflected the stars wonderfully, and it was lovely to get a different view of the night sky, with a few less people around than at the Lake Annette event.
Rode the SkyTram
Being keen on the landscapes, and having a bit of spare time one afternoon, we decided that we should take the opportunity to ride the Jasper SkyTram. This seven minute ride ascends to a height of over 2,000 metres in the Canadian Rockies, and offers spectacular views over the town of Jasper and the surrounding scenery – both on the ride itself, and from the top.
At the top we spent a while playing in the snow (you can also hike up to the top, but we opted to have a coffee instead) and soaking in those views, before heading back down. Definitely a trip we’d recommend if you want some awesome views!
What to know about attending the Jasper Dark Sky Festival
Based on our visit to the Jasper Dark Sky Festival, we thought we’d share some quick tips for your visit.
Where’s the best place to get information on the Dark Sky Festival?
The best place to get information on the festival is from the official website, which will have event information, scheduling and ticketing information. Also take a look at the Jasper Tourism blog under the Dark Sky Category for event announcements leading up to the event.
Another good place to keep an eye on for up to date event information during and in the lead-up to the event is the Tourism Jasper Twitter account.
Is the Dark Sky Festival free?
Many of the events at the festival are free, including the Beyond the Stars event at Lake Annette, the Big Bang Expo at Centennial Park and the Inflatable Planetarium Shows hosted at various locations, to name a few. Other activities, like building your own rocket, and attending the evening talks, come with a fee.
Tickets can be purchased for individual shows, or you can get combo tickets that cover a number of events.
What’s the best way to get around during the festival?
Jasper itself is not a very big town, so it’s quite easy to just walk from place to place in downtown. However, for heading out to places like the Jasper Lodge or Lake Annette, you’re going to want to think about transport. One option is to drive yourself, although parking at Lake Annette during the Beyond the Stars event was somewhat chaotic.
There are free shuttles, however the volume of people wanting to take these didn’t quite match up with the number of seats, which resulted in quite a large line of people waiting for an hour or more to get out to the Lake, in fairly cold conditions. So our advice if you want to use the shuttle service would be to join the queue early!
The other way to get around town is by taxi. We used the Mountain Express Taxi firm a number of times during our stay in Jasper, and they were always fast to arrive, courteous and good value.
Where should I stay during the festival?
Jasper has a lot of accommodation options – being a popular destination year round means you won’t be short on options. We stayed at the Mount Robson Inn which was a little way south of downtown, but still a walkable distance, and our room included a free hot breakfast (bacon is always a winner).
Other than that, there’s something to suit pretty much every budget, from value to high end. Take a look at prices for accommodation here, to get a great deal for your trip.
What Should I Bring To the Jasper Dark Sky Festival?
This being mountain territory, the weather can be very changeable. We experienced everything from rain to sunshine in our four day stay, and temperatures were generally only a few degrees above freezing. So you’ll definitely want to bring appropriate clothing – layers are the key, and a hat, gloves and scarf are definitely recommended!
We’d also suggest a flashlight or ideally a headlamp like this, although if you don’t want to bother people or lose your night vision, we recommend getting a piece of red film to put over it (or a headlamp with a built in night mode like this).
Other than warm clothing and a light, you might want binoculars to see the sky better, waterproof clothing in case the weather turns poor, a tripod for your camera (read why you need a tripod for your camera here), good waterproof walking or hiking shoes, and maybe some snacks. Because snacks are always important.
And that just about sums up our Jasper Dark Sky Festival experience! Have you ever been to a Dark Sky Festival, or heard of this one? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Disclaimer: We were hosted in Jasper by Jasper Tourism, who covered our meals, access to events, accommodation and most of our expenses. All opinions remain our own – check out our code of ethics for how we choose how to work with!