The splendour of the Icefields Parkway (Hwy-93) can hardly be overstated: a 230km road from Lake Louise to Jasper through the heart of the Rockies, it ranks as one of the world’s best drives. Its unending succession of huge peaks, immense glaciers, iridescent lakes, wildflower meadows, wildlife and forests – capped by the stark grandeur of the Columbia Icefield – can be almost overwhelming. Although about a million people a year take this route, for the most part you can go your own way in relative serenity.

You could drive the whole highway in about four hours, but to do so would be to miss out on the panoply of short (and long) trails, viewpoints and the chance to soak up the incredible scenery. If you want to make a day-trip of the Icefields Parkway, your best bet is to go just as far as the Columbia Icefield, the highlight for many, then turn back, since the landscape is a touch less dramatic along the northern half of the road. A free pamphlet from Parks Canada visitor centres provides a detailed map and summary of all sights and trailheads, and bus tours along the route are available (see Glacier tours).

Brief history

Fur traders and Aboriginal people who used the route as far back as 1800 reputedly christened it the “Wonder Trail”, though they tended to prefer the Pipestone River Valley to the east as it avoided the swamps and other hazards of the Bow Valley. The present highway was only completed in 1939 and opened in 1940 as part of a Depression-era public-works programme.

Glacier tours

Brewster’s Ice Explorers run 1hr 30min, 5km rides over the glacier in custom buses, with a chance to get out and walk safely on the ice (daily every 15–30min: April & Oct 10am–4pm, depending on the weather; May & Sept 9am–5pm; June–Aug 9am–6pm; $55; book at the Icefield Centre or call t 780 852 6550). They’re heavily subscribed, so aim to avoid the peak midday rush by taking a tour before 10.30am or after 3pm.

More dedicated types can sign up for the two Athabasca Glacier ice walks (mid-June to early Sept daily at 9.40am; $75–105; t 780 852 5595, w icewalks.com), led by licensed guides. Sign up online or at the front desk of the Icefield Centre – be sure to bring warm clothes, boots and provisions.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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