If you haven’t heard of the Icefields Parkway, you’ll more than likely have seen pictures of it without realising. Simply put, this is one of the most iconic and stunning driving routes in the world. If you’re thinking about a roadtrip in Canada, we suggest you stop looking and start right here.
What is the Icefields Parkway?
The 181-mile stretch of road, officially called Highway 93, links Banff with Jasper in Alberta. Along the way, it passes an incredible four national parks and three provincial parks. In fact, the national parks of Jasper, Banff, Kootenay and Yoho combined with the provincial parks of Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine and Hamber make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s called the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks and the Icefields Parkway links it all together.
Why drive the Icefields Parkway?
As you’d expect from such an accolade, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is simply bursting with unbelievable sights. There are mountains, icefields and glaciers galore; more rivers and waterfalls than you can shake a stick at; and of course, a ton of wildlife. From black bears to grizzlies to mountain goats and elk, it’s impossible to be disappointed here.
If you’re driving the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper (the most common direction if you have flown into Calgary), allow at least one full day of travelling to see all the sights. These are our favourite stops along the way:
1. Herbert Lake
This hidden gem is only a five-minute drive north of Lake Louise. Despite being the largest natural lake in Banff National Park, it’s a charmingly tranquil spot that could be easy to drive on past. Don’t. Instead, stop and take the time to see that the views are beautiful. In the early morning, the surface of the lake is so still and glassy that you can get some incredible photos of the reflections. It’s the perfect place to start the day’s drive.
2. Bow Lake
This one is a favourite for its delicate glacial blues and fantastic reflections. You can get a great view of the Crowfoot Glacier from its shores. It also offers an easy hiking trail up to Bow Glacier Falls. You’ll get some fab views from the top. There’s even a moment of exhilaration when you walk over a fallen boulder to cross from one side of the canyon to the other!
3. Peyto Lake
Just a short walk from the car park off the highway is the rewarding Peyto Lake. Canada boasts a lot of blue glacial lakes thanks to the abundance of rock flour in glacial meltwater, which reflects the light and colours the lakes. This, however, takes the crown. There is no bluer lake anywhere in the Rockies. It’s so blue, people often think photos of it have been Photoshopped!
4. Mistaya Canyon
Another attraction accessible five minutes from the roadside, Mistaya is well worth a look around. It’s an impressive slot canyon with a churning little river at the bottom which roars its way through twists, gullies and ravines. The exposed rock strata is fascinating and there are some great little walks along the canyon. Come at the right time of day and you can even enjoy some alpenglow on the mountains.
5. Weeping Wall, Cirrus Mountain
In spring and summer, the face of this towering cliff is covered in cascading waterfalls, which give the cliff its name. The waterfalls are like tears covering the wall in a veil of moisture. In winter, the wall freezes over and becomes a favourite destination for daredevil ice climbers.
6. Parker Ridge Trail
If you’ve got a bit of time, hike along one of the Icefield Parkway’s innumerable trails. It’s the best way to get a decent view of the spectacular mountain vistas which characterise the region. The Parker Ridge Trail is a 5km trail up to the ridge through spruce and fir forest. Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, ptarmigan and even bears are all visitors to the area, so keep your eyes peeled. The trail crosses the ridge after 2km, but if you keep going you’ll get to a great view of the Saskatchewan Glacier.
7. Wilcox Pass Trail
This gem of a trail starts at quite a high altitude, so it doesn’t take long to get above the treeline. You can begin at the Wilcox Creek Campground or by Tangle Falls. The trail is characterised by beautiful alpine meadows where bighorn sheep can often be spotted grazing. Once you’re up, you won’t find a better view anywhere of Mount Athabasca, Mount Andromeda, Snow Dome and Mount Kitchener.
8. Columbia Icefield
This is the largest icefield in the North American Rockies. It covers an astonishing 325km squared (bigger than Liechtenstein and the Maldives) and boasts an average elevation of 3000m. A lot of the icefield is inaccessible, but the Athabasca Glacier can be admired right from the Highway. What’s more, enormous, bubble-wheeled ice buses operated by Brewster can carry you right out on to the glacier itself, where you can walk on the ancient ice and fill up your water bottle with meltwater.
9. Glacier Skywalk
Just down the road from the Athabasca Glacier is this breath-taking attraction. You can get a combined ticket to do it together with the glacier bus tour, or enjoy it as a standalone tour. The interpretive walk explains about the history, geology and palaeontology of the icefields area before opening out into a glass-bottomed walkway. The walkway curves in a huge arc away from the side of the cliff over looking a glacial valley. The views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers are spectacular.
10. Sunwapta Falls
This pair of waterfalls in the Sunwapta River are a favourite stop-off. The falls have a gorgeous mountain backdrop as they descend into a deep limestone gorge. The falls are fed by the Athabasca Glacier and often share the blue tones of the nearby lakes.
11. Kerkeslin Goat Lick
Just 15 minutes north of Sunwapta is the Kerkeslin goat lick, so be sure to slow the car down as you approach. Mountain goats congregate in this area to lick the salty mineral deposits left here and can often be seen on or right by the road. It’s a great way to spot these lovely animals, which otherwise can prove elusive.
12. Athabasca Falls
The Athabasca Falls is another mind-blowing canyon falls with an impressive mountain backdrop. IF you arrive here at the end of the day’s travels, you could be treated to a sunset alpenglow on the mountain peaks overlooking the river. There are plenty of walking trails along the canyon here, but watch out for slippery rocks and tread carefully.