The Icefields Parkway is one of the most scenic drives in the world. Across its over 144 miles, you will find more than 100 glaciers, blue lakes, impressive waterfalls, and stunning canyons.
It is not surprising that in 1984 it was included in the List of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
This road, which links Banff National Park with Jasper National Park in the province of Alberta, is not only the best way to reach many of the must-see sites of the Canadian Rockies, but it is one of the most important attractions by itself.
To drive the Highway 93, better known as Icefields Parkway, you will need to pay a ticket or to get the annual Discovery Pass. This option will save you a lot of money if you are traveling through the Canadian Rockies since it will give you access to all the National Parks and their activities.
ICEFIELDS PARKWAY – TRAVELING THE MOST BEAUTIFUL ROAD IN THE WORLD
The best way to get around the Icefields Parkway is by renting a car. There are some buses that pass through it but the most beautiful road in the world goes beyond the main points of interest where the bus can stop.
The Icefields Parkway has unmarked viewpoints that will urge you to stop your car and admire the pristine nature of the Canadian Rockies.
Also, apart from the viewpoints, at any time a bear, deer or any other animal may appear, either across the road or in areas by the road. The good thing about traveling the Icefields Parkway by car is to have the freedom to stop when this happens to spot some of the mosr incredible Canadian Rockies wildlife.
As these encounters are common, the maximum speed along the Icefields Parkway is 55mp/h. However, in some specific points, there may be signs announcing a reduction in speed, for example in an area known to be a natural crossing area of caribous, a species of deer that is practically extinct.
The Icefields Parkway is open all year round, although in winter it closes occasionally depending on the weather conditions. During this season chains or winter tires are mandatory.
I strongly advise you to either visit the Banff or Jasper Visitor Center to get the Guide to the Icefields Parkway. Especially the guide of things to do in the Icefields Parkway in summer, as it includes a map that will be very useful in your journey.
You can download it here.
TOP STOPS IN THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY
Before diving deeper into the best things to do in the Icefields Parkway, I’ll give you ten reasons to go through this road if you visit the Canadian Rockies:
- Bow Lake
- Peyto Lake
- Waterfowl Lakes
- Mistaya Canyon
- Bridal Veil Falls
- Athabasca Glacier
- Tangle Creek Falls
- Sunwapta Falls
- Athabasca Falls
- Valley of the Five Lakes
TOP THINGS TO DO IN THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY – BANFF AREA
In this section, we will talk a little more about the things to do in the Icefields Parkway related to Banff National Park in the order that you will find them traveling from south towards north.
The first lake that we can find is Bow Lake at the foot of the majestic Crowfoot Mountain.
The views are overwhelming, so it’s a stop that many people make to enjoy a picnic.
We stopped at this lake up to three times. The most spectacular was at night when the Milky Way seemed to come out from behind the Crowfoot Mountain.
The Canadian Rockies offer some of the best dark skies in North America, so if you want to try to shoot some night photographs I suggest you read our Guide to Learning how to photograph the Milky Way
Another magical scene that we experienced in this lake was the moment when we saw a grizzly bear in the surroundings.
Do not miss our guide to avoiding bear attacks in Canada.
If you look at the previous image, you can also see part of the Crowfoot Glacier, partially illuminated over the mountains.
However, there is a lake that in our opinion is even more beautiful, Peyto Lake, our next thing to see on the Icefields Parkway.
As it is a glacial lake, in the summer months it is painted in a beautiful and unique blue color different from any other lake,
We visited this lake 4 times during out trip. 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.
Traveling in May, the use of crampons is highly recommended to travel the icy path. However, this month allowed us to witness one of the most 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.
Undoubtedly, the best time of the day to visit this lake is at sunset, when the light turns all the valley into gold.
WATERFOWL LAKES – HOWSE PEAK
The next lake you have to see on the Icefields Parkway is Waterfowl Lakes, at the foot of Howse Peak.
This peak has a characteristic pyramid shape that makes it unmistakable. In addition, it is usually another regular stop for lunch, so you probably share the parking lot with RVs and tourists taking an Icefields Parkway Roadtrip.
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, I recommend you visit it first thing in the morning.
The water that molds the Mistaya canyon has a pale blue-green color coming from the melting glacier.
BIG HILL & BIG BEND
At one point the Icefields Parkway starts to suddenly gain elevation. This is where we can get one of the best views of the road, at the Big Hill & Big Bend.
For me, the most mountainous area of the Icefields Parkway is also the most spectacular.
BRIDAL VEIL FALLS
Immediately after passing a sharp turn we have to stop again to see another wonder of the Icefields Parkway, the Bridal Veil Falls, a waterfall we can enjoy from the same road.
TOP THINGS TO DO IN THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY – JASPER AREA
After this point, the Icefields Parkway enters the Jasper National Park. In this section, we will focus on the things you have to do on the Icefields Parkway related to Jasper National Park.
The Columbia Icefield is the most significant ice mass in the Canadian Rockies with an extension of over 124 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 which 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 thousands of years old has an area of four square miles.
We have two options to visit it. The first is to park just below the glacier and make a small route that takes you closer to it. Walking on the ice, in this case, is forbidden because there might be hidden gaps where you could fall down to a likely death.
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.
With the Ice Explorer tour ticket, we will also have access to the Glacier Skywalk. A platform with a glass floor, hanging on the edge of a cliff, where we 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
The next thing to see on the Icefields Parkway does not even require you to get out of the car. It is the beautiful Tangle Creek Falls that are practically on the highway.
However, if we had to choose the most photogenic and unique waterfall on the Icefields Parkway with no doubt it would be the next one, the Sunwapta Falls.
To get there, you only have to walk a half a mile path from the parking lot.
This waterfall, only 62 feet high, is formed thanks to the waters coming from the Athabasca Glacier. However, its main attraction is the small island of trees just before the falls.
The following waterfalls to see on the Icefield Parkway are the Athabasca Falls.
In this case, the most eye-catching thing is how water has carved the stone, shaping incredible vertical walls.
Along the path, there are different viewpoints on both sides of the Athabasca River.
This waterfall, 78 feet high, takes plenty of water throughout the year, even at the end of summer, making it a place that can not be missed by anyone traveling across the Icefield Parkway.
VALLEY OF THE FIVE LAKES
Finally, just before reaching the town of Jasper, we found the Valley of the Five Lakes.
It takes about 3 miles to visit these five green water lakes. For us, it was the best hike on the Icefields Parkway.
It is a perfect excursion to do on a sunny day, as we will enjoy the different bright colors of the lakes.
Although the level of difficulty of this trekking is medium/low, high shoes and a good repellent are recommended if you visit the lakes during the summer.
OTHER THINGS TO SEE IN THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY
In addition to all the main and touristy spots on the Icefields Parkway, there are thousands of other unnamed places that will make you pull over to see them in more detail. Below you can find some of those spots.
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 we come from Banff, going up, we will see that on the left there is a small path going down. If we come from Jasper we will find it on the right. You can leave the car there, as this old road is blocked by granite rocks. You will have to cross a small stream.
The path is an old road built by the American Navy. On the way, we will pass by a bridge that dates from 1938 and by an old car that crashed at some time in the past.
We do not know where this road came from as there is very little information about it. When we went through it, we thought it would be an old section of the Icefields Parkway, but after looking into more information, we saw that it was a road leading to the Saskatchewan glacier where American soldiers tried modern vehicles to walk on the ice.
Although Abraham Lake does not belong to either Banff National Park or Jasper National Park, we believe that a visit to this lake is a must if you drive along the Icefields Parkway.
In summer it can go unnoticed as any other deep blue lake like those found throughout the Canadian Rockies.
However, during the winter, it is worth the visit to this lake.
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 have to do on the Icefields Parkway is to open your eyes wide. The surroundings of the most beautiful road in the world are full of life.
Black bears, grizzly bears, mountain goats, deer, caribou, mountain lions, big-horned sheep, moose, 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. At this time the animals will be more active.
Don’t forget to check the small streams by the road, since it is common to find animals drinking water.
And please, drive carefully. Unfortunately, crashes with animals are very common on this road. Remember that they are at home and that you are the intruder.
If you want to know all the animals you can find, do not miss our list of wildlife in the Canadian Rockies.
WHERE TO STAY IN THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY
Although we can travel the 144 miles in a day, I do not recommend it. There are many things to see on the Icefields Parkway so take at least two days to explore it.
Below you will find the accommodations where we stayed in the Icefields Parkway, from Banff National Park to Jasper National Park.
HI-MOSQUITO CREEK HOSTEL
Our idea was to stay at the Mosquito Creek Campground, but since we were traveling at the end of May, most campsites on the Icefields Parkway were still closed. Next to this campsite, we can find the Hi-Mosquito Creek Hostel.
The hostel offered both private rooms and a 12-bed shared room, priced at € 28 per bed. As we were traveling with a low budget we chose 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.
We took a small 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
As we knew beforehand that we wanted to photograph the Sunwapta Falls at night, we booked a room at the Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge, as it is only half a mile from the waterfall.
The room was quite good, with a fireplace next to the bed. We paid € 150 per night. You can make your reservation here.
If you’re staying, keep in mind that the WiFi connection is very poor. The hotel is in a remote place so take advantage to disconnect and reconnect with nature.
Something to remark of 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.
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. We did not stay here while driving across the Icefields Parkway but the three days we were exploring Jasper.
The campsite has showers, bonfires facilities and is also an area frequented by bears so you can find traps like the one in the following image.
The price was € 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 located 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.
Do not to forget to fill the tank before embarking on your route through the Icefields Parkway!
ICEFIELDS PARKWAY MAP
To finish this guide of things to see in the Icefields Parkway, here we attached the map with all the places that you can not 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.
- Open the file via Dropbox from your cell phone. You will get a dialog box where you have to select open with the Mapswithme application (Maps.me)