The Icefields Parkway is a 140+ mile highway through Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada. It’s amazing combination of more than 100 glaciers, dozens of beautiful blue-green mountain lakes, incredible peaks, and mountain vistas makes it with out a doubt one of the most scenic stretches of highway in the world.
There are too many opportunities along the way for hiking, sightseeing, and picture taking to list them all. But, plan at least 5-6 hours to drive the parkway on your first visit. Most of the highway is posted 90 km per hour, but there are so many places to hike and short detours to overlooks that a relaxed pace is best. Especially in the summer months you can also expect quite a bit of traffic, particularly near the Columbia Icefields Centre area.
There are literally dozens of trail heads along the parkway which offer hikes into the scenic surroundings. But, there are also numerous pullouts where a quick stop or short walk can bring you to some really amazing scenery. One of these is the turnoff for the Waterfowl Lakes viewing area. This turns into a parking area with easy access to several short trails around and between a series of beautiful blue-green mountain lakes surrounded by mountains, forest, and wildlife.
The Columbia Icefields Center is near the center of the Parkway, approximately 80 miles from Lake Louise and 65 miles from Jasper. It’s one of the few places with services along the parkway, and has a large variety of tourist features, in addition to a restaurant, information center, and interpretive display. The restaurant is on the 2nd floor of the centre, and has a large outdoor deck for eating and enjoying a panoramic view of the Columbia Icefields.
The Athabasca Glacier is at the center of the Columbia Icefield, and can be viewed or visited in several ways. It is easily viewed from the parking lot or restaurant deck, but the edge of the glacier is also easily reachable by hiking the short but steep Forefield Trail from the centre parking lot to the toe of the glacier. The area around the parking lot and trailhead is interesting in it’s own right, as it’s strewn with sediment and rubble left behind by the glacier.
The Icefield Centre ticket office also offers a variety of ways to see the glaciers up closer and more personally through adventure or snowcat tours, or a bus to the recently added Glacier Skywalk.
The Icefields Parkway is a must see for anyone visiting the Banff or Jasper areas. It’s definitely worth reserving a whole day to drive some or all of the parkway, visit the Columbia Icefields, and take one or more of the hikes into the area.