The Icefields Parkway is a breathtaking 144-mile drive situated between Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada. The journey along Highway 93, the Icefields Parkway, is listed in National Geographic’s Drives of a Lifetime and with good reason. The wild beauty of the Canadian Rockies will blow you away! You’re sure to feel like just a speck among the rugged, rocky giants surrounding you on all sides.
Quite simply, the Icefields Parkway drive is a can’t miss on your Canadian Rockies itinerary.
Why You Should Drive the Icefields Parkway +
Trip Planning Tips
This spectacular drive winds its way through the jagged mountain peaks of the Canadian Rockies. Past glaciers feeding brilliantly blue lakes that manage to look both shimmering and milky. Luckily, the Icefields Parkway Canada was built complete with numerous pull-off points to stop and take in the beauty around you.
With a must-pull-over-to-take-a-photo moment every 10 feet and the possibility of spotting wildlife around every turn, it’s best to go all out tourist and wear your camera around your neck as you drive.
Icefields Parkway Map
Before setting off on your Icefields Parkway road trip, pick up a map in the Banff Tourism office along Banff Avenue, the main street through town. You can also get one at the start of the drive in Lake Louise.
If you prefer a digital copy of a map, Parks Canada has one available online.
Or, before your trip, download an app like Icefields Parkway GPS Tour Lake Louise – Jasper by GyPSy Guide. It plays automatically and uses GPS to know where you are. Along the way, it narrates what you’re seeing as you drive. It’s worth the few dollars to have a “personal” tour guide in the car with you.
Lastly, if you haven’t paid the park entry fees in Banff, you’ll need to do so in Lake Louise at the start of the Icefields Parkway drive. You can purchase passes based on the number of days you plan to be in Banff and Jasper National Parks.
Icefields Parkway Points of Interest
There are plenty of Icefields Parkway stops where you can take in the wild natural beauty and explore.
Early on in the drive, you’ll want to stop to see Crowfoot Glacier and Bow Lake. There’s also a trailhead at Bow Lake to see the Bow Glacier and Bow Glacier Falls. The hike is moderately easy and just about 5.5 miles round trip.
You’ll need to plan ahead for any of the Icefields Parkway hikes. Obviously, you’ll want to be dressed appropriately and have the right hiking gear. But even more importantly, beware of your timing. If you’re planning to spend just 1 day on the Icefields Parkway, make sure you have enough daylight for everything on your to-do list. Otherwise, spread out your visit over a few days.
Continuing on, you’ll arrive at a must-see along the Icefields Parkway, Peyto Lake. It comes early in the drive, with a well-marked parking lot. You can walk from your car in about 10 minutes along a paved path leading to the lake’s viewing platform.
It’s at this point you’ll begin to shake your head in disbelief at the silky, turquoise in front of you! Surrounded by evergreens, mountains, and glacier ice, you’ll seriously wonder if you’re looking at a real lake.
Back on the road and passing by several large mountain peaks, the Saskatchewan River Crossing is the next stop. It’s here the North Saskatchewan River meets the Howse and Mistaya Rivers. The snaking flow of the riverbed along this shallow, gravely stretch, with the mountains and evergreens all around is pretty spectacular. Whether you have time for just a quick stop, plan to hike the nearby trails, or want to stretch your legs for lunch in the picnic area, have your trigger finger on the camera!
Hiking along the Icefields Parkway is absolutely unforgettable. So, if you’re short on time and plan to do just 1 hike along the way, make it the Parker Ridge Trail.
The trailhead is past Coleman Creek but before the Columbia Icefields Centre.
Like Johnston Canyon in Banff, the trail is not long. But, it climbs a progressively steep, winding path. You don’t need any specific climbing gear, but I was glad I’d worn these shoes with great grip and long sleeves because it can be quite windy up there, even in summer!
I hiked it on my own and met plenty of fellow hikers, both ascending and descending, who were happy to chat and offer encouragement.
Once at the top, you’re rewarded with sweeping views of the Saskatchewan Glacier. I wouldn’t rush this spot. The alpine meadows make a perfect spot to find some grass and take in the vastness around you. Plan on 2 hours for the round trip and more if you plan to picnic or explore.
Traveling to the Canadian Rockies soon?
Pull back onto the Parkway from the Parker Ridge stop, head toward the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefields Centre, stopping as needed to take photos.
At the Icefields Centre, you can choose to take a ride out onto the Athabasca glacier to walk around. It’s the only Icefields Parkway glacier tour. It’s certainly a bit touristy. But, if you aren’t planning on ice climbing, this is your chance to get up close and personal with a glacier.
Glacier tours leave every 15-30 minutes from the Columbia Icefields Centre across the street and take 80 minutes. A specialized monster vehicle designed to handle the icy descent transports you to the glacier’s surface.
Not to worry! An informative, experienced (and witty) guide talks about glaciers and how Athabasca has and is changing to distract you. On the glacier’s surface, icy water runs from small streams of meltwater. Be sure to fill up your water bottle with this glacier goodness and drink up! Legend has it the water makes you look younger.
Keep in mind the Columbia Icefields weather will feel considerably chillier than even just across the street so bring an extra layer.
The experience finishes with the thrilling Icefields Parkway glacier walk. Stepping out onto this glass platform offers panoramic views of the Sunwapta Valley. This incredible bird’s eye view of the valley floor 918 feet below give you the chance to see wildlife, waterfalls, and the surrounding natural beauty from a totally unique vantage point.
At this point, you’ll be nearing the end of the Icefields Parkway. Before reaching the town of Jasper, stop to see Athabasca Falls. The raging water carves its way through a rocky gorge, swirling into caves and crashing into crevices. The plants along the cliffs are lush and leafy because of the steady mist spray.
Icefields Parkway Weather
The Icefields Parkway drive is most popular in summer. However, the parkway remains open year round except for sudden closures caused by things like heavy snow or avalanches making the road impassable.
Having visited Banff in winter and summer and driven the Icefields Parkway in both seasons as well, it’s important to understand the weather can change at a moment’s notice. You’re in the mountains at higher elevations and even when you expect it to be a warm summer day, you could find yourself needing pants or long sleeves.
No matter which season you’re driving the Icefields Parkway, be prepared.
- Always drive slowly and be careful of wildlife near the road.
- There’s only 1 main rest area along the Icefields Parkway with a gas station. As you can imagine, prices are high. Plan to gas up in the Lake Louise area or in Jasper before setting off. This service area closes in the winter.
- There’s very little in the way of food along the Icefields Parkway and what is available tends to be fairly expensive. Buy prepared food and water in Banff, the Lake Louise area or in Jasper to take with you. Expect all lodging with food to be closed in the winter.
- The Icefields Parkway has little to no cell phone service. Plan to be disconnected while on your drive.
- In winter, mind all of the above. In addition, you must have a vehicle with snow tires for an Icefields Parkway winter. Check local road and weather reports before venturing out but understand Icefields Parkway road conditions can change in a moment. Dress for arctic temperatures. Bring or rent gear like snowshoes. They’re great for winter hikes and, in the event of an emergency, getting through deep snow. Have a plan for a sudden Icefields Parkway closure.
Icefields Parkway Camping and Icefields Parkway Hotels
Your journey on the Icefields Parkway should be savored and enjoyed. Depending on your stops, it’s probably best to camp at one of the many camping areas for a night. Or, alternatively, plan to stay at an Icefields Parkway accommodation.
The Icefields Parkway campgrounds are scattered along the drive. There are 11 sites in total, many of which are on a first come first serve basis. As mentioned above, you’ll need to stock up on food and supplies before getting on the Icefields Parkway.
Here are a few options to consider for your Icefields Parkway itinerary.
- Go as far as the Glacier View Inn across from the Columbia Icefields Centre. It’s a perfect stopping point before waking up fresh for Jasper National Park the next morning.
- If you’re interested in hiking several of the trails closer to the start of the drive, stay in a Lake Louise hotel like the Post Hotel and Spa.
- Similarly, from a hotel like the Mount Robson Inn in Jasper, you could get back on the Icefields Parkway to take advantage of the hikes closer to town.
Icefields Parkway Driving Guide
In order to plan your Icefields Parkway road trip, you need to know the distance and time between popular spots in the Canadian Rockies. The Columbia Icefields Centre is a top spot for Icefields Parkway day trippers and explorers alike so let’s use this as a point of reference. Driving times reflect the most direct route without stops.
- Banff to Columbia Icefields: 2 hours 20 minutes, 115 miles
- Jasper to Columbia Icefields: 1 hour 25 minutes, 64 miles (The Jasper Icefields Parkway proximity to one another make this the quickest way to access to drive.)
- Lake Louise to Columbia Icefields: 1 hour 50 minutes, 80 miles
- Calgary to Columbia Icefields: 3 hours 35 minutes, 193 miles
Is it necessary to do an Icefields Parkway Tour?
The short and easy answer is no. In the warmer months, the Icefields Parkway is well-maintained, paved, and marked with plenty of informational signage. You’ll also have the ability to explore, hike, and take photos at your own pace.
If you’d rather go with a group and/or have a local guide, there are day tours like this Jasper Icefields tour that’ll take you to several Icefields Parkway attractions without the hassle of driving your own car.
So, are you planning an Icefields Parkway drive?
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