7 Incredible Things we did on the Icefields Parkway
Without any doubt, we can tell you that driving down the Icefields Parkway is a once in a lifetime adventure that everyone should experience. It’s one of those magical places where the saying “the journey is more important than the destination” comes to life. It is a snapshot of the best that Alberta, Canada has to offer. With incredible places like Peyto Lake and the Athabasca River waiting to be discovered, you will quickly understand why the Canadian Rockies is a can’t miss destination.
Formally known as Highway 93, the Icefields Parkway is a can’t miss destination that needs to be checked off your bucket list, ASAP! It travels a distance of 232 km (144 miles) between Jasper and Lake Louise. The trip can take as little as 4 hours to traverse from top to bottom, assuming you don’t stop a few times to explore. It took us almost 9 hours to get from Jasper to Lake Louise. There are so many attractions and viewpoints it’s surprising that it didn’t take us longer.
It is one of the most beautiful drives in the world, and around every corner is a new beautiful view waiting to take your breath away. Every twist and turn of the highway reveals a different breathtaking view than the last one which you swore was the prettiest thing you have ever seen. There are endless mountains surrounding valleys carved out from thousands of years of geology. The whole day was filled with “ooohhhhs” and “aaahhhhs” and we couldn’t come up with enough superlatives to describe what we were seeing.
The road is iconic, taking you past glaciers and towering mountains, beautiful glacial lakes, and a snow-covered landscape. We are certainly jealous of anyone who grew up close to this wonderful place and can experience this beauty in their backyard.
This road is as famous as any attraction along this stretch of highway, and once you drive it you will understand why. The road winds through an endless list of valleys, past spectacular mountain peaks and unforgettable glaciers. It really is as impressive as we are trying to make it out to be.
We stopped at several waterfalls and viewpoints throughout this incredible day of discovery. It had snowed for our first two days in the Rockies, and our two days in Jasper National Park were overcast and the snow was falling. We didn’t see a lot of mountains. On our third day, we were rewarded with our patience, as the sun came out and we had blue skies and fresh snow everywhere.
It was an incredible day to drive the Icefields Parkway. The road itself was the star attraction of the day, all on its own merit. Even if you don’t leave the car, there is enough visual stimulation to make the drive worth it. We will assume you do want to get out and have a look around, so here are the top places we stopped at, our take on the classic list. Here are the “7 Incredible things we did on the Icefields Parkway”.
7 Incredible Things we did on the Icefields Parkway
1. Athabasca Glacier / Columbia Icefields
If you’ve come to the Canadian Rockies to see glaciers, this should be your number one destination. Athabasca Glacier is just one of 6 arms of the larger Columbia Icefield, which stretches over the mountains unseen from any viewing area.
The Icefields Parkway gets its name from this massive network of glaciers, the same road that brings you to its doorstep. As you approach along the highway, you see the glacier from a distance, and its majesty grows as you get closer.
We arrived a few days after the first snowfall, so the lower parking lot was closed, but normally its very easy to get close to the glacier from the highway, making it one of the easier attractions to access. In the summer months, you can basically park right next to the face of the glacier. When we visited the lower parking lot was closed, so we had to walk a little bit further.
Even with the fresh layer of snow, it was an easy hike for us to get up close and personal with this massive sheet of ice. While we had to be extra cautious with the icy snow-packed trail, it still didn’t take us very long. The reward was worth it.
If you have the right gear, a guide or experience hiking with the danger of glaciers, it’s possible to hike even further. We did not. The main path takes you right up to the face of the glacier, which was good enough for us. It was such an incredible view. For the less adventurous, there is a hotel located close to the highway, and the nearby Glacier Skywalk, which still has some incredible views.
We loved our visit to the Athabasca Glacier, as it was a reminder of how incredible nature can be, and how important it is to keep it that way. With the fresh snowfall, it was hard to see where the Glacier ended and the fresh snow began. Sadly, there are many reminders as you walk up towards the glacier; there are signs indicating how much the glacier had receded over the years.
2. Athabasca River Viewpoint (at the Mount Kerkeslin Campground)
As we mentioned above, we were super lucky to get amazing weather for our drive down the Icefields Parkway, as the blue skies and fresh snow were perfect for photography. There are so many great places to pull over along the Icefields Parkway, great places to stop and admire the incredible surroundings.
The northern sections of the Icefields Parkway roughly follow the path of the Athabasca River as it winds through the mountains. There are several great places to stop and view the river, and we found this incredible spot that we simply had to include on this list.
The Athabasca River has helped to shape the landscape of the Canadian Rockies through thousands of years of geological processes and finding the perfect place to view this river was high up on our list of goals for the day. We found one of the best.
Located nearby to the Mount Kerkeslin Campground, this viewpoint was the best place we found to see the river. The whole valley is surrounded by incredible peaks and from the elevated vantage point, you can look down over the bluff at this incredible river. The views of the towering mountain peaks and the snow-covered landscape are difficult to describe with words, so it’s a good thing we both brought our cameras.
This river has been designated as a Canadian Heritage River for its role in opening up Western Canada It was important to the fur trade and construction of the railways that connected British Columbia and Alberta to the rest of Canada.
The Athabasca River is quite the river. It begins at the Athabasca Glacier and follows this path through the Rockies, continuing north across the plains of the prairies. It travels over 1200-km before arriving at Lake Athabasca where. The water eventually arrives at the Arctic Ocean via the Slave River, Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River. Seeing this massive river in its early stages, knowing where it ends up, is quite impressive.
3. Sunwapta Falls
Sunwapta Falls is located south of Jasper and was definitely one of the top highlights from our drive down the Icefields Parkway. Situated along the Sunwapta river – just upstream from where the river connects with the larger Athabasca River – this class 6 waterfall has a drop of about 18 meters (60 feet).
The water from this waterfall has slowly carved a path into the limestone ground, creating a deep cut gorge in the forest. There are two parts to the waterfalls, the upper falls (which we visited) and the lower falls (which we could not). Most of the trails that led to the viewing platforms we did visit were pretty icy, and we had to tread carefully to see what we could.
The name comes from the Stoney Indian Language, and it means “turbulent water”, which is quite a fitting name for these waterfalls. They are apparently most impressive in the late spring and early summer when they are their most ferocious, fueled by the melting snowpack that feeds the river.
The falls were much quieter on the day that we visited, but that didn’t take away too much of their beauty. After two days of snow and clouds, the landscape looked beautiful in their current state. Some of the waterfalls had frozen over, and large icicles hung from the rocks. The best part was that they were much less busy than their more famous neighbor (Athabasca Falls) and equally beautiful. It was quiet and peaceful, and the photographs we ended up with were amazing.
4. Athabasca Pass Lookout
One of the first viewpoints that we stopped at after leaving Jasper had some of the most spectacular views of mountains and the Athabasca valley below. We had spent 2 days in Jasper National Park, with mixed results for weather, and we were so lucky to get to do the Icefields Parkway drive with blues skies and the entire landscape covered in a fresh blanket of snow.
Out first two days in Jasper, we couldn’t see much of the mountains, which is maybe why this stop was so impressive for us.
The viewpoint is located just before the turn off for the Athabasca Falls. Located about 25 km south of Jasper, this is one of many places you have to stop to take in the views.
This “destination” isn’t much more than a pull off on the side of the highway, designed to help you get some nice pictures, but if the weather is right, you have to stop. From this viewpoint, the most noticeable mountain is Mount Edith Cavel, which is one of the most prominent peaks located completely in Alberta. It is 3363 meters above sea level. While it is far from being one of the tallest in the Canadian Rockies (it ranks 18th I think) it is one of the most beautiful.
There are some amazing (and fairly easy) hikes nearby here that you can attempt, which take you up the ridgeline for close up views of the mountain. The one we want to try next time is the Cavell Meadows Trail. From here, you can get views of the Angel Glacier, which hangs off part of this mountain. We weren’t prepared for any serious hikes in the snow (we had planned our trip, hoping for fall weather and got caught a little off guard by the snow) but we know that next time we will give ourselves time to do it.
5. Peyto Lake
There are many beautiful glacial lakes to choose from in the Canadian Rockies, that you might think to yourself, do I have to see all of them? Well, the answer is yes, you probably should. One of the destinations you have to include on your trip to Alberta is Peyto Lake. It is one of the most famous lakes in the Canadian Rockies for very good reasons.
The views of Peyto Lake from above are iconic. It is one of the most photographed lakes in the Canadian Rockies.
When the sun is shining, this lake glows in a shade of blue that looks like it belongs in the Caribbean more than the Canadian Rockies. This is caused by the rock flour that the mountain streams feed into it, the suspended particles giving it the intense blue colour.
It is about a 20-minute walk uphill to the Bow Summit, and even with the trail completely covered in packed snow, it was an easy trek. There were many other tourists making the hike in sneakers.
We visited in the early winter and a heavy snowfall had preceded our arrival, leaving a thick blanket of snow covering the landscape. It was a little bit cloudy and getting late in the day, so the lake had a unique dark blue-green tint to it, which was an incredible sight. Only the edges of the lake had begun to freeze over, which gave us a pretty unique perspective of what would soon to be an 8-month winter wonderland.
Regardless of which time of year you visit, the lake is incredible, and you will quickly discover why it is such a popular location. The view from the top of Bow Summit is pretty unforgettable.
6. Saskatchewan River Crossing
When you’re driving through the Rockies along the Icefields Parkway, one of the few settlements you will find is located at Saskatchewan River Crossing, where highway 93 and 11 intersect. There is a small town, a restaurant, a gas station, and public washrooms.
It is important to make note that there are no other gas stations along highway 93, so make you sure to fill up with gas before continuing further.
More than just a highway junction and gas station, this is also a very important natural point of interest as well.
It is the point where three rivers meet – the North Saskatchewan, the Howse, and the Mistaya. They combine here to become the North Saskatchewan River, and from here this river makes a 1600-km trek across the Canadain west, eventually emptying into Lake Winnipeg.
Just south of the small town there is a viewpoint, and when we stopped there was only one other car in the parking lot, which means we had this incredible view all to ourselves. It isn’t a major stopping point for the tour buses and masses of visitors to the Rockies, which is one of the reasons we liked this spot so much.
This place has historical importance, as the “crossing” was an important 19th-century stopping point for early explorers and fur traders making the trip west into British Columbia. From here, early 1800’s explorers such as Howse and Thompson traveled across the spine of the Rocky Mountains west of this location. This pass – today is known as Howse Pass – was almost used by the Canadian Pacific Railway before eventually choosing the Kicking Horse Pass to the south. In 1978, it was named as a National Historic Site in Canada.
The view of the wide valley here was pretty inspiring, especially since there was only the sound of our own footsteps in the snow disrupting the peaceful scene. There are many tall mountains that stand tall above the valley floor.
7. Athabasca Falls
The road between Jasper and Banff has some of the most legendary viewpoints and destinations in the Canadian Rockies. One of our top highlights from driving the Icefields Parkway was Athabasca falls. Here we got to see this famous waterfall surrounded by winter, and with the blue skies and snow-covered trees and mountains.
Athabasca Falls is located about 30-km south of Jasper, located just down the road from the Athabasca Pass Viewpoint.
This was the first day of really good weather during our trip, and it couldn’t have come on a better day. Sometimes things align just perfectly with the weather and the time of day; Athabasca Falls was one of those places for us.
Athabasca Falls that morning was one of the most pristine scenes of our entire road trip. While not a huge vertical drop – it’s only 24 meters (80 feet) – the Athabasca River has a lot of energy that is sends crashing over the edge of the falls.
In the spring, when the snow begins to melt is the best time to see the falls in its full glory, but I think it’s difficult to argue with seeing the falls after the first heavy snowfall, as you will see from our photos.
There are many viewing platforms around the falls which makes it easy to snap some great pictures. In October – when we visited – the falls had begun to freeze over in places, and we got to see some massive icicles clinging to the rocks.
This is one of the most iconic destinations in the Canadian Rockies, and if you’re only going to visit one place along the drive, it’s hard not to make an argument for this to be your one stop. Though, we do hope you choose to make a few other stops as well.
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