Touring Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway is often called the most scenic highway in the world.
The Icefields Parkway is often called the most scenic highway in the world. Named for its tremendous glaciers, which flank its westward side, the 230-kilometre Icefields Parkway weaves up and around the mountains between Banff and Jasper National Parks as it parallels the Great Divide. Although the route can be travelled safely in 3.5 hours, most visitors take a full day or more to fully enjoy the experience.
Starting from Lake Louise, Victoria Glacier dominates the view until reaching Herbert Lake, which sits under the 3,544-m (11,626-ft) peak of Mt. Temple. A little farther along, Hector Lake has a great view of the Waputik Mountain Range and Crowfoot Glacier, with its two talon-shaped extensions of ice.
Surrounded by alpine fields of wildflowers, Bow Lake is the source of the Bow River, which flows through Banff and Calgary. From the waterside picnic area at the southeast end, take in the views of Crowfoot Mountain, Mt. Thompson and Bow Glacier. From Bow Lake the Parkway climbs to Bow Summit, the highest point of the journey, at an elevation of 2,068m (6,785ft). Follow a short access road at the 40-km mark to a spectacular viewpoint overlooking Peyto Lake (named for “Wild Bill” Peyto, one of the first game wardens in the Park). The bright blue glacial water of the lake and the wide view of the Mistaya Valley make this one of the most scenic spots on the tour.
The Parkway descends from the Summit into the Mistaya Valley, passing Snowbird Glacier and Mt. Chephren—a 3,000-m (9,843-ft) pyramid of dark rock that towers over the Waterfowl Lakes. At the junction to the David Thompson Hwy (Hwy. 11), Saskatchewan River Crossing offers a chance to fill up before continuing toward the Columbia Icefields. This stretch offers some of the best chances to spot wildlife. Look for moose wading in Rampart Ponds, a marshy area beneath Mt. Saskatchewan and Mt. Amery.
At the 105-km mark, melting snow above Cirrus Mountain seeps through fine cracks in the rock, creating the Weeping Wall, where waterfalls spring magically from the cliff face. From here the Parkway becomes steep as you climb up toward Mt. Athabasca, passing viewpoints of Nigel Creek Canyon and the North Saskatchewan River before entering Jasper National Park and coming in sight of the Columbia Icefield.
The Columbia Icefield is composed of eight glaciers and encompasses an area of 325 sq. km. The ice mass is one of the largest south of the Arctic Circle, and one of the most accessible in North America. Saskatchewan Glacier, the source of the Saskatchewan River and the longest glacier in the Columbia Icefield, is best viewed from the alpine heights of Parker Ridge. This cold and treeless meadowland is easily attained by a short hike from the parking lot at the 117-km mark. Athabasca, The Dome and Stutfield Glaciers can be seen from the Parkway.
A short side trip from the highway takes you right to the “toe” of Athabasca. Unguided travel any further onto the glacier is not recommended. Plan to include a visit to the world-famous Columbia Icefield Centre, which is open from mid-April to mid-October. The centre is a beautiful chalet-style stone building, which houses many services and informative resources, including a scale mode of the Icefields themselves. Book a Columbia Icefield Glacier Experience, a fully-escorted, 90-minute interpretive excursion on the Athabasca Glacier aboard a Brewster IceExplorer Snocoach. Tours depart from the centre every 15 minutes, and ice walking tours are available in the summer.
the breathtaking Glacier Skywalk
After years of planning and partnership with Parks Canada and two seasons of construction, the Glacier Skywalk is now thrilling visitors with one of most extraordinary experiences in the Canadian Rockies. An interactive interpretive walkway leads guests to the grand finale: a glass-floored observation walkway 280 metres (918 ft) above the spectacular Sunwapta Valley.
It’s an awe-inspiring interactive adventure that really does take your breath away. Perched on a cliff edge near the glaciers of the Columbia Icefield, the platform provides an outstanding perspective on the immense powers of glaciation and the natural forces that have shaped this landscape over the millennia.
The Glacier Skywalk experience begins with a five-minute scenic transfer by coach from the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre. Journey along the Discovery Trail, a fully-accessible, cliff-edge walkway that extends along the Sunwapta Valley and culminates with the glass-floored observation platform that extends out from the cliff face.
A bird’s eye view provides the most unique perspective of nature at its finest, with ice-capped mountain peaks, cascading waterfalls and views across glacier-formed valleys whose slopes are populated by mountain goats and bighorn sheep. This entire journey is presented in an interpretive story-telling format and the trail is completely barrier-free and fully accessible to all abilities.
Inspired by the natural environment and designed as an extension of it, the Glacier Skywalk is built into bedrock using steel, glass and wood. These materials mirror the natural environment, and are free of paint and other toxins. The project is dedicated to a near-zero footprint.
Brewster Travel Canada worked with Sturgess Architecture and Read Jones Christoffersen Engineering (RJC) on the design, unveiled in 2011. It was immediately recognized with a World Architecture Festival Award, where judges said, “The jury was unanimous. This is a simple, elegant yet highly emotional project.”
The installation itself was an incredible feat of Canadian engineering design and construction. A team of design and engineering partners worked together to ensure a seamless and environmentally sensitive installation of the distinctive walkway structure. Using a Mammoet crane, the glass-floored walkway structure was lowered into place on July 26, 2013, essentially completing the construction.
Already, the Glacier Skywalk is earning acclaim for its inspirational and spectacular appeal. Michele McKenzie, former president and CEO of the Canadian Tourism Commission, calls it “a game changer” for Canada to compete on a world scale. “Visitors, no matter where they are from, are going to go home with a memory they will keep in their hearts forever.”
Leaving the Centre, the Parkway follows the Sunwapta River as it braids through the flats of sand and gravel left behind by retreating glaciers. Stop at the viewpoint of Mt. Kitchener, which has a gentle slope that reaches 3,505m (11,500ft) before dropping to a sheer cliff on the highway side. Stretch your legs along the thrilling boardwalk suspended over Sunwapta Falls before the Parkway enters the forested lands around the Athabasca River. The viewpoint at the 192-km mark is famous for mountain goats, which come down from the red cliffs of Mt. Kerkeslin to lick mineral deposits along the road.
Just 31 kilometres from Jasper, follow the turnoff at Hwy. 93A to reach Athabasca Falls, where the Athabasca River funnels into a narrow gorge to surge out right beside the parking lot. From the Falls, follow the 93A to hike the trails of Mt. Edith Cavell, a 3,363-m (11,033-ft) peak capped by the wing-shaped Angel Glacier. Or, enjoy the view of the mountain from the Parkway and continue the short drive through stands of aspen trees to the resort town of Jasper.