Sofie’s dad had almost dismissed the Icefields Parkway during his Canada trip. He’s glad he didn’t.
I do a lot of research up front when we’re going on one of our trips. Some places you don’t travel to every year so better make the most of it, right? I always try to minimize the driving between locations and we also learned that it’s worthwhile staying several nights at each stop to have enough time to explore.
On the other hand, in between those stops I usually just look at the travel distance in order not to spend too much time in the car. So when I was planning last year’s Canada trip I initially dismissed spending much time along the Icefields Parkway, seeing it as just a way to bridge the distance between Banff and Jasper National Park.
Luckily I checked out the route. I very quickly came to the conclusion that even if we’d take the whole day for our less than 250 kilometers between Moraine Lake and Jasper we’d still only be able to scratch the surface on all the splendor to see along this iconic highway.
I finally ended up planning to explore the southern part of the Icefields Parkway when we’d be staying at Moraine Lake, the northern part of our base in Jasper and the middle while we were driving from one to the other.
Driving the Icefields Parkway in Canada
Bear spotting along the Icefields Parkway
Our very first drive up north was already a memorable one. We obviously had hoped to see a bear during our trip, but we’d never dreamed we’d see two of them at the same time just by the roadside… It was August and berry season and the two youngsters were gobbling away to build their reserve for winter.
Very quickly, the bears caused a traffic jam on the highway. It was also surprising to see how people got careless and tried to get close to these wild animals. Luckily a local stopped and warned about approaching the bears too closely. Still, some people ignored the warnings; good thing the bears got enough of it and disappeared in the woods.
That same day, we saw another bear later on, again along the side of the Icefields Parkway. We stopped by coincidence – basically because we were miles away from anything resembling a restroom and nature was calling. Luckily, I saw the black shadow before I ventured into the woods to go about my business! I hastily decided that maybe it would anyway be a good idea to wait a little longer.
Bow Lake is another beauty of nature and it’s right beside the highway. Gorgeous views over the lake with the mountains behind. One can just stop and enjoy the view and then whiz on along the highway, but it’s much more rewarding to tackle the hike up to Bow Glacier and Bow Glacier Falls.
The brave can even push on and go for Iceberg Lake but terrain gets worse and the path is not that obvious to find anymore. From the roadside, one can also admire Crowfoot Glacier on the opposite side of the lake. Global warming has however caused one of the toes of the crowfoot to disappear.
Just a few miles down the road a short and steep but rewarding climb leads to the view over magnificent Peyto Lake. As many lakes in the Rockies, it’s directly fed by the water of the glacier with the same name. The glacier has retreated significantly over the last years. It is a phenomenon one can, unfortunately, see throughout the Canadian Rockies.
Weather can change quickly in the Rockies and while we set off in the morning with a blue sky it got more and more grey throughout the day. Still, arrived at the Columbia Icefields we wanted to make the climb to the basis of the huge Athabasca Glacier. It was getting colder and we actually had to go for thick and waterproof clothing.
Good thing we made that decision: just as we reached the base of the Glacier where we could really feel the cold from the ice it also started pouring rain… But I was there and no matter what, I had to get my image.
While people were quickly trying to get down again I set up the tripod and made some images. Not the best shots but they start to give an idea of the circumstances… Then we hurried back downhill, to the car. Despite half-long coats, our trousers got soaking wet. We had to keep them up with one hand because of the weight!
But what a fantastic day it had been!
Following the Icefields Parkway to Jasper
Next up was the drive from the Columbia Icefields up to the town of Jasper. From the main glacier in the Columbia Icefields, Athabasca Glacier spawns the Athabasca River. Ice cold water where, if one would fall in it, death would come from under cooling even before drowning.
Downstream the roaring river plunges down at the spectacular Athabasca Falls. It was truly very impressive and we spent quite some time admiring nature’s power. At the bottom of the waterfall, the water has carved out a series of potholes and continues to erode the rocks.
Rather than driving alongside the mountains, we had to go over them, crossing the continental divide. Not far from the roadside we can admire Tangle Falls. Quite a difference with the Athabasca Falls but also beautiful nevertheless.
Closer to Jasper we followed a side road on the way to Mount Edith Cavell. Angel Glacier has retreated the last years, but it still happens that at times large parts break off the glacier. It has happened that bus-size pieces fall in the glacier lake underneath and cause a flash flood.
When we were there, we could witness that half of the parking lot had washed away and warning signs clearly indicated the danger of walking underneath the glacier. Still, it was a wonderful sight.
Even closer to Jasper, a great tip for a nice hike is the Valley of the Five Lakes. It is a beautiful walk, and you hardly encounter a soul on the walk. Great for mountain biking as well as we could witness.
Did we see everything along the Icefields Parkway? Not by a long shot, there is clearly a lot more to discover when venturing a bit further from the roadside. Clearly, this iconic highway will feature on the itinerary of a future trip to Canada.
Your Icefields Parkway rental car
Most of you will be flying to Canada like we did, so you’ll need to pick up a rental car there to drive the Icefields Parkway. I recommend checking out RentalCars.com as they compare over 900 car rental companies so you can choose the best rental deal for you.
Go on an Icefields Parkway tour
If you’d rather not drive the Icefields Parkway by yourself but do it with a guide, check out this tour. It takes you from Jasper to Banff in 10 hours, stopping at sites such as Bow Lake, the Athabasca Falls, Crowfoot Glacier, and the Weeping Wall. You’ll travel in a small group with a knowledgeable guide who will pick you up and drop you back off at your hotel.
Where to stay in Canada
If you’re looking for an apartment rather than a hotel, I recommend checking airbnb. Sign up through my link and get a discount on your first stay!
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