The Icefields Parkway, it’s been called by many outlets (including National Geographic, who also named it as one of Canada’s Top 50 Places to see in a lifetime) one of the ‘World’s Most Scenic Drives.’ It’s not hard to see why it has gained such an epic reputation. Having driven on The Milford Sound Road, (another one of the ‘World’s Most Scenic Drives‘) we can confidently say…
the Icefields Parkway can compare and has earned its spot on such a list.
Connecting Lake Louise and Jasper, two naturally beautiful powerhouses in their own right, the Icefields Parkway (also known as Highway 93) is a whopping 232km (144 miles) long. It meanders through and past glaciated mountain peaks, turquoise blue lakes, waterfalls and the spectacular and popular Athabasca Glacier – part of the Columbia Icefield. To top it off, there is a plethora of wildlife that can be seen along the highway. Everything from Moose to Elk, to Bears. There is certainly no shortage of things to do and see. So if you thought Canada was only made up of large animals and kind people constantly saying “Eh?” and eating maple syrup and poutine – you were sorely mistaken!
The entire highway through Banff National Park and Jasper National Park can be done in one day and should take around three hours. But we do recommend taking an entire day at least to try and get it done. Because you will be making quite a few stops and perhaps even enjoy a few short hikes throughout the day. Around every corner is another place to stop the car, pull over, get out, snap a few photos, and reattach your jaw from hanging open. While you are going to want to stop at every single one of these, you can make the most of your time by stopping at our Top 5 places along the Icefields Parkway.
Bow Lake is one of the first stops along the Icefields Parkway when you start from Lake Louise heading north towards Jasper. A mere 38km north from Lake Louise. It’s pretty hard to miss, especially because of the massive amount of people that typically pull over to stop at this spot. But trust us, it’s worth it! There are plenty of places you can pull over and see this 3.2km long lake, the most popular being the parking lot near the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. If you’re feeling like doing a small hike, there is one that begins just after the lodge and is signed Bow Glacier Falls and is roughly 4.6KM one-way. It’s a pretty easy hike with a small elevation gain of 180m.
Bow Lake lines the Icefields Parkway and is south of Bow Summit. The lake is fed by meltwater from the Bow Glacier, which is what gives it that perfect blue colour it is so famous for.
The next stop along the Icefields Parkway is one of the most famous stops, Peyto Lake. (One of the five lakes we recommend checking out in Banff National Park). This wolf shaped lake is only a five-minute drive further north from Bow Lake. Another glacial lake, Peyto is well signed and easy to spot while driving north on the Icefields Parkway. There is a dedicated parking lot for visitors to the area. There is a short hike to reach Bow Summit to view the gloriously blue lake. It’s fairly easy at a short 1.5km round trip and is partially paved.
The lake is fed by Peyto Creek which drains water from both Caldron Lake and Peyto Glacier. Peyto Glacier is part of the Wapta Icefield, which is ‘home’ to four different glaciers. Its blue colour comes from a significant amount of rock flour that flows into the lake. Rock flour is fine-grained particles of rock that are created by the grinding of bedrock by glacial erosion or artificial grinding. These rock particles are suspended in the water and reflect light to great such a spectacular turquoise blue.
An hour further north you’ll find arguably one of the most well-known places along the Icefields Parkway. It sits along the Continental Divide, partly in British Columbia and Alberta, and partly in Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. Being the largest Icefield in the Rocky Mountains of North America it is a whopping 325 square kilometers. It also can receive upwards of seven metres of snowfall a year! Basically…it’s YUGE.
It also feeds eight different glaciers!
Columbia Icefield is extremely hard to miss the Icefield for two reasons; one it’s right off the Icefields Parkway and two, it’s a massive ice sheet. Not to mention the large buildings and copious amount of vehicles. What are these large buildings? The Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, where you can book a glacial tour to actually walk on the Icefield itself, more specifically the Athabasca Glacier. If you book this tour (which isn’t cheap) you’ll hop on board a massive Ice Explorer vehicle which will drive you up on to the glacier. You’ll be able to get off the vehicle and walk around the glacier and experience one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world.
The next stop along the Icefields Parkway (around 45 minutes north of the Columbia Icefield) is Sunwapta Falls. The access road is right off the Icefields Parkway and signed really well so you can’t miss it. The falls themselves are around 18.5 meters and are best after the snow melts in spring. The water that powers these falls originate from the Athabasca Glacier. There is a small island of trees right before the upper falls that make this place even more beautiful.
There are technically the upper and lower falls, most people only end up seeing the upper falls. But if you choose to see the lower falls it’s a short 1.2km trail through the forest along the gorge.
Even closer to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway is Athabasca Falls. These falls aren’t particularly known for a drastic drop, but rather for the massive volumes of water that flow. They are stunning none-the-less. The sheer power of these falls is miraculous and will take your breath away. You can feel the water spray up on you as you walk along the interpretive trail.
This area is very slippery, so you really want to be safe, careful and stay on all marked trails. There are plenty of concrete bridges and awesome staircases that will help you really see these falls from various angles.
Bonus: Saskatchewan River Crossing
The Saskatchewan River Crossing is one of those places along the Icefields Parkway that a lot of people only stop at because there’s a bathroom. And no…we aren’t kidding! We saw over 30 people at the smaller highway pull-off location stopped for a bathroom break. Yet only two people actually walk to the end of the dirt path to take in the view. But it’s completely worth the short walk! Full of history and beautiful views, a bathroom break is just an added bonus.
It’s located between Peyto Lake and the Columbia Icefield. The name ‘The Crossing’ comes from the 19th century when travelers and fur traders used the spot to cross the North Saskatchewan River while trekking to British Columbia. The site itself is a blend of mountains, rivers, marsh land, and greenery. It’s one of those viewpoints that looks straight from a painting. Not to mention there are over 14 different hikes that begin from the area, more specifically from The Crossing Resort. The Crossing Resort is just off the Icefields Parkway and is typically closed in the winter. If you want to view some of the hikes check them out on the resort’s website here.
And there you have it! A guide to driving the Icefields Parkway. These spots are the reason that this highway is always remarked as one of the most spectacular drives in the world. So you’re going to want to make sure you charge your camera! And perhaps get those hiking boots ready to go!