If you’re planning a trip to Banff, you might have seen ads for something called the Columbia Icefield Skywalk in Jasper National Park. What is the Columbia Icefield Skywalk exactly? We checked out this fairly new attraction and found out a thing or two about what you should expect.
What is the Columbia Icefield Skywalk?
The Columbia Icefield Skywalk is a fairly new attraction in the Columbia Icefields. It starts at the Glacier Discovery Centre and involves a short bus ride to the actual Glacier Skywalk platform. The newly installed interpretive centre and glass-bottomed Skywalk actually overlooks the Sunwapta Valley – roughly 6km away.
At the end of your short bus ride you’re dropped off and slowly herded into the exhibit with an audio guide. Don’t worry, the audio guides are offered in plenty of languages if English isn’t your native language.
While you do actually learn a lot about the wildlife and geological formations in the area, the main attraction is obviously designed to be the glass-bottomed skywalk at the end. If you’re scared of heights (coming from someone that isn’t great with heights), it’s going to be pretty nerve racking. Because guess what? There’s nothing but a – hopefully very thick – piece of glass between you and a 918ft drop to the valley floor. Pretty crazy, right?
If you’re looking for a unique experience it’s something you definitely won’t find elsewhere and it’s sure to get your heart pounding. Kids seem to love this attraction and it does appear to be a great way to keep them entertained. On the other hand though, if you’re looking for the best views of ‘the glacier’ (as the name used to suggest – they’ve now changed it to Icefield’s skywalk) or value for money, you might want to think again about paying for this.
Can I see the Glaciers from the Skywalk?
The actual Skywalk is nestled in the Sunwapta Valley behind an enormous mountain that obscures all but the most distant glaciers. If you don’t believe us, check out these photos of the one bit of glacier you can actually see in the distance from the Skywalk:
Those photos were actually with more of a telephoto lens, the actual view is closer to this:
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The truth is this: in an area that is almost literally overflowing with stunning glaciers, the place with the worst views of all is where the Skywalk is actually positioned. The view is still great though, it’s all relative!
What’s the view like below?
The skywalk actually looks down onto a massive scree (read ‘a giant rubble slope’) pile and a tiny river. It doesn’t look down onto anything spectacular as the name might suggest.
Now compare this to the free views of epic glaciers you can get by parking 100m down the road – try driving just a little further to the Stuttfield Glacier lookout! ..(did I mention that this view is free? 😀 )
Or how about this free view?
Usually a tourist attraction serves a purpose of some sort; to give you a better view of something or to somehow add value to your experience. In this case, however, we kind of had to ask ourselves, what does this add exactly?
It struck us that someone somewhere had had the bright idea to build a glass floored skywalk as yet another way of milking tourists. The fact that you can get the same/better view for free in the parking lot right next to the Skywalk just adds insult to injury. Worth $32? We don’t think so.
Honestly, if you ask us, this is exactly what the national parks don’t need, and much like the Banff Gondola (read here for some better alternatives), it’s the definition of a tourist trap.
What does the Columbia Icefield Skywalk actually claim to offer?
It was at this point that we decided to check the fine print on the website. We couldn’t help chuckling when we read that “you’ll see the most stunning mountain” (you mean the one that blocks the view of all the glaciers?!?!) “and glacial vistas”.. No mention of actually seeing the famous glacier that we all boarded the bus hoping to see. Very sneaky Pursuit… very, very sneaky…
You’ll also notice that telephoto lenses are used to take many of the website photos, making the visible parts of the glacier seem far closer than they actually are in real life.
To be fair, the Glacier Skywalk is definitely an experience that you won’t find elsewhere. Especially if you’re looking for an adrenaline rush and to learn something new about the ecology of the Rockies….but if you’ve been duped into thinking that you need to pay $32 for the best view of the Athabasca glacier, I guarantee there are better views that you can get for free .
Like this one:
If a view of the Glacier is what you came for, save yourself the $32 and actually explore on foot. You might even find the collapsed ice cave if you’re there in Winter!
So what are these better options then?
You’re in the most beautiful place on Earth and the national parks should be free for everyone to enjoy. You shouldn’t have to pay that much money when there are breath-taking views around every corner. Literally… they’re around every corner. The Icefields Parkway has been named one of the most beautiful drives in the world and if you want some tips on how to experience it properly, check out our Icefields Parkway driving guide.
If you want our vote for the actual best view of Athabasca Glacier, Wilcox Pass is the clear winner. If you google it, most of the articles talk about a 10km hike through a mountain pass.
Well, no need to do that; you’ll get a mind-blowing view of the glacier after about 30 minutes (see photo below). Parks Canada has even installed a couple of their signature red Adirondack chairs to sit in while you soak up that view.
Similarly, why not park at the bottom of the glacier and try the 20 minute walk to the top. Up close you’ll get to see how truly enormous and magnificent this natural wonder really is.
Whether you’re looking for hikes with the best views or you want to take a stab at completing our Ultimate Banff Bucket List, there are an endless number of ways you can also enjoy the park NATURALLY without breaking the bank.
Support the parks, not the corporations
Time to get preachy. We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again; the best part about national parks is that they’re uncommercialised and they offer us an escape that we can’t find elsewhere.
The lure of big bucks is hard for the government to resist, and slowly big corporations have crept in. Allowing our parks to turn into profit centres is dangerous because what’s best for profit isn’t always what’s best for the environment. There are literally thousands of things to do for free here, and we’d emphatically recommend finding them instead! Or failing that, try a tour run by a local business!
Want our best recommendation? Chat with a local and see what recommendations they have. I assure you that you’ll have a much better vacation that way.
Once again, the opinions expressed in this article are very much our own.
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