In my years as a traveler, I’ve seen some truly breathtaking places and taken many amazing trips along the way but when I started driving down the Icefields Parkway a few days into my Canada road trip this winter, I knew the bar had been completely shattered.Stretching nearly 150 miles (232km per the official site), the Icefields Parkway is the direct route between the towns of Banff and Jasper, Alberta and cuts through the splendor of both national parks and showing off the literally dozens upon dozens of mountains, lakes and scenic vistas that live within their respective boundaries. Brochures and tour guides suggest that it’s a busy road in summer with numerous picnic points, campgrounds, a few tourist towns and the renound Columbia Visitor Center along the way but in winter, it becomes a completely different world: frigid outside, sketchy on the road, and desolate all around. For nearly 4 hours of straight driving, the Icefields Parkway exists without so much as a coffee shop or gas station to break at and yet it only serves to make the journey even more breathtaking. From the very start, it’s clear a winter tour of Icefields Parkway is a serious undertaking. The entrance to highway 93N from Canada 1 marked with a set of signs warning of minimal winter maintenance, hazardous conditions and even though it had been several days since the last real snowfall, poor conditions for our drive. It’s no exaggeration either; sub-freezing temps keep the surface of the road a hardened sheet of ice practically the entire way while overnight deep freezes turn even the slightest precip into sheets of top ice. To say it’s a road that needs some planning is an understatement — not just with the obvious food and water for a long day’s journey but cold weather gear, signals and a way to survive should the weather turn or your car go sideways. The upside of winter is the tranquility across the parkway while the downside is certainly the access. Vista points and parking lots are buried under foot after foot of snow, even after the plows have had a chance to roll by for days. Yet the views are simply too good to pass up and thus require cautious stopping, a bit of planning, and many cold walks to find safe turnouts out of harms way and then trek back and forth. And if you’re looking for coffee, bring your jetboil — you won’t find a thing open along the road otherwise.
When I said the parkway raised the bar on road trip experiences, it was true from the start. It’s only a few minutes into the drive before frozen lakes and snowy peaks likes the ones I posted above above start to line the road. With the another traveler to keep me company and egg on even more photo stops, we must have pulled over a half dozen times to shoot or just look out at the wonderland around us in the first half hour. Eventually, as we got our fill of that landscape, we edged forward and slowly beginning to climb up towards one of the higher points, above 6,000′ as the road curves deep into Banff National Park.
What goes up must go down and what goes down is not all that fun when ice is involved. Slow speeds, gear shifting, tapping the breaks… I may climb snowy mountains in the Pacific Northwest frequently but driving a snow covered dirt road at 25 mph to get to them is nothing like driving an icy road at 50+ as Canadians do. None the less, with the experience of surviving an almost as insane road in the middle of a blizzard a few days earlier under my belt, we cruised on down to the river crossing at Mistaya River. Cold winds rip across the open plain putting the previous cool feeling to shame but the view was another moment that I won’t soon forget in a long string of amazing ones.
By the time we got back into the car from the photo stop at the river, we had been on the road for nearly 2 hours and were still just barely an hour into the drive. From this point on, sign posts for views begin to creep up (perhaps they existed before with too much snow or too many distractions to notice) marking the places to turn off. There are an infinite number of points on the road I’d stop at if I could drive it day after day but it seemed like any time we found a wooden post pointing up or across, the view it brought with it was doubly impressive.
After passing by several large vista points that were actually open [all with cold but functional restrooms too!], we came across the few marked shops that lie on the road. Sadly everything from the lodges to the gas station are completely closed in winter and we resigned ourselves to the reality that car food was going to have to be it for the day and started picking up the pace a bit to explore further north with the remaining hours of sun.
Of course nothing is ever straight forward on a road trip and shortly reaching the famous glacier fields, we found a half dozen cars pulled over on the road, trying to get one very stuck SUV out of the snow. After contributing to the effort with some snow removal thanks to my Black Diamond Transfer 7 Shovel, another driver was able to yank the car out of the ditch and we congratulated all ourselves for a proper Canadian road experience before heading on our way.Sitting just past the half way mark, around 125km into the drive, lies the Columbia Glacier Discovery Center and Glacier Fields. Why this building is closed in winter is beyond me — it’s an amazing looking facility and even low crowds would almost certainly stop off but I suppose getting a staff and supplies there is easier wished for than done. In any event, it’s the stop that had brought me to the icefield and we were set on exploring Athabasca Glacier with or without a visitor center’s suggestions.
In winter the road to the glacier viewing area is closed leaving a small parking lot and a decent walk down just to get to a decent view. Few signs suggested people had been out far any time recently but a tip on Instagram told me it was well worth the trek so off we went following what remained of the road over to the summer visitor hut and up to the viewing area. Caution tape and cones mark off much of the glacier as an “unsafe” area with the obvious risk of crevasses but there’s plenty to explore in the boundary. My travel companion for the day was unfortunately not a climber so truly my venturing out was limited though I’ll leave it at that and simply suggest you shouldn’t take a warning like this lightly if you’re not ready for what may lie ahead.
Even from a distance, the glacier is something else. I’ve climbed across several in the Pacific Northwest on treks but rarely get to see much blue ice and certainly not like at Athabasca or on the surrounding mountains which are lined with thick sheets of the stuff visible even from down at the road. Unreal and then some.After meandering back to the car, we took notice of the time, this far north and in winter, sunset comes mighty early and spend off north determined to cover the remainder of the road’s major sites before nightfall. Immediately past the visitor center and up a short cliff is the Glacier skywalk, an exciting if not frightful attraction in summer I’m sure, but snow covered and fenced over in winter — bummer! Of course it wasn’t long before we had a natural wonder to stop for again as a huge rock face popped up covered by the frozen remnants of a waterfall — the name of the mountain eludes me but it lies just before the Endless Chain, an aptly named series of peaks that seem to stack up on each other for miles and miles.
Passing by the endless chain of mountains (where sunlight made it near impossible to snag a solid photo), we reached the other destination I had heard so much about from other travelers and made our last long stop for the day at Athabasca Falls. A mere 23 meters high, it’s not the drop of the falls as much as the force, flow, and twisted canyon path that makes this waterfall such an epic experience. Just getting around it all requires wandering a long pathway (snow and ice covered in winter), over a bridge, under another and up and around to numerous vista points. While a few other cars were parked along the road when we pulled up, they were soon on their way leaving the place all to us for the start of sunset.
Departing from the falls, the peaks slow down a bit and the space between then increases but the road is almost over anyways. Don’t get me wrong, on any other trip it would still be mighty impressive view, but after so much before, we were less worried about losing light and limited stops as we rushed towards Jasper seeking hot food, the certainty of people and a gas station as night crept in. All said the road took us nearly 8 hours to traverse from Banff to Jasper city with too many stops to try and count on the way but it was so worth it.Stormy forecasts and increasing snow warnings caused me to ditch my plans for a few day stay in Jasper and zip back down the road the next morning. It’s shocking how fast things can change in the mountains as snow started to layer onto the icy road just a few hours after we arrived in Jasper. Heading out as early as I could stomach, I beat the worst of it, making the return in just over 4 hours this time and though I couldn’t see much under the storm clouds on the way back, it was still an epic ride to peak at and remember.
Directions, tips & other trail details:
- Starting Point: Banff National Park at Highway 93 North
- End Point: Jasper, Alberta at Highway 93
- Distance: ~150 miles
- Duration: 3.5+ hours and many more in poor conditions
- Facilities: Restrooms along the way. Nothing else in winter (no gas, food, water)
- Crowds: Very light with pockets of tourists at the glacier and key stops
- Cost / Permits: $9.80 park pass or $19 group pass (daily)
- Gear: Ample food, water, winter tools & clothing for a day and emergency