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It’s the ultimate scenic drive, from Banff to Jasper on the Icefields Parkway. This spectacular route through the Rocky Mountains of Canada includes stops at knock-out sights such as Peyto Lake, the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Falls. For my experience read on. For all the how to’s about driving or taking a tour, scroll down.
An Icefields Parkway tour
“The bus driver said you’d abandoned me,” Mark said, as I hastily boarded our bus after a stop at Peyto Lake on an Icefields Parkway tour between Banff and Jasper.
“I’m not late!” I said, trying to ignore the uncomfortable sensation of having an ENTIRE busload of tourists stare at me with a steely so-she’s-the-one-who’s-always-going-to-hold-up-the-bus expression. I turned to the bus driver for support. “You said Peyto Lake was a 15-minute stop!”
The driver grinned. “You’re not late.”
Tour through the Canadian Rockies
How was I supposed to know everyone else would board our tour bus early? With such clear views of turquoise Peyto Lake and the Canadian Rockies I’d just wanted to maximize my time so I’d gone for a mini hike, amazed at the pine-y sun-saturated silence that sprang up as soon as I’d stepped away from the viewpoint.
My husband had the wisdom not to say any more, although for him the so-she’s-the-one-who’s-going-to-hold-up-the-bus expression is a semi-permanent condition. Nonetheless, at our next stop I vowed to be early, so early I probably wouldn’t even get off the bus.
What is the Icefields Parkway?
The Icefields Parkway is a 232 km-long (144 mile) highway that slices and curves its way through a dramatic stretch of the Canadian Rockies from Lake Louise to Jasper in Alberta, Canada. With one end in Banff National Park and the other in Jasper National Park, the parkway is part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s a classic driving route complete with forbidding-looking glaciers, waterfalls and alpine lakes. For those without a car, you can sign up for a bus tour. Undoubtedly, the blockbuster stop on the Icefields Parkway is the Columbia Icefields.
The Columbia Icefield
I don’t like to name drop but the Columbia Icefield, a 325 square kilometre (125 square miles) mega swath of ice that sits in a high plateau in the Rockies, is a good friend of mine. I worked at one of the ‘toes’ of this frosty sightseeing attraction – the Athabasca Glacier – for three summers after high school.
(I worked in the staff kitchen if you must know, and only once did someone find a rusty nail in the brownies.)
Because I’m so intimately acquainted with the Athabasca Glacier, I opted out of our Glacier Adventure Tour, a 20-minute ride over the Athabasca Glacier in a monstrous-looking Ice Explorer.
It’s not that I didn’t want to revisit the Columbia Icefield, which is cold and mysterious and in some places deeper than three Statues of Liberty put together, but I also wanted to visit the icefield’s newest attraction, the Glacier Skywalk, a glass platform perched 280-metres (918-feet) over the ancient Sunwapta Valley.
I’ll take one glacier-inspired adrenalin rush, please
So after a quick lunch at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, a tourist hub with a very crowded cafeteria, gift shop, information desk and hundreds of sightseers milling around, I hopped the shuttle to the Glacier Skywalk while the rest of our tour group boarded a shuttle for the Athabasca Glacier.
The Glacier Skywalk
I quickly learned that the Glacier Skywalk, a 6-minute drive up the Icefields Parkway, is more than a view. Here’s the drill:
- Note: If you’re driving you need to park at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre and take a shuttle from there.
- Once you’re off the shuttle, pick up a free audio guide at the entrance
- Walk along the 400-metre cliff path called the Discovery Trail
- Learn no end of things about big horn sheep and ecology
- Get wowed by the view … and by the long drop below
Because I’m a keen and eager traveller I read all the info boards then stopped to talk to an Icefields staffer whose job it was to stand behind a briefcase-sized display of bird skulls. (I think they were birds skulls. In retrospect they might have been claws or teeth.)
I asked how she liked spending the summer at the Columbia Icefield and if the Happy Bus still took Icefield staff members into Jasper one night a week so they can go to the bar.
She said yes, the Happy Bus still runs, so I reminisced about those weekly nightclub crawls, feeling a shadow of sadness because I’d never ride the Happy Bus again.
The glass platform
Then I continued on to the big kahuna of the Glacier Skywalk, the glass-bottomed viewing platform that loops out over the Sunwapta Valley.
If you’re not afraid of heights the glass platform is fun. If you are afraid, you’ll probably cling to the railing and hope for salvation. Either way, you’ll get stunning views of snow, rock, waterfalls and the vast cold spread of the Columbia Icefields.
Upping the excitement on our tour through the Rockies
Then I noticed a man taking photographs of his daughter (at least I hope she was his daughter) as she lay on the glass floor.
Hm, I thought. What a great way to ramp up the Glacier Skywalk adrenalin rush. I ran over and asked him to take a picture of me, too. He agreed, if not enthusiastically, so I lay down on the glass and tried to look glamorous while also earthy and one with the ancient glaciers and big horn sheep.
Panic on the Parkway
Perhaps the photo session took longer than it should have, but lying with your back on a glass floor 918 feet over a glacially-carved valley is something to savour, and I didn’t start worrying about the time until I saw the lineup for the shuttle back to the Discovery Centre.
I can’t be late again, I thought (even though I hadn’t been late earlier), so I tapped my foot in a frenzy until I got on a shuttle, then pushed my way through the pandemonium at the Discovery Centre in search of the group and then out into the parking lot, which was full of one hundred million tour buses.
I’m really going to be in trouble now, I thought, my heartbeat fluttering like bird wings. Could the bus had left without me? Wouldn’t my husband notice he was missing a wife? Frantically I tried to text and phone him, but there was no reception. I started to wonder about hotels on the Icefields Parkway and how I would find one, or if I could hitchhike and catch up.
After 30 minutes of running around with my hands in the air, I found our bus driver, practically clinging to him in fright. He assured me the group wasn’t back from their Glacier Discovery Tour yet, so I spent another 10 minutes watching eagle-eyed for anyone from the group in order to race ahead of them and be the first on the bus.
In retrospect, I should have used that extra time to stroll around remembering my time at the icefields including:
- the time I’d walked by a bear without blinking because I wasn’t quite awake yet
- the long mountain hikes
- the night some staff members (not me) snuck a Beware of Killer Penguins sign onto the ice
But I was so relieved to find our group (and be the first on the bus, even if I’d had to shoulder a few retired couples out of the way), I couldn’t dwell on the missed opportunity to revisit my past. All I could do was sit back with relief and watch the dove grey mountains as we sped down the Icefields Parkway.
At the final scenic viewing stop, Athabasca Falls, I stuck close to my husband (who never seems to get in these predicaments), and on the last stretch to Jasper it was all so majestic and worry free that I sat back in contentment, thinking that our Brewster Icefields Parkway tour bus was a Happy Bus after all.
Travel Guide: Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper
Icefields Parkway Tour
An Icefields Parkway Rockies Discovery & Glacier Adventure tour is run by Brewster Travel Canada. It was the first travel stretch of our Rocky Mountaineer experience from Banff to Jasper, Quesnel, Whistler and Vancouver. This one-way Brewster tour costs $206 from Banff, Alberta, and ends in Jasper, Alberta. You can also add it on to one of the Rocky Mountaineer train routes and/or do it the other way around.
Brewster Travel Canada runs an airport bus from Calgary to Banff and Lake Louise. You can start your Icefields Parkway Tour from either Banff, Lake Louise or Jasper.
Icefields Parkway Points of Interest
Honestly, it’s one of the most stunning routes through the Rockies you ever will see. It’s often done as part of a longer trip from Calgary to Edmonton. Stops include:
- Lake Louise – An emerald-coloured beauty with the elegant Lake Louise Chateau on the lakeshore
- Crowfoot Glacier
- Bow Lake
- Peyto Lake – Probably the most photographed site in the Canadian Rockies
- Saskatchewan Crossing – About 50 miles east of Lake Louise, this is a convenient stop for a cafeteria-style meal and a bathroom break, but there isn’t much to see outside gift shop.
- The Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier – Your prime stop on the Icefields Parkway for icy views with tours, food and information.
- Athasbasca Falls
- Sunwapta Falls
Hotels on Icefields Parkway
There are not that many places to stay on the Icefields Parkway and most people tend to do the route in a day, staying either a night in Banff or Lake Louise and ending in Jasper, or vice versa. If you’re planning an Icefields trip here is some essential accommodation info.
Banff: Not technically on the Icefields Parkway, but a starting point for a good many travellers, Banff has tons of accommodation ranging from the 5-star Fairmont Banff Springs to serviceable and comfortable motels.
Lake Louise has excellent hotels, but it’s much smaller than Banff. The top two places to stay are the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and the Post Hotel.
The appealingly rustic Num Ti Ja Lodge is about half an hour east of Lake Louise and overlooks Bow Lake.
Saskatchewan Crossing has the Crossing Resort, a motel-style lodge.
The Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre has a boutique hotel on the top floor the Glacier View Inn – and trust me, the Columbia Icefield at night and in the early morning is a much calmer way to experience the beauty of the area.
At Sunwapta Falls you’ll find the Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Resort.
Jasper has lots of hotel options. We stayed at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, which is 7 km from the town of Jasper on Lake Beauvert. (Ask for a renovated room. The prettiest location is lakeside.)
Camping on the Icefields Parkway: There are 11 campgrounds on the route.
Check out more hotels options and availability in Calgary, Edmonton, Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. (Note: I’m a booking.com affiliate.)
Icefields Parkway Directions – by car
Driving from Banff to Jasper via Lake Louise is a delight, though there can be a lot of slow moving RVs on the highway in summer. The Icefields Parkway is Highway 93 North, which runs north-south between Lake Louise (Hwy 1 Junction) and Jasper (Hwy 16 Junction).
- Lake Louise is 182 km west (114 miles) of Calgary and 57 km (35 miles) northwest of Banff.
- Jasper is 365 km (226 miles) west of Edmonton.
- To get to Lake Louise take the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) from Calgary to Banff then head west to Lake Louise. Approx driving time is 2 hours.
- To get to Jasper from Edmonton drive west on Highway 16 past Hinton, Alberta. Approx driving time is 3.5 to 4 hours.
Icefields Parkway driving tip: You will need to buy a park pass to drive the Icefields Parkway.
Icefields Parkway Road Conditions
In spring, winter and fall the Icefields Parkway can be impassable, so check Icefields Parkway road reports before you set out. Hotels usually open around April or May and shut down in early October, weather depending.
Visiting the Columbia Icefield
How much does the Glacier Adventure on the Athabasca Glacier cost?
$59.95 Adult, $27.50 Child, Infants 5 and under are free. Tours run every 15 to 30 minutes. Learn more here.
How much is the Glacier Skywalk?
$29.95 Adult, $14.95 Child, Infants free. Combo tickets are available. Tours leave from the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre.
Where is the Columbia Icefield?
The Discovery Centre is on the Icefields Parkway about 130 km from Lake Louise and 100 km from Jasper. It sits across the highway from the Athabasca Glacier.
If you only have time for one activity, pick the Glacier Adventure tour right on the glacier. The Glacier Skywalk is a great add-on. If you don’t want to join a tour, you can also walk up to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier.
A Columbia Icefield Tour
Brewster offers roundtrip Columbia Icefield Discovery Tours from Calgary, Canmore, Banff, Lake Louise or Jasper from May to October. Our one way Icefields Parkway tour in the Canadian Rockies left Banff at 9 and arrived in Jasper about 5:30.
Our trip started in Banff, to read the first travel blog post in my Rocky Mountain Adventure visit Togetherness at Lake Minnewanka and the Fairmont Banff Springs spa.
For more information: on Banff visit Banff Lake Louise Tourism.