Not only is Alberta’s Icefields Parkway a spectacular stretch of road to drive, it offers quick access to world-class hikes (and backpacking trips) with most trailheads immediately beside the highway. Over its 232 kilometres (the distance between Lake Louise and Jasper) there are roughly 30 hikes or backpacking trips you can do. All are in either Banff or Jasper National Park.
Here are five stunning hikes all of which could be done as a family, perhaps with a little coaxing along the way.
PARKER RIDGE – Easy 4 kilometre hike
The Parker Ridge hike is extremely popular so you’ll almost certainly not be alone. The reward for the effort on this four kilometre return hike is very high. Within minutes of leaving the parking lot you are treated to expansive views of mountains and the Icefields Parkway looking north. You can even see the Wilcox Pass area (see description below) within minutes of hiking. Leave the highway noise after you’ve reached the top of the switchbacks and enter a world full of 3,000 metre peaks. The hiking is easy now and the views of the Saskatchewan Glacier are nothing short of magnificent. It’s possible to continue along the trail across a scree covered slope until it fades into a goat trail. But before you retrace your steps, stand in awe of the tiny emerald-green lake that pulls your eyes downward and marvel at the scene before you.
You can knock off the hike to the saddle in under two hours. There is the option to crest the ridge (most people do not) but that adds another seven kilometres and 268 metres of climbing.
Getting there: The Parker Ridge Trailhead is on the south side of the highway close to the Hilda Creek Hostel. There’s a big parking lot so you won’t have any difficulty finding it. It’s 41 kilometres north of Saskatchewan River Crossing and 9 kilometres south of the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre.
WILCOX PASS – An outstanding 8 km round-trip hike
Initially the hike is steep (and it will be slippery if it’s wet) but within 15 minutes you pop out of the trees and straight ahead, staring you in the face, is the Athabasca Glacier. Keep going because in short order you’ll see the red chairs Parks Canada has placed in scenic spots around the country. Sit down and take in the view. When you’ve had your fill continue upwards until you reach the tussock, flower filled meadows at the two kilometre mark. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep as you continue to saunter across the meadows to the pass.
From the pass you can return; or continue on a trail up to the ridgeline directly above the Icefield Centre for even more magnificent views; or continue across the tundra to the Tangle Creek drainage. That trail comes out by the Glacier Skywalk on the Icefields Parkway but getting back can be tricky. You’ll either have to retrace your steps (making it a 22 kilometre hike) or hitchhike back to your vehicle.
Getting there: The trailhead is on the north side of the Icefields Parkway, just 2.8 kilometres south of the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre. The Wilcox Creek Campground is just beyond the parking at the trailhead.
BEAUTY CREEK – Easy, family-friendly and no crowds
The Beauty Creek hike was a huge surprise to me. It’s reminiscent of both Johnston and Maligne Canyons, but without the crowds. John and I saw two people over a couple of hours. Its family friendly but you will have to watch that your kids don’t get too close to the edge in some places. Pair the hike with a picnic and you’ll have a fantastic half day of fun.
The hike starts off pancake flat along a trail that parallels the Icefield Parkway heading south. Hike through some trees and proceed south (right) along the old highway when you come to a fork. Beauty Creek is reached in another 0.6 kilometres – and then the scenery explodes. Walk on a well-used trail up the canyon to reach Stanley Falls at the 1.6 kilometre mark. You can still keep going – and in fact the canyon scenery continues to deliver. We turned around when the trail started to disappear into a hill but adventuresome folks will want to take it as far as possible.
Getting there: This trailhead is not well-marked. Look for a pull-off on the east side of the highway, 15.5 kilometres north of the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. There is a hiker sign but nothing that says Beauty Creek. If you reach the Beauty Creek Hostel on the Icefields Parkway you’ve gone two kilometres too far.
LOWER SUNWAPTA FALLS – Easy and its possible to lose the crowds
You won’t avoid people, at least initially as the throngs have come to see Sunwapta Falls – and for good reason. The waterfalls shoot through a narrow cleft with terrifying force so they are an amazing sight to see. But almost no one continues to Lower Sunwapta Falls, just two easy kilometres away. And yet these falls and the trail are also very beautiful.
To find the trail to the lower falls, stay on the east side of the river until the pavement ends. Look for a sign and the easy to follow trail that leads you down gently through the woods with peek-a-boo canyon views and a couple of excellent lookouts. The trail peters out into the woods after you reach the last waterfall in the canyon at about the two kilometre mark. It’s a gentle ascent to return to the parking lot.
Getting there: Look for Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Resort on the west side of the Icefields Parkway. It’s 55 kilometres south of Jasper and very well signed. Follow the dirt road to the parking lot. (The resort is a good place to grab a meal or picnic supplies. And they make a decent latte too.)
EDITH CAVELL MEADOWS – Busy but worth it for in-your -face glacier views
Unless you visit early in the morning or late in the day, you will be sharing this trail with lots of people and the occasional marmot. But in my opinion, this is a must do hike for the fantastic views from different angles of the Angel Glacier tumbling down the north face of Mt. Edith Cavell. Some of the views include the iceberg laden pond below the glacier. Include the side trip on the Path of the Glacier trail but then retrace your tracks and do the Cavell Meadows Trail as a 6.1 to 7.9 kilometre loop. The length varies depending on whether you add in side trails to viewpoints.
The trail is steep in places but switchbacks make it manageable. In July the meadows start to fill with glacier lilies and globeflowers. Bring a picnic and park yourself at one of the viewpoints. Fill your soul with the views.
Getting there: From the Icefields Parkway, turn west onto Highway 93A, the road that takes you past Athabasca Falls. (Definitely worth a visit too.) The turnoff is 7.2 kilometres south of Jasper. Stay on this road for 12.5 kilometres until you reach Mount Edith Cavell Road. Follow it as it winds for 27 kilometres up to the parking lot, located shortly after passing the Tonquin Valley Trailhead. Cross your fingers you don’t have to follow some slow poke on the way up or down.
Two other hikes I’ve done off the Icefields Parkway I’d highly recommend include the 14.4 kilometre round-trip hike to Nigel Pass and the 14 kilometre round-trip hike to the ridge above Helen Lake. This hike in particular offers stupendous views of Crowfoot Mountain and the Crowfoot Glacier.
A big thank you to Travel Alberta for making this post possible.
Thank you to Ford Canada as they provided the Ford CMAX Hybrid Electric car to me. It was quieter than melting ice on the Columbia Icefields – and it got terrific gas mileage in an area with very few gas stations.
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Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta
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