The Maligne Valley is the most geologically diverse area in Jasper National Park, and stands out as a main highlight for visitors. Its defining feature is Maligne River, which flows out of the northern part of Maligne Lake into Medicine Lake, then continues underground for 14 kilometers before finally reappearing in a stunning canyon.
The plunging walls of Maligne Canyon are composed of limestone, which is easily shaped by the thundering course of the River. The canyon can be as narrow as 2 meters across at certain points, but drops to dramatic depths of up to 50 meters at others! Six bridges cross the canyon at different stops, allowing visitors to catch the spray rising from Maligne River below. Some say that the canyon can have an almost hypnotizing effect, so when leaning in to take a photograph, be sure to stay behind the barriers!
The entire terrain in this area has been carved by valley glaciers, resulting in an extensive underground system of rock fissures and underground caves. Because of these features, the Canyon and its surrounding lakes undergo exciting changes every year. The most dramatic example is Medicine Lake. Considered a puzzle for centuries, this unique body of water vanishes, and then re-appears each season! The lake fills with melting glacier water in spring, but as September approaches, the water level drops until only a giant mudflat remains. The mystery was finally solved when it was discovered that Medicine Lake functions just like a giant bathtub: water drains at the bottom through an underground cave system, and eventually reaches Maligne River. By pouring a harmless dye into Medicine Lake, scientists have observed that in spring the water drains into Maligne River in about 12 hours, but needs 88 hours to do the same in winter. And so, beginning in late fall the water levels in the Maligne River – and therefore in the Canyon – fall drastically.
This means that the Canyon is just as spectacular in winter. Due to decreased water levels, long stretches of ice create bridges that are sturdy enough to walk on. Because some of the springs in this area run underground, the water freezes gradually and ice accumulates in layers to form gigantic icicles. Even the waterfalls transform into solid columns of ice, giving the area an almost otherworldly atmosphere.