North Saskatchewan River

Location: Alberta and Saskatchewan
Region: Outside Ontario
Character: Heritage River

North Saskatchewan River
By The Canadian Heritage Rivers System

Athabasca, Kicking Horse and North Saskatchewan Rivers, Canadian Rocky Mountains National Parks, Alberta and BC
Out of the Ice

Rising out of the glaciers of the Rockies, the swift silt-laden waters of these rivers ripple over braided gravel flats, tumble over rapids and plunge over thundering waterfalls on their way to three different oceans - the Arctic, Hudson Bay (Atlantic) and Pacific. Passing below the glistening snow-covered peaks of Jasper, Yoho, and Banff National Parks, their turbulent, icy waters challenge skilled white-water enthusiasts. Although crossed by roads and railways, the valleys of all three spectacular river environments are essentially unchanged from the time when native people hunted and camped along their banks.

The North Saskatchewan is one of Canada's outstanding heritage rivers. Rising in Canada's Rocky Mountains and emptying into Lake Winnipeg, this extensive river corridor provided a major east-west link across Canada, facilitating exploration, trade, and settlement for more than 100 years from the time explorers and fur traders first travelled through the area in 1807.

The section of the North Saskatchewan River designated to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System (CHRS) flows through Alberta's Banff National Park, a setting which provides visitors with some of the most spectacular scenery in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. From its source at the Saskatchewan Glacier and throughout its course to the park boundary and beyond, the North Saskatchewan reveals many outstanding natural heritage features typical of the Eastern Main Ranges of the Canadian Rockies. Important, too, is its association with significant historical aspects of the exploration and development of the Canadian west and the expansion of Canada's national park system.

This short section of the North Saskatchewan River brings to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System an outstanding representation of the glacier-fed rivers of Canada's Rocky Mountains and offers visitors the chance to explore the headwaters of one of Canada's most significant pioneering, transportation and river recreation corridors.

The section of the North Saskatchewan River designated to the CHRS consists of the river's 48.5 km long headwaters in the Rocky Mountains of Banff National Park, Alberta. Situated approximately 250 km northwest of Calgary and approximately 400 km southwest of Edmonton, the North Saskatchewan is also within a day's drive of some of the larger communities in British Columbia, including Prince George and Revelstoke.

A major contributor to Canada's Hudson Bay drainage area via Lake Winnipeg and the Nelson River, the North Saskatchewan originates 1,800 metres above sea level in the massive 325 sq. km Columbia Icefield. From here, the river brings large quantities of water all the way across the prairies - from the Continental Divide to Lake Winnipeg - water which is essential for prairie agriculture, municipal water supplies and an array of other uses. Within the park, the wild and scenic headwaters of the North Saskatchewan are protected from pollution and other man-induced disturbances (to the benefit of users downstream), as the river flows through the Eastern Main Ranges of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Natural Heritage
The North Saskatchewan River headwaters area contains several outstanding natural features:

- the Columbia Icefield, the largest icefield in the North American Rocky Mountains;
- peaks of the Eastern Main Ranges of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, such as Mount Saskatchewan (3,289 m) and Mount Wilson (3,189 m);
- tributary valleys which are the product of more than 60 million years of the earth's evolutionary history;
- an extensive braided river channel area known as the "Graveyard Flats" at the river's confluence with the Alexandra River;
- impressive river terraces downstream of Saskatchewan River Crossing;
- two distinct volcanic ash layers over much of the area east of the Howse River confluence, evidence of volcanic activity 5,000 years ago;
- extensive breeding areas for the rare golden eagle in the high mountain areas of the river's head-waters; plus
- animal species typical of the Canadian Rockies such as elk, grizzly bear, wolf, coyote, mountain goat and bighorn sheep.

Human Heritage
The North Saskatchewan River valley played a major role in the lives of prehistoric native peoples and in the movement of people and goods across the Canadian west in the past two centuries. Among the interesting historical features and events which have been associated with the river valley are the following:

- The river valley is thought to have been occupied by indigenous peoples for at least 10,000 years. The Stoney Indians, the first native peoples encountered in the area by European explorers and fur traders during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, long used the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan as an important seasonal hunting area. Both the Stoneys and their rivals, the Kootenai Indians, often travelled the North Saskatchewan - Howse River corridor through the mountains.
- The upper portion of the North Saskatchewan and its tributary, the Howse River, were visited by explorers and fur traders, including David Thompson between 1807 and 1811. A National Historic Site plaque at Howse Pass commemorates the historic North Saskatchewan River fur trade route. For more information on David Thompson, one of Canada's greatest geographers and river travelers, visit
- Others who explored the area include: Joseph Howse, the first Hudson's Bay Company officer to traverse the mountains, in 1810, through Howse Pass; Dr. James Hector of the Palliser Expedition who explored the area in 1858; Wilcox and Collie, the first Europeans to ascend the north fork of the North Saskatchewan in 1896 and 1898 respectively;
- Mary Schaffer, the first female tourist to visit the area, in 1907; and A.O. Wheeler, the leader of the party which surveyed the Alberta-B.C. boundary throughout the Rocky Mountains National Park in 1919. The names of peaks and passes along the North Saskatchewan River commemorate many of these pioneers.

The North Saskatchewan offers many opportunities for sightseeing, canoeing, fishing, camping and hiking, and provides recreationists with the opportunity to visit a number of major tourist attractions. These include the national historic site and the interpretive displays associated with the river itself.

Sightseeing: The Icefields Parkway, opened in 1940 to create a direct motor route between Lake Louise and Jasper, has become known to millions of tourists as one of the most beautiful scenic highways in the world. The drive along the North Saskatchewan River portion of this route offers visitors an exceptional opportunity to view some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in Canada, largely unchanged from the days of the early Canadian pioneers.

Canoeing: The river provides good opportunities for canoeing and kayaking. Approximately 35 km is suitable for river touring, depending on water levels, within Banff National Park. Starting points for down-river trips are all highway accessible sites: one near Mount Coleman, a second at Rampart Creek, a third opposite Arctomys Creek and a fourth at Saskatchewan River Crossing. Water levels for canoeing and kayaking are good throughout June, July and August, but low levels may pose a problem in the upper and lower reaches of the river toward September. The river drops 250 m in the first 15 km but then slows to a gradient of 1.8 m/km at the park boundary.

The 15 km upper reach has spectacular scenery which can be viewed from hiking trails and from the Icefields Parkway but is unnavigable due to frequent waterfalls and difficult rapids. The middle 26.5 km reach contains a variety of channel patterns with diverse paddling conditions. Extremely variable water levels at times make only kayaking possible. A portage required around the 6m Glacier Falls is marked. The entire middle reach is dominated by spectacular views of Mount Wilson. The third reach begins at the Saskatchewan River Crossing and extends 7 km to the park boundary. This reach follows a relatively flat, branching river pattern and provides good opportunities for open canoeing.

Fishing: As with most mountain rivers, fishing is not good due to the water's turbidity. Game fish do include lake trout, mountain whitefish, Dolly Varden and several varieties of suckers, but catches are modest at best. All national parks require a fishing license which is valid for any national park for the season. Licenses are available from the park warden service.

Camping: Facilities along the North Saskatchewan are provided at two campgrounds - Cirrus Mountain and Rampart Creek. Additional accommodation is provided at the youth hostel at Rampart Creek. Primitive camping along the river is not permitted.

Visitor Information
Access: Travellers may reach the North Saskatchewan from Edmonton via Highway 16 and the Icefields Parkway through Jasper (490 km); via Highways 2 and 11 from Red Deer (400 km); from Calgary, via the Trans-Canada to Lake Louise and then along Highway 93 (250 km); and from many British Columbia towns within one day's drive. Rail access from most points in Canada is also possible with scheduled stops at the Jasper, Lake Louise, and Banff stations. The river is accessible from a number of highway pull-offs as well as from the Rampart Creek campground.

Accommodation and Services:The North Saskatchewan River is located in Banff, Canada's oldest national park, in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Three nearby international-class resorts, Jasper, Banff and Lake Louise, each provide a full range of accommodation and commercial services for those planning a visit to the area or to canoe the river. Information on park services and facilities is available at Banff townsite, Lake Louise, the warden station at Saskatchewan River Crossing, and, by mail, from the Park Superintendent.

Topographic Maps: The North Saskatchewan River is depicted at the 1:50,000 scale by maps 83C/1,2,3 and 82N/15,16 in the National Topographic Series. These maps are available from the Canada Map Office, 615 Booth Street, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0E9, Tel: (613) 952-7000 ( and from the visitor information centres in Banff and Jasper.

Further Information
"Ten Year Report for the Athabasca as a Canadian Heritage River", available from the Parks Canada Board member (see "Contact Us")

North Saskatchewan River and Banff National Park Services, Permits and Regulations: Superintendent, Banff National Park, P.O. Box 900, Banff, Alberta, T0L 0C0. (

Tourist Information: Travel Alberta, Box 2500, Edmonton, Alberta, T5J 2Z4, Tel: 1-800-661-8888 (

Canadian Heritage Rivers System: National Manager, Canadian Heritage Rivers System, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0M5. Tel. (819) 994-2913, Fax (819) 997-0835. E-mail address: