If you’re planning a trip to Banff, you might have seen ads for something called the Columbia Icefield Skywalk in Jasper National Park.
But what is the Columbia Icefield Skywalk exactly, and is it worth your time and money? We checked it out and thought we should give an honest review of our experience.
What is a glass bottomed bridge?
In case you haven’t already figured it out, a glass bottomed bridge is exactly what it sounds like; a bridge or platform suspended over a large drop, with floors made of completely transparent, virtually indestructible glass.
Glass bottomed bridges – A global obsession
Glass bottomed bridge experiences are becoming a bit of a global obsession. Believe it or not, there are an estimated 2300 glass bottomed bridges in China alone!
Across the world, there are dozens of varieties, including glass bottomed gondolas, bridges, suspended platforms and cubes. Some bridges even have special digital panels that pretend to crack when you walk on them.
Hard Pass, thank you.
But in Canada, you’ll find only one. The Icefield Skywalk in Jasper National Park.
What is the Columbia Icefield Skywalk?
The Columbia Icefield Skywalk is a glass bottomed bridge attraction in the Columbia Icefields in Jasper National Park. It’s supposedly a combination of extreme adrenaline and beautiful nature rolled into one.
The Icefield Skywalk is a 1km walk along the edge of a cliff in Jasper National Park. The experience culminates with a short, heart pounding walk over a glass bottomed platform that juts out 918ft over the ravine below.
The Icefield Skywalk is not to be confused with the Columbia Glacier Ice Explorer Tour. These two attractions are both operated by Pursuit and the tours run out of the same location at the Columbia Icefields Centre. The Ice Explorer Tour is where you are literally driven out onto the glaciers in enormous all-terrain vehicles, which is drastically different than the experience described in this post.
Updated July 2020: RCMP are currently investigating a deadly incident involving the Columbia Glacier Ice Explorer Tour when one of the Ice Explorer vehicles rolled over, down a steep section of the glacier, killing 3 people and putting over 2 dozen others in life-threatening condition. While the investigation has not yet concluded, many people speculate that the injuries would likely not have been fatal had Ice Explorer vehicles been equipped with seatbelts and had they been subject to more rigorous safety measures. When Pursuit President Dave McKenna was recently interviewed and asked whether they planned to install seatbelts for future tours, he declined to comment and simply said something to the effect that they would “wait and see what the results of the investigation are”. Former Ice Explorer drivers have also come forward to say that they are not surprised this happened, as maintenance and safety precautions made by the drivers of these vehicles were routinely ignored. It’s safe to say that, aside from our thoughts on the environmental impact of this tour, we absolutely do not recommend the Ice Explorer Tour.
Read: Global News – ‘So many incidents’: Former drivers say Columbia Icefield tour buses fraught with safety issues, poor maintenance
How it works
The Icefield Skywalk experience starts at the Glacier Discovery Centre and involves a short bus ride to the actual Skywalk platform. The interpretive centre and glass-bottomed Skywalk actually overlook the Sunwapta Valley – roughly 6km away. There are no views of the Athabasca Glacier, only views of the small glacier above and to the left of it.
At the end of the 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.
The Interpretive Walk
There’s then a short interpretive walk with information about the valley, the geography and topography of the area. While you do actually learn a lot about the wildlife and geological formations, the main attraction is obviously the glass-bottomed skywalk at the end.
I’m sure that most people just breeze straight through it to get to the bridge, but it’s worth pausing to learn a few interesting facts!
The Icefield Skywalk
Finally, after much anticipation, you walk out onto the glass.
If you’re scared of heights, this is going to be pretty nerve racking. That’s because there’s nothing but a (hopefully) very thick piece of glass between you and a 918ft drop to the valley floor. Pretty crazy, right?
Fortunately you won’t find any cheeky tricks or cracking glass here, but this experience is sure to get your heart pounding anyway!
Are glass bottomed bridges safe?
Yes. Glass bottomed bridges are extremely safe and mostly made of ultra-thick 12mm, bulletproof glass.
In an effort to prove the safety of the glass, some places (mostly in China) have even taken to giving extreme safety demonstrations; like trying to smash the glass with sledgehammers (while standing on it) or even driving onto them in cars.
Don’t worry, they’re designed by experts to withstand a very, very high capacity of visitors. You’re perfectly safe.
Things to know about the Icefield’s Skywalk
When does the Icefield Skywalk open?
2020 Tour Dates: April 17 – October 18
As the Icefields Parkway is notoriously treacherous in Winter, the dates are generally weather dependent. If we have a late Spring then these dates will be subject to change.
How much does the Icefield Skywalk Cost
- Adults: $36 (CAD)
- Children: $18 (CAD)
- Kids under 5: Free
Update for 2020: Pursuit has updated its pricing system to reflect projected visitation. What does this mean? If you’re visiting on a long weekend your tickets are likely more expensive than if you visit mid-week.
How to get to the Icefield Skywalk
The Icefield Skywalk is located almost exactly halfway along the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 North), between Lake Louise and Jasper.
After Lake Louise, take the first exit North and head through the park gates. Once you’re on the Icefields Parkway, stay on the road until you reach the Icefields Discovery Centre. You can’t miss it. While you’re driving, look out for some of the incredible lakes and features along the route.
The drive from Banff will take approximately 2 hours 20 minutes.
The drive from Lake Louise will take approximately 1 hour 40 minutes.
Make sure you fill up your tank before you set off as there’s only one gas station along the route and it’s super, super expensive.
Is the Icefield Skywalk Wheelchair Accessible
Yes, 100%. The experience was designed to be 100% wheelchair accessible. The shuttle buses have ramps and the experience only has gentle slopes to accommodate wheelchairs.
Note: If you need wheelchair access, they require you to inform them 72 hours in advance and arrive 30 minutes early for your tour.
Can you see the Glaciers from the Skywalk?
Errr, not really to be honest.. The 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 part of the glacier you can actually from the Skywalk. The actual main part of the Athabasca Glacier is totally hidden behind the brown mountain in this photo:
To make matters worse, our photos were actually taken with more of a telephoto lens. The actual view you’ll see is closer to photo below (i.e. you can barely make it out):
The truth is this: in an area that is almost literally overflowing with around 100 stunning glaciers, the place with the worst views of all is where the Skywalk is actually positioned.
Don’t get me wrong though, the view is still stunning, but you’re not really going to see glaciers. This used to be a bigger issue before, as it was originally misleadingly named the Glacier Skywalk.
After what I can only assume was a heavy backlash, they’ve now rather sensibly renamed it the Icefield Skywalk.
What’s the view like below?
The skywalk actually looks down onto a massive scree slope (i.e. giant rubble hill) and a tiny river. It doesn’t look down onto anything particularly spectacular as the name might suggest.
(with that being said, being 918 ft above the ground does give you quite an interesting perspective)
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 from the Wilcox Pass hike just down the road?
Our Honest Thoughts on the Skywalk
What is the point of the Columbia Icefield Skywalk?
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.
But in this case, we kind of had to ask ourselves, why is this here? And why did they feel like they needed to put this in a National Park?
I suppose the non-cynical answer to this question is that Pursuit wanted to create a unique adrenaline rush for people of all abilities…
And I suppose to that, my response is, “aren’t there enough things here to make your heart flutter?”
It struck us that someone, somewhere had had the bright idea to build a glass floored skywalk as yet another way of conning tourists out of their hard-earned money. The fact that you can get the same/better view for free one minute down the road just adds insult to injury.
Honestly, if you ask us, this is exactly what 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?
2020 update: Since we first wrote this piece, a lot of the wording on the website has been tightened up. I applaud this, as it was previously very misleading for potential customers.
There’s no longer any talk of seeing “the most stunning mountain” or “glacial vistas”, which was previously on the website, although it’s still very implicit that you’ll be getting epic glacier views. Don’t be fooled, the website very clearly specifies that you’ll be getting a “birds eye view of the Sunwapta Valley”. Nothing more.
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. (See the photos above for the realistic view you’ll get).
Is the Icefield Skywalk actually worth it for the price?
To be fair, however we may feel about the existence of the Icefield Skywalk, it doesn’t change the fact that the experience itself is actually quite enjoyable. There are 2 things to note about our visit though:
1) We visited on Local’s Appreciation Day and the tickets were free. I’m not sure this is something I would be interested in paying money for, honestly, which basically answers your question about whether this experience is worth it.
2) It being Local’s Appreciation Day meant that there were way fewer people than normal, as most local’s wouldn’t bother driving 1-2 hours to play tourist for the day. I’ve seen photos of the Skywalk literally crammed with busloads of people since then and have come to the conclusion that our experience was engineered to be positive so that locals would tell visitors, friends and family that the Skywalk is amazing. We’ve had friends say they had to literally climb over people lying on the ground to get across the skywalk.
The Icefield Skywalk is definitely an experience that you won’t find elsewhere in Canada, however, keep in mind that it is simply a tourist trap that goes against everything a National Park should stand for. Did we mention the natural stuff is free?
I will say that kids in particular will really enjoy this experience, and they’ll probably learn a few interesting facts too while they’re here. On the other end of the spectrum, we literally visited with Louise’s 90 year old grandma.. who remained hilariously stoic, as ever. So it really is suitable for all ages and abilities.
ANYWAY…… with all that being said, don’t be duped into thinking that you need to pay $36 for the best view of the Athabasca glacier. Like I mentioned, I guarantee there are better views that you can get for free .
If a view of the Glacier is what you came for, save yourself the $36 and actually explore on foot. You might even find the collapsed ice cave if you’re there in Winter! (We really don’t recommend trying this unless you have experience with crevasse rescue)
Other Ways To View The Glaciers
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.
Wilcox Pass and Parker Ridge Hikes
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.
Another great hike in the area which gives you incredible views of the back of Saskatchewan Glacier is Parker Ridge, located almost right across from Wilcox Pass. Both hikes are phenomenal and relatively easy. You can’t go wrong with either!
Walk up to the Athabasca Glacier
Similarly, why not park at the bottom of the glacier and try the 20 minute walk to the top of the Athabasca Glacier Moraine. 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
Sorry to keep banging the drum, but our National Parks are deeply important to us and although we generally try to keep our blog positive, we really think it’s important to stand up for what we believe in. We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again; the best part about national parks is that they’re uncommercialised and undeveloped, and they offer us an escape that we can’t find elsewhere.
Over the years, the lure of big bucks has been hard for the government to resist, and slowly big corporations have crept in. Now there are even talks of additional gondolas in Banff or even a Casino and Gondola in Canmore. It’s deeply upsetting for many of the locals here.
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. With clear evidence that the glaciers are receding, is supporting a company that drives dozens of buses onto them every day a good thing (Even if you can get past the supposed enormous safety issues at the Columbia Icefields)?
There are literally thousands of things to do for free here, and we’d emphatically recommend finding them instead! 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 (clearly) very much our own and are based on our real experiences and observations.