Columbia Icefield Road Trip

Columbia Icefield Road Trip

Driving to the Columbia Icefield, out of Jasper, is one of the world’s great rides. By: Debbie Olsen
The Icefields Parkway runs through Jasper National Park. // © 2013 Thinkstock
The Icefields Parkway runs through Jasper National Park. // © 2013 Thinkstock

The Details

Jasper Tourism
www.jasper.travel

Trip Planning

Flights
Alberta’s two main airports are found in Edmonton (YEG) and Calgary (YYC). You can avoid the necessity of traveling the parkway twice by booking your client into one airport and out of the other, but they may have to pay a drop fee for the rental car. Icefields Parkway is such a beautiful drive that most people don’t mind experiencing it again on the return trip.

Accommodations
It’s a good idea to book some time in Jasper, Banff and Lake Louise, but you might also consider booking a stay in one of the rustic accommodations along the Icefields Parkway. Num-Ti-Jah Lodge (www.sntj.ca), Glacier View Inn (www.explorerockies.com) and Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge (www.sunwapta.com) are three good choices.

Tours
The only safe way to venture onto the surface of the Athabasca Glacier is via a guided tour. Ice Explorers are giant vehicles designed to travel safely onto the glacier. ExploreRockies.com, a division of Brewster Canada, has information on tours and more. Tours last 90 minutes and cost $49.95 for adults and $24.95 for kids ages 6-15. Rates are commissionable. www.explorerockies.com

The scenic stretch of road in the Canadian Rockies that connects Jasper and Banff national parks is one of Canada’s most awe-inspiring drives — skirting the base of glaciers, passing blue mountain lakes and providing excellent opportunities for viewing wildlife. You could drive the entire length of the 143-mile Icefields Parkway in about 2½ hours but, as my family and I discovered for ourselves on a recent road trip, it’s best to give yourself the better part of a day — you won’t get very far before you will want to stop.

Wildlife and Natural Beauty
Jasper is the ideal jumping-off point for an Icefields Parkway road trip. On our drive, we had only just begun when we spotted something dark moving through the trees. We stopped our car and watched from the safety of the roadside as a pair of adult wolves wove in and out of the trees. They followed a natural wildlife corridor close to a lake before slipping into the deeper cover of the forest and disappearing out of sight. Seeing wolves in the wild is an uncommon experience, but Jasper is one of those rare places where there is still a healthy population of wolves roaming free.

Another 19 miles down the road, we stopped again, but this time it was safe to get out of the car. The Athabasca Falls are small by Canadian standards — only about 75 feet high — but they are some of the most powerful falls in the Canadian Rockies. I closed my eyes as I stood on a wooden walkway below the crest of the falls and felt the mist on my face. Hearing the thunderous roar of the water and beholding the intricately carved limestone canyon made this stop well worthwhile.

Back in the car, we managed to stay on the road for almost 15 minutes before we stopped to check out Sunwapta Falls and enjoy a picnic. Located just off the Icefields Parkway, there are actually two sets of falls that are about the same height as the Athabasca Falls. Most tourists only see the upper falls, because they must tackle a 2½-mile return hike to get to the lower ones. Since the upper falls were a little crowded, we decided to earn our lunch by hiking the short trail to the less-crowded and equally impressive lower falls.

Another half-hour down the road is the Athabasca Glacier, one of the eight major glaciers that make up the Columbia Icefield. Covering an area of approximately 125 square miles, this massive icefield is one of the largest accumulations of snow and ice south of the Arctic Circle.

We parked in the large parking lot below the glacier and commenced the short, steep hike to the reach the glacier’s toe. Some of the highest peaks in the Canadian Rockies surround the Columbia Icefield and the views of these glacier-carved craggy peaks are spectacular when you are standing at the base of Athabasca.

We took turns posing for pictures in front of the massive glacier, zipping up our coats as protection from the biting wind. By the time we finally wandered over to check out the visitor’s center, we realized that we had spent the better part of a day traveling a mere 65 miles along the parkway — less than half of its length. Since we still wanted to check out some of the great hiking trails near the Columbia Icefield and experience an Ice Explorer tour on the surface of the glacier, we decided to spend the night in the Glacier View Inn, a small hotel located directly above the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre.

After all, there are some things you just can’t rush.

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