Columbia Icefields Parkway - A Guide to the Perfect Road Trip
Columbia Icefields Parkway in Canada is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. We created a list of the most spectacular sights, top attractions and best things to do along the way so you'll enjoy the most of your road trip through the Canadian Rockies.
Columbia Icefields Parkway is a true Canadian gem linking Lake Louise with Jasper.
This 232km long double lane highway unquestionably deserves its place on the list of the most beautiful road trips in the world.
Planning COLUMBIA Icefields Parkway Trip
Even though it is possible to drive Columbia Icefields Parkway from one end to the other in only 3 hours, it would be more than foolish, and we don’t see a single reason why anyone would have done it.
Believe us, we've driven this road three times already, and hope there will be a fourth time for us sometime in the future.
Nature along the road is out of this world, and for us, the highway is one of the most rewarding places on the planet. Where else you can see otherworldly mountains, crystal clear lakes, wildlife, and thick forest without even stepping out of the car?
One full day is an absolute must to completely enjoy Columbia Icefields Parkway, splitting the road trip into two days is even better when you have enough time.
Icefields Parkway is on every travel itinerary when visiting the Canadian Rockies so don't expect to have it just for yourself. Instead hit the road early and try to beat the crowd, especially big coaches carrying large groups.
WHAT TO SEE ALONG COLUMBIA ICEFIELDS PARKWAY
Columbia Icefields Parkway offers beautiful sights along the road such as glaciers (supposedly more than 100!), waterfalls, emerald lakes and, of course, mountain crests lining the way.
The freedom how to plan the day was something we appreciated the most, and this stretch of road was where we were the most grateful for having our rental car. Even though the highlights along the Columbia Icefields Parkway are easily accessible, and can get crowded you still have a choice to personalize this day bit more as the choice of side trips is enormous.
We traveled from the north to south, so our journey started in Jasper, all attractions below are sorted accordingly.
One more thing - always remember to stay safe.
It is easy to be enthralled by the ubiquitous beauty of nature around, but don't forget you are still on a busy highway so keep an eye on passing by cars and watch out for wildlife.
Athabasca Falls is a fall on Athabasca River, only 30 kilometers from Jasper, so for many it is often first or the last stop on Columbia Icefields Parkway. This stop was insanely busy in the morning, the parking lot was full of tour buses and selfie lovers, so we have to made our way through the crowds to take some pictures.
The first, a not very positive impression was improved once we stepped on the bridge overlooking this waterfall.
Athabasca Falls is not known for the hight but for the enormous quantity of water falling into the gorge, and you might see it in its best when the snow melts, in late April or rather early May.
Athabasca Glacier is a large reservoir of water, and it feeds Sunwapta Falls as well.
The Falls consists of two waterfalls, upper and lower while the upper part is more heavily visited as it is easily accessible if you are looking for a more peaceful experience, you need to walk 1.3 kilometers to the lower part. The Sunwapta Falls are in their best in early spring when the water melts (lately winter lasts longer in the Rockies, so it is the end of April, beginning on May), but we visited this place in early July, and the waterfall was still powerful.
WATERFalls Along the ICEFIELDS PARKWAY
Tangle Falls is just one of many we could see from the car on the way.
How many waterfalls you see depends on in what season are you traveling in the Canadian Rockies, but most of them run perpetually such as Weeping Wall or Bridal Veil Falls.
Take a short break and pull over, stretch your legs.
Athabasca Glacier and Mount Athabasca
The 3491 meters high giant Mount Athabasca, looming over the Icefields Parkway and easily one of the most accessible glaciers in the world, just a short walk from a parking lot, made this road trip even more special.
You can't see a lot off the glacier from the viewing platform as the mountains hide the rest, but even the "snout" is impressive more than enough.
For a better view hike up to the Wilcox Pass.
You can also join walking or coach tour to get the most of the glacier experience, but it does not come cheap. If you are concerned about environmental impact of these tours on the glacier, opt out.
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Wilcox Pass HIKE
The first part is a steady climb which goes through thick forest until it reaches the first lookout, further up the scenery dramatically changes and you get an open valley view with fragile sub-alpine meadows, small lakes, and creeks.
The main attraction is the view of Athabasca glacier and exploring the vast plains.
Be prepared that it can get windy up there and pack a windproof jacket.
HIKING TO Parker Ridge
One of the most rewarding hikes on the Icefields Parkway deserves its popularity. The moderate and short trek starts with series of switchbacks and goes up through the forest.
Once you leave the tree line behind and the trail levels out the scenery is breathtaking. Continue further along the trail as the views on the Saskatchewan Glacier, the largest of the Columbia Icefields, get only better. Overlooking glacial valley with the opposite rock wall with waterfalls is almost indescribable and leaves you in awe.
Spend extra time on the top and explore the ridge, it's worth it.
BIG HILL & BIG BEND
One of the most stunning vistas along Columbia Icefields Parkway is right on the road, so you really get here the best what the Canadian Rockies has to offer with literally zero work. When traveling from Jasper, you can see the road descending, and the valley will open up all of a sudden in front of you.
There is a limited space where you can stop, so be careful and don't block the traffic.
Saskatchewan Crossing is a viewpoint with amazing vistas, from where you can watch a river sneaking through mountains.
This place was once an important point as indigenous people trading with fur had to cross the river in this spot if they wanted to make a living. Crossing North Saskatchewan River was not, of course, an easy task, and you can hear many legends about difficulties of aboriginal people who lived in this cold and remote mountainous area.
An idyllic setting of two lakes - Upper and Lowe Waterfowl Lake - is so inviting that almost every traveler driving around stop here.
Upper Lake is a bit more picturesque than the other one and is a popular place to have a snack.
Peyto Lake VIEWPOINT
This glacier-fed lake lures visitors all over the world because of its seemingly unreal emerald color and exceptional shape. Lake lies almost at the end of Icefields Parkway and is easily accessible from the parking lot. It is very near to the village of Lake Louise.
Want to see more? Check our post about the most beautiful Canadian lakes here.
Bow Lake is another worthwhile stop, and if you wish to stretch your legs a bit, there are several hiking options on how to do it.
The lake lines the Columbia Icefields Parkway, and just before you arrive at the turn-off for the parking lot, you can see Crowfoot Mountain with Crowfoot Glacier.
WHAT TO PACK FOR COLUMBIA ICEFIELDS PARKWAY
Weather in Canada can be pretty harsh, even in the summer, and you should be ready that you can experience all four seasons within one day.
It is quite easy to pack for the road trip as you can bring more things because everything stays in the trunk and you don't have to carry it all the time on your back. No matter if you plan on exploring only places close to the parking lots or if you plan on hiking, these are 5 essential things you should pack when traveling Columbia Icefields Parkway.
Camera | Well, we did not need to wait for sunrise or sunset, nature along Columbia Icefields Parkway is so picturesque any time of the day, that it would have been a shame not to have a proper camera.
You can read a more detailed all season packing list we've created for the Canadian Rockies.
WHERE TO STAY - ICEFIELDS PARKWAY
There are only a few accommodations along the Icefields Parkway, so your best bet is to stay in places with a wide range of lodging options like Banff, Lake Louise or Jasper.
We've handpicked three hotels in every location that we believe are great choices to stay in before or after a long day drive.
Banff | Banff Park Lodge -This is an environmentally friendly hotel located in the town center surrounded by stunning scenery.
Lake Louise | Stunning views of Lake Louise and Victoria Glacier from Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise will blow you away.
Jasper | Are you looking for a hotel with an excellent location, cozy rooms, sauna, and steam room? Stay in Jasper Inn & Suites.
TRAVEL INSURANCE - SIMPLE & FLEXIBLE
We never leave our home without travel insurance which is designed to help cover your expenses if something goes wrong on your trip. World Nomads Travel Insurance has been designed by travelers for travelers, to cover your trip essentials.
Travel smarter and safer!