Mountains of rock and snow covered ice as far as you can see. The exhilaration of exploring the Icefields Parkway and the Columbia Icefields masks the chill of frosty breath temperatures that persist despite the June calendar date.
Marmot, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep call this inhospitable land home. The raw and rugged but beautiful scenery is breathtaking in its barrenness. Once you visit, you will know why visitors to Banff National Park and Jasper National Park make the trek across the Icefields Parkway to visit, plan, and stay in this permanently frozen wonderland.
Note: The information in this piece was obtained during a sponsored press trip, but all recommendations are my own.
The massive Columbia Icefield, the largest in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, covers 89 square miles. The icefield receives a whopping 20-plus feet of snow each year. The snow that doesn’t melt during the extremely short summer months is compressed over time by its own weight and creates these spectacular frozen “rivers.” These fingers of ice are known as glaciers. The Columbia Icefield Adventure takes place on the beautiful Athabasca Glacier.
Standing on fields of ice thousands of years old, surrounded by stunning ice flows is surreal. The magnificence of the ice expense is a humbling experience.
Besides taking copious photographs, you need to taste the water flow. When you dip your cup into the running water from the Athabasca Glacier, you are tasting pure — and very cold — perfect water.
Once you are dropped off by the Ice Explorer, you have about 20 minutes to explore the glacier. It can be very slippery, I suggest bringing walking sticks if you have them. Shoes with lug soles are also a good option.
Pro Tip: We were there in June and needed winter coats, hats, and gloves.
The Ice Explorer
The Ice Explorer is the biggest people mover I have ever seen. Chris (seen in the photo) is 5 feet 10 inches tall could fit under the wheel well!
The ride to the glacier is an event in itself. First, you take a short bus trip from the Glacier Discovery Center; it helps you avoid the walk and the buses help control the crowds. Then the entire bus transfers to the assigned Ice Explorer.
The Ice Explorer moves at a snail’s pace up an extremely steep incline and down a corresponding decline as it rumbles over the rocky road. It is a fun, albeit bumpy trip. Once you reach the glacier, you are on your own to explore.
Pro Tip: Book your tickets online and save time. It is a very popular attraction.
Columbia Icefield Skywalk
Included with your ticket is the Columbia Icefield Skywalk. After your trip back on the Ice Explore to your assigned bus, you are shuttled past the Glacier Discovery Center and onto the Skywalk.
This is a serious, out-on-a-limb walkway. You proceed along a path with panoramic views of the Sunwapta Valley before reaching the Skywalk entrance. While the views are spectacular, the cantilevered glass bottom walkway was a test of my ability to keep my heart rate steady. It is one of those adventures I’m thrilled I did, but have no intention of doing again. Ever.
Stunning panoramic landscapes are the hallmark of Jasper National Park. Many of those views are gorgeous glaciers. Bow Glacier, Athabasca Glacier, and Crowfoot Glacier are just some of the beautiful stops along the Icefields Parkway.
Connecting Banff National Park and Jasper National Park, the Icefields Parkway is 140-plus miles of mountain peaks, flowing icefields, and river valleys winding along the Continental Divide.
You don’t want to be driving along this parkway — it’s too beautiful to miss out. Discover Banff Tours is a terrific option for a Banff to Columbia Icefields tour. They picked us up at our hotel, stopped at all the highlights along the way, fed us a delicious lunch, and provided historical and ecological information along the route. It’s the best way to travel when you want to see and experience everything. It is a thoughtful, enjoyable, and well-executed experience.
Pro Tip: Pack an extra pair of dry shoes and socks on this trip. You might just sink through the snow knee-deep into the frozen (not so frozen) Bow Lake — ask me how I know!
North Saskatchewan River
A stop at the North Saskatchewan River rewards you with a short and fairly flat hike out to the overlook. The season, water flows, vegetation, and bear sightings can enhance the beauty of this natural wonderland.
The Num-Ti-Jah Lodge is steeped in Alberta history. An Englishman, Jimmy Simpson, fell in love with Bow Lake during a visit in the late 1890s. He was a Rocky Mountain guide who loved the area. The legendary mountain man built the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge years later to house his guests and family.
Pro Tip: If you are searching for a wilderness getaway experience, this is the perfect spot. The lodge is currently under renovation by the new owner with plans to open in summer 2022.
Visit Jasper National Park
You will love the Columbia Icefield experience. With unique adventures like driving along the gorgeous Icefields Parkway, walking (slipping) across the Athabasca Glacier, and tip-toeing across the Skywalk, you will be awestruck by Jasper National Park’s beauty.
While you are in Banff, be sure to dine at some of their amazing restaurants with incredible views. Your itinerary planning is a snap with all the information from the Banff and Lake Louise Tourism bureau — it’s the perfect place to start your exploration ideas.
For more information on visiting Jasper National Park, check out these articles: