Easy to travel in a day, the Icefields Parkway might only be 232 kilometres long (144 miles), but it’s one of the world’s most spectacular driving routes. Named one of the top 10 drives in the world by Condé Nast Traveler, the Icefields Parkway links Banff National Park and Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies, along the way taking in mountain peaks, turquoise lakes, and over 100 glaciers, including the Athabasca Glacier.
In fact, it’s astounding just how much is packed into this route! Whether you opt to rent a car or add on a day tour to your Rocky Mountaineer vacation, this drive is a must-do packed with those jaw-dropping views that you’re coming to the Canadian Rocky Mountains to see.
What to see along the Icefields Parkway
The drive along the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93), starting in Lake Louise and ending in Jasper, takes about three hours, with the Columbia Icefield roughly in the middle. Of course, when you’re planning your visit, you’ll want to allow for time to explore some of these noteworthy route highlights along the way.
Bow Lake, Peyto Lake and Bow Summit
Just 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Lake Louise is your first stop: the brilliant turquoise water of Bow Lake, an excellent viewing point for the Crowfoot and Bow glaciers. Another five kilometres (3 miles) up the road, you’ll find the Bow Summit from which you can view Peyto Lake. The Bow Pass is the highest elevation reached on a public road in Canada (2,067 metres/6.781 feet), and the views from the summit reflect this impressive elevation! Note that the Peyto Lake and Bow Summit viewing area is closed for construction until summer 2021.
Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier
The largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies, the Columbia Icefield is undoubtedly the most popular stop along the Icefields Parkway, with the Athabasca Glacier ranking as North America’s most visited glacier. At its thickest point, it measures the height of the Eiffel Tower! Glaciers are really just very slow-moving rivers of ice created from accumulated snow, but as this glacier has receded, it’s left behind an otherworldly moonscape.
For the best views, park at the Icefield Centre on the right-hand side of the road, or alternatively, drive to the foot of the glacier for a closer view. For safety, stay behind the barriers and don’t walk on the glacier yourself.
Glacier Skywalk is a one-kilometre long (3,300 feet) cliff-edge walkway leading to a glass-floored viewing platform jutting out as the mountains fall away, offering an unmatched view of the Sunwapta Valley and the Columbia Icefield. Along the way, you’ll spy waterfalls, fossils, and maybe some wildlife!
Back at the Glacier Discovery Centre, grab a bite at one of their two restaurants, and visit the Parks Canada information desk and Glacier Gallery. Beat the crowds by avoiding 1 pm through 3 pm and remember that this is part of a dark sky preserve, so the stars are amazing in the evening!
As you get closer to the town of Jasper, there are two beautiful waterfalls that are worthy of pulling over the car to stretch your legs and snap some photos. Just under an hour from Jasper (and 30 minutes north of the Columbia Icefields) is Sunwapta Falls. Fed by the Athabasca Glacier, the waterfall is created by “hanging valleys,” resulting in three levels. It’s easily taken in from the viewpoint at the top, just off the parking lot.
Twenty-minutes further along the parkway is Athabasca Falls, known not for its height but rather the powerful volume of water that courses through it. Walk along the interpretive trail and learn more about the waterfall and surrounding area, whilst taking in the incredible views.
Tips for exploring the Icefields Parkway
- Cell phone service on the Icefields Parkway is sparse at best. If you’re driving yourself, pick up a Parks Canada map or download it here.
- Wildlife can be spotted along the route, especially early in the morning and at dusk. Make sure you stay in your vehicle and give them a lot of room.
- If you’re interested in waterfalls, the end of spring and beginning of summer is the best time for viewing, when snowmelt is at its peak.
- Remember to take plenty of layers, especially if you’re venturing out on the glacier where temperatures are usually about 15°C (27°F) colder.
- Whether you’re driving yourself or joining a tour, remember that road conditions and closures, seasonality, weather and construction can all have an impact on your itinerary. Make sure that you check with our Vacation Consultants to talk about access over your travel dates.
Planning your Icefields Parkway Sightseeing Trip
The Icefields Parkway will truly give you an unparalleled appreciation for the landscape of the Canadian Rockies. Many of our vacation packages, such as First Passage to the West Top Leisure and Rainforest to Gold Rush Explorer, already incorporate an Icefields Parkway tour where you’ll see many of the sights listed above.
Alternatively, you can add the same tour to your time in the Canadian Rockies a la carte. For a more independent exploration, consider one of our self-drive packages, such as Journey Through the Clouds Self Drive, or talk to us about adding a car rental to your vacation.
Would you like to explore the Icefields Parkway? Reach out to our Vacation Consultants for more details on how to experience it for yourself.