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Experience the Icefields Parkway – the best scenic drive in Canada

The Icefields Parkway is one of the most breathtaking scenic drives in the world. The park’s length of one hundred and forty-four miles will astonish you with over one hundred glaciers, exotic blue lakes, jaw dropping waterfalls and stunning canyons.

The park is so majestic that UNESCO included it on its List of World Heritage Sites in 1984.

This road links Banff National Park with Jasper National Park in the province of Alberta. Not only the best way to reach many of the must-see sites of the Canadian Rockies, but it is also one of the must-see attractions by itself.

icefields parkway travel guide road trip canada

To drive on Highway 93 or better known as Icefields Parkway, you will need to pay for a passage ticket.  You can also purchase an annual Discovery Pass, this option saves you a lot of money if you plan on traveling through the Canadian Rockies since it gives you access to all the National Parks and their activities.

ICEFIELDS PARKWAY – TRAVELING THE MOST MAGNIFICENT ROAD IN THE WORLD

The best way to get around Icefields Parkway is by renting a car. There are also buses that pass through but the most beautiful road in the world goes beyond the main points of interest where the bus cannot stop.

The Icefields Parkway has unmarked viewpoints that will urge you to stop the car and admire the pristine nature of the Canadian Rockies.

everything you need to know about the icefield parkway

Also apart from the viewpoints. at any time a bear, deer or other animals may appear either across the road or areas by the road. The good thing about traveling the Icefields Parkway by car is you have the freedom to stop whenever you spot some of the most enchanting Canadian Rockies wildlife.

the most scenic drive icefields parkway canada

As animal encounters are common, the maximum speed along the Icefields Parkway is 55mph. However, in some places, there may be signs of reduced speed ahead like in areas that are known to be natural crossing paths for caribous, which is a specie of deer that is practically extinct.

The Icefields Parkway is open all year round, although during winter it may close occasionally due to weather conditions. During this season, chains on winter tires are mandatory.

top things to do in icefields parkway canada

It is strongly advised that you either visit the Banff or Jasper Visitor Centers to get the Guide to the Icefields Parkway. Especially the Guide of Things to Do in the Icefields Parkway in the summer as it includes a map that is very useful in your journey.

You can download it here.

TOP STOPS IN THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY

Before going deeper into the best things on the Icefields Parkway, here are ten reasons why you should go through this road if you’re visiting the Canadian Rockies:

  1. Bow Lake
  2. Peyto Lake
  3. Waterfowl Lakes
  4. Mistaya Canyon
  5. Bridal Veil Falls
  6. Athabasca Glacier
  7. Tangle Creek Falls
  8. Sunwapta Falls
  9. Athabasca Falls
  10. Valley of the Five Lakes

BEST THINGS TO DO IN THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY – BANFF AREA

In this section, we will discuss the best things to do in the Icefields Parkway related to Banff National Park in the order that you find them traveling from South towards North.

BOW LAKE

The first lake you will find is Bow Lake at the foot of the majestic Crowfoot Mountain.

main attractions icefields parkway canada

The views are so overwhelming that it’s a must stop that people make to enjoy a picnic.

what to do at the icefields parkway in winter

You will want to stop at this lake again and again. The most spectacular view is at night when the Milky Way seems to come out from behind the Crowfoot Mountain.

main stops in the icefields parkway things to do

The Canadian Rockies offer some of the best dark skies in North America, so if you want to try taking night photographs I suggest you read the Guide to Learning how to photograph the Milky Way

Another magical scene that you might experience around the lake may be moments when you see grizzly bears roaming the plains.

Do not miss our guide to avoiding bear attacks in Canada.

top stops to do at the icefields parkway

If you look at the previous image, you will see a part of the Crowfoot Glacier partially illuminated over the mountains.

PEYTO LAKE

However, if there is a lake that is even more beautiful, it’s Peyto Lake, the next thing to see on the Icefields Parkway.

As it is a glacial lake, in the summer months it is painted in beautiful and unique blue colors different from any other lakes.

peyto lake must stop in icefields parkway

You will want to visit this lake again and again… and again! To get there you need to walk the 20-minute trail to reach the viewpoint, Bow Summit. Its wolf head shape is a wonder of nature that you must contemplate in detail.

If traveling in May, the use of crampons is highly recommended to trek the icy path. However, it’s during this month that allows you to witness one spectacular phenomena: the melting of Peyto Lake.

The following photographs were taken five days apart between the end of May and the beginning of June.

best place to stay close to the icefields parkway

Peyto lake guide to the icefields parkway

Undoubtedly, the best time of day to visit this lake is at sunset when the light turns the entire valley into gold.

best sunset from the icefields parkway

WATERFOWL LAKES – HOWSE PEAK

The next lake to see on the Icefields Parkway is Waterfowl Lakes, at the foot of Howse Peak.

best lakes to visit from the icefields parkway

This peak has a characteristic pyramid shape that makes it outstanding.  It’s another fantastic stop for lunch.  You  probably will share the parking lot with RVs and tourists taking the  Parkway Road trip.

MISTAYA CANYON

Another interesting place to see on the Icefields Parkway is the Mistaya Canyon. Getting to this wonderful canyon is very easy since it is only a couple of minutes from the car park. This means that during peak hours it is full of tourists, so if you want to take good pictures without crowds, its recommended that you visit first thing in the morning.

mistaya canyon icefields parkway canada

The water that molds the Mistaya canyon has a pale blue-green color coming from the melting glacier.

best time to visit the icefields parkway

BIG HILL & BIG BEND

At one point the Icefields Parkway suddenly gains elevation. This is where we get one of the best views on the road, at the Big Hill & Big Bend.

tips to travel to the icefields parkway canada big bend & big hill

big bend & big hill top things you cannot miss at the icefields parkway

To some, the most mountainous areas of the Icefields Parkway is also the most spectacular.

tips to visit the icefields parkway

BRIDAL VEIL FALLS

Immediately after passing a sharp turn you must stop again to see another wonder of the Icefields Parkway, the Bridal Veil Falls which is a waterfall you can enjoy from the road.

bridal veil falls canada icefields parkway

TOP THINGS TO DO IN THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY – JASPER AREA

At this point, the Icefields Parkway enters the Jasper National Park. In this section, you must focus on the things you have to do on the Icefields Parkway related to Jasper National Park.

ATHABASCA GLACIER

The Columbia Icefield is the most significant ice mass in the Canadian Rockies with an extension of over one hundred and twenty-four square miles.   From here comes the name of the road we are talking about in this article. This ice field feeds other glaciers such as the Athabasca Glacier, the Columbia Glacier, and the Saskatchewan Glacier.

Glaciers are masses of ice formed by the weight of snow.  In winter, the precipitations are very abundant, forming layers of very thick snow that its weight results in solidification. In the spring, part of this ice is thawed feeding the lakes of the Canadian Rockies and the rivers that in this case flow to three oceans, the Pacific Ocean, the Arctic Ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean.

The best way to get to know the Columbia Ice Field is through one of its glaciers, the Athabasca Glacier, as it is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. This tongue of ice is thousands of years old and has an area of four square miles.

There are two options to visit this glacier. First, is to park just below the glacier and make a small route that takes you closer to it. Walking on the ice is forbidden because there might be hidden gaps where you could fall down and hurt yourself.

 athabasca glacier best things to do at the icefields parkway

The other option is to hire a tour in the Columbia Icefields Discovery Center in front of the glacier but on the other side of the road. This tour includes a ride by Ice Explorers. These 6-wheeled SUVs are entirely designed to move on the ice of the glacier. In addition, the guide will allow you to get off the vehicle to walk on the glacier in a safe area.

You can do this activity from mid-April to mid-October. The price is 100 CAD or 90 CAD if purchased 48 hours in advance.

GLACIER SKYWALK

With the Ice Explorer tour ticket, you will also have access to the Glacier Skywalk. A platform with a glass floor, hanging on the edge of a cliff, where you can enjoy impressive views of the Sunwapta Valley.

If you only want to do this activity, the price is 34 CAD or 31 CAD if purchased 48 hours in advance.

TANGLE CREEK FALLS

Next on the Icefields Parkway does not even require you to get out of the car. It is the beautiful Tangle Creek Falls that is practically on the highway.

tangle creek falls travel guide icefields parkway

SUNWAPTA FALLS

If you are to choose the most photogenic and unique waterfall on the Icefields Parkway it would probably be this next one, the Sunwapta Falls.

To get there, you must walk a half a mile path from the parking lot.

sunwapta falls best things to do at the icefields parkway

This waterfall, only 62 feet high, was formed thanks to the waters coming from the Athabasca Glacier. However, its main attraction is the small island of trees just before the falls.

ATHABASCA FALLS

The next waterfall to see on the Parkway is the Athabasca Falls.

In this case, the most eye-catching thing is how water carved the stone, shaping incredible vertical walls.

athabasca falls top stops at the icefields parkway

Along with its path are different viewpoints on both sides of the Athabasca River.

This waterfall is 78 feet high and takes in plenty of water throughout the year, even at the end of summer making it a place that should not be missed by anyone traveling across the Icefield Parkway.

athabasca falls icefields parkway itinerary

VALLEY OF THE FIVE LAKES

Finally, just before reaching the town of Jasper, you will find the Valley of the Five Lakes.

valley of the five lakes icefields parkway canada

It takes about 3 miles to visit these five green water lakes.  For trekkers, it is the best hike on the Icefields Parkway.

valley of where to sleep at the icefields parkway canada

It is a perfect excursion to do on a sunny day, as you will enjoy the different bright colors of the lakes.

icefields parkway from Banff to jasper

Although the level of difficulty for this trekking is medium to low, high shoes and good repellent is recommended if you visit the lakes during the summer.

top things to do in the icefields parkway valley of the five lakes

OTHER THINGS TO SEE IN ICEFIELDS PARKWAY

In addition to all the main tourist spots on the Icefields Parkway, there are thousands of other unnamed places that will make you want to pull over and see in more detail. Below you can find some of these spots.

icefields parkway most scenic drive road

OLD ICEFIELDS PARKWAY

There is a very sharp curve in the Icefields Parkway  just before the hill where you can see Big Hill and Big Bend.  If you come from Banff  going up, you will see that on the left side there is a small path going down.  If you come from Jasper you will find it on the right. You can leave the car there as the old road is blocked by granite rocks. You will have to cross a small stream.

where to stay in the icefields parkway hotel width=

The path is an old road built by the American Navy. On the way you will pass by a bridge that dates from 1938 and by an old car that crashed at some point in the past.

drive the icefields parkway by car width=

We do not know where this road came from as there is very little information about it. If you go through it you will think it could be an old section of the Icefields Parkway but you will see that it was a road leading to the Saskatchewan glacier where American soldiers tried modern vehicles to walk on the ice.

ABRAHAM LAKE

Although Abraham Lake does not belong to either Banff National Park or Jasper National Park, it’s believed that a visit to this lake is a must if you’re to drive along the Icefields Parkway.

best lake close to icefields parkway

In summer time it can go unnoticed as any other deep blue lake like those found throughout the Canadian Rockies.

abraham lake big horn sheep icefields parkway

However, during  winter, it is worth a visit to this lake.

visit Abraham lake from the icefields parkway canada

During the freezing of the lake, methane bubbles freeze creating a very peculiar phenomenon. You can observe the different gas bubbles trapped in different layers of ice, even though it seems fragile, you can walk through the ice safely. You can see this phenomenon here.

Wildlife AT THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY

Finally, another thing you must do on the Icefields Parkway is to open your eyes wide. The surroundings of the most beautiful road in the world is full of life.

wildlife black bear icefields parkway canada

Black bears, grizzly bears, mountain goats, deer, caribou, mountain lions, big-horned sheep, moose and hundreds of different birds. Undoubtedly the best time to travel the Icefields Parkway if you want to enjoy the wildlife is at dawn and dusk.  It’s during these times that the animals will be more active.

Don’t forget to check out the small streams by the road since it is common to find animals drinking water.

moose at the icefields parkway animals width=

And please drive carefully. Unfortunately, crashes with animals are very common on this road. Remember that they are at their home and you are the intruder.

To find out all the animals you can find, do not miss our list of wildlife in the Canadian Rockies.

In addition, as in any place where there are wild animals, having good insurance is very important. Here I tell you how to get the cheapest travel insurance.

WHERE TO STAY IN THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY

Although you can travel the entire 144 miles in a day, It is not recommended. There are many things to see on the Icefields Parkway so take at least two days to explore it.

everything you need to know before visiting icefields parkway

Below you will find accommodations where you can stay in the Icefields Parkway, from Banff National Park to Jasper National Park.

HI-MOSQUITO CREEK HOSTEL

You can stay at the Mosquito Creek Campground if traveling at the end of May, most campsites on the Icefields Parkway will still be closed. Next to this campsite, you will find the Hi-Mosquito Creek Hostel. It’s one of the most affordable places where to stay in Banff.

The hostel offers both private rooms and a 12-bed shared room, priced at €28 per bed. If traveling with a low budget you can choose this option.

The downside of this hostel is that it does not have showers, but it does have a wood-burning sauna. You can book it here.

NUM-TI-JAH LODGE

You can take a break in the living room of this historic lodge. However, talking about accommodation on the Icefields Parkway and not mentioning the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge is a sin.

This mountain cabin was built by an English explorer even before the Icefields Parkway was built. Jimmy Simpson who arrived in Canada in 1896 worked as a mountain guide in the Canadian Rockies for scientists, artists, hunters, and mountaineers.

In love with Bow Lake, he promised himself that he would build a hotel here and, according to his resolution, it was opened in 1940 as a hotel with 6 rooms. The accommodation is practically the same as when it was opened to the public, being a favorite hotel for travelers on a larger budget. You can book it here.

SUNWAPTA FALLS ROCKY MOUNTAIN LODGE

Know beforehand that you will want to photograph the Sunwapta Falls at night.  You can book a room at the Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge, as it is only half a mile from the waterfall. It’s one of the best places to stay in Jasper.

 sunwapta falls icefields parkway canada

The rooms are good with a fireplace next to the bed. You only pay €150 per night. You can make your reservation here.

If checking in, keep in mind that the Wi-Fi connection is very poor. The hotel is in a remote place so take advantage to disconnect and reconnect with nature.

Something to remark about this hotel is the board that they have at the reception where it shows the last wildlife sightings in the area. The map has a lot of pins of different colors that everyone who passes can update. Each color is a different species: wolves, moose, goats, bears, etc. If you are interested in seeing animals, I suggest you stop by this hotel to have an eye on the map even if you are not going to stay here.

WAPITI CAMPGROUND

The Wapiti Campground is located on the banks of the Athabasca River. It is at the end of the Icefields Parkway but at the entrance of Jasper town. You don’t have to stay here while driving across the Icefields while exploring Jasper.

The campsite has showers, bonfire facilities and is also an area frequently visited by bears so you can find traps like the one in the following image.

bear tramp icefields parkway canada

The price is €19 per night. You can book from here.

TIPS FOR DRIVING THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY

There is a single gas station on the Icefields Parkway. This is in The Crossing Resort halfway between the town of Lake Louise and Jasper. However, the price of fuel here is much higher than refueling before taking the Icefields Parkway.

Below you can find the gas prices in Lake Louise in May 2017.

gas price at icefields parkway

Do not to forget to fill your tank before embarking on your adventure through the Icefields Parkway!

ICEFIELDS PARKWAY MAP

To finish this guide of things to see in the Icefields Parkway, a map is attached with all the places that you cannot miss.

If you want to use this Icefields Parkway on your mobile offline:

  • Download the Mapswithme app on your phone.
  • Download and save the following KML file in your Dropbox.

icefield parkway map for printing

 

  • Open the file via Dropbox from your cell phone. You will get a dialog box where you must select open with the Mapswithme application (Maps.me)
GREAT! YOU ARE ALREADY PREPARED TO DISCOVER ALL THE WONDERS THAT THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY HAS PREPARED FOR YOU.

COFOUNDER & TRAVEL JUNKIE

Hi, I'm Ascen, a globetrotter based in Philadelphia, USA. I enjoy exploring new landscapes and creating in-depth travel guides for Capture the Atlas.

I have felt a special connection with nature and all the inhabitants of the planet since I was a kid. I am passionate about discovering new countries and especially their wildlife, but no matter how many places I visit, I will always belong to the remote beaches of Almería, in Southern Spain.

You can know a little more about me here.

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