Planning Your Icefields Parkway Drive in One Day
The Icefields Parkway, a 232 km driving tour through some of the most impressive landscapes in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, is a stunning introduction for those planning their first trip to this region of the world.
Along the way, visitors can expect postcard mountain vistas, a colossal network of hiking trails of all difficulty levels, ancient glaciers, huge valleys, turquoise mountain lakes, and the opportunity to spot wildlife such as bears, elk, moose, wolves, and various bird species in their natural habitat.
Beginning either in the mountain towns of Banff or Jasper, the entire drive meanders through two protected national parks of the same name and are just as scenic if you choose to travel from south to north or vice versa. While I've noticed that some online guides will tell you that you can do the Icefields Parkway drive in 4-5 hours, including stops at the major points of interest, I feel this is entirely too rushed. For a more leisurely pace it's best to plan a whole day for a one-way drive of the route, setting off early in the morning from either town and then spending the night in Banff or Jasper at the end of the day. This will give you enough time to more fully appreciate the marvelous scenery and not feel too pressed for time, especially if you plan to visit during the busy summer months (June-September) when the route is more congested with traffic and highway construction.
To give you an idea of the main stops along the way, here is a handy guide on how you can spend one day touring the Icefields Parkway, with stops listed in order from north to south (so, beginning in Jasper and ending in Banff). Please note, I've only included stops that are actually along the travel route. While there are plenty of things to see and do in both Banff and Jasper, for the sake of this guide I felt including those would simply eat up too much time. It's best to save exploring the towns and surrounding natural attractions for separate days.
Drive starting point
Jasper, Alberta (population: 4,590)
From Jasper, follow the road signs posted around town to direct you south onto the Icefields Parkway, also known as Highway 93. You can also stop at the Visitor Info Centre in Jasper (marked on the map below) for more information. Public washrooms are located across the street from the Visitor Info in the pink building and at the intersection of Connaught Drive and Hazel Avenue.
Major points of interest (where to stop)
Located approximately 30 km south of Jasper, Athabasca Falls is a powerful waterfall known for its force rather than height or width. The strong surge of water that thunders over the falls has carved its way through the limestone found in the gorge below the waterfall, leaving an impressive canyon that you can follow along walking paths all the way down to the Athabasca River.
The Athabasca Falls can easily be reached from the visitor parking lot and there are plenty of vantage points at higher and lower levels to view the falls and canyon below. Throughout the day the site can be very busy as most tour buses stop here, but generally the crowds stay at the main level around the falls and don't wander down to the river.
Note that the spray from the falls can make the rocks on some of the trails slippery - be sure to wear sturdy shoes with a textured grip to avoid slipping (Merrell makes some excellent hiking shoe options for both men and women).
With water originating from the Athabasca Glacier, the Sunwapta Falls are another powerful display of the glacial waters flowing through the Rockies. Again, these falls are only a short walk away from the parking lot and are generally quite popular.
While most visitors remain on the walking paths or viewing platform around the upper falls, you can also take a short walk down to the Lower Sunwapta Falls on the marked hiking trail.
The Sunwapta Falls are about 55 km south of Jasper. At the highway turn-off you'll find the Sunwapta Falls Resort, where you can use the washroom, purchase something to eat, or browse souvenirs. At the end of the access road is the parking lot for the falls.
Mushroom and Diadem Peaks Viewpoint
Although the weather wasn't quite as clear as I'd hoped it would be, the views at the Mushroom and Diadem Peaks viewpoint are still worth a short stop to stretch your legs, take some photos, and enjoy the fresh air.
Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier
Witness the "toes" of several glaciers of the Columbia Icefield, the largest icefield in the Rockies, extending down over the steep mountains at this popular site along the Icefields Parkway.
From here, you can enjoy the views from the patio of the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre, experience the cliff-edged walkway of the Glacier Skywalk, or ride onto the surface of the receding Athabasca Glacier in an all-terrain Ice Explorer vehicle (while the Athabasca Glacier is one of the most visited and easily accessible glaciers in North America, you should not step onto the glacier unless you are taking part in a guided tour as there are steep sections and hidden crevasses in the ice).
If you plan to take a tour onto the glacier, be sure to pack a jacket, gloves, toque, and appropriate hiking shoes as the temperature on the ice is usually quite a bit cooler than the surrounding areas, even in the summer.
The Columbia Icefields are about 90 minutes south of Jasper, and if this is the main site you really want to spend a lot of time in, try to get there early as it's incredibly busy with visitors and tour buses throughout the day. Tickets for the activities and tours can be purchased in the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre.
Pull over at the Parker Ridge parking lot and you'll find yourself surrounded by impressive panoramas of the mountains. Although there aren't any picnic tables, this makes for a great lunch spot if you've packed your own meal for the day.
If time allows and you're feeling adventurous, you can walk the Parker Ridge trail which takes approximately 2 hours and has an elevation gain of 250 meters, providing views of the surrounding mountain ranges and the Saskatchewan Glacier.
Bow Summit & Peyto Lake
The tourism industry has grown exponentially in the Rocky Mountains in the last 20 years or so, and social media has certainly played a big part in the recent rapid expansion. While I think it's wonderful that more and more people are being inspired to go out and see the world through what they see online, it also means some natural places which were once considered serene have now been overwhelmed by visitors, many of whom seemingly only caring to visit to get an Instagram-worthy shot of themselves.
One such place is the Bow Summit viewpoint over Peyto Lake, a glacier-fed lake with a striking natural turquoise color.
A brief but steep 10-minute walk uphill leads you from the parking lot to the viewpoint, and throughout the day you can expect the trail and viewing platform to be packed with tourists from all over the world. Although most of the visitors stayed on the platform or marked trails, I noticed plenty of people who decided to jump the overlook railing to get a less crowded, social media friendly shot; another unoriginal photograph to be added to the thousands already online of the same location.
Not only are these actions dangerous, but also it's disheartening to see others treating our natural world with a complete lack of respect, all for the sake of a few "likes" on a digital platform.
Nevertheless, seeing the surreal shades of blue of Peyto Lake is definitely something you won't want to miss, and on a sunny day you'll find the color to be even more vibrant. Just remember to respect the natural surroundings and stay on the trails.
With meltwater coming down from the Bow Glacier, Bow Lake is another worthwhile stop along the Icefields Parkway. From the lake, you can view the Crowfoot Glacier, which was named over a century ago when it more closely resembled a three-toed crowfoot. Today, one of the toes has already melted and the middle toe is slowly disappearing.
Along the edge of Bow Lake you'll find an easy, family-friendly hike that takes about an hour and a half to complete, with views of the glacial water, surrounding mountains, and glaciers.
Lake Louise is world-renowned for its glacier-fed waters backed by the Victoria Glacier and tall surrounding peaks, as well as the location of the luxurious Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Resort Hotel.
In the summertime, visitors can rent canoes to paddle out onto the lake and explore the many hiking trails in the area, while in the winter you can skate on the frozen ice or pamper yourself with modern comforts inside the hotel. If you visit between June and September, expect Lake Louise to be very busy.
Important things to note
More often than not, a drive along the Icefields Parkway will result in roadside wildlife viewings, whether that's in the form of bears, elk, cougars, or other animals that call the Rocky Mountains home. If you spot an animal along the side of the road, slow down, stay in your car, take a photo, and be on your way. Far too frequently, bear sightings along the highway are causing major traffic congestion, more commonly known as "bear jams", making it dangerous for other travelers and many times overwhelming and stressing the animal (for what not to do if you see a bear on the side of the road, right this way). If you really want to get a closer look, pack a good zoom lens - anything over 300 mm should do the trick!
Additionally, it goes without saying that you should under no circumstances feed the wildlife or leave garbage behind as this can attract animals and make them aggressive towards people once they have developed a taste for human food or garbage. Sadly, once bears and other animals have gotten used to this taste, they often need to be relocated or killed.
You'll find outhouse-type washrooms of varying degrees of cleanliness and smelliness located at almost all viewpoints, picnic areas, and major stops of interest along the Icefields Parkway. Some of these outhouses include hand sanitizer, while others do not. Best to bring your own. At the busiest stops, like the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre or Lake Louise, you'll find washrooms with modern plumbing, sinks, and soap.
Visiting National Parks
The Icefields Parkway stretches across two national parks, Banff and Jasper. Park passes are required and can be purchased online, at the park gates, or tourist information centres.