Captivating Icefields Parkway – Canadian Rockies

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Highway 93 is a major north/south highway that begins in Jasper, Canada and ends in Wickenburg, AZ, 1,720 miles away.  The stretch from Mile 0 to Mile 144 is known as the Icefields Parkway, and it links Jasper to Lake Louise in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.  It winds along the Continental Divide, through Jasper National Park and Banff National Park, traversing some of the wildest and most rugged land imaginable – mighty mountains, vast sweeping valleys, raging rivers, glaciers, lakes, waterfalls and simply spectacular scenery.

We had seen pictures and read friends’ blog posts, and now we certainly agree it’s a must see, must drive for any visit to this part of Canada.

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The parkway was built during the depression era, and due to the rugged terrain and short warm season, it took 9 years to complete.  Click here for more history about the parkway.

The trip can be made in three hours or less, but why rush it?  The jaw-dropping scenery will slow folks down soon after they cross through the entrance gate at Jasper (you need a Parks Canada pass to drive through), and likely wildlife encounters grab everyone’s attention.

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Our official greeter, as he watched over his harem

Bull Elk's harem, what a stud!

Bull Elk’s harem, what a stud!

We explored the parkway on several occasions.  While at Jasper we went as far as the Columbia Icefield – the border between Jasper NP and Banff NP – on one drive.  On another day we drove to Valley of Five Lakes near Jasper and picked up a trail there.  Finally, we drove all the way with Betsy to our next destination at Lake Louise.

Ice fields Parkway

There are several viewpoints, interpretative displays, points of interest and photo opportunities along the route that once again kept my camera in overdrive.  Some pictures were “drive-by shootings”, while others were taken while we were on a trail.

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Tangle Falls

Tangle Falls is a roadside waterfall

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Columbia Icefield

Columbia Icefield, the largest in the Canadian Rockies, is a surviving remnant of the thick ice mass that once mantled most of western Canada’s mountains.  Nearly three-quarters of the park’s highest peaks are located close to this ice field, and the area is the center of all glacial adventure.

Columbia Icefields

Columbia Icefield straddles Jasper NP and Banff NP.  At the center is Athabasca Glacier

One of the most popular tourist attractions is the trail to the toe of Athabasca Glacier.  It ‘s a short but steep hike that ends close to the edge of the receding glacier.

Toe of the Glacier Hike

The trail to the toe of the glacier runs over limestone uncovered by the ice.  Steve’s got his gloves on, it must be in the 30’s again!

The Athabasca glacier is one of the “toes” of the Columbia Icefield, and is 2.3 sq. miles long and 300–980′ thick.

Athabasca Glacier

At the toe of the Athabasca Glacier

After that trek we crossed the parkway and visited the Columbia Icefield Discovery Center to learn more about the history of the parkway and the gradual recession of Athabasca Glacier.

Icefield Center

The very popular Columbia Icefield Discovery Center

Athabasca Glacier

Steve enjoys his coffee (not from that chain outfit in Seattle, John) where the toe of Athabasca Glacier was in 1843

Ice field Parkway

It took 600 construction workers nine years to complete the parkway

One of the plaques mentioned that because of a warming climate, the Athabasca Glacier has been receding rapidly for the last 125 years.  Losing half its volume in that time, the shrinking glacier has left a moonscape of rocky moraines in its wake.  Below are photos from 1940 and Sept, 2016.

Wilcox Pass

Further along the parkway was Wilcox Trail, where our hearts pounded as we climbed to the top of the ridge for a rewarding view:

Wilcox Trail

Wilcox Trail

Is he smiling because he made it to the top first, or…

Red Chair in Icefield Parkway

…because he spotted another pair of red chairs?  Ain’t that a grand view!

There are six pairs of red chairs scattered around Jasper National Park, but we’d found only two so far.

Glacier Adventure

Zooming into the glacier we saw tourists enjoying Athabasca up close and personal aboard an all-terrain Ice Explorer.

The Drive Back to Jasper

Iceland Parkway

Looking down at the parkway heading south

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Female Big Horn

Clueless tourists like this one make me cringe!

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Sunwapta, meaning ‘turbulent water’ in Stoney native language, offers a drop of 60′ and is 30′ wide.

Sunwapta Falls

The roaring Sunwapta Falls

Valley of Five Lakes

Off the parkway is the Valley of the Five Lakes, which was close to our campground.  We followed the long loop (6 mi) counterclockwise, passing five extremely clear lakes displaying shades of jade or blue, depending on their depth.

Rain was due the morning we hiked the trail, but thankfully we finished our trek before the skies opened up.  The lakes were amazing, and I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

Valley of Five Lakes

Lake #1

Valley of Five Lakes

Lake #2

Red Chair at Valley of Five Lakes

Our third pair of red chairs at Lake #3!

Valley of Five Lakes

Lake #4

Valley of Five Lakes

Lake #5

 

Driving Betsy to Lake Louise

We got a new perspective during this drive on the parkway, as it had snowed the previous night.  It added a beautiful dimension to the already breathtaking scenery.

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Steve removed the door screen and touched up Betsy’s windshield for his favorite photographer – he’s so sweet!

Glacier Skywalk

We didn’t take the Glacier Skywalk. It was pricey and the view here wasn’t as good as the one at the Discovery Center

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Ice fields

Columbia Icefield after a dusting of snow

Waterfowl Lake

Waterfowl Lake

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Approaching Lake Louise, we saw the “million dollar overpass”, built just for bear, elk and other wildlife that may want to cross the Trans-Canada Highway.

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Pedestrians not allowed on this overpass

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The drive along the Icefields Parkway was sensory overload, and one of the highlights of our Rocky Mountains adventures.  A visit to the Canadian Rockies would be incomplete without experiencing this captivating area.

 

Next up:  Oh So Famous Lake Louise



 

17 thoughts on “Captivating Icefields Parkway – Canadian Rockies

  1. It’s a spectacular drive. I agree … why rush it? We did half of it from Banff to the Columbia Icefield, and completed the other end from Jasper a few years later. That allowed us to dally and hike along the way. Those red chairs must be new since our visit in 2009. They make a nice counterpoint of color to the scenery. The Glacier Skywalk must be new too. I can see why such attractions are built, but I wish they weren’t. I’m with you on clueless tourists and wildlife. Now problem if the wildlife comes to you, but it’s so obvious she was going to them … a big no, no.

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  2. Oh, how spectacular!! I love that you not only drove the Icefields Parkway, but took us out onto the nearby trails (of course!). So beautiful that you were there for the leaves changing, and also for a dusting of snow. Your photos are very enticing—the lakes are gorgeous and the red chairs are so fun. That has to be the biggest bull elk I’ve ever seen!

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  3. This is such a breathtaking drive:) How nice of Steve to remove the screen door for better photos:) We have removed the screen from the long window by my seat permanently just for that reason. All the ice and glaciers are so beautiful. Love your photo approaching the low clouds surrounding the mountains. Outstanding photo!! Great photos of the Five Lakes! The bull elk are so massive! Glad you got to hear the trumpeting! John didn’t miss your little comment…haha! I’m sorry it was so cold for most of your visit. While it seems too much heat was everywhere else, you were in early winter way too early.

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  4. I LOVE the red chair program. Such a great idea! And I have yet to see any placed in a location with less than spectacular views. How do you get THAT job – the person who gets to check out the most picturesque locations in the National Park System and decide which gets the red chairs? I want that job. 🙂

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  5. What a great post Mona Liza. I love that the pictures are so large I can really feel the scale and absorb the beautiful colors. That is some bull caribou. I have never seen one that close. He is really spectacular. How absolutely wonderful to be able to hike up to a glacier. Your comparison pictures show how much has been lost and make me very sad that we are still not doing anything to even try to stop our part in global warming. Love the pictures of the lakes. So beautiful and the one of Steve in the chairs made me laugh. If you two keep it up, you’ll find all the red chairs. Should be a prize if you do. Thanks for the tip about the skyway verses the discovery center. Another smile when I saw the overpass. Big high 5’s to the Canadians for caring. You seem to have had reasonable tourist traffic and not toooo cold although 30 degrees is lower than I ever said I’d do but still I hope some day to use your blogs as a guide for my own trip so thank you so much for such great posts.

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    • Thanks. Just so you know, entrance to All Canada National Parks will be free next year, which means double the crowd we had, but the scenery will make it up for you.

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  6. Now there is something I have never seen…a Caribou crossing. Wow are they huge.

    I love those red chairs.

    Your photos are outstanding. What an amazing place. Thanks for the great tour. I know we will never get there.

    And yes, that tourist needs her head examined!

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  7. Wow, how beautiful but looks cold. What visual delight you two have been seeing. And to think we are near the end (or beginning) of Hwy 93 as we sit in sunny and warm Phoenix.

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  8. Thank you so much for posting these beautiful pictures! When I retire in a few years, this drive will definitely be on my To Do list.

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