10 Fascinating Facts About Jasper’s Famous Spirit Island

Sabrina Doyle
3 minute read
Written by Sabrina Doyle
Main image by Pursuit / Mike Seehagel

As one of the most iconic landmarks in Canada’s Rocky Mountains, Spirit Island has enjoyed no shortage of adoration. Here’s what you should know about this beautiful, off-the-beaten path island which has captured worldwide imagination, and the best way to experience it for yourself.

When artist and explorer Mary Schaffer became the first European to lay eyes on Maligne Lake in 1908, she called it “the Hall of Gods,” adding that “if Lake Louise is a pearl, Maligne is the entire pearl necklace.”

The description was apt. Sitting within its steep-sided, mountain-ringed canyon, Maligne Lake offers some of the most interesting and spectacular scenery found anywhere in the world, and Spirit Island (which sits in the southern half of the lake) is arguably one of the most photographed places in the Canadian Rockies.

One of the best ways to see this only-accessible-by-boat location is with Pursuit. This guiding company — formerly called Brewster Travel Canada (Fred Brewster was among the earliest park guides and his descendants have played a crucial role in the region’s tourism industry) — has been providing visitors with the opportunity to discover the area for more than 60 years through its interpretive boat cruises. With panoramic views of the jagged mountain peaks that surround the glacier-fed waters of magical Maligne Lake, their glass-enclosed and heated boats take you to and from world-famous Spirit Island. Visitors can observe in awe and listen while a knowledgeable guide retells Maligne’s history and explains its geology, wildlife, weather, flora and fauna.

The Pursuit Maligne Lake boat cruises typically starts taking passengers in late May.

Here are 10 facts about spirit island to inspire and inform your visit:

1 For most of the year, Spirit Island isn't an island

Most of the time it’s connected to shore by a shallow isthmus, but the rain and snow-melts of springtime can cause the waters levels to rise high enough to separate Spirit from the shore.

2 It’s known as one of the most photographed places in the Canadian Rockies

Part of the reason for its popularity among camera enthusiasts is because photographer Peter Gale’s image of Spirit Island hung in Kodak’s Colorama showcase in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal in August and September of 1960. It has since also appeared on many computer desktops, including in the 2013 movie The Internship which stars Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn.

3 Apple used an image of Spirit Island when they launched their 2014 iPad

Apple wanted to showcase the device’s superior photography capabilities (remember when people used to awkwardly use iPads to take photos? No? Guess some trends just burn too bright for this world).

4 The island is a spiritual place for the Stoney Nakoda First Nation

They believe mountains are physical representations of their ancestors. The fact that Spirit Island is surrounded on three sides by the same mountain range is very rare and makes it particularly significant to the Stoney.

5 Artist, writer, botanist and photographer Mary Schäffer was the first European to see Maligne Lake in 1908

She was a trailblazer of exploration at a time when women generally weren’t permitted to travel beyond the comforts of a railway car or luxury hotel unless accompanied by a male family member.

6 Access to the island is extremely limited due to its geography

Paddling to its location (on a remote shore in a cold lake surrounded by high peaks and glacier, 14 kilometers from the docks at Home Bay) can take four hours each way, whereas Pursuit’s four cruise options take 1.5 to 2 hours total to get reach Spirit Island, have free time there, and return back to the dock.

7 Visitors to the Rockies may notice that many lakes have an unusual greenish hue

In Spirit Island’s case, the colour of the water changes and becomes more emerald the further you float from the Maligne Lake docks. That’s because the southern end of the lake is closer to glaciers and thus has a higher concentration of rock flour.

8 Late afternoon at Spirit Island is the best time for photography

Feeling snap-happy? Around 4 p.m. in the summer, the sun can seem to shine straight on the island like a spotlight. Pursuit’s Through the Lens Cruise runs three times a week at 4:30pm to take advantage of this magical hour. Guided by a professional photographer, it includes a unique 60-minute stop at the iconic island.

9 Spirit Island sits in the heart of a "box canyon"

A box canyon is a narrow canyon with a flat bottom and vertical walls.

10 Winters are extremely harsh

The lowest recorded temperature is -50 degree Celsius (-58 degree Fahrenheit). Average snowfall is six meters in a winter.