Columbia Icefields Parkway
The Columbia Icefields Parkway is the most beautiful scenic drives that is approximately 145 miles between Lake Louise and Jasper. This drive is one of my favorites and best highlights of the Banff & Jasper trip. This is a highly recommended drive in the Canadian Rockies, so please don’t miss it if you do visit Banff. There are lots of attractions on the way to the Icefields and you might want to plan an entire day for this visit.
There are view points of the mountains in the Canadian Rockies with some glacier views, pristine lakes with the lovely turquoise colors and waterfalls on the way to Icefields parkway. You will never feel tired to get down the car every 15 minutes to capture those attractive photographic shots. Most of them can be viewed and photographed sitting from your car as well. This road is also very famous for wildlife viewing and your best time to view them would be early morning or dusk time in the evening.
Attractions to see on the way to Icefields Parkway
The attractions below are listed in the order that you’ll see when travelling from Lake Louise towards Jasper. The scenery is spectacular and you can watch most of these attraction from the look out points available in the highway. We spent 15-20 minutes each of these scenic views.
As you enter the Icefields parkway (Highway 93) from Lake Louise, the first attraction is the Herbert Lake. This lake is also called reflection lake and we saw some of the beautiful shots of this lake in Canmore lodge. I was very much looking forward to capture this attractive lake but due to the gloomy weather with rainfall, we were unable to see the reflection of this lake.
The Columbia Icefields glacier discovery center offers two main attractions – Glacier ice walk and Glacier skywalk tours. The Glacier Adventure is considered to be an unique attraction in the Canadian Rockies. The glacier is within walking distance from the Icefields parkway but not recommended to walk on your own without guided tours. Massive Ice Explorers, specially designed for glacial travel, take passengers on a remarkable excursion onto the surface of the Athabasca Glacier. The tour is 90 minute long that departs every 15 minutes from the Icefield discovery center.
They take you in a shuttle bus to base station which is only 3-4 minutes and you onboard onto an giant ice explorer bus that drives through the glacier. You will be given 15 minutes to step out onto the glacier and enjoy some great moments playing with the ice. There are unsafe spots that have been marked by the tour guides especially the crevices where you don’t want to fall into it. It is crowded as you’ll see 3-4 buses at the same time and people rushing to capture best moments at the glacier.
You actually get to see only a portion of the Columbia Icefield from the road as the remaining mass of ice is hidden beyond the mountains. There are total of six glaciers that it feeds, out of which two glaciers Stutfield and Athabasca can be seen from the parkway. We also came to know from our tour guide that this places forms a triple continental divide where the water flows north to Arctic Ocean, Atlantic ocean and Pacific ocean.
My personal views after climbing Matanuska glacier & visiting Mt.McKinley in Alaska, I would rate Athabasca glacier average when compared to the Alaska glaciers. If I had visited 5 years back, I believe the glacier at Athabasca would have had more glaciers and we came to know there were plenty of movements happened at this place that shifted the glacier to what we were seeing today. It looked more of Exit Glacier at Alaska if I were to compare between the two.
The skywalk is a new attraction that was launched in early 2014. The Skywalk itself is beautiful and the views up and down the canyon are spectacular, but it is not that different from the scenic views all along the Icefields Parkway. The big excitement is the glass floor and extremely crowded where you’ll see lots of people taking photos sitting and standing on the glass floor :-). This was one of the most hyped places and my personal recommendation would be to skip this place. You can pretty much capture all those beautiful views without going through the skywalk.
Where to buy the tickets
You can purchase the tickets either online or directly at the Icefield center ticket office. There is also an option to buy from the Brewster sales office that is located in Banff downtown. They sell 4 main attractions as combo packages (Banff Gondola, Lake Minnewanka cruise, Glacier Adventure and Glacier skywalk). It costs $110 for adult and 55$ for child if you buy all 4 of these attractions as a combo package.
We just did the Glacier adventure and skywalk tour for our group. The Gondola at Sulphur mountain was not very interesting to us as we had done several gondola’s in the past plus did many hikes in Banff areas that covered the high altitude areas to see the beautiful views of the city.
The Icefield parkway drive itself offers you spectacular & stunning views and you can avoid purchasing tickets to go to these attractions. The glacier adventure visit is for those people who have never visited or experience glaciers in their lives. For anyone coming from Alaska or other glacier regions, my personal choice would be to skip it.
There is only one gas station near Sasketchewan Crossing in Highway 93 and is expensive. It is recommened that you fill up your tank in Banff or Jasper before you head down to the Icefields parkway (HWY-93)
Highly recommended to pack your own food – There are very few places on the way and one restaurant in Icefields center but it’s extremely high priced. We prepared our own food from Banff before leaving to Icefields which was heavenly to eat at the Glacier adventure after seeing long lines and the choice of food available at the place.
Few lodges available on the way but you best bet would be to book in Banff if heading from Jasper or vice versa. We could not get accommodation in Japser when I was looking for hotels a month before our trip. We were lucky to get a hotel at the Icefields itself (Glacier View Inn) but no access to grocery, fuel or banks. The hotel was good and you get to see the glacier from your window :-). Since it was just a night stay, we were fine with this plus we were prepared with plenty of food choices that we purchased at Canmore.
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