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.
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 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 fairly new glass bottomed bridge attraction in the Columbia Icefields in Jasper National Park. It’s 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.
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.
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!
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
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 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 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?
Our 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 obvious answer to this question is that Pursuit wanted to create a unique adrenaline rush for people of all abilities/cash in on tourists.
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 milking tourists. 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 appreciate 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”, 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 then?
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.
The Icefield Skywalk is definitely an experience that you won’t find elsewhere in Canada, especially if you’re looking for an adrenaline rush and to learn something new about the ecology of the Rockies.
If you see it for what it actually is, which essentially is a theme park ride, you’ll get your money’s worth.
As I see it, the Icefield Skywalk is a fear inducing, adrenaline pumping experience, and I did genuinely get a kick out of being on it.
And it’s great for all ages and all abilities too. Kids in particular will really enjoy this experience, and they’ll probably learn a great deal 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.
HOWEVER…… 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. 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 $36 and actually explore on foot. You might even find the collapsed ice cave if you’re there in Winter!
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.
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.
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. 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. With clear evidence that the glaciers are receding, is supporting a company that drives dozens of buses onto them every day a good thing?
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.