Driving the Icefields Parkway

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When I first read that I needed to set aside a day for this 300km stretch of road that connects Banff with Jasper, I thought there must have been a mistake. But no, it was entirely accurate! There is SO much to see along this magnificent stretch of road that I’m glad we followed that advice and could really take our time. The road is very well maintained with wide lanes, lots of passing lanes and a ridiculous amount of rest stops with picnic tables, rubbish bins and toilets along the way. We also had to allow time for wildlife-spotting; it became the running joke that we were consistently under the speed limit, as we were all scanning the road-sides for bears, moose and everything else. Sadly we only saw one bear across the course of the week, but we saw plenty of deer, elk and mountain goat around the Icefields Parkway.

Although we set out with a suggested itinerary in hand, we found ourselves stopping at whatever we thought looked interesting – affected partly by the weather and the number of cars in the car park. We left Jasper early in the morning, keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife, coffees in hand. We had been forewarned that a huge chicken wire fence separates the road once we got closer to Banff with designated ‘wildlife corridors’ (i.e. bridges across the Parkway that allow animals to cross if they desire). This ensures safety of the animals (and cars) near the busy highway which is good, but it meant the likelihood of seeing bears would probably decrease. 

The first part of our journey was a series of waterfalls. We first stopped at the Athabasca Falls which were impressive not for its height, but for the sheer amount of volume that was thundering past. As we got out of the car the sky lit up with lightning, and as we heard the rumbles of thunder we all made the sound decision of grabbing our rain jackets. There is a path winding its way around the falls, with lots of photo stops and shelters from the rain. We saw all we needed to see before retreating back to the car. Allow approximately 25 minutes.

Our second stop was the Sunwapta Falls. We parked at the upper car park and followed the signposts to the viewpoint of the upper falls. It is possible to follow the right hand side of the canyon (from the car park, i.e. don’t cross the footbridge over the canyon) along a trail for about 1km to the lower falls. There are three cascades, each impressive in their own way. The trail felt a bit eerie; it was considerably less populated than the upper falls and apparently bears, wolves and moose frequent the trail in the evenings. I was glad to be in a group of four, where it didn’t take too much effort to be loud – just to stop nearby animals getting any ideas!

As we left the Sunwapta Falls the weather really started to pack in. We paused at the Tangle Falls, a photogenic road-side cascade where we conveniently did not need to get out of the car, before moving onto the Athabasca Glacier. It was difficult to tell that we’d arrived at the glacier due to the torrential rain and the immense cloud blocking any kind of visibility. We pulled into the car park and ate our packed lunches while we hoped for the cloud to clear. Nothing short of a miracle, the mountain range in front of us slowly emerged from the clouds. Not wasting a minute, we jumped out of the car and headed up the well trodden pathway to the base of the glacier. It was a bit disheartening walking past all signposts reminding us how much the glacier has receded over the years. The Columbia Icefield is magnificent for the very fact that the water from the glacier flows to three oceans: the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Arctic. It’s pretty amazing that it’s just chilling on the side of the road.

To the obvious reluctance of Nick, we shortly afterwards began hiking the Wilcox Trail. It can be a 8km hike, but we just did the shorter 4.8km hike to get the views. The views were incredible: we looked directly out towards the Athabasca Glacier and the valley all around. It was positively beautiful and a great way to break up the journey. We were particularly fortunate that the rain didn’t come back to haunt us. I even heard Nick recommending this particular hike to someone later in the week 😉

With grand plans to visit Lake Louise and Lake Moraine later in the week, our last stop was Bow Lake, 37km from Lake Louise. It was entirely underrated and probably my favourite unexpected stop of the trip. I had thought it was closed, but it turned out that only the Summit hike was closed and the lake itself was still perfectly accessible. It had approximately one quarter of the cars at Lake Louise or Lake Moraine and the colour of the lake was so clear, so pristine and so blue. The pebbled shores dotted with purple wildflowers and the sheer rocky mountains behind, it is hard to argue that it wasn’t one of the most picturesque spots of the trip (and without the crowds, which is always a bonus).

After Bow Lake we hightailed it to our accommodation in Canmore to refresh after our day long trip that covered less than 300km. It has to be one of the best drives I have ever done in my life and I would 100% recommend that everyone do it at some point if they can!

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