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View South Down The Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway – 19 Unmissable Stops

The Columbia Icefields Parkway stretches for 232 km between Lake Louise and Jasper, Alberta. It’s one of the prettiest drives in Canada – and indeed the world. While you can knock it off comfortably in three to four hours, that doesn’t allow for any stops. At a minimum, take the day to drive the parkway – but if you’ve got a week, then you’ll have time to get out and explore some of the gorgeous mountains on foot.

Along the Icefields Parkway you’ll see stunning, turquoise-coloured lakes, glacier-rimmed mountains, the Bow River, far-reaching mountain vistas, wildlife and waterfalls. Along the parkway, there are many scenic pullouts – but be careful in summer crossing busy lanes of traffic.

If you love a good bike ride with some epic hills, consider experiencing the parkway from the seat of your bike. Start in Banff, Lake Louise or Jasper.

Bow Lake is always worthy of a stop
Bow Lake is always worthy of a stop

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Herbert Lake stop

Herbert Lake, just 7 km north of Lake Louise, is a beautiful lake where on a peaceful morning or evening you can capture mirror-like reflections of Mount Temple. It’s also a place for a quick swim, should you be exploring on a hot summer’s day.

Herbert Lake
Beautiful Herbert Lake is the first stop on the parkway heading north

Hector Lake, 23 km north of Lake Louise

Hector Lake is the second largest lake, after Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park but the largest natural lake in the park. The lake is named after James Hector who accompanied the Palliser Expedition as a surgeon and geologist.

There is a hiking trail down to the lake – and a campsite on the far side of the Bow River. Only cross the river when it’s safe to do so. You can reserve the campsite online.

Bow Lake 

Gorgeous Bow Lake is best viewed from the lookout on the northwest shore of the lake. There is also an area with picnic tables, accessed just slightly south from the highway pullout.

If you drive down the road at the north end of the lake you’ll reach Num Ti Jah Lodge – a place you can’t miss with its bright red roof. You can spend the night here, enjoy dinner or pick up a snack at the Bow Lake Café.

There is also some excellent hiking that starts by the lodge. Head out on the Bow Glacier Trail. At the large limestone boulder spanning the gorge you have the option to hike to Bow Hut (14.8 km round trip hike) or Bow Glacier Falls – a 9 km round-trip hike.

If you head for the hut, there are some creeks to cross. I’d highly recommend water shoes and a pair of hiking poles.

Explore a spectacular landscape along the parkway
Explore a spectacular landscape along the parkway – and be sure to stop at Bow Lake
Bow Glacier Falls
Bow Glacier Falls
Bow Glacier Hut seen below St. Nicholas Peak
Bow Glacier Hut seen below St. Nicholas Peak

Peyto Lake

The melt from Peyto Glacier feeds stunning turquoise coloured Peyto Lake, located at the Bow Summit, the highest point on the parkway at 2088 m above sea level. 

There has been a paved trail to a viewing deck overlooking the lake and Mistaya River Valley. However, there is ongoing construction to rehabilitate the area – with the addition of more parking, new washrooms, rerouting of trails and expansion of the viewing platform. 

The area will not be accessible to visitors until August 2021.

Stunning Peyto Lake - Photo credit: Sue & Dave @Travel Tales of Life
Stunning Peyto Lake – Photo credit: Sue & Dave @Travel Tales of Life

Waterfowl Lakes 

The Waterfowl Lakes, located 60 km north of Lake Louise, are a great spot for camping, and photography – at least when the water is calm. Their beautiful colour is a function of the glacial silt from the Peyto Glacier.

At the southwest end of the campground, you’ll find the trailhead for the Cirque Lake and Cephren Lake hikes. It’s 7.7 km return to Cephren Lake, 8.8 km return for Cirque Lake or 13.2 km return for both. Allow four hours to hike to both lakes. Reportedly these are muddy hikes – and Cirque Lake is the prettier of the two.

Waterfowl Lakes
Waterfowl Lakes

Mistaya Canyon 

It’s a 1.0 km return hike on an abandoned road to visit Mistaya Canyon. There is an elevation loss and gain of 35 m and footing is pebbly and difficult in places. Allow about 30 – 45 minutes, especially if you are a photographer.

Once at the bridge, admire the deep narrow gorge and marvel at how the power of the Mistaya River has eroded the limestone, making it very smooth over time. You can continue over the bridge to access the 10.4 km return hike to Sarbach Lookout. Also, many visitors go down to the rocks as the area around the canyon isn’t fenced. This isn’t recommended as it is potentially hazardous. 

Fun fact: Just 2.5 miles down from the Mistaya Canyon, the Mistaya River joins the North Saskatchewan River.

I get nervous watching someone this close to the edge of Mistaya Canyon
I get nervous watching someone this close to the edge of Mistaya Canyon
A family checking out the Mistaya River
A family checking out the Mistaya River

Saskatchewan River Crossing

Saskatchewan River Crossing is located at the junction of Highway 93 and 11. It sits at the confluence of three rivers – the North Saskatchewan with the Howse and Mistaya Rivers.

This is the only place to fill up with gas before you head north to Jasper, 154 km distant. There is also a restaurant, gift shop and a hotel called The Crossing Resort.

The pretty area just before Saskatchewan River Crossing heading north
The pretty area just before Saskatchewan River Crossing heading north

Howse River Overlook – and a red chair opportunity

Drive the Icefields Parkway 1 km north from where the David Thompson Highway intersects the Saskatchewan River Crossing and look for the signed Glacier Lake trailhead on the west side of the parkway.

Hike the easy trail towards Glacier Lake, reaching the bridge across the North Saskatchewan River at the 1.1 km point. It’s a sight to be seen in itself, especially when it’s flooding. Reach the Howse River Overlook at 2.2 km and enjoy the view from the red chairs. The area has historical significance as David Thompson, a surveyor, explorer, and fur trader camped here back in 1807.

Cross the North Saskatchewan River at 1.1 km
Cross the North Saskatchewan River on the way to the House River Overlook
The Howse River Overlook
The Howse River Overlook
Enjoying a red chair moment on the hike out at the Howse River Overlook
Enjoying a red chair moment on the hike out at the Howse River Overlook

Sunset Lookout

Most people driving the parkway don’t stop to do the 9.0 km return hike to Sunset Lookout. But if you’re a good hiker and don’t mind a steep trail (it climbs 553 m or 1814 feet), then you will be rewarded with magnificent views of northern Banff National Park and the sight of beautiful, braided channels of the North Saskatchewan and Alexandra Rivers. 

Looking south down the North Saskatchewan River
Looking south down the North Saskatchewan River from Sunset Lookout
Looking north from the Sunset Lookout
Looking north from the Sunset Lookout

Weeping Wall

Drive 26.8 km north of Saskatchewan River Crossing or 22.5 km south of the Columbia Icefields Centre to see the Weeping Wall. It’s even more beautiful in winter when its frozen – and is considered to be one of the top ice climbs in the world.

There is a pullout to see the water dropping more than 100 m from Cirrus Mountain. Catch the sun at just the right angle at the end of the day and you’ll see a rainbow.

The Weeping Wall taken from a moving car
The Weeping Wall taken from a moving car

Panther and Bridal Veil Falls

Bridal Veil Falls are located at the big bend, 36 km north of Saskatchewan River Crossing and 2.2 km south of the turnoff to Parker Ridge. The water originates on the Huntington Glacier and eventually ends up in the North Saskatchewan River.

Panther Falls – which I have yet to see, can be visited in conjunction with Bridal Veil Falls, but you’ll have to hike there on a sometimes- slippery trail so exercise caution. They are reportedly far more stunning than the Bridal Veil Falls.

Parker Ridge Hike

The Parker Ridge hike is one the must do ones along the parkway. Views open on the hike within five minutes of starting out. The hike is just 4.8 km return so you can knock it off in 90 minutes and still have time to gape at the Saskatchewan Glacier. This is a family-friendly hike. 

There is a large, signed parking lot for the Parker Ridge hike, 41 km north of Saskatchewan River Crossing and 8.6 km south of the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre.

The views are close to instantaneous on the Parker Ridge hike
The views are close to instantaneous on the Parker Ridge hike
Looking out at the Saskatchewan Glacier - the source of the North Saskatchewan River
Looking out at the Saskatchewan Glacier – the source of the North Saskatchewan River from the Parker Ridge Trail

Wilcox Pass Red Chair Moment

Start the hike to Wilcox Pass just 2.8 km south of the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. You don’t have to hike all the way to the pass, merely up the steepest section of trail to get the standout view of the Columbia Icefield from the red chairs. Although it’s steep, most kids six and over should be able to handle the hike.

Enjoy a red chair moment and a view to the Columbia Icefields part way up Wilcox Pass
Enjoy a red chair moment and a view to the Columbia Icefield part way up Wilcox Pass

Columbia Icefield – the most famous stop on the parkway

It seems that almost everyone stops at the Columbia Icefield on a pretty, sunny day so the crowds can be intense. If you can ever visit in the off-season, you might just have the area to yourself. 

The Icefields are home to 30 glaciers ringed by 11 mountains, including the highest one in Alberta, Mount Columbia. Meltwater from the Icefields feeds the Columbia, Athabasca and Saskatchewan Rivers. 

There are tours here but you can do a self-guided walk. You can also camp in the area or stay at The Glacier View Lodge.

Trail description and map at the parking lot
Trail description and map at the parking lot
The Columbia Icefields from Wilcox Pass
Civilization seems so close but step back 20 feet and you feel like the mountains are all yours
The Columbia Icefields on the Wilcox Pass hike
The Columbia Icefields on the Wilcox Pass hike

The Glacier Skywalk

Walk the glass-floored Glacier Skywalk on a cliff-edge walkway that takes you to a platform overlooking a 918 foot drop. There are glass panels to keep you safe, but you might still get an adrenaline rush or a case of the willies once you’re there. Needless to say, the views down the valley are incredible. (Regular prices are $36 per adult and $18 per child in 2021.) 

Get to the Skywalk via a shuttle run by Pursuit. It’s all part of the cost of admission. The actual Skywalk is a short drive north of the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre.

The Columbia Icefield Skywalk in Jasper National Park
The Columbia Icefield Skywalk in Jasper National Park – Photo credit: Columbia Icefield Adventure by Pursuit
Quite the backdrop for the Glacier Skywalk – Photo credit: Columbia Icefield Adventure by Pursuit
Quite the backdrop for the Glacier Skywalk – Photo credit: Columbia Icefield Adventure by Pursuit

Tangle Creek Falls

Tangle Creek Falls is located 7 km north of the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre on the east side of the highway. Parking is on the opposite side of the road. The falls are literally right beside the highway. Allow 10 – 20 minutes to visit.

Tangle Creek Falls - Photo credit: Greg Olsen @WWTravelMag
Tangle Creek Falls – Photo credit: Greg Olsen @WWTravelMag

Sunwapta Falls

You’ll find Sunwapta Falls 179 km north of Lake Louise and 56 km southeast of Jasper.

The Athabasca Glacier feeds Sunwapta Falls – made up of an upper and lower sets of waterfalls. The upper falls are extremely easy to access from the parking lot – and as such tend to be very busy. Their drop-off is 18 m – which is especially impressive when you’re standing on the bridge looking over the narrow cleft the water is forced through.

Continue on an easy trail through lodgepole pine forest for 2 km to reach Lower Sunwapta Falls. Almost no one bothers to hike this section, so you may even have the falls to yourself.

The peak season to visit the falls is in late spring and early summer during runoff from snow melt.

The beginning of Sunwapta Falls
The beginning of Sunwapta Falls
Witness the power of Sunwapta Falls
Witness the power of Sunwapta Falls
Sunwapta Falls hike on the Icefields Parkway
There are so many locations on the Sunwapta Falls hike where you can witness the power of the river

Kerkeslin Goat Lick

If you want to see mountain goats, be sure to check out the goat lick. It’s located about 15 minutes north of the Sunwapta Falls stop, near a sign with an image of a goat that warns you to slow down. Mountain goats congregate here to lick the mineral rich silt deposit. In fact, they apparently lick so much of it that their droppings are white instead of black.

Athabasca Falls – one of the most popular stops on the Icefields Parkway

Athabasca Falls is an incredible sight in any season despite the fact the drop is only 23 m. But what the falls lack in vertical drop, they make up for in power. Looking down into a frothing, swirling mass of water is a breathtaking sight.

The falls are perennially busy so if you’re trying to avoid the crowds, visit first thing in the morning or late in the day. There are lots of trails and viewing platforms around the falls. Allow a solid hour to get the most out of the area. 

Athabasca Falls has so many looks depending what part of the trail
Athabasca Falls has so many looks depending what part of the trail you view it from
Parts of frozen Athabasca Falls in late winter
Parts of frozen Athabasca Falls in late winter

Where to stay 

Read this post if you’re planning to camp along the parkway

If you’re looking for a roof over your head the following are some of the options.

Lake Louise

The Post Hotel and Spa is lovely but it’s in the village and not on the lake. The food is superb.

The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise enjoys the best views of the lake though it comes with a price. Deer Lodge is a short walk away from Lake Louise. Their updated rooms are great.

Baker Creek Mountain Resort offers cozy log cabins. There is also an affordable hostel option in Lake Louise.

Saskatchewan River Crossing accommodation

Before you reach Saskatchewan River Crossing there is the option of the Mosquito Creek hostel. The Rampart Creek Wilderness Hostel is just north of Saskatchewan River Crossing. Your final hostel option is Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel, 42 kilometres north of Saskatchewan River Crossing. 

The Crossing Resorta motel is a good choice if you want to explore the David Thompson Highway.

Sunwapta Falls accommodation

Spend a night or two at the Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge about 100 kilometres north of Saskatchewan River Crossing if you want a good base for exploring the area.

The Athabasca Falls hostel, located 23 kilometres north of Sunwapta Falls is a less expensive option.

Jasper accommodation

For a great location with a price to match choose the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. 

I like the look of The Crimson Jasper though I have never stayed here.

The Maligne Canyon Hostel is an affordable option.

If you want to be on a lake with lots of activities the Pyramid Lake Resort would be an excellent option. But for a main street location in Jasper I think Whistler’s Inn is a great choice.

Where to eat on the Icefields Parkway
Sunwapta Falls Resort is a good place to buy snacks or get a meal on the Icefields Parkway

Driving the Icefields Parkway in Winter

The Icefields Parkway in winter is beautiful but it can be tough and dangerous to drive. Go prepared so you can survive the winter drive – knowing that cell service is virtually non-existent, and help can be a long time coming.

If you’re still keen to drive it, try to choose a sunny day without any snow in the forecast. Late spring is a great time to see the snowy covered mountains, without the crowds.

The Parkway in winter on a very good day for driving
The Parkway in winter on a very good day for driving
Lots of snow by at the Parker Ridge Trailhead in late March
Lots of snow by at the Parker Ridge Trailhead in late March

A side trip worth doing

At Saskatchewan River Crossing you can pick up Highway 11, the David Thompson Highway. It’s absolutely beautiful, and there’s lots of camping (mostly first come, first served) and hiking opportunities. In the winter you can check out the fabulous Abraham Lake bubbles.

You might like: Nordegg Alberta – An Undiscovered Gem in the Rockies

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

19 unmissable stops on the Icefields Parkway in Banff and Jasper National Parks - along with suggestions on where to hike and stay

 

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

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