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The Icefields Parkway is perhaps one of the most stunning roadways on the planet, offering out-of-this-world sightseeing opportunities. This 232km stretch of road passes by more than 100 ancient glaciers, magnificent cascading waterfalls, turquoise lakes and intense rock formations. Filling the gaps between each of these unique sights is thick pines, sweeping valleys and larch forests. The Icefields Parkway is usually combined with a visit to Lake Louise, Banff, Jasper, the Columbia Icefields or all four wonderful destinations.
The Icefields Parkway, also known as Highway 93 North. This road travels up from the Trans-Canada Highway (Route 1) in Lake Louise and along the Continental Divide to Jasper, a great mountain town that serves as the main base for people exploring Jasper National Park. While simply traveling this road is an adventure in itself, there are also a ton of hiking, skiing, biking and tourist opportunities en route. If you’re wondering why you should visit and drive the Icefields Parkway, this guide will give you the answers.
Here we’ll take you through the basic overview of planning a trip to drive the Icefield Parkway. Read below to learn how to get there, where to stay, where to eat, what to see and what to watch out for.
You can reach the Columbia Icefields and the Icefields Parkway via either Calgary International Airport (YYC), roughly 200km (185mi) from the Southern end of the Icefields Parkway. Edmonton International Airport (YEG) is 385km (240 mi) away from Jasper and the Northern end of the Icefields Parkway. Both airports service regional and international flights, and both airports offer rental car services. Many visitors fly into one airport and out of the other.
If we had to pick, we prefer flying into Calgary. The drive is much nicer from that direction.
You can visit the Icefields and the Icefields Parkway throughout most of the year, however, there are a few things to keep in mind. There are very clear and distinct seasons, but it can and has snowed in every month of the year. In summer the road sees more than 100,000 vehicles per month. During the warmest months temperatures are mild, the lakes will finally have thawed, so all hiking routes should be opened.
When the leaves start to change expect cold weather with the possibility of snow. This is one of the least crowded times to visit, but the climate is unpredictable, so make sure to pack layers.
Winter is a popular time to hit the slopes in nearby Banff and Jasper, so you may expect a pick up of activity during these months. It’s important to note that the gas stations and other buildings along the Parkway are closed from October to May. The road can also be closed in winter due to avalanche risk and expect to drive much slower on the road in winter. While it is plowed and maintained, the Icefields Parkway goes through wild country that is very exposed to the elements in winter.
Spring weather is similar to that of fall – highly volatile. You may experience a blizzard in the middle of April or bask in the warming sun. This is a great time of year to spot wildlife as they emerge from their winter slumber. Hotel prices are also typically cheaper in spring.
Average monthly temperature and precipitation:
There best option to explore the Icefields is with your own car. This way you can stop, explore, and travel at your own pace. If you don’t have access to a car – either by driving your own or renting – it’s also possible to take a guided tour of the Icefields Parkway. There are many companies that offer tours, but they can get pricey. We recommend weighing the costs of a rental against a private tour.
The drive from Jasper to Lake Louise on the Icefields Parkway takes roughly three hours, however expect it to take longer if you are going when it is busy or there is bad weather. You could easily make this drive in a single day, but we recommend taking it slow and immersing yourself in the magnificent scenery the Icefields has to offer. The close proximity to Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper imply that you’ll never be without a wide variety of accommodation options, but there are also some lovely secluded selections to choose from along the way.
About 50km (31 mi) south of the town of Jasper, along the Icefields Parkway of course, you’ll find the Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge. They offer cabin style rooms within walking distance of a number of exciting activities such as hiking trails and wildlife viewing in the heart of Jasper National Park.
Roughly 50km (31 mi) further south you’ll find the Glacier View Inn. This hotel – located on the top floor of the Glacier Discovery Centre – boasts spectacular views of the Athabasca Glacier. This is a fantastic option if you’re looking for the ideal location to look at some massive glaciers at the Columbia Icefield.
Another option along the Parkway is The Crossing, located at Saskatchewan River Crossing. Located within Banff National Park, they’ve been serving customers for more than 70 years and the hotel itself is surrounded by trails marked and maintained by Parks Canada.
We also recommend the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. This historic lodge was the dream of the legendary outfitter Jimmy Simpson. It was originally completed in 1950 and, while it still retains that history, the Lodge has been renovated. What hasn’t changed is the amazing location, obviously.
One of the unique features about the Icefields Parkway is the HI Wilderness Hostels. These Hostels are all small. They have anywhere from 6-16 beds, depending on the location. Some hostels are unstaffed, and some of the hostels have wood-burning saunas (HI-Mosquito Creek and Rampart Creek). They are all well located, very affordable, and seem to bubble over with authenticity. There are five HI hostels in the are we think are worth checking out: Mosquito Creek, Rampart Creek, Hilda Creek, Beauty Creek, and Athabasca Falls. Athabasca Falls is probably the least “wild” of them all and it’s also our favourite thanks to its location and massive common area. Athabasca Falls also has a private room for a family to rent, but it books up quick so plan ahead.
Many people choose to explore the Icefield Parkway from a comfortable hotel or cabin in Lake Louise or Jasper. This allows you to take a day-trip onto either the southern or northern end from your base. Making Lake Louise your base, and doing the Icefields as a day trip, is a very popular option. For more info check out our Lake Louise trip planning article. For luxury we always recommend the Fairmont Lake Louise. For a great hotel with great value we like the Lake Louise Inn. We love the town of Jasper, and have shared our favorite places to stay and eat there. They have a great selection of B&B’s in Jasper, which allow a cheaper option than hotels.
Finally, if the weather is right, you should consider camping! With some of the best scenery in the world, why wouldn’t you take advantage of it? The Columbia Icefields Campground is just steps from the spectacular glacier views the region is famous for. Rampart Creek is another great option – offering a rustic experience in a quiet forested area along the Parkway. For more information on booking visit the Jasper and Banff National Park websites.
There are only a few eating options along the Parkway itself. If you’re looking for more variety, head to Banff, Lake Louise or Jasper. The Num-Ti-Jah Lodge has both a sit-down dining room (Elkhorn Dining Room) and a grab-and-go coffee shop (Bow Lake Café). You can order freshly made soups, salads sandwiches to go here.
Another food option along the way is The Crossing. They have three options: all casual. The Crossing Cafe and the Mount Wilson Restaurant serve meals in a buffet style. Lastly, the Parkway Pub offers beautiful outdoor views of the surrounding area and a variety of grilled foods.
For something more upscale, head to the Altitude Restaurant, located at the Columbia Icefields Discovery Center. Executive Chef Martin Brenner offers a refined selection of dishes using locally sourced ingredients for each meal (a la carte for breakfast and dinner, and buffet style for lunch).
For the finest dining on the Icefields Parkway stop in at the Sunwapta Falls Restaurant. Everything is made in house and they offer a wide selection. You can order a AAA New York Steak or, during lunchtime, sample fresh deli sandwiches.
Hiking is by far the most popular activity along the Icefields besides driving it. You’ll not be surprised that biking the Icefield Parkway is a bucket-list trip for most cyclists? You’ll see plenty of cyclists on the road each day, and many do daytrips from Jasper or Lake Louise.
But there’s just so much to see here! To gain a new perspective, however, check out the Glacier Skywalk. This unique observation point puts you 280m (918 ft.) over the expansive Sunwapta Valley.
For a more in depth exploration, hop onto the Columbia Icefields Glacier Adventure. Each tour takes you through the areas most magnificent glaciers. You can even get out and walk on these ancient formations (never do this without a professional guide).
In the summer Herbert Lake, located a few kilometres up from the Trans-Canada exit, will often get warm enough for a swim. You could also rent some paddleboards and explore the water that way.
In the winter some routes get closed, but not all of them. If you need some winter hiking gear, skates, snowshoes, or cross-country skis make sure to check out Wilsons in Lake Louise. This amazingly scenic parkway has lots of great ski touring and the area is ideal for snowshoeing. It’s important to remember that you’re also very close to some world-class ski resorts! It’s easy to add some downhill activities to your winter hiking trip.
Never feed or approach wildlife. Always carry bear spray.
You must use the food storage cables or lockers provided to suspend or secure all food, garbage, toiletries (e.g. deodorant) and cooking equipment.
Even though it may look pristine, make sure you boil, treat or filter all water before drinking it.
Pay attention to avalanche conditions, especially at higher altitudes.
Weather can change quickly. Make sure to bring multiple layers.
Always bring sunglasses, a hat and wear sunscreen – even in winter. The sun at the alpine altitude is very strong.
The nights can get very cold – even in summer. Pack a warm sleeping bag.
Campfires are only allowed on campgrounds with provided fireboxes. On all other campsites a backpacking stove is required.
The road may close after heavy snowfall; make sure to check out the most up to date information.
Gas stations and other service buildings are closed in the winter months.
Law protects all rocks, fossils, horns, antlers, wildflowers, mushrooms, nests and any other natural or historic object within the park. Leave them in their nature setting.
Make sure you bring bug spray – especially for long hiking trips.
There is no cell service along the Icefields Parkway.