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



 

The rest of our scenic hikes – Glacier NP, MT

Comments 20 Standard
Two Medicine Lake
Big Horn Sheep

Howdy folks, welcome to my trail!

Although we’ve spent three weeks at Glacier National Park, we hiked only a few of its 734 miles of trails.  This place offers many outdoor activities, but exploring on foot remains our preferred method.

This is my 4th post about the park, and I hope folks remain interested in seeing the incredible views, wildlife and wildflowers there.

If you missed those previous posts, click here for enchanting waterfalls, here for picturesque lakes and here for receding glaciers.

Logan Pass

Showing off my bear spray

Highland Trail (at Logan’s Pass)

One of the top hikes at GNP is the moderately-difficult Highland Trail.  If you can do only one hike, this might be the one.  It’s rather long at 7.6 miles one way, but there’s a nice turnaround spot at Haystack Butte or anywhere else along the way if you’re just looking for a short trek that displays the best that the park has to offer.

The trail follows the Continental Divide below the sawtoothed Garden Wall and gains 1,300′ (and losses 3,700′ if you go all the way to the Loop at Granite Park Chalet).  The first 7.6 miles from Logan’s Pass to the chalet filled our eyes and camera cards with the incredible beauty of this place.  We trekked past streams, creeks, avalanche chutes, alpine meadows, wildflowers galore and several Bighorn Sheep.

The final 4 miles on the Loop Trail from the chalet is a steep downhill knee-rattling hike through burned forests to the Loop Shuttle Stop.  But what a hike it was!

Highline Trail

The start of the trail near Logan’s Pass

Livingstone Pass

The sun slowly creeping up on the Livingston Range

Highline Trail

Looking down at Going-to-the Sun Road on the west side of the park

Alpine Meadows

Oh the flowers, the flowers!

Highline Trail

Granite park Chalet

Historic Granite Park Chalet ahead

Garden Wall

This spur trail leads to the Garden Wall overlooking Grinnell and Salamander Glaciers.  It’s another strenuous trail off the Highline Trail, and we didn’t add it to this long journey

Heavens Peak

Heavens Peak was visible on our descent

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Loop trail

The hillsides on the steep descent were brimming with scarlet red Indian Paintbrush

For this hike, we parked at Logan’s Pass at 7AM, hiked the trail 11.6 miles one way over the Highline and Loop trails, then caught the shuttle at the Loop Shuttle Stop to get back to the visitor center at Logan’s Pass.  It was a long and fantastic hike.

Big Horn Sheep

This guy was not shy at all, and for once I was the one running away when he got too close!

Scenic Point (Two Medicine Lake area)

On paper, this one scared us a bit.  A 2,300′ elevation gain over 3.9 miles to the top?  Honey, hand me the Advil!  In reality the incline was constant over the whole ascent, with none of the knee-killing super-steep ascents I had feared.

Foal

Morning stroll for the foals as we drove to our hike

Ferocious local horses on Highway 49

Lots of horsepower along Hwy 49

This trail gradually leaves the woods behind and just as we crested a ridge some barren patches of dead trees came into view.  The chalk-white trees were a result of Whitebark Pine Blister Rust, a fungal disease that was accidentally introduced from Europe around 1900. According to a park brochure, nearly half of the original Whitebark Pine population here is already dead.  It’s estimated that more than 75% of the remaining trees are infected with the disease as well, and they will die within the next 20 years.  Very sad, and major scientific work is being done to squash the epidemic.

Ghost Pine Trees

Ghostly Pine Trees

Ghost Pine Trees

Dancers on a hill

Two Medicine Lake is out of the main area of the park, and much quieter – we encountered only a few people on the way back down.

Two Medicine Lake

Two Medicine Lake

Apgar Lookout (west side of the park)

The day we tackled this 7.1-mile out and back trail, rain was forecast to arrive at 11AM.  To get ahead of it we began early and picked up the trailhead at the southwest corner of the park.  It climbed to a two-story wood frame lookout tower at the summit that was built in 1929.

Although no longer in use, the fire tower is considered an historical structure, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  For the most part this trail is exposed, as the area was ravaged by the 2003 Reynolds fire that gutted 13% of the park’s total area.

Apgar Lookout

At the summit, we had a so-so view of Lake McDonald and some of the distant peaks of Glacier NP.  We enjoyed our perch for only a short time, as we could feel the weather change and hear thunder in the distance.  Even though it rained on us a bit on the way back to the car, we got a great workout hustling down the mountain.

A couple of feathered friends gave us “the eye” as we made our way along:

Apgar Lookout

New growth – things are looking good after the Reynolds Fire of 2003

Danny On Trail

This trail is actually outside of Glacier NP and on the nearby Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort.  What makes it interesting is that it offers options to ride the ski lift down after a 4-mile hike up to the summit, or up first to hike back down.  We had originally intended to hike up and down, but an appointment for Betsy forced us to pick one – and of course we chose to hike up and ride the lift back down.

Danny on Trail

I finally succumbed and got hiking poles, thanks to my knee injury

Danny on Trail

Another mile to the summit, then an easy cruise back down on the lift

Danny On Trail

Whitefish Lake and Mountain Resort seen from the ski lift

After all the crazy roads Betsy has been on, we finally got a big rock hit on a nice stretch of Montana highway.  It cracked about 6″, and we called a repair guy to come out and try to stop it from progressing.

The crack is near the bottom of the windshield, so it’s not in our field of view as we drive.  If we make it in and out of Canada with no further damage, we’ll reassess and determine whether to replace the windshield.

Betsy windshield

Betsy’s windshield repair – hoping for the best!

Socialize and Patronize

John and Sharon of On the Road of Retirement had arrived in the area, so a meet-up was in order.  We had lots of catching up to do, since we last saw them when we met in Florida in January of 2014.  It appears our paths will be criss-crossing this coming winter, and we’re looking forward to more get-togethers with them.

John and Sharon

After 2 1/2 years we meet again with John and Sharon for beer and good munchies

We had a blast shopping at the local stands and markets around Hungry Horse and Columbia Falls, getting all the goodies we’ll need for the next part of our journey:

While on the west side we camped at Mountain Meadows RV Park (Steve’s review here).

Although both sides of Glacier NP offered tons of outdoor fun, we preferred hanging out on the east side, where we enjoyed less crowding and more choices of hiking trails.

And yes, we took a break from all of those scenic hikes:

Mountain Meadows RV Park

Mountain Meadows RV Park was quite to our liking

Our three weeks of exploration at Glacier NP was memorable.  It’s definitely near the top of our list of favorite National Parks!

 

Next Up:  Crossing borders again