Icefields Parkway – Glaciers, Waterfalls & Helicopters Oh My
When we were turning onto highway 93 from Lake Louise, AB our GPS announced “Toll Booth Ahead” and I thought “Great, now the tolls begin.” As we pulled up to the toll booth it was just a roadside hut saying you must purchase National Park Pass, which we already had…so I was stoked, it’s almost like a free toll booth.
To simply say this 232 kilometer drive between Jasper and Lake Louise lives up to the designation of a National Park would be an understatement! Every turn, every hill, every mile of the Icefields Parkway is simply stunning. Waterfalls trickle down glacier covered mountain tops, aqua green rivers flow from all angles and the never ending valley of craggy mountain tops excite the imagination. I just loved this drive and it was made sweeter by the fact Nikki was behind the wheel all day so I could really soak it up 🙂
We had a few stops on our list of “must see” attractions along the parkway, some from locals and others from the visitor center. Here it goes in order of our favorites:
Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like: Helicopter plus Hiking. Our specific tour was rounded out with lunch, champagne and a sweet chocolate dessert. Sounds like a slice of heaven right? You bet your a** it was! During our #AlaskaBound research we found this heli-hiking tour that departs from the Icefields Adventure Base Heliport. We booked our tour several weeks in advance (which is a big deal for us if you’ve ever read how we typically unplan our adventures) and as the big day neared we got really nervous questioning our decision and wondering if we should cancel: Was this tour worth it? Is it going to be a typical tourist trap phony adventure? Why did we agree to pay this much for one afternoon of play?
Well, I think this video sums up our feelings pretty darn solidly!
Here’s the direct link to our Heli-Hiking Adventure: 6 Glaciers Tour + Twin Falls Hike. There are a ton of other options including a backcountry fishing adventure that sounded pretty cool, but when Nikki asked our pilot what his favorite tour was he responded without hesitation: “The Complete Columbia Icefields Tour because there’s no other way to view these great glaciers besides from the air.”
Free Wild Camping
If you decide to take a helicopter excursion yourself we found a beautiful, free Wild Camping site just a few miles south of the Icefields Heli Base called Preachers Point on the cliffs of Abraham Lake. Stay at this camp for several days and you’re basically getting your helicopter experience for half price…right!?! The GPS coordinates are: 52°5’28″N 116°25’25″W
Peyto Lake and Bow Summit
As we pulled into the parking area the Bus and RV lot was closed off so Nikki pulled us through the extremely tight automobile parking lot and scored us the last bit of curb in the place. We hit this spot at the exact same time as the Asian tour bus so the mostly snow covered trail moved at a glacial pace…pun intended. The hike should only take about 10 minutes but we were working our way up the hill for a sold 25 minutes. As we neared the lookout, all the foreign languages stated buzzing with excitement, a few people ran past us and then all we heard were “oooohs and aaaahhhhhhs” and that’s pretty much universal. The color of Peyto Lake with the backdrop of the rugged mountains is absolutely jaw dropping.
This time of year it was mostly iced over so I’m sure it becomes more spectacular as the season comes into full swing for early summer. Seriously it was gorgeous but I can only image the color of the water under all that white ice. There is a hike that is supposed to be spectacular to Bow Falls but we didn’t have time for the 6½ km round trip.
Besides the two I’ve mentioned above there are countless pull-outs along the way, each offering a different look at this amazing terrain. Take your time on this trip and pull out at every location you possibly can, trust me, it’s worth it. A few have a short hike that leads to a waterfall but most are just scenic quick stops. The only downside to many of these scenic pull-outs is: you’re looking at something so spectacular yet you cannot access it in any easy way. I found myself turning to Nikki numerous times saying “damn, I really wish there was a hiking trail here.”
Glacier Skywalk Experience
We didn’t expect much here, so maybe that’s why we really liked it! Architecturally speaking this skywalk is beautiful with rusted metal thrusting from the cliffs edge and thick glass as the floor. We took the very last bus out, and due to the cool weather most people rushed back to the bus and we were pretty much all alone out there! Our inner child took over as we ran around the arch, arms wide as if we were planes, staring down at the valley floor thousands of feet below. Is it a major thrill seeking adventure? No. Is it the best view in the area? No. Did it make us smile and say “wow”? Yes. Would we recommend it? Well, I hate to be the bearer of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) but if you’re only here once then why not?
Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure
We’ve spent time on glaciers in the past so we had big expectations for something really cool considering the relentless marketing materials we’ve seen about this tour since we’ve been in Canada. The 6 wheel drive monster truck bus was pretty cool and our guide provided us with a little history on the short drive to the Columbia Icefield Glacier. One cool fact: The Columbia Icefield is the largest Ice Field in the Rocky Mountains of North America and the part you can see on this tour is only a teeny-tiny fraction of it.
Once the big bus parks you’re let out for 20 minutes and it’s requested you stay in the “parking lot” on the glacier. The area you’re allowed to walk around is flattened so it doesn’t feel like a glacier at all and you don’t get the deep blue crevasse you would see on a natural part of the glacier. That said, this is the only way you can get this close to the glacier and the surrounding views are spectacular. If you won’t have another chance to visit a glacier I’d say do the tour, if you’re on your way to Alaska like us then save the cash and just hike along the free viewing trail.
Campgrounds are Closed
Apparently the snowplow took out the sign for our campground so we ended up turning into the hostel instead. The manager was extremely helpful and knowledgeable about the area. Unfortunately our destination was closed despite what we were told by the visitor center (and what was written on their ‘season’ info). This is a real bummer, there is literally nowhere within 100km to camp so we decided to wing it at a nearby picnic area.
We were nervous at first but a couple hours later there were 4 more RVs and 3 of them were from Alberta themselves. I guess this is fairly common in the area?!? Maybe it’s a different story when tourist season picks up to a full swing, we have not confirmed this, so please don’t assume its ok until you do your own research.
There are several little campgrounds along the Icefields Parkway with plenty of hiking and sightseeing to be done. I’m sure we sound like a broken record here, but I wish we had more time to explore and take it slow on this route. I’d plan at least 2 full days if you really wanna get out and stretch your legs while traveling this route from Lake Louise to Jasper.
Have you driven the Icefields Parkway in Alberta? Am I crazy or totally right that it’s one of the most stunning drives in the world? Please share your thoughts in the comments below, any insights are extremely helpful for others planning their own Icefield adventure.
Fuel Prices – Gas and Diesel were very expensive here and you should plan on filling up in Banff / Jasper to avoid the excessive pricing.
Road Conditions – The roads are in excellent condition so the drive is super enjoyable!
Dates Visited – May 26 – 27, 2015
Disclaimer – Thanks to Tourism Jasper for helping us plan our trip through the Icefields Parkway in Alberta. Super thanks to Rockies Heli Canada and Tourism Jasper for splitting the bill with us for the heli-hike experience, it was completely unexpected and we are extremely grateful for your kindness. No matter what, our opinions are our own and cannot be purchased…so we’re super happy we had such a blast!