Last month, we spent a week exploring the best of the Canadian Rockies with Pursuit. One of our favourite parts of the trip was undoubtedly the Columbia Icefield Adventure, located in Jasper National Park.
Although the Columbia Icefield is located in Jasper National Park, it is definitely one of the major attractions on any trip to Banff and Banff National Park, so should absolutely be in your Banff itinerary if you have time.
The Columbia Icefield Adventure
The Columbia Icefield Adventure is primarily based out of the Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, located right at the perimeter of the Columbia Icefield, the border of Banff National Park and Jasper National Park, and the toe of the Athabasca Glacier (one of 6 glaciers located in the stunning Columbia Icefield area).
There are two main attractions at the Icefield; the Skywalk and the Columbia Icefield Adventure.
Whereas previously there was the option to do one or the other or both, there is now only one tour and it includes both activities!
The tour begins at the Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, where you’ll hop on a bus to the Columbia Icefield Adventure, followed by the Columbia Icefield Skywalk and then finally back to the Discovery Centre again. This post will dive into each experience and what you can expect from your day in the mountains!
Arriving at the Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre early
When you book your adventure with Pursuit, you’ll be assigned a specific boarding time for your tour, which will leave from one of the bus stops next to the Discovery Centre.
To make the most out of your tour, it’s a good idea to arrive early and check in, and then explore the various exhibits in the Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre while you wait.
Once you’ve collected your tickets for your experience, you’ll be shepherded into the line, where you’ll have a chance to read a few interesting factoids about the Icefield on the wall.
At the end of the tunnel, you’ll find your bus waiting for you, which is poised, ready to transfer you to the mega Ice Explorer bus waiting at the edge of the glacier.
The bus transfer to the Icefield
From the Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre centre to the Icefield, you’ll hop on a very quick 5 minute coach transfer.
On the coach, the knowledgeable driver will explain a little bit about the surrounding mountains and ecology, so you’ll have a chance to pick up a bit of background about the area. You’ll also hopefully have a fairly good chance of seeing some wildlife.
We’ve done this a couple of times now, and both times we’ve been lucky enough to see a herd of Big horn sheep hanging out by the side of the road.
Hopping on the Ice Explorer bus
After a few minutes on the coach, you’ll arrive at a transfer station, where you’ll be moved from the regular coach onto the giant diesel Ice explorer, that supposedly costs around $1.3m per bus!
The whole thing is absurdly large, with probably some of the largest, grippiest tires in the world, promising to keep the bus firmly glued to the icy glacier.
A few minutes, and a safety brief later, the engine is fired up, seatbelts are buckled, and you’re off towards the glacier.
Pretty soon, you’ll come to the brow of a hill, where you’re told you’re about to hit the steepest commercially used road in Canada, at a grade of 32%. Fortunately, the bus can easily handle up to 36%, and you’re about to hit a massive top speed of 3mph as we descend.
Words and photos don’t really do it justice when I describe how steep the road is, but it’s the only way down the steep, rocky moraine.
Onto the Columbia Icefield
Once you’re down the giant hill, you pause to quickly wash the tires in the stream, so that the bus doesn’t track dirt or mud onto the glacier.
Adding dark mud or silt to the glacier can speed up its melting, as dark colours absorb far more heat than the highly reflective white snow. Pursuit takes great care to make sure they leave as small a footprint as possible on the glacier, which reportedly (according to NASA) only has around 60 years left before it melts away completely.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the diesel buses are contributing to the melting of the glacier, but the impact really pales in comparison to the major factor, which is global warming.
Sadly, the rate of recession is only accelerating with our increasingly warm annual temperatures. On the plus side, Pursuit is working on adding electric buses to their fleet over the next couple of years!
Once we’re on the glacier, we’re told of huge hidden crevasses that lie hidden under the surface; some large enough to hold the Eiffel Tower!
If you ever hike up the Moraine to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, you’ll see a rather ominous cartoon of a child that’s disappeared into a crevasse, and it’s a stark reminder that it’s not a safe place to venture without the correct guidance or equipment.
Exploring the glacier
Once on the glacier, we park up our enormous bus, and all head out onto the ice. You’ll probably migrate to the edge of the cordoned off area, because there’s usually a stream running along the ice. If you’ve brought a bottle along with you, this is your chance to grab some of the purest, clearest, coldest water on the planet. It’s perfectly safe to drink, but you’ll probably have to dunk your hands in the cold water to get it.
Standing on the glacier, you have a fantastic view of the dominant peaks and glaciers that surround you in all directions.
Once you’re on the glacier, there is no guidance, and you’re simply given free time (20 minutes) to experience and take in the wonderful surroundings. It’s a great chance to snap a few photos and enjoy something that, honestly, may not be here in the future!
After a few minutes on the glacier, it’s back on the Ice Explorer to the transfer station.
From the transfer station, it’s straight back on the coach again so we can head to our next stop; the Skywalk!
From memory, I believe it’s roughly an 8 minute bus ride from the glacier to the skywalk, during which time you’ll get more of a background into the ecology of the Icefield, and you’ll have a much needed chance to warm up.
On the bus, you’ll gradually creep uphill until you see the glass bridge hanging over a vast ravine to your left. The bus will drop you off and you’ll immediately be ushered into the interpretive walk towards the glass bottommed bridge.
From the bus drop-off to the bridge, it’s probably a 4 or 5 minute walk along the interpretive trail (400m each way), and along the way, you’ll learn about wildlife in the area and the geology of the rocks and glaciers in the Icefield. It’s super interesting, and a great way to expand your understanding of how this incredible place was formed.
When we visited, there was also a display with Bighorn Sheep and mountain goat skulls to look at. If you have kids with you, picking up the skulls with enormous horns is going to be a highlight.
Once you’ve followed the interpretive trail as far as you can, it will eventually lead into the glass bottommed bridge aka the Icefield Skywalk.
This is where, if you’re afraid of heights, things start to get very real!
The transparent glass allows you to see hundreds of feet (918ft to be precise) to the valley floor below, so stepping out onto it can be a little nerve wracking; especially when there are vast crowds also shuffling around on the glass at the same time!
From the glass bottommed bridge, you’ll have a great vantage point to spot mountain goats! We’ve done this a few times now and have managed to see goats every time!
The Icefield Skywalk has an interpretive audio guide included that allows you to listen and learn as you walk. Various spots along the walk are numbered, and this match up with the corresponding numbered section on the audio guide. The guide is also available in 9 different languages, which is fantastic for non english speaking visitors!
Once you’re finished here, it’s back on the bus to the Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre to warm up!
Tips for Dressing and Packing for the Columbia Icefield Adventure
It’s worth knowing that usually the temperature at the Icefield is around 15C colder than the weather at the Discovery Centre. If you happen to visit on a cool day, it could easily be hovering around freezing, even in the summer.
In addition, because the glacier is cold and on a slope, it creates a unique kind of wind called Katabatic winds. This can dramatically increase the wind chill, and make a normally warm day feel freezing.
With all this in mind, it’s worth bringing some extra layers for your adventures, as well as some grippy shoes for the glacier walk. Ice is notoriously slippery!
For our visit, we dug out our old sleeping bag onesies and were absolutely toasty on the glacier, but visited in May when it was still a little chilly. Wearing a full winter jacket, gloves and a hat made a lot of sense. Having said that, by the time we got to the Skywalk, our sleeping bags were overkill. Without the winds, the temperatures at the Skywalk were a lot warmer.
So again, it makes a lot of sense to wear layers that you can add or remove as the temperature changes. I would also definitely recommend bringing sunscreen, sunglasses and possibly a face covering in case it’s very sunny/windy.
Lastly, if you’re heading out onto the glacier, make sure you pack an empty water bottle to fill with delicious glacier water!
Where to stay at the Columbia Icefield; Glacier View Lodge
If you’re visiting the Columbia Icefield, you absolutely HAVE to stay at the Glacier View Lodge, both for the sake of convenience and luxury. The hotel books up very quickly as there are only 35 rooms, and it is fairly expensive, but if you can snag one of the rooms, you absolutely won’t regret it.
The views from the bedrooms are spectacular (note that the cheaper rooms are on the opposite side of the building and don’t face the icefield), but my absolute favourite part is the main guest lounge and lobby.
The main attraction is the HUGE floor to ceiling window with perfect views of the Athabasca Glacier and Dome Glacier outside. You can watch the sun rise and set from this room, and enjoy the views without ever having to worry about the elements.
There are board games to keep you busy if you forget to bring a book, there’s incredible hot chocolate, and there’s even a charcuterie/cocktail hour every day. This was the perfect energy boost for us after several hours exploring the Icefield.
The rooms are luxurious, and the tranquility of the hotel is the perfect escape from the crowds in the floors below. Definitely a bucketlist hotel to stay in!
We’ve put together a full write up about our stay at Glacier View Lodge here, where you’ll find out exactly why we think it’s one of the best hotels in Canada
If Glacier View Lodge isn’t quite in the budget, the next closest place to stay would be at Saskatchewan Crossing, Jasper, Lake Louise or Banff. You can check out our guide to Banff/Lake Louise hotels here. There are also numerous hostels along the Icefields Parkway, which you can learn more about in our utlimtate Icefields Parkway guide
Restaurants at the Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre
The Icefield Glacier Discovery centre has a number of different food and beverage options:
Chalet Grab and Go
The Chalet Grab and Go is a cheaper cafeteria, where you can grab things like burgers, chicken tenders, salads, curries and pizza, as well as chips, chocolate and snacks for your adventures.
Chalet Grab and Go Opening hours: 11AM – 6PM
There is also a far nicer restaurant called Altitude, and the food there is absolutely fantastic. The food is beautifully arranged, with plenty of fresh vegetables and interesting ingredients. Normally I find myself feeling unhealthy after too much food in finer restaurants, but with Pursuit’s restaurants, I left almost feeling healthier.
Obviously, if you’re having dessert and cocktails, that’s a different story. And you should get dessert here. They are absolutely delicious.
Last thing I absolutely have to mention about Altitude is the cocktails. The old fashioned was one of the best I’ve had in a long time, and the shaft (an Albertan coffee/vodka cocktail) was the most decadent version I’ve come across yet.
Reservations are recommended, and this is definitely where you want to eat dinner/breakfast if you’re staying at Glacier View Lodge.
Altitude hours: Breakfast: 7 AM – 9 AM, Dinner: 6 PM – 9 PM
Yes if you need your caffeine fix, there is indeed a Starbucks at the Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre.
10AM – 6PM
Frequently Asked Questions about the Icefield Adventure
Is the Columbia Icefield Adventure worth the trip?
Absolutely it is. Where else can you drive right up to a glacier in North America? Honestly, it’s hard to do it justice with photos and a blog post. All I can say is that you absolutely should make the Icefield a part of your adventure, and doing these organised adventures is a great way to make the most of your trip!
How to get to the Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre
From Banff, it’s a very easy journey to the Icefield. Take the Trans Canada West until you reach Lake Louise. Then, just after the Lake Louise turn off, take the 93N exit onto the Icefields Parkway. Then simply stay on this road until you get there!
The Columbia Icefield is approximately 2 hours 3 minutes or 185km from Banff.
Make sure you fill up your gas before you leave town, or fill up at Lake Louise at the latest. There is a gas station at Saskatchewan crossing, but you will pay a far higher rate!
When is the best time of year to visit the Icefield?
While the Columbia Icefield is possibly to visit year round, it can be a very bleak place in the winter, and I wouldn’t recommend visiting unless you have the right equipment and experience. There are some amazing winter adventures to be had in the area, including multi-day ski trips and ice caves, but without the right preparation, it’s very risky.
The typical tourist season for the Icefield (and most of these adventures) at the Icefield is May-October. The hotel and tours don’t operate once it gets too snowy, so there’s a fairly limited window to visit!
Arguably, my favourite time of year to visit Banff/Jasper would be September because I think it’s the most beautiful at that time, but if you like warmer weather you might opt for July or August instead.
When is the best time of day to do the Icefield Adventure?
Honestly I would generally recommend an early start on the Icefield. Most people like to get up and have breakfast before they head to the Icefield, so if you can get there in the first couple of hours of opening, then you’re less likely to see crowds. Also if you come later in the afternoon, not only will you get a cheaper admission ticket, but you can also head straight to Altitude for dinner afterwards!
What is the weather like at the Columbia Icefield?
As I mentioned above, the temperature is usually 15C lower on the icefield than in the Discovery Centre, and conditions can vary wildly from hour to hour. In Winter, temperatures can easily drop to -30C or lower, with windchill, and there are frequent snow storms.
In the summer, you might expect rain or even snow, if it’s cold enough, but generally speaking, Alberta gets a lot of sunshine.
Your best bet is to pack thin waterproof shell, and plenty of warm layers underneath that you can ditch if it’s too warm. If you’re new to cold weather and hiking, here is a quick guide to layering your clothing.
How much does the Columbia Icefield adventure cost
Columbia Icefield Adventure Adult tickets: from $97
Columbia Icefield Adventure Child tickets: from $63
Off peak tickets (tours after 3.30pm) Adults/kids: from $85/$55.25
Tickets include a trip onto the glacier on the Ice Explorer bus, and a trip to the Icefield Skywalk glass bottomed bridge. Children under 5 travel for free when sharing a seat with an adult.
Other ways to experience the Columbia Icefield
For those on a budget, there is of course, the free walk up to the toe of the Glacier. This is a steep, sometimes slippery walk up the rocky Moraine, and probably takes around 15-20 minutes to ascend. This hike is not accessible for those with mobility issues.
For those that want to take things a step further, there are also guided glacier hikes that take you right up to the ice fall. This costs in the region of $200 per person for a day hike, and will require you to hike over the glacier, right to the back.
Can you drive up to the Skywalk exhibit?
No unfortunately, the only access is via one of the tour buses that departs from the Icefield Discovery Centre. You can cycle to the skyalk (as long as you’ve purchased a ticket already), but you cannot drive yourself.
Are there toilets on the tour?
No there are absolutely no toilets from the minute you leave the Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre until you return back again, so please make sure you go before you set off! Toilets at either of the attractions would require a far bigger environmental footprint.
Are pets allowed on the Icefield Adventure?
Unfortunately pets aren’t allowed on the tours.
Are the tours wheelchair accessible?
Incredibly, yes they are! There are two Ice Explorer buses with wheelchair lifts, and the drop off area on the glacier is intentionally flattened/smoothed to be usable with wheelchairs. The Skywalk is also wheelchair accessible.
How to enjoy the Columbia Icefield responsibly and sustainably
Obviously it is hard to be completely sustainable when accessing the Columbia Icefield as they’re so remote and require a vehicle to get to, so it is highly recommended to take public transport instead of driving your own car.
The more we can carpool and take buses in Banff, the better it is for the environment. Pursuit has its own buses that can transport you directly from the town of Banff, Jasper or even Calgary, so this is probably the easiest way to arrange your visit.
Leave no trace at the Icefield
Obviously our National Park is very precious to us here, and the Glacier is the jewel in Jasper’s crown, so please make sure to pick up after yourself and dispose of any litter in the appropriate bins!
Other things to do on the Icefields Parkway
If you’re looking for things to do on the Icefields Parkway, we’ve written a complete guide that explores absolutely everything you can find along the way.
My personal highlights are:
Ultimately, I would recommend taking the whole day to drive the Icefields Parkway and stop at as many places as you possibly can! This is easily one of the best drives in the world, and the slower you can drive it, the better!
If you’re open to driving a bit further and are looking for other awesome things to do while you’re here, I would highly recommend driving to Golden and checking out the Golden Skybridge. It’s Pursuit’s new outdoor adventure park that includes suspension bridges, zip lines, rock climbing, a canyon rope swing and, perhaps most exciting of all, a new mountain rollercoaster! Make sure you check out our blog post on the Golden Skybridge if you haven’t already!
If you’re looking for adventure in Banff or Jasper, then look no further. The Icefield Adventure is easily the best way to experience the glaciers in our beloved Rocky Mountains, and well worth a day trip.
Many thanks to Pursuit for hosting us. All thoughts and opinions expressed are our own.