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What You Can Do On A Stop At The Columbia Icefields

What You Can Do on a Stop at the Columbia Icefields

One spring weekend John and I drove from Lake Louise to Jasper on the Icefields Parkway or the road through the clouds” as it was called by those who built it during the Great Depression. I’ve driven it many times but always in the summer. In the winter it’s a drive you should only do when the conditions are right. And even though the calendar says spring, in late March it’s still very much a winter drive. 

We were exceedingly lucky. The roads were clear and there wasn’t a snow storm in the forecast. Even under what I would consider ideal driving conditions, the sign at the entrance to Jasper National Park rated the road as fair. It was a treat to have the time to stop and visit the Columbia Icefields when there was hardly a soul in sight.

On the way to the Columbia Icefields
On the way to the Columbia Icefields in spring
View of the Athabasca Glacier from the Icefields Parkway
View of the Athabasca Glacier from the Icefields Parkway
The Columbia Icefields in July
The Columbia Icefields in July

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Driving the Icefields Parkway in spring

The beauty of a late March drive is that there isn’t an RV to be seen and in fact there’s barely a car on the road. If you’ve ever driven the Icefields Parkway you know it can be clogged with slow moving vehicles, especially on summer weekends.

Another benefit to a late March drive is that you can stop at the Columbia Icefields and feel like you’ve got the place to yourself. 

At the Columbia Icefields these were just a few of the only people we saw
At the Columbia Icefields these were just a few of the only people we saw

An easy hike on moraines

Although the Athabasca Glacier can be seen from the road, you can hike up to the toe of the glacier and in summer you can take a snow coach tour onto the glacierIt was chilly and very windy when we were there so we elected not to go very far.

It’s an easy hike starting from the parking lot across from the Glacier Discovery Centre. Follow a trail through the moraine left by the retreating Athabasca Glacier. In spring go as far as is safe. Use common sense.

From late May until October you can take either a 3 or 6 hour guided icewalk tour

Trail description and map at the parking lot
Trail description and map at the parking lot

A few fun facts about the Columbia Icefields

The Columbia Icefields are a giant expanse of ice located sit on the Continental Divide, high in the Canadian Rockies on the Alberta – British Columbia border. From the Glacier Discovery Centre you can see the Athabasca and Dome Glaciers along with several mountain peaks but it’s a fraction of the entire Icefield. 

The Icefields, made up of 30 glaciers cover almost 326 square kilometres. They’re ringed by 11 mountains, including the highest one in Alberta, Mount Columbia. The area can get up to 7 feet of snow in a year. (Hence part of the reason for all the bad driving.) Meltwater from the Icefields feeds the Columbia, Athabasca and Saskatchewan Rivers.

Believe it or not the ice is close to 300 metres thick!  Running beneath the ice and out of view is Castleguard Cave, Canada’s longest cave. Its accessible to expert cavers in the winter only.

A very different look in the summer
A very different look in the summer – notice the road winding up towards the mountain
At the Columbia Icefields me admiring the glacier
Me admiring the glacier
You feel insignificant beside the Athabasca Glacier
You feel insignificant beside the Athabasca Glacier
Looking north from the trail to the glacier
Looking north from the trail to the glacier

Where are the Columbia Icefields?

The Columbia Icefields are 133 kilometres north of Lake Louise and 104 kilometres south of Jasper. The distances don’t seem like much in the summer but in the winter if a storm moves in it can be a very gnarly drive.

And there’s nothing in the way of services in the winter between Saskatchewan Crossing and Jasper. Only drive this road in the winter under very good conditions.

Where can you stay?

From about April 20th through until Thanksgiving weekend, it’s possible to stay at The Glacier View Lodge. The hotel is on the third floor of the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre. Rooms are very nice, though on the pricey side. 

There is also camping very close by but be warned that even in the height of summer, temperatures can be frosty. And it can snow in any month of the year up here so take plenty of warm clothing. Read Everything You Need to Know About Camping on the Icefields Parkway.

What to do at Columbia Icefields in summer

Before you even head out on a trip along the Icefields Parkway check out the Columbia Icefields web cam – which starts operating every spring.

Take a hike up to Wilcox Pass

Should you be driving the Icefields Parkway in the summer and find you have three hours on your hands, then try a short hike up to Wilcox Pass.

The well-signed trailhead is just a few minutes south of the hotel. Although it’s a steep climb initially, it flattens out quickly. The views of the Columbia Icefields – if you go at least part way up Mt. Wilcox are enchanting. Chances are you’ll see bighorn sheep and masses of wildflowers too.

The Columbia Icefields on the Wilcox Pass hike
The Columbia Icefields on the Wilcox Pass hike
Stunning hikes to do along the Icefields Parkway
Scenery on the Wilcox Pass hike

Experience the Skywalk

The Columbia Icefield Skywalk is also a popular activity. Take a beautiful one kilometre walk that leads to a glass-floor viewing platform. Below is a 280 metre (918 foot) drop! The views of the Sunwapta Valley are breathtaking.

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

Further reading about things to do between Lake Louise and Jasper

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

 

What to do on a stop at the Columbia Icefields

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

This Post Has 22 Comments
    1. @Jennifer Going up in the snow coach in the summer months is a really popular way for the tourists to get a close-up view of all that blue ice. Driving along the Icefields Parkway also presents many more occasions to see that wonderful blue ice.

  1. Wow – those photos are amazing! I regret not going out there when I was in Banff and Lake Louise, but alas, I was cycling across Canada and the timeline did not permit! Will have to make it back with more exploration time. A hike on Wilcox Pass sounds like a great idea.

  2. Wow! That’s magnificence. We drove north of Lake Louise years ago. I was looking for a moose. I had “see a moose” on my bucket list- it was a result of watching “Northern Exposure” and hadn’t yet managed to see one. Did not know about these or we would have kept going. I’d love to get back to that area.

    1. @Billie I haven’t actually seen a moose while in Banff or Jasper National Parks though I did see one out on my bike not far from Calgary in the fall. Go figure. The area deserves a good deal of time to explore properly.

  3. Spectacular views, Leigh! And to answer your question, no, I haven’t been there. The only place I’ve been to in Canada so far is Vancouver — which was great — and I certainly want to see more.

    1. @Andrew I hope Vancouver let the sun in while you visited. It’s a magnificent place when that happens. And a drive on the Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper will never disappoint.

    1. @Marcia If you get up early and hit the road you’ll miss the worst of the RV traffic – and it’s not like this section is ever that busy. But there are big hills and there aren’t always passing lanes.

  4. Wow stunning stuff just makes me realise it’s far too long since I spent some time on a glacier and the real mountains.

    1. @Iain The Icefields Parkway ranks as one of Canada’s most scenic roads to drive – and a stop at the Colombia Icefields is definitely worthwhile. If the weather had been less windy we would have done the hike and gone closer to the glacier.

  5. Glaciers really are among the most impressive natural sights. I saw a few recently in South America. Really stunning!

    1. @beyondblighty I love to get up close to glaciers – and find that deep blue ice. There are plenty of glaciers to see along the drive from Banff to Jasper; I think the Bow Glacier is one of the most beautiful ones – at least from afar.

  6. What I would add being a resident of Jasper National Park for three years:

    – Fill your tank to the max before leaving Jasper or Lake Louise. The roads are nearly empty, and no gas stations in between during the winter. Not where I’d want to be stuck without fuel at that time of year!

    – Do see the Icefields in winter … it’s surreal and gorgeous with the blanket of snow and drifts, compared to the dirty, gravel pocked surface you see in late August. But! Don’t venture onto what COULD be the glacier, under almost any circumstances (except if you have a guide with you. If you fall into a crevasse (a crack in the glacier caused by movement of the ice mass and melting), you will almost certainly die. You are facing a fall of tens of feet into an abyss that is below zero degrees Fahrenheit in ambient temperature. Not a good way to go out!

    – Tell people you are venturing out onto the Parkway before you go, and when you expect to arrive at your destination on the other side. There is no cell service for much of the ride. That way,if something happens, people will know you are missing and will call the appropriate authorities.

    *****

    I say this not to scare anybody, but to inform you of the precautions you need to take to be safe before venturing out into what is remote wilderness. Don’t let your car and a strip of asphalt fool you into thinking otherwise.

    Enjoy your trip in some the most beautiful wild spaces anywhere on Earth, and happy travels! 🙂

    1. @James Those are all great suggestions. I found the signage on the day we did it was misleading as they said the roads had winter conditions. I knew it could change at any time – but the day I did it, it was completely free of snow and ice. In fact there were several bike riders we passed.

  7. Your photos are absolutely breathtaking. I can’t imagine a more pristine landscape and would love to have the opportunity to take your advice and trek up to Wilcox Pass for the view of the Columbia Ice Field. Very informative and inspiring post!

    1. @Mary The beauty f the Wilcox hike is that in no time at all you’re into the superb views. I hope you make it to some of Canada’s National Parks in the near future – and please let me know if you’re coming this way.

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