Gravel crunched beneath our hiking shoes as we wandered towards the red-roofed rustic lodge. A wooden bridge traversed a trickling stream leading us to Bow Lake. Little did we know that mountainous reflections shimmering in the crystal waters would form the Canadian Rockies’ image that still resonates in my mind. And this was just the very beginning of our picturesque drive from Lake Louise to Jasper.
No better excuse exists to stretch a three-hour journey into an all-day wilderness adventure than the Icefields Parkway. Known as Highway 93, this well maintained double-lane road traverses through Banff and Jasper National Park. A self-driving tour will take you through visibly marked rocky peaks, impossibly aqua lakes, and glacial icefields. GPS driving tours such as GyPSy Guide are available to narrate the drive.
True blue lakes
Meltwater from looming glaciers flows into the numerous lakes that dot the Icefields Parkway, forming blue-green bodies of wonder. Peyto Lake, located at 6,100-feet above sea level, is a prime example. A short trail leads to a wooden balcony where people gather for the ultimate Instagram-moment. The trail is paved and handicap accessible, as are many of the major sites along the way. The uphill return left me briefly breathless due to the elevation. For the adventurous (and those more fit than me), additional trails lead further afield.
Preservation and wonder
A love of nature and respect for the natural beauty exudes from those working along the parkway. That joy is abundantly evident at the Columbia Icefields, where young guides explain glacial science. You can wander out in a gigantic snow cab, step onto a slab of the Athabasca Glacier or observe the surrounding 200-km of ice from high above on the glass bottom Glacier Skywalk. An educational expo is available at the visitor center as well as two restaurants and a souvenir shop.
Go with the flow
Waterfalls are also abundant along the Icefields Parkway. One of the most accessible is Athabasca Falls, which is surrounded by lush forest and layers of rock. Multiple trailheads are located nearby following the river and another leading across a bridge down a set of stairs to the river gorge.
Where to eat
Limited dining opportunities exist along the way. A full-service restaurant and cafeteria-style eatery are located at the Columbia Icefields Center. Or consider packing a picnic lunch and enjoy an alfresco meal along the way.
Need to know
A National Park Pass is required for entrance to the Icefields Parkway. Passes can be purchased in advance or at the parkway entrance. Services along the parkway are available June through September. Construction to improve facilities at Peyto Lake is ongoing through late 2020, and this area is closed.
An early start is recommended if driving from Lake Louise to Jasper to allow for time to see the sights and stop at the Columbia Icefields Center. Tours onto the Athabasca Glacier can be booked in advance and are recommended. An optimal tour time is early afternoon allowing adequate time to arrive in Jasper in time for your evening meal.
No phone service or gas stations are available en route on the parkways’ 144-miles. Restroom facilities with dry toilets can be found on the drive. Full-service restrooms are located at the Columbia Icefields Center.
Where to stay
Four hotels, five year-round hostels, and eleven seasonal campgrounds are available along the Icefields Parkway. At this time, Num-Ti-Jah Lodge at Bow Lake is closed.
On either end of the parkway are Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper, each worthy of their own exploration. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, surrounded by mountains and a turquoise lake, is the region’s grand dame. In Banff, the Rimrock Resort hotel is nestled amongst the tall bushy pines. At the north end of the parkway in Jasper, Becker’s Chalet offers laid back cabins along the bubbling Athabasca River.
Banff and Lake Louise are accessible from Calgary’s international airport. Trains such as the Rocky Mountaineer also service Banff. A rental car is highly recommended to explore the area. However, bus tours and day trips exist that take visitors to the Columbia Icefields Center.
Adventure for all
Icefields Parkway is, at minimum, a stunning drive. Opportunities exist to stretch your legs on a few trails or to just slow down and take it all in. If you’re lucky, you may spot one of the 53 species of animals or 260 species of birds that flourish here. The Canadian Rockies lend their beauty, making this trip accessible to all ages.
About Julie Suman—When not mentoring scientists, speaking at conferences, or sunning herself at the beach, published author and photographer, Julie D. Suman, can be found traveling the world and capturing those moments through her lens. Follow her on Instagram.