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Athabasca River


Jasper National Park, AB

Story Map

Each Heritage River Story Map displays various visual representations of geospatial data in combination with text, photos, videos and external links.

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Natural Heritage

Outstanding natural features within the Athabasca River watershed provide evidence of the earth’s development and the interaction of water, wind and glaciers in shaping the surrounding landscape. The Columbia Icefield, the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains, is the source of the Athabasca River. Other fascinating geographical features include dramatic river gorges, such as the narrows just below Athabasca Falls; the sand dunes on Jasper Lake (a shallow portion of the river); and large fans of sand, gravel and silt, such as those found at the mouths of the Astoria and Snake Indian rivers.

The river is home to 15 species of fish, three of which have been designated provincially as species-at-risk: the bull trout, the Athabasca rainbow trout and the pygmy whitefish. Five species of amphibians can be found in wetlands adjacent to the river and bird species such as Harlequin ducks and osprey make their homes there. Lucky river users may catch a glimpse of an elk or a grizzly bear, two of the many large mammal species that frequent the river’s edge.

Cultural Heritage

The Athabasca River has a rich human history. Long used by Indigenous peoples, including Beaver, Cree, Ojibway, Shuswap, Stoney, and Métis, to travel, hunt, and fish, the river played a key role in Canadian development. For more than fifty years, it served as the major fur trade link between the New Caledonia and Columbia districts and the Canadian interior. The fur trade brought Haudenosaunee into the territory as well.

Thomas the Iroquois guided David Thompson through the Athabasca Pass in 1811, establishing Canada’s first transcontinental route. Later, two transcontinental railways, the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern, were constructed in the Athabasca valley. A century of protection as a national park has ensured that early fur-trade river routes and land transportation corridors in the Athabasca valley have changed little in appearance from those early days.

After the creation of Jasper National Park in 1907, Indigenous peoples were no longer allowed to hunt, trap, fish, and practice their culture within park boundaries. More recently, the Park has been working to re-establish relationships with Indigenous peoples and encourage them to bring their culture and traditional practices back to the landscape.

Recreational Heritage

The Athabasca River corridor provides many opportunities for outdoor adventure. River trips by canoe, kayak or raft allow visitors to test their paddling skills in the Athabasca’s fast-flowing waters. Camping near the river is provided at two large, serviced campgrounds, Wabasso and Wapiti, as well as at Mount Kerkeslin and other, smaller, unserviced campgrounds. Several other campgrounds are located within a short drive.

Fishing is allowed with a permit, although the silty, swift waters make it a challenging sport. Numerous trails and picnic areas enable visitors to enjoy the river from its banks.

Fun Fact

In spring, the Jasper House trail winds its way through a brilliant display of wildflowers, to end at a platform overlooking the river. Across the river lies the site of the former Jasper House fur trading post and National Historic Site.

Mountain whitefish are the most common fish species found in the designated section of the Athabasca River. Every fall, tens of thousands of these fish migrate long distances into the park to spawn, with each female laying 1,500 to 7,000 eggs before returning down river. The eggs over-winter in the river bottom and hatch in the spring. One tagged fish caught in Jasper National Park had traveled 850 km.

River Managers

The designated section of the Athabasca River lies within Jasper National Park and is managed by Parks Canada.

Discover More


The Athabasca River winds 1,538 km through mountains, prairies, forests and muskeg from the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park, in Alberta, to Lake Athabasca in Wood Buffalo National Park, in the Northwest Territories.

A 168-km section of the Athabasca River was designated to the CHRS in 1989 in recognition of its outstanding natural and cultural values and its importance for river recreation. The designated section lies entirely within Jasper National Park.


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Athabasca River Monitoring Report 1999 – 2010 Archived / archive en anglais seulement Decadal Monitoring Reports PDF of Athabasca River Monitoring Report 1999 – 2010

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Plaque Text

The Canadian Heritage River plaques offer a brief glimpse into why a river has been designated to the System. They are often located nearby one of its historically significant locations, and highlight some of the most important natural, cultural and recreational values of the river. 

Athabasca River Plaque Text

The Athabasca River - From the Columbia Icefield, source of rivers to three oceans, the frigid water of the Athabasca flow north to the Arctic. Cutting through the Rocky Mountains on its journey through jasper National Park, the river ripples over broad gravel flats, tumbles through rapids, and plunges down Athabasca Falls. David Thompson followed it to the Whirlpool River in 1811, establishing the first practical fur trade route through the Rockies. Today, the river offers exciting whitewater recreation amid snow capped peaks and abundant wildlife. For these outstanding features, the Athabasca River in Jasper National Park has bee proclaimed a Canadian Heritage River.