The Icefields Parkway in Alberta, Canada was simply breathtaking. From the moment the mountains begin to wrap around you, carrying you from Banff to the Columbia Icefields near Jasper, you will be captivated by the beauty of your surrounds, each new scene seemingly more surreal than the next; the colours are vivid, the air has a chill that bites and the overwhelming scale of the mountains is something rarely seen elsewhere in the world.
The Icefields Parkway is one of the most stunning road trips we have taken anywhere. The highway covers a 232 kilometre stretch between the two well-known Alberta destinations; Lake Louise and Jasper. Winding your way from Banff National Park into Jasper National Park, you will find there are so many natural wonders to stop off and see, from glaciers to waterfalls, larch-covered mountains and wildlife. We let the lakes guide us with our aim to reach the Athabasca glacier before lunch as the tickets for glacier tours are often sold out.
We started our morning at 6.30am, waiting at the doors to Starbucks on Banff Avenue, sharing an impromptu sidewalk dance with other thirsty strangers to stave off the cold as the staff shuffled inside preparing for the morning rush. While we generally avoid big chains like Starbucks, you’ll find it is the only cafe open at this early hour in downtown Banff. With cups warming our hands and the car heater our faces, we began our Icefields Parkway road trip, eager to beat the other keen sightseers who opted for a sleep in. The snow began to fall as we passed the turn off to Lake Louise. We had been romanced by the beauty of Banff and the Rockies already, but the snow was quite literally the icing on the cake for this picture-perfect destination and would set the tone for the rest of the day.
What You Will Need for the Drive from Banff to the Columbia Icefields
Pick up a Park Pass
We picked up our Park Pass from the Banff Information Centre when we arrived in Banff. It’s a great one-stop shop to get some advice on weather conditions, tours and what to see during your stay in Banff. The staff are very friendly. In 2017, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, admission to national parks, national historic sites and marine conservation areas is free for the entire year. Get your free 2017 Discovery Pass.
Choose the Right Car
The weather can be a little unpredictable in the mountains and it began to snow most days during our visit during Autumn, so ensure you choose a car that you will be confident driving on icy or slippery roads. A 4WD is a great option but not entirely necessary if you are just sticking to the freeway.
Consider Booking a Hotel in Jasper
While we did this road trip in one day, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are really pushed for time. We stayed in Banff and had to cover the drive on a single day as unfortunately, we couldn’t find accommodation in Jasper. We had left it too late to book. My advice would be to book a room in Jasper for at least one night and gradually work your way up there and back.
Prebook Your Glacier Adventure Tickets
Pre-book your tickets for the Glacier Adventure and Glacier Skywalk in Banff if you can. There is a Brewster office in the centre of town or simply reserve a time online. Booking your tickets instead of waiting until you get up the Columbia Icefields is a safer option, particularly in peak season. It will also save you waiting time when you get up there as the lines can be quite long.
What to See During Your Road Trip on the Icefields Parkway
The road itself is very comfortable, easy to drive and really well signposted. However, it’s a great idea to plan what you hope to see as you may need more than a single day exploring, particularly if you are stopping off to hike.
Hector Lake was our first stop. We walked to the water’s edge as the morning mist was still rising off the glassy surface. While there were a few other people around, snapping photos as we were, it was a really quiet spot and an idyllic introduction to the of landscape that would continue to wow us all day long.
Bow Lake was where we first encountered crowds. Once you see it in person, you will see why. The reflection of the mountain range that faces you bounces off the water, creating a stunning mirror image. It would be impossible to take a bad photo here unless the weather simply wasn’t on your side.
I’ll admit that before arriving in the Canadian Rockies pictures of Peyto Lake were a big part of what inspired our visit. Find yourself transfixed by the incredibly vibrant blue of the glacier-fed lake as you take in the view from the Bow Lake Summit lookout. You will think the entire panorama has been hit by an Instagram filter when you see it in person. The walk from the car park to the lookout takes about 10 minutes. It took us a little longer as the entire trail was covered in ice and snow when we arrived. As I didn’t have proper hiking or snow boots on, I found it a very slippery trail to traverse. Make sure you drive up to the second car park (for buses and handicapped parking) first to drop off anyone who may struggle with the walk as it can be challenging in the snow. Expect to face big crowds at the lookout too as it really is a common stop for organised tours. In the summer months, take the trail further down to the water to escape the crowds or simply ensure you arrive first thing in the morning.
Stop in at Saskatchewan River Crossing
Saskatchewan River Crossing is a good spot to stop off for the facilities and to grab a coffee or a snack if you need one. We found the food at The Crossing Resort (where you’ll follow the crowds to) to be unhealthy and a little overpriced. It is to be expected as there is nowhere else along this stretch to get a bite to eat until you reach the Icefields. I recommend pre-packing some food and drinks before you leave Banff and simply stop in for the bathroom and coffee break.
Athabasca Glacier Walk
You won’t miss the amazing Athabasca Glacier, seemingly frozen in flow from the top of the mountain, on arrival to the Columbia Icefields Glacier Discovery Centre. We collected our tickets and sipped on coffee on the outdoor deck upstairs, while waiting for our tour time to creep up. A bus initially transports you to the Ice Explorer; a very impressive all-terrain vehicle that drives down on to the glacier. Our driver began the commentary during the climb down towards the ice where visitors explore the glacier’s leading edge in a roped-off area. We spot small crevasses as we drive alongside the edge of the 6 kilometre long glacier. Stepping out on to the glacier there is time to explore and experience the ice underfoot, take photos and take in the view back down the valley. When compared to other glacier walks we have done, this is a really accessible, time efficient option and suitable for family as there is no trekking involved.
Next up, we made our way up to the Glacier Skywalk. Buses up to the Skywalk leave the Discover Centre every ten minutes. The path itself is a glass-bottomed walk way that projects out over the Sunwapta Valley below, with a 280 metre drop in between the glass and the valley floor. Just one-kilometre long, it’s a very simple, flat walk and a great opportunity to take some photos of the surrounding mountains.
What to Wear for Your Icefields Parkway Road Trip
It is really important to prepare for sudden weather changes in this part of the world. Although you will be travelling in the comfort of the car, the temperature can drop significantly while out exploring the lakes, hiking or walking the glacier and good, waterproof shoes with grip will come in handy too. Here are some suggested items to pack for your trip:
Driving back to Banff from the Columbia Icefields we had smiles a mile wide after yet another wonderful day in the Canadian Rockies. When putting your road trip bucket list together, The Icefields Parkway should be placed right to the top. We can’t wait to go back to explore more.
The Fit Traveller was a guest of Banff & Lake Louise Tourism for our visit to the Columbia Icefields. However, the opinions, words and images are authentically our own.
All images were captured using a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with thanks to Canon Australia.