Home / Americas / Why the Icefields Parkway is one of the world’s most spectacular drives

Why the Icefields Parkway is one of the world’s most spectacular drives

National Geographic describes the Icefields Parkway as ‘One of the world’s most spectacular driving tours’ and they are not wrong. The Icefields Parkway is simply jaw dropping with rugged peaks, gushing waterfalls, innumerable glaciers, dense forest and oodles of wildlife (in summer). This is one scenic drive you must add to your bucket list as the Icefields Parkway is absolutely mind blowing. Hire a car and drive this route at your leisure or opt for one of Sundogs Tours one way sightseeing trips between Banff and Jasper (or vice versus). These tours include the Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure and Skywalk as well as transportation and commentary along the Parkway.

Sundog Tours bus on the Icefields Parkway
Our Sundog Tours bus on the Icefields Parkway

Before we take you on a whirlwind tour of some of the highlights of this spectacular drive, first some practicalities.

Icefields Parkway practical tips

The Icefields Parkway is in the Icefields Parkway National Park. As with all Canadian national parks this means that there are no hotels or conveniences (other than the Columbia Icefield) so you should bring plenty of food and refreshments for your journey.

National park pass

If you are drive through the Parkway, you will need a National park pass for every day you plan to stay in the park. The cost is dependent on the number of travellers and the length of your stay and costs $10.50 per adult per day. If you will be staying in the park a considerable time, it may be better value to purchase the Annual Discovery Pass which currently costs $145.25. Book your pass here, then print and display it on your dashboard at all times whilst in the park.

Personally, I think the pass is great value as it includes all parking and access to picnic areas and well-maintained washrooms.

Jasper National Park viewpoint
Jasper National Park viewpoint

Icefields Parkway attractions map

You can download a map of the Icefields Parkway that shows all the principle attractions. You can also read more about the key points of interest here.

Restrooms

Although there are no service stations of the kind you find in the UK, each rest area has washrooms. Although these are long drop toilets, they are well maintained and far from the worst bathrooms I’ve endured. They usually have plenty of toilet paper and also smell incredibly fresh for public loos.

Timings

Bear in mind there are only a few isolated (and pricey) places to stay on the Parkway. If you would prefer not to pay £200 plus a night for a room, you need to plan to traverse the entire route in a day (or be willing to camp!). Although the Parkway is not particularly long there are many attractions, some of which require a substantial amount of time.

Valley in the Icefields Parkway
Scenes from the Icefields Parkway

To allow enough time to visit these attractions and to enjoy a leisurely trip, aim to leave before 8 and expect to arrive around the same time in the evening. If you book an overnight stay, you will be able to embrace even more of the Icefield’s joys. Personally, I think it might be worth £200 for a room to enjoy an extra day on the Parkway. You can view all accommodation options here but my pick is the Glacier View Lodge which offers spectacular views of the area.

Fuel

There is only one fuel station on the Icefield Parkway which is 153km from Jasper at the Saskatchewan crossing. You should therefore refuel before you enter the Parkway as it is 230 km long.

Refreshments

Although there is a café at the Columbia Icefield you should bring plenty of water and sunscreen. If the sun does make an appearance it is very strong!

Footwear

Wear sensible footwear. We were astonished at the number of visitors who deemed flip flops and sandals, shorts and t-shirts suitable attire for a glacier. Even in the height of summer, icy winds blow down the glacier so it is wise to bring layers and warm overcoats so you can adapt to the weather.

Cellphone coverage

Other than at the Columbia Icefield there is little to no coverage. You can log on to the WiFi spot at the Columbia Icefield but reception elsewhere along the Parkway is sketchy.

Admiring the views of Lake Louise
Admiring the views of Lake Louise

Now that we have practicalities out of the way, let’s take a look at the incredible sights along the Icefields Parkway. All km markers assume you are travelling from Jasper but the map mentioned gives km information for both directions.

Highlights of the Icefields Parkway

Athabasca Falls

The Athabascan falls are just 30 km from Jasper and a raging cauldron of swirling water when we visit in late June. Glacial melt cascades down the mountains and squeezes into a tiny gully. The torrent thunders through crevices in the rocks whilst mist swirls above to create beautiful rainbows. On warm days, visitors can refresh in a light dowsing from the rising spray.

The Athabasca Falls from above
The Athabasca Falls from above

Allow 30 minutes or more to walk the trails from the parking lot to the falls and then descend to the river valley below. Here you can sit and enjoy a moment of solitude in sharp contrast to the roaring waterfalls above.

Below the Athabasca Falls
Below the Athabasca Falls – look at the colour of that water!

Sunwapta Falls

24 km further up the Parkway you will come to the Sunwapta Falls. Note, the Sundog Tour that we took did not stop at the falls. Here is a photo for you to decide whether you wish to stop off here. The Icefields Parkway site also provide more information relating to the falls.

Sunwapta Falls
Sunwapta Falls

Columbia icefields

The Columbia Icefield is at 103 km and is undoubtedly the star attraction of the Parkway. Just one of the several Icefields on the Parkway, the Columbia Icefield has done a spectacular job of creating an attraction that allows everyone, including those with limited mobility, to get onto the glacier.

You will need to allow 2.5 to 3.5 hours for your visit if you have pre-booked tickets. If you have not pre-booked tickets and visit at peak times, you may need to allow much more time. The lines for tickets can be long. I definitely recommend pre-booking your ticket to avoid disappointment and you can skip the lines. Book your tickets at Get Your Guide.

The Athabasca Glacier
The Athabasca Glacier of the Columbia Icefield
Jason on the Athabasca Glacier with the Canadian flag
Jason conquering the glacier

Columbia Icefields visit itinerary

Once you have a ticket, the itinerary is as follows;

  1. Jump on the bus to the Snowcoach depot. These leave from directly outside the gift shop and your ticket will indicate what time to join the line to leave.
  2. The bus takes around 15 minutes to climb the road to the glacier to the Snowcoach depot.
  3. Here you will all transfer directly onto a Snowcoach, a giant bus on huge tractor like tyres. These beasts cost over a $1 million each and will take you on the short journey to the glacier. The design is such that it allows the weight to be spread more evenly making it safe to get onto the ice.
  4. Once you arrive on the glacier, you will have around 30 minutes to explore the designated area of the glacier. Do not step outside the boundaries because this is a glacier with deep crevasses that you can disappear into.
  5. You then retrace your steps on the Snowcoach and transfer to a bus that will take you to the Skywalk. This is a glass bottomed walkway that hovers high above the valley. It is a great place to get interesting selfies but can get extremely busy!
  6. Once you have had your fill of the Skywalk jump on a bus back to the Columbia Icefield centre.
Columbia Icefield snowcoach
Columbia Icefield snowcoach with me posing!

Tickets for the Columbia Icefield

You can book tickets for the Skywalk for around £30 an adult or you book the full Glacier Adventure which includes the Skywalk for around £80. You cannot just book the Snowcoach and skip the Skywalk.

The Weeping Wall

The Weeping Wall is 124km from Jasper and is a dramatic cliffside with multiple waterfalls that resemble a river of tears. Indeed, the main fall is aptly called Teardrop. More than 100 metres high, every gully on on this sheer face is home to a waterfall. They drape over the side like ribbons, their trajectory determined by the wind rather than gravity. In winter, the falls freeze into a huge sheet of ice attracting ice climbers from far and wide but it is hard to imagine that in the height of summer.

The Weeping Wall, Icefields Parkway
The Weeping Wall, Icefields Parkway

Peyto Lake

190km from Jasper is the stunning Peyto Lake. To reach the viewpoint, take the short trail to the right of the parking lot. This viewing platform was remodelled in 2021 and when you enter the deck, you will experience a true wow moment.

Peyto Lake is the most popular glacial lake in Canada. During the summer, significant amounts of glacial rock flour flow into the lake, and these suspended rock particles give the lake this bright, turquoise colour. Not difficult to see why so many people want to visit and photograph this lake!

Peyto Lake, Icefields Parkway
Peyto Lake, Icefields Parkway

Bow Lake

6km further on, Bow Lake skirts the edge of the Icefields Parkway and offers a perfect place vantage point of Crowfoot Glacier, Wapta Icefield, Bow Glacier, Crowfoot Mountain and Mount Thompson.

Lake Louise

Yet another stunning glacial lake on the Icefields Parkway, Lake Louise can however be a little like Disneyland. Hoards of tourists clutter the pathways at the foot of the lake and groups of youths jostle for prime position on the rocks. If you can ignore the cacophony, it is however sublime.

Lake Louise without the crowds
Lake Louise without the crowds

Visitors can rent kayaks for a whopping $145 for an hour from the rental centre operated by the adjacent Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise There is no denying that this is a stunning property but if you want a slice of peaceful mountain air, you will not get it in this hotel which is hugely popular with tour groups from around the globe.

If you drive to Lake Louise, the parking lots fill quickly. Aim to arrive early or you can park in Lake Louise village and take the shuttle up the hillside to the lake.

Lake Louise kayak rental
Lake Louise kayak rental

Banff

From Lake Louise it is around a 40 minute drive to Banff, a bustling town with plenty of bars and restaurants to tempt you. We stayed overnight at the Mount Royal which offers well sized rooms and extremely comfortable beds.

a bar in Banff
Banff nightlife

Final thoughts

Just these photos alone should convince you that the Icefields Parkway should be on your bucket list. There are so many incredible wow views on this drive and it is certainly up there with the most spectacular drives I have ever done. A visit to the Icefields Parkway is an overdose of nature at its best. Mountains, waterfalls and so many other stunning distractions await you as you meander along this scenic drive.

Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below if you have been as I would love to know what you thought. Likewise if you have any top tips, go ahead and share those too.

This post may contain affiliate links which pay me a small commission should you click on them and make a purchase. These help towards the cost of running the site, and the occasional glass of wine, but you are under no obligation to use them.

About Anne

Anne is the founder and editor of Frommilestosmiles. If she isn't travelling, she is thinking of travelling or planning her next trip. She has visited over 90 countries on six continents and sampled everything from backpacking to bank bursting travel. Her mission is to help you enjoy more luxurious travel without the luxury price tag through the use of airline and hotel rewards and other money-saving travel tips

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Shares
Share This

Sharing is caring

Maybe your friends would love to know about this too!

%d bloggers like this: