Icefields Parkway Scenic Drives

Image of Icefields Parkway, Alberta, During Winter
The Icefields Parkway, Alberta (Donovan Reese/Photodisc/Getty)

Icefields Parkway Travel Tips

  • Most people venture out on the Icefields in the high season, from May to October, when cyclists and RVs flock to the road. In wintertime, the road and its panoramas are transformed into a quiet expanse of snow-capped summits, crystalline lakes, and waterfalls frozen in place. If you're a fan of winter, it's arguably the best time to visit.
  • Since the highway is enveloped by national parks, a park pass is required for everyone traveling the Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper. They can be purchased at information centers inside the parks, or at visitor centers in Banff, Jasper, and Lake Louise.
  • Pull-offs are plentiful along the Icefields, many marking trailheads that offer a chance to get off the road and penetrate this remote landscape. At mile-marker 99, the ten-minute walk to Mistaya Canyon, a deep, narrow slot carved into the rock, is a must-do; don't miss the natural arch that spans the canyon. Or hoof it up to the crest of Parker Ridge (trailhead at Mile 70) and take in panoramas of the Saskatchewan Glacier and surrounding peaks.
  • From late April to mid October, the Icefield Centre (adjacent to the Columbia Icefield pull-off at Mile 64) is open. Parks Canada's interactive Glacier Gallery Exhibit shows the past, present, and future of this ice mass straddling the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. Brewster Tours runs Ice Explorer excursions every 15 to 30 minutes. The 90-minute tour includes driving onto the Athabasca Glacier and stepping out on the ice for a close-up.
  • There are no services, food, or fuel open anywhere on the Icefields Parkway from mid-November until mid-March. Frequent snowfall is plowed regularly (though avalanches can close the road for days) but much of the road is covered with packed snow and ice. Proper tires, food, water, and emergency gear are essential. There is no maintenance or highway patrol after 4:30 p.m. in winter. Check with the Alberta Motor Association for frequently updated reports on road conditions.

Though the label "the world's most beautiful drive" has legions of applicants, Alberta's Icefields Parkway makes one of the most persuasive cases. The World Heritage-listed site flaunts 143 miles of staggering mountain scenery, passing through both Banff and Jasper national parks, unfurling along the Continental Divide through a citadel of burly peaks (many over 11,000 feet high), broad valleys, raging rivers, serpentine trails, expansive ice fields, and indigenous wildlife.

This ravishing road had modest beginnings as a single track of gravel cut through the Canadian Rockies from Lake Louise to Jasper. It took hundreds of men earning 20 cents per day using shovels and picks (and a few primitive tractors) from 1931 to 1940 to carve a road that followed mountaineer and explorer A.O. Wheeler's "wonder trail." The road was later widened and paved during the 1960s, as tourist traffic on the parkway started to reach a fever pitch. And a half century later, Highway 93 sees over half a million visitors each year.

Its seven sprawling icefields and 25 glaciers—many which are only partially visible through your windshield—inspired the parkway's name. All along the highway, ancient ice (some dating back thousands of years) drapes the flanks of lofty peaks and plunges into river valleys that boast narrow canyons, thunderous waterfalls, and epic hiking trails. The centerpiece of these cool vistas is the Columbia Icefield, over 77 square miles of glacial ice. The Athabasca Glacier, one of the most visible tongues of the Columbia Icefield, dominates the landscape at Mile 64.

From the apex of the Columbia Icefield, meltwater flows north to the Arctic, east to the Atlantic, and west to the Pacific—one of the few places on the planet where this occurs. The parkway rises to nearly meet the above-treeline alpine zone at 6,849-foot-high Bow Pass (Mile 118), a.k.a. "Bow Summit," the highest point in the icefields. About half of the entire Canadian Rockies' landscape lies at, or above, this elevation, where marmots, pika, and ptarmigan call the windy tundra home. Elegant aspens that glow a brilliant green each spring and golden during autumn mark the border between the subalpine and montane zones, home to bighorn sheep and mountain goats. The pine-dense valley floors, which represent only a small slice (less than 10 percent) of these mountain parks, are critical habitat for scores of other critters, including black bears, elk, coyotes, and deer. Grizzlies, moose, wolves, cougars, and at-risk wolverines and woodland caribou are less-seen locals.

But the parkway's local inhabitants and their lush homeland are only part of the allure. Icefields' dramatic position within the Canadian Rockies also affords access to all variety of adventuring. During the warmer months, miles of hiking trails slice into the parkland, while the smooth pavement of the parkway itself practically begs for cyclists. In winter, the watery landscape transforms into a blue, near-translucent sculptural wonderland of frozen waterfalls, massive snowfields, and world-class ice climbing.

 


Published: 24 Mar 2010 | Last Updated: 9 Jan 2013
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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