The Icefields Parkway is the primary north-south route through the Alberta Rockies in Canada, and one of the most spectacular scenic drives in the world. The 232-kilometre (144 mi) road runs through the heart of the Jasper and Banff National Parks from Jasper to Lake Louise and it's a marvellous way to see the mountains - and a "must do".
The road is kept open year-round, but during the winter months it is extremely snowy and none of the tourist attractions along its length will be open or able to be visited. The gas-station, store and tourist centre will all be closed for the winter, so there is nowhere to get food or petrol on the Parkway at that time. In fact, the road is often closed due to weather during the winter. Check with park officials for the road conditions before you choose to travel it and be well prepared for winter conditions on the trip.
The route was discovered in 1884, the road being completed in 1940.
The road runs in the flat of a U shaped glacial valley climbing from the south and the north ends to its highest point. In the northern section the Athabasca and Sunwapta rivers run north, the southern section the Bow river runs south, and the central section is the source of the Mistaya and North Saskatchewan rivers which flow north then east. The mountains, mainly sandstone but also some limestone rock, rise high on both sides of the road displaying spectacular sedimentary and glacial formations. The ridges of the western mountains form the continental divide.
Flora and fauna
The area is mainly an alpine and sub-alpine Montane ecology. There is a good chance of sighting of black bear and elk as well as a possibility of mountain goats and bald eagles.
There are fuel stations in Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff. In summer, a fuel station operates at Saskatchewan River Crossing. It's advisable to fill up before entering the area as the prices are at a premium. Jasper and Calgary fuel prices are cheaper than in Canmore, Lake Louise and Banff.
Fees and permits
As you are travelling through two national parks, you will need to pay park fees and display the ticket, but once in the park there are no parking fees or entrance fees to sights (with the exception of the Brewster attractions). There is a park entrance gate just south of Jasper to purchase and check for the national park pass. From the south, if you have not already purchased a park pass at the Canmore-Banff entrance then you may do so at the visitor centers at Banff and Lake Louise.
The Icefields Parkway is a fifty minute drive west of Banff, two and a half hours west of Calgary along the Trans-Canada Highway 1 and three and a half hours west of Edmonton along the Yellowhead Highway 16. For the southern entrance take the 93 exit of Highway 1 just over 1 km north of the Lake Louise exit, signs for Icefield Centre and Jasper. For the north entrance simply drive west out of Jasper and cross the 16 heading south.
The parkway runs for 230 km (143 miles) and is a three-hour drive. But you will want to spend as much time as you can to have time to take in the views. The largest choice of accommodation can be found at Lake Louise and Jasper and there are a few lodges, hostels and campsites along the way. The road is for the most part one lane each way with a few dual lane sections for overtaking slow vehicles, with a speed limit of 90 km/h. The southern section has was resurfaced in the early 2010s, but the majority of the road is of reasonable quality tarmac with the odd bumpy section. There are plenty of pull off points and day parking places along the route.
- 1 Jasper Town with plenty of accommodation and restaurants.
- 2 Athabasca Falls. The Athabasca River thunders through a narrow gorge where the walls have been smoothed and potholes are created by the sheer force of the rushing water carrying sand and rock. There are parking and restroom facilities. A paved trail and picnic sites are available. Walk past the views of the falls into a walkway carved by the river.
- 3 Goat lick (Near Mount Kerkeslin view parking). Chance of seeing mountain goats at the side of the road.
- 4 Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge (on the Icefields Parkway halfway between Jasper and the Columbia Icefield), ☏ . Accommodation, restaurant, cafeteria and gift shop
- 5 Sunwapta Falls (turn in at the lodge, parking 1 km from the main road.). Small falls but worth a short visit. Only a short walk from the car park.
- 6 Tangle falls. Picturesque waterfall except is right on the side of the road.
- 7 Columbia Icefield. One highlight of the Icefields Parkway: ride on a Snocoach right up onto the glacier, get out and walk around on the ice. During the summer, trained guides offer 3- or 5-hour walks on the Athabasca Glacier, but this is only possible when there is no snow cover on the ice. At the very beginning of the tourist season the glacier is sometimes a smooth white sheet of snow, giving no hint as to the maze of deadly crevasses under its surface. It's also possible to park car near the toe of the glacier with a short but steep walk up to the toe of the glacier (restricted path way due to crevasses).
- 8 Big bend. Large bend in the road south of an incline. View pull off points at the bottom and near the top of the hill.
- 9 Weeping Wall. Water running down the side of almost vertical walls of the mountain.
- 10 The Crossing Resort (Saskatchewan River Crossing), ☏ . April to October. Accommodation, basic café, restaurant and bar. General store and fuel station.
- 11 Peyto Lake. A scenic location on the Icefields Parkway about 40 km north of the town of Lake Louise. Access to the viewing area for this magnificent area is immediately off the parkway and is well signposted. Upon climbing the short distance to the viewing point you are greeted by what many consider to be one of the best views in Canada. The lake is located in a convergence of valleys surrounded by majestic mountains and rich forests. The lake system is fed from the Peyto Glacier to the left of the view point and this gives the lake a magnificent blue colour in the summer months due to the mineral content.
- 12 Simpson's Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, ☏ . Rooms, dining, coffee and souvenir shops.
- 13 Viewpoint of Crowfoot Glacier and Bow glaciers.
- 14 Lake Louise Glacial lake with impressive mountain backdrop. Village and surrounding area has a number of sleep and eat options.
This is bear county; stay in your vehicle if you come across one.
Also keep an eye out for other animals on the road, such as deer and moose. And watch out for the odd crazy cyclist also doing the route.
There are no medical facilities along the route but there are small hospitals in Lake Louise and Jasper.
There are toilets at the Sunwapta Lodge, Columbia Icefield centre, Saskatchewan crossing and Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. Also at many of the day parking pull-offs and main sights along the way there are pit toilets, which are generally kept in a very good condition.
- If you want to try a little more rugged road then take the Spray Lakes Road/Smith-Dorrien Highway through Kananaskis Country
- An alternative route to along the parkway is the 93A between Jasper and the Athabasca Falls. This is a narrower and bumpy road with lower speed limit but will provide good opportunities for seeing wildlife such as black bears and great northern loons.
|Alberta Highway 93|