Already a member? Please login below for an enhanced experience. Not a member? Join today

Canadian Rockies: Icefields ParkwayCanadian Rockies: Icefields Parkway

Editor's note: Part three of a four-part series.

Even after two full days at Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, it’s hard to leave such beauty. But more adventures lie ahead, along the Icefields Parkway and then Jasper National Park.

  • Peyto Lake is one of the highlights of the Canadian Rockies. Located just over the Bow Summit at a high point along the Icefields Parkway, the bright teal lake is set far below in a glacial valley. The view is easily reached via a short paved trail. An extension trail, that few people take, leads further around the mountain for views of the glacier that feeds the lake. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
  • The Icefields Parkway is one of the world’s most spectacular scenic drives. Photo courtesy Travel Alberta.
  • Crowfoot Glacier, visible from the Icefields Parkway. As the glacier has receded, one of its “toes” has dropped off. Photo courtesy Travel Alberta.
  • A beautiful pair of loons swim on Waterfowl Lake. Photo courtesy Travel Alberta.
  • Athabasca Glacier is the most-visited glacier in North America. Signs along the trail that leads to the glacier show how it has receded over the past century and a half. Photo by Carlos Delgado via Wikipedia.
  • An aerial shot of Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Icefield Centre across the Icefields Parkway. Photo courtesy Brewster Tours.
  • A snow coach will get you out on the glacier. Bring a warm jacket, even on a sunny day. Photo courtesy Brewster Tours.
  • The Glacier Skywalk extends out from a cliff, high above Sunwapta Valley. Photo courtesy Brewster Tours.
  • Visitors stand on the Glacier Skywalk. Photo courtesy Brewster Tours.
  • The Sunwapta River splits around a small island before descending in a rush over Sunwapta Falls. Photo by Jeff Wallace via Flickr.
  • Sunwapta Falls. There are actually two waterfalls, Upper and Lower Sunwapta Falls, a short distance away from each other. Photo by Rachel_123 via Flickr.
  • Spray flies into the air as water crashes over Athabasca Falls. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Icefields Parkway: The drive from Lake Louise northwest to Jasper National Park is accomplished via the Icefields Parkway. It’s only a 144-mile drive, but give yourself a full day—National Geographic rates this as one of its top “Drives of a Lifetime: the World’s Greatest Scenic Routes,” and so it is, with over 100 visible glaciers perched above long forested glacial-river valleys. Pull over beside Bow Lake to admire Crowfoot Glacier. At Bow Summit, take the road to Peyto Lake, a must-see. The lake was named for an early outfitter, “Wild Bill” Peyto. A short walk brings you to a viewpoint high above this large glacial lake with its bright teal water, another photo from this trip that your friends back home will not believe is real. Continuing north, you can look for loons on the appropriately named Waterfowl Lake. Next, stop at Parker Ridge to climb the wildflower-rich switchbacks 850 feet above the highway; look for pikas, alpine birds, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. On the wide-open ridge at 7,380 feet, you’ll be greeted by a spectacular view of the immense (12 km long) Saskatchewan Glacier, one of the six principal “toes” of the massive Columbia Icefield. Look down around your feet to find marine fossils in the rocks—proof this was once the floor of an ocean.

Visitors to the Athabasca Glacier can taste pure glacier water, deposited here perhaps 200 years ago. Photo courtesy Brewster Tours.

Athabasca Glacier: Your next stop is Athabasca Glacier, where you can walk to the retreating glacier’s toe. Signs with dates on them show how it has receded over the past decades (it recedes about 16 feet per year now). The Columbia Icefield Center lies across the highway from the glacier. Grab a bite and book a tour of the glacier via Ice Explorer—you’ll get right out onto the glacier via a special snow bus. Athabasca Glacier is another of the six principal “toes” of the massive Columbia Icefield, 325 sq km and over 900 feet thick, whose meltwaters flow into the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans. The Icefield sits above the glacier, out of view, but you can see it on a flightseeing tour (see "Canadian Rockies: Jasper and flightseeing the Rockies"). As you stand on the glacier, you’ll hear the roar of melting water rushing downhill all around and beneath you. Bring an empty bottle to fill with pure glacial water, deposited here perhaps 200 years ago. Another tour that departs from the Columbia Icefield Center is the Glacier Skywalk, modeled after the Grand Canyon Skywalk in Arizona. It’s a glass-bottomed, U-shaped walkway that stretches out over a cliff. Walk out and look down—glass is all that separates you from a 918-foot drop to the floor of the Sunwapta Valley below. (Consider booking one or both of these tours for the day you drive back, so you have time for the Parker Ridge hike and other stops on your way up.)

Waterfalls and more: As you continue north along the Icefields Parkway, other notable stops include Sunwapta Falls, a frothy blast just off the highway, the Goats and Glaciers Viewpoint, where you might see mountain goats at the salt licks, and the blue waters of Athabasca Falls. Highly recommended is the latest edition of Brian Patton’s The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, loaded with easy-to-read maps, directions, photos, and descriptions of hundreds of hikes and sights throughout all the regions in this series.

On to Jasper: The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge sits in a valley beside the blue-green waters of Lac Beauvert, surrounded by snow-clad mountains—a UNESCO World Heritage Site. See "Canadian Rockies: Jasper and flightseeing the Rockies" for more information about the hotel, wildlife- and scenery-rich Jasper National Park, an unforgettable flightseeing trip, and Jasper’s turf airstrip.

Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: International Travel, Canada

Related Articles