Driving the Icefields Parkway
If you’re visiting Banff, you really won’t have done it justice unless you’ve driven the Icefields Parkway. Most people plan their trips around being in either Banff or Jasper, but totally underestimate how much time they’ll want to spend on the drive between.
Sure it’s only 233km or about 3-4 hours drive, but you could easily spend weeks, months or even years exploring it (I know we have) . Do yourself a favour; plan to spend at least a whole day driving between Lake Louise and Jasper.. I guarantee you won’t regret it. We also seriously recommend renting a car to do the drive so that you have the freedom to stop wherever you like. You can compare car rental prices here
The Icefields Parkway has a reputation for being one of the world’s most beautiful drives. To give you an idea why; here are our top 11 things to see on the Icefields Parkway
(Skip to the end or follow this link to see a full map of the Icefields Parkway)
1. Herbert Lake
Don’t get me wrong, there are so many waaaay better lakes on this road, but this particular lake has something the others don’t.. That’s right, … a diving board. Great for a freezing cold swim on a sweltering summer day.
Top tip, don’t be using it in Winter.
2. Bow Lake
Bow Lake is massive and unmissable. It’s epic for sunrise if you feel inclined to be up that early, it’s also the starting point for a few of the best hikes in the area (Bow Glacier Falls, Iceberg Lake, Jimmy Simpson Junior).
There’s a also great little café that’s open in the summer ( amazing bison chili that’s perfect after a cold, damp hike), which is part of the delightfully quaint Num – ti – Jah Lodge on the shores of Bow Lake.
3. Bow Glacier Falls
This is a great starter hike if you’re looking to give hiking a try for the first time. This was actually my first ever hike in Canada and I don’t think there’s a gentler one to start with.
Even my ridiculous jean shorts and satchel didn’t actually slow me down too far on this one.
The hike has almost no elevation until the very end, and is much faster than your average hike of the same distance. It starts at Num Ti Jah Lodge, moves around Bow Lake and then up into the stunning valley above. I’d probably budget 3 or 4 hours round trip if you’re planning to do it.
4. Jimmy Simpson Jnr
We get asked about our Jimmy Simpson Jnr hiking photos all the time. Yep, it’s pretty much one of the most stunning hikes we’ve seen out there. Incredible views of bow lake, iceberg lake and a couple of other tarns up the mountain side.
This one’s actually more of a scramble at times, and finding the actual trail wasn’t exactly easy. We basically bush whacked our way to the treeline on the way up and then found the trail on the way back.
Either way, it’s one the lesser known hikes that should be on every hiker’s highlight reel.
5. Iceberg Lake
This is another hike that starts at Bow Lake, and another really well kept secret.
Because you can’t see the lake from the road, most people assume that Bow Glacier Falls is just another mountain stream. Well tl;dr, it’s not :D. We were up there when it was raining so we didn’t really feel like swimming, but on a hot day, I bet this icy lake would be an incredible place to take a dip!
Be prepared to fjord across mountain streams and for a little bit of scrambling if you’re going to try this one.
6. Peyto Lake
You can’t drive the Icefields Parkway without stopping at Peyto Lake. Stunning during the day and one of the most accessible ‘high vantage point’ viewpoints (you can drive right up to it – also wheelchair accessible). In winter it’s a great spot for ski touring as there are a few huts nearby, and in summer it’s a great place to take in a few stunning views. You can also hike down to the lake but I think the view’s better from the top. Not worth it unless you’re really scratching your head for something to do!
And if you didn’t already know, it’s also supposed to be a fantastic place to catch the aurora. Not a light in sight and North facing for that perfect view of the lights (if they’re on). Bring bear spray for cougars though 😉
7. Columbia Icefields
The Columbia Icefields are the highest point on the Icefields Parkway, and we seem to visit every year without fail.
The coolest (pun intended) way to see it is to take a tour onto the glacier in a special Glacier Explorer bus – Prices are a whopping $85 CAD online or $94 in person. If you ask us, that is crazy expensive, but it is a pretty unique experience.
While the tour onto the glacier might be awesome (yet overpriced), don’t get fooled into doing everything that’s there! We did the glacier skywalk and thought it was kind of a waste of money. While the glass floor is pretty cool (and kinda scary), it’s super expensive and really feels like it’s in the wrong place. You get a great view of the valley, but there isn’t really a view of the glacier, as the name would suggest. Kind of a disappointment for us, but I can see how it might be cool if you’re new to mountains and short on time. We wrote a more detailed blog post about it here!
8. Ice cave (kind of)
This one is kind of a secret and very seasonal. If you want to be able to get to the ice cave safely, the only time to go is in Winter. Otherwise you’ll have to cross quite a fast flowing river and risk being under the cave when the ice is melting and less stable.
Obviously if you go in winter, you’re going to be walking across Tundra, so wrap up warm and prepare for freezing wind (bring goggles or sunglasses)!
In past years, the cave was a huge cavern, but last summer it collapsed and it was really more of an ice wall this year. Still worth it though!
Our advice is not to go hunting for it unless you have some solid advice on its exact location and the equipment necessary to save yourself if you find yourself in a crevice – lots of dangers out there on the icefields but unforgettable if you can track it down!
9. Athabasca Falls
This is a must see drive up spot on the Parkway, and every single bus tour stops here. Don’t expect to have it to yourself unless you’re there at dawn.
10. Sunwapta Falls
This is probably my favourite waterfall on the drive to Jasper. Great photo stop and pretty iconic. Sunwapta Falls always seems to be way less touristy than Athabasca for some reason and as a bonus there’s a hotel/restaurant next door for snacks (in summer). Do the staff a favour and go and have a chat with them if you have time; it sounds like working there can be pretty lonely!
11. Valley of the 5 lakes
Not much elevation on this hike and super scenic. I hope you like lakes, because there’s a ton of them here (5 to be precise). Each lake has its own shades of greens and blues and if you catch them on a sunny day they almost look like glistening gemstones. Definitely an under appreciated spot along the road, so it’s another hike that’ll take you away from the crowds.
Edit – Extra things we’ve done since posting this!
12. Cirque Peak and Helen Lake
This was a new hike we tried out last summer and it really deserves to be on the list. It’s a 17.2km round trip hike (not something I realized when we started) but it’s a stunning hike with plenty of variety. The first stop is Helen Lake which is just below Cirque Peak. When we were there we saw a group fishing (unsure of the rules for Helen Lake) so that’s also an option.
The hike is quite a grind and there is a literal mountain of scree to climb, but the views from the top will take your breath away. Definitely worth an excursion. Trail head starts at the Helen Lake signpost, shortly before you reach Bow Lake.
13. Parker Ridge Hike
To the untrained eye, Parker Ridge looks pretty unexciting – relative to some of the other hikes around. What you can’t tell by looking at it though, is that it’s the best viewpoint of the Saskatchewan Glacier. It’s a really short hike and it’s totally worth it for the views. The official trail length is 5km return, but once you’re on top of the ridge there’s no need to go to the end if your’e short on time.
You can read more about the changes we’ve seen in the glaciers in the area here.
14. Wilcox Pass
Wilcox Pass is relatively unknown by tourists. It’s a short hike leads to an amazing view of the Athabasca Glacier. The hike gets you up above the mound of dirt that blocks most of the views from the road. It’s beautiful on a sunny day and is totally free (unlike any of the other attractions at the Columbia Icefields!)
The official hike is 8km return, but you’ll get those views we’re talking about well before that.
Fill up your gas tank in Lake Louise – if you need to fill up halfway, you’re going to be spending a ton of money. And if you think that’s bad, try buying a snack (great ice cream though)!
Wildlife – This is a pretty wild highway so there’s a chance you might run into some animals. Never get out the car, never attempt to feed the animals and only pull over if it’s safe to do so! It’s safer for you and the animals!
Icefields Parkway Road Map