Only 30 kilometres (19 miles) south of Jasper, Alberta, sits the Athabasca Falls, the most powerful waterfall in the Canadian Rockies. Now this is something for a waterfall that is only 24 metres (78 feet) in height. Athabasca Falls Jasper National Park’s roaring gem, demonstrates what happens when high water volume gets funneled into a narrow canyon. Think of your garden hose and what happens when you partially restrict the end with your thumb. It comes out in a more powerful way.
Regardless if at high or low flow season, Athabasca Falls are arguably the most spectacular waterfalls near Jasper. The images below show the top part of the falls in late September (mid flow) and in early July (high flow). Although there is a notable difference in water volume and colour, the falls themselves remain stunning.
What makes the Athabasca Falls so powerful?
It starts with the Athabasca River being sourced by numerous mountain rivers and creeks, and five glaciers approximately 75 kilometres (46 miles) to the southeast of Athabasca Falls. These glaciers are the Athabasca glacier, Chaba, Columbia, Dome and Stutfield.
The famed Columbia Icefield feeds four of these five glaciers. When the weather warms, the melt water increases dramatically and channeled to the Athabasca Falls.
The flowing water then experiences a significant reduction in the width of the Athabasca River as it enters the narrow canyon, acting like your thumb at the end of the hose.
The Athabasca Falls are rated as a Class 5 waterfall on the Beisel rating system, which takes into account average waterflow and height of the waterfall. To put this in perspective, larger waterfalls such as Victoria Falls and Niagara Falls have Beisel ratings of Class 9 and Class 10 respectively.
Why is there a major narrowing of the Athabasca River?
During the last ice age, which lasted 2.6 million years and ended around 11,000 years ago, the massive glacier running through this mountain valley relentlessly ground away at the rock below.
The hard, Lower Cambrian quartzite (540 million years old) surface rock resisted this grinding and would wear down in big rock chunks, creating cliffs. Just remember that quartzite is use for high-end natural stone kitchen countertops for its beauty and strength.
As the glacier receded, a river formed from the glacier and flowed broadly over the cliff, which can still be seen downstream of the canyon. Over time the rushing water penetrated cracks in the hard quartzite and began eroding the younger and softer Mississippian limestone (340 million years old). This allowed increased water flow through the cracks which initiated the carving of canyons.
And yes, the older rock sits on the younger rock. For a better understanding of this phenomena, check out Mount Yamnuska – The Flat Faced Mountain and Maker of Iconic Alberta Mountains – Rundle Thrust Fault.
The Athabasca Canyon today
The result today is the Athabasca River narrowing dramatically into two tight gaps. The water from these gaps quickly combine as it careens down to and through the crooked canyon below.
As one meanders the Athabasca Falls hike through an abandoned canyon, it is evident that the river course changes over time. In other words, the battle between rock and water continues.
Interesting features in the canyons are smooth curves walls and potholes which have spherical shapes. These are started by sediment (sand and gravel) being caught in a depression below the falls. As the water hits the depression the water swirls around and erodes the rock like a sand blaster. These potholes continue to grow until the water changes course. The process begins again in a new location.
The narrow canyon funnels the water to a calm pool beyond the canyon. This canyon is lengthening a few millimetres each year as the falls continually recede upstream due to erosion. Amazing how just a few millimetres of erosion each year can result in this amazing canyon which is now more than 100 metres (330 feet) in length.
When is best time to visit Athabasca Falls?
The Athabasca Falls are located just off the Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93), on Highway 93A and is accessible all year long. The best time to visit the Athabasca Falls totally depends on what your priorities are.
First off, this top pick of Jasper National Park waterfalls, is amazing to see anytime during the year.
If you want to see the falls at high flow come visit from late May to mid August. However, summertime is the busiest time for the falls. During this period, an early morning or late afternoon visit would mitigate the crowd issue.
The flowrate typically slows from mid August, reaching low flow in November through to mid April. It will still be busy in the summer and early fall, but crowds will cool off with the temperature.
The Athabasca Falls typically freeze up from December through March. The Athabasca Falls winter wonderland is a unique time to see the amazing ice formations created by the waterfall. Keep in mind the water is still flowing underneath the frozen falls so caution is vital.
In the past 20 years their have been five Athabasca Falls deaths. Please do not climb over protective railings and obey all signs.
Click on our video to have a one minute look at the power of Athabasca Falls
Where is Athabasca Falls Jasper, Canada?
The Athabasca Falls are located just off the Icefields Parkway, 30 kilometres (19 miles) southeast of Jasper and 260 kilometres (161 miles) northwest of Banff, with Lake Louise between.
Surprisingly, the Athabasca Falls are almost equidistant from the three closest major centers, Calgary (382 kilometres), Edmonton (396 kilometres) and Red Deer (382 kilometres).
Why visit the Athabasca Falls?
Other than witnessing the power and beauty of the Athabasca Falls in person, the best reason to visit is to add it to the many incredible sights along the Icefields Parkway which said to be one of the best choices for a road trip in the world!
What is your top waterfall recommendation?