A visit to the Columbia Icefields is not a budget day out and it is understandable that you might consider giving this trip a swerve. After all, you can admire the Icefields from the road below. However, this is one of the few places in the world that you can access a glacier without a long trek or a helicopter ride. This glacier trip is accessible (even to wheelchair users) which is just one of the reasons it is worth the price of the ticket. However, that is certainly not the only reason. The Ice Explorer Snowcoaches are great fun with hilarious commentary so let’s find out why I believe the price of tickets to the Columbia Icefields should definitely not put you off a visit.
Columbia Icefields fast facts
Firstly, a bit of background. The Columbia Icefields straddle Banff National Park and Jasper National Park and are the largest Icefields in the Rocky Mountains. Located 103km from Jasper or 127km from Lake Louise, they are almost half way along the Icefields Parkway. The icefields cover 325 km in area and are up to 365 metres deep in places. They consist of six major glaciers. Indeed, an icefield is a collection of two or more glaciers. At the Columbia Icefields, the Athabasca, Castleguard, Columbia, Dome, Stutfield, and Saskatchewan glaciers all converge to provide exquisite views.
Another unique feature of this Icefield is that it feeds three river systems. Its meltwater drains into the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans as you can see in this downloadable map. The map is a great reference tool as it also indicates the mountains and glaciers surrounding the Athabasca Glacier.
Columbia Icefields footwear
Visitors can only access the Athabasca Glacier on the tour but need no training or specialist equipment. Note however, this is a glacier and visitors should wear hiking boots or trainers not flip flops and sandals! Yes, we really did see people visit the glacier in beachwear!
Columbia Icefields tickets
You can purchase tickets for the Columbia Icefield Adventure, which includes the Snowcoach and Skywalk or for the Skywalk alone. The bundle including the glacier and Skywalk costs around £80 per adult and £50 for a child and you can book tickets here.
Note, tours often fill so you must pre book but you can cancel tickets for a full refund up to 48 hours before. If you turn up and try to buy tickets, you may have a long wait or not be able to fit the tour into your itinerary. This would truly be a tragedy as this was one of the highlights of my entire trip through the Rockies.
Tickets for the Skywalk alone cost around £30 for adults and £20 for a child and you can book those here. If you do not plan to drive, you can also purchase tickets that include transport from Banff or Jasper. Check out your options here.
According to the Columbia Icefields website, ‘based on countless guest requests since the Columbia Icefield Skywalk was launched, we have combined our two iconic Columbia Icefield attractions to provide a more fulsome glacier experience and to reduce time in line ups at the Glacier Discovery Center.’ You cannot therefore purchase a ticket for the Ice Exploration only. Personally, I think this is a shame. I am not convinced the Skywalk is worth £30 and would have readily sacrificed the Skywalk in favour of more time on the glacier.
Columbia Icefields experience
The Columbia Icefield Adventure follows this itinerary but if you only book the Skywalk you will need to hop on the bus that goes directly there.
- From the Discovery Centre, a bus takes you to the Snowcoach depot. Buses leave from the stands outside the gift shop at your specific departure time and take around 15 minutes to reach the depot.
- Transfer directly onto a Snowcoach for the short journey to the glacier where you will have around 30 minutes to explore.
- Return to your Snowcoach at the allotted time and transfer onto a bus that will take you directly to the Skywalk.
- After your visit to the Skywalk, return to the bus stop to hop on a bus back to the Glacier Discovery Centre.
The website recommends 2 – 2.5 hours for your visit but treat this with caution. Our visit took 3.5 hours and we had pre-booked tickets. To really get the best out of a visit, I recommend you stay overnight on site at the Glacier View Lodge. Whatever you do not decide, allow plenty of time to thoroughly enjoy your visit.
Snowcoach Glacier experience
As you clamber up into the huge snowcoach you could be forgiven for thinking you are on a Mad Max movie set. These contraptions are absolute beasts. There are only 25 in existence and 23 are in use at the Columbia icefields. The other two are in Antarctica (yay jason and I are heading there next year!). Each costs over $1 million (their tyres alone cost $6,000 each!!) and seats up to 56 passengers.
Athabasca Glacier commentary
On the drive to the glacier, our guide Ariel regales us with information that she delivers in a hugely comedic manner. She talks us through the descent onto the glacier on the steepest non paved commercial road in the world. To put some perspective on how steep this road is, a 17 degree incline is the steepest legally navigable in Canada. This slope is 32 degrees and as Ariel points out to us, is the slowest roller coaster in the world.
We pause poised above the glacier anticipating an exhilarating descent, but instead of a speedy, stomach churning descent, the Snowcoach trundles down the bumpy slope, its tyres clinging to the track. As we reach the bottom, a large pool of dirty meltwater provides the next Indiana Jones moment as we splash through and onto the glacier itself. Snowcoaches line up in neat formation and Ariel urges guests to return at a pre-determined time.
Note, you return to the same Snowcoach so it is important to stick to timings. Although you may think 30 minutes will be far too long to explore such a small, groomed area, you may be surprised at how quickly that time goes.
On the Athabasca Glacier
Fill your water bottles in the vivid blue glacial streams coursing down the slope, admire the towering mountains around you and breathe in the fresh air. Join the swarms of visitors who clamour for photos with the Canadian flag or simply take in the magnificent panorama around you.
Although I have been fortunate enough to visit a number of glaciers, what makes the Columbia Icefields special is that it is accessible to all and you have freedom to roam as you like (within the confines of the cordoned area). Don’t do what I did at Everest base camp and simply wander off on a glacier where compacted snow may be the only thing between you and a crevasse!!
If you have purchased a ticket for the Skywalk only, you will need to park at the Glacier Discovery Centre and take the shuttle to the Skywalk. Buses from the departure hallway will take you directly to the Skywalk and staff will scan your ticket at the entrance. There is no parking at the Skywalk and you cannot buy tickets at the entrance. Unless you have pre-booked tickets, you must purchase tickets at the Glacier Discovery Centre.
The Skywalk opened in 2014. It is a walkway with a glass bottom that hovers 280m above the Sunwapta Valley and allows hair raising views into the valley below. The total walkway is 1km but only a small section is glass.
Getting the most from your Skywalk experience
Being honest, the Skywalk did not impress me. I certainly would not visit the Columbia Icefields solely for this purpose. As an add on to the Glacier Discovery Adventure (undoubtedly the star attraction) it is fun and will appeal to children. It was quite crowded on the glass walkway when we arrived and the jostling between selfie takers was driving me nuts.
If you decide however that you can do not want to skip the Skywalk, I recommend that you stay over at the Glacier View Lodge. Then you can rise early and visit very early in the day or last thing in the day. This is only an option if you are on a self drive tour but allows you to avoid most of the day traffic traversing the Icefields Parkway. Those visitors need to allow a few hours to get to Banff, Lake Louise or Jasper after their visit so cannot stay too late or arrive too early. You can book tickets as late as 5pm for the Glacier Discovery Adventure by which time I assume it will be considerably quieter.
Stay at the Columbia Icefields
If you do wish to stay over, you can book a room at the Glacier View Lodge at the Columbia Icefields Visitor Centre which offers incredible views of the glacier.
Any visit to the Icefields Parkway, Jasper or Banff really should include a trip to the Columbia Icefields. Standing on the Athabasca Glacier, staring up at Andromeda and Athabasca mountains, filled my heart with joy. For a family of four, this is not a budget day out but will grant you priceless memories. The glacier is truly stunning and I just hope that my photos convey a sense of this wonder. Obviously I would love to know your thoughts too. Don’t be shy, just pop them in the comments box below.