Banff National Park Feature
- Travel Tips
- Fodor's Choice
Powerfully rugged mountain scenery, glaciers, waterfalls and icefalls, and wildlife: the Icefields Parkway reveals all of these and more as it snakes its way between Lake Louise and Jasper.
There aren't any gas stations along the route, so be sure to check the gas gauge before setting out. Although you could drive this winding road in three to four hours, it's more likely to be a full-day trip when you add in stops. The road rises to near the tree line at several points, and the weather can be chilly and unsettled at these high elevations, even in midsummer, so it's a good idea to bring warm clothing along.
Elk, moose, deer, and bighorn sheep are fairly common along this route, and occasionally you can see bears and mountain goats. In summer, alpine wildflowers carpet Bow Pass and Sunwapta Pass.
The most dramatic scenery is in the north end of Banff National Park and the south end of Jasper National Park, where ice fields and glaciers become common on the high mountains flanking the route (ice fields are massive reservoirs of ice; glaciers are the slow-moving rivers of ice that flow from the ice fields). Scenic overlooks and signposted hiking trails abound along the route.
Bow Summit. At 6,787 feet, Bow Summit is the highest drivable pass in the national parks of the Canadian Rockies. It is famous for its postcard viewpoint of Peyto Lake. To reach the summit viewpoint, park in the lot on the west side of the Icefields Parkway and take the trail from there that leads 1½ km (1 mile) through alpine forest to a scenic point above the timberline. On the south side of the pass is Bow Lake, source of the Bow River, which flows through Banff. Icefields Parkway, 40 km north of Lake Louise, 190 km south of Jasper, Banff National Park, AB.
Simpson's Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. You may wish to stop for lunch or supper at Simpson's Num-Ti-Jah Lodge at Bow Lake. This rustic lodge with simple guest rooms specializes in excellent regional Canadian cuisine. Outside, walking paths circle the lake. Icefields Parkway, 40 km north of Lake Louise on Hwy. 93, Banff National Park, AB. 403/522–2167. www.sntj.ca.
Above Bow Lake hangs the Crowfoot Glacier, so named because of its resemblance to a three-toed crow's foot. At least that's how it looked when it was named at the beginning of the 20th century. In the Canadian Rockies, glaciers, including Crowfoot, have been receding. The lowest toe completely melted away 50 years ago, and now only the upper two toes remain. On the north side of Bow Pass is Peyto Lake; its startlingly intense aqua-blue color comes from the minerals in glacial runoff. Wildflowers blossom along the pass in summer, but note that it can be covered with snow as late as May and as early as September.
Parker Ridge Trail. The short (2½ km ), steep Parker Ridge Trail is one of the easiest hikes in the national parks to bring you above the tree line. There's an excellent view of the Saskatchewan Glacier, where the river of the same name begins, though you've got to make it to the top of the ridge to get the view. Snowbanks can persist into early summer, but carpets of wildflowers cross the trail in late July and August. Stay on the path to keep erosion to a minimum. The trailhead is about 4 km (2½ miles) south of the boundary between Banff and Jasper parks on the Icefields Parkway.
Sunwapta Pass. Marking the border between Banff and Jasper national parks, Sunwapta is the second-highest drivable pass—6,675 feet—in the national parks. Wildlife is most visible in spring and autumn after a snowfall, when herds of bighorn sheep come to the road to lick up the salt used to melt snow and ice. Be prepared for a series of hairpin turns as you switchback up to the pass summit. Icefields Parkway, 122 km north of Lake Louise, 108 km south of Jasper, Banff National Park, AB.
Athabasca Glacier. This is a 7-km (4½-mile) tongue of ice flowing from the immense Columbia Icefield almost to the Icefields Parkway. A century ago the ice flowed over the current location of the highway; signposts depict the gradual retreat of the ice since that time. Several other glaciers are visible from here; they all originate from the Columbia Icefield, a giant alpine lake of ice covering 325 square km (125 square miles) whose edge is visible from the highway. You can hike up to the toe of the glacier, but venturing farther without a trained guide is extremely dangerous because of hidden crevasses. Athabasca Glacier Ice Walks (800/565–7547 www.icewalks.com) offers three-, five-, and six-hour guided walks (C$36–C$45), which can be reserved at the Icefield Centre or through Jasper Adventure Centre (780/852–5595 or 800/565–7547 www.jasperadventurecentre.com), in Jasper. You can also take a trip onto the Athabasca Glacier in Brewster Tours' Ice Explorers, which have been modified to drive on ice (tickets are available at the Icefield Centre for C$29.86). Icefields Parkway, 127 km north of Lake Louise, 103 km south of Jasper, Banff National Park, AB.
Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. Opposite the Athabasca Glacier, this facility houses interpretive exhibits, a gift shop, and two dining facilities (one cafeteria style, one buffet style). The summer midday rush between 11 and 3 can be intense. The Glacier View Inn is opposite the icefield and has 32 hotel rooms, available from early May to mid-October. Icefields Pkwy., 127 km (79 miles) north of Lake Louise, 103 km (64 miles) south of Jasper, Banff National Park, AB. 877/423–7433. www.explorerockies.com. Free. Late May–mid-June and Sept.–early Oct., daily 10–5; mid-June–Aug., daily 10–7.
Brewster Sightseeing Excursions. Book sightseeing excursions in Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper and admission tickets and value passes, which include admission to multiple attractions, at a savings here. 800/760–6934. www.explorerockies.com.
As you continue north from the Icefield Centre through Jasper National Park toward Jasper Townsite, you'll see some of the most spectacular scenery in the Canadian Rockies. One of the most stunning sites is the Stutfield Glacier, 95 km (57 mi) south of Jasper Townsite. The glacier stretches down 3,000 feet of cliff face, forming a set of double icefalls visible from a roadside viewpoint. Continuing along the parkway, you'll pass the access to spectacular Sunwapta Falls, 57 km (33 mi) south of the town of Jasper. You'll also want to stop at Athabasca Falls, 31 km (19 mi) south of Jasper Townsite. These powerful falls are created as the Athabasca River is compressed through a narrow gorge, producing a violent torrent of water. The falls are especially dramatic in early summer. Trails and overlooks provide good viewpoints.
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