This week as we trekked our way from Banff to Jasper, it was through Hwy 93, also called the Icefields Parkway. Because Banff and Jasper (and Yoko) are national parks monitored and maintained by the government, we needed to purchase a pass not only to do certain things in Banff and Jasper, but also to drive across the highway. It’s about $20 per day and lasts until 4 pm each day at which time you can enter the highway to make your way to the other side.
To start off, this is probably the most beautiful and scenic drives you can do across Canada, and definitely one of the top in the world. If you love long drives, this should be on your bucket list! The Parkway has vast amounts of peaks and plains, with a good mix of falls, canyons, rivers, lakes, glaciers, and hidden gems. It is well maintained by the government and the drive is easy. You make your way through the mountains along long, straight and windy roads, taking in the sights of the magnificent Rockies.
Here are 5 stops you must make along the way to the little mountain town of Jasper:
Peyto Lake – This lake is famous for its vivid turquoise waters, and how turquoise they are indeed! This was our first stop and you follow the signs along the highway to come to the parking lot. The short walking trail leads you to the top of the hill where you can look down at the lake and its surroundings and enjoy the first stunning views the area has to offer. Surrounded by peaks (as much anything else you stop at along this route), it’s a lake with a unique shape and beautiful bright colours. It’s famous on social media and it truly is a scene out of a postcard. The hike from the parking lot to the lake is an upward climb and there is one steep (but small) area – not difficult whether you’re young or old. As you make your way to the lake views, make sure to stop and enjoy some of the flora and fauna along the way as you are right amongst the trees you look out at the whole drive. You’ll also notice a variety of wild mushrooms growing around and squirrels making their way along the trees and trails. When we arrived at the summit to look out at the lake, it started flurrying hard and got chillier than it already was (+12 in early September). Make sure to bring a sweater as you’re high up in the mountains and the temps usually run lower than at the bottom. The whole climb took us about 40 minutes from beginning to end – you want to spend time taking pics here as it’s not a sight you see every day!
Howse Pass /Saskatchewan River Crossing – the second stop on our way to Jasper was the Howse Pass, close to the Alberta-British Columbia border. This is a lookout point where you see along the immense grass/marshlands below you where Natives used to live and hunt their food. It too is surrounded by mountains with white ice-covered peaks and a large peak we saw on the left of us at this lookout point looked like it was once the victim of a forest fire. The trees along the right of the mountain were all green and tall and untouched, whereas the conifers all along the left side of the mountain were barren and toppled and grey. Between them was a natural waterway separation where glacial water makes its way from the top of the peak downwards in Springtime. This was a neat thing to see as this is not something you look at every day, even while trekking through Banff and Jasper. Signs are posted all around telling you the stories of the Natives who lived and thrived in the area (it was one of their favourite places to live because of the number of animals that would come there to feed on the low plains in the valleys, making it easy for hunt), and the whites who came there for fur trade and settlements. It’s a shame that in today’s times, just over 200 years later, not a single sign of the Natives exists (where they once flourished), and the plains are empty and have taken over their natural state once more.
Big Hill and Big Bend – Just before we got to this cool area along our hours-long ride to Jasper, we’d made a short stop on the left side of the highway where a river runs along right next to the highway most of the time. At this time of year, the river water was low and so we decided to make a stop and walk to the shallow waters, crossing a guardrail and stepping along rocks and the wet bottom of the river floor (it had become muddy but did not dirty our shoes). This was a unique experience – we were the only ones there in a land filled with travelers. This was truly stepping off the road and doing something non-touristy. My parents picked out unique rocks off the retreated river floor for my nephews while my siblings skipped rocks in the water, seeing if they could make it to the other side of the stream. We also filled our water bottles with the fresh glaciel waters. We spent a good half hour here before getting back on the road and driving again. Little did we know we’d start to see a road that seemed far away and much higher than where we were down in the valley/ gorge. On the right of us was a big mountain that was smooth and velvety (Big Hill) and ahead of this was this long windy road that did a big circle around the mountain (Big Bend). This seemed like an avalanche zone as there were many small and large rocks splayed all along this area, looking like they’d fallen off the top of the mountain at some point (there are also signs posted on the highway which warn when you’re entering or exiting an avalanche area of the highway). We made our way to the top of this curvy road and stopped in the designated parking to look down at the immense valley below us, with the road we were just on snaking its way and disappearing into the mountains. I’d say if you’re just getting on the highway and not going all the way to Jasper, to at least do the drive up until this Big Bend before turning around. Taking in the views from here and the expansiveness of the region is an experience you only get exposure to a few times in your life, if not just once. It is just a bit more than the halfway point on the Icefields Parkway.
Athabasca Glacier – Drive another 20 minutes or so and you start to see signs for the Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier. This is one of the largest glaciers people can visit in Alberta, if not North America. You can park nearby and walk up to the “toe” of the glacier, which should give you some clue to the size of this thing, even if you can’t see it all. It’s almost a 4 km long glacier and is receding yearly at a high rate. There’s an option to walk to the toe of the glacier, however you do have to climb a hill which may not be easy for older folks. (The views from the glacier center and close up were pretty much the same so if you see if from afar, don’t think you’re missing out too much). One option to be on top of the glacier is to buy a pass to a glacier coach bus that takes you up on the glacier, so you can step and walk on the glacier. I can imagine this being a lifetime experience for many people. With 6 of us however, the $115 per person was too expensive so we enjoyed the views like many others from the toe of the glacier. I guess to the unknown observant such as myself, it only seems like a hunk of dirty ice. But the deeper meaning of being here really hits you when you realize how in a hundred years or so, the glacier might recede all the way behind the mountains, if it even exists then! Climate change and its apparent effects come to mind all too quickly thinking about this, seeing as there’s a sign along the walk to the toe that point out how much closer the glacier was to us in 1982. It also gives you a surreal feeling – we might be one of the last remaining generations to see a live glacier before they disappear from our earth altogether – a sobering thought and experience for sure along this beautiful highway.
Athabasca Falls – After seeing the first 4 things above on the long drive on the Icefields Parkway, suffice to say we were exhausted by the time we saw signs for the Athabasca Falls. We decided to tackle it on our way back. We did however come to a smaller falls along our way to Jasper after the glacier, called Tangle Falls. This is right by the highway, so you can park easily in the designated area and cross to the other side of the road to view this small but charming little falls. We took some pictures (while my brothers climbed to the top of the falls) before making our way to Jasper. On the way back, we made a stop at the much larger Athabasca Falls. This comes soon after you leave the town of Jasper, maybe within half an hour. We parked and could hear the rush of water tumbling down somewhere close but hidden from us. Quickly though, we were right by the falls and taking in the strength of this falls – the water moves fast and quickly and looks beautiful and intimidating all at once. I am sure there is enough power being generated here to energize a small town. The water from the falls cascades down the tall canyon and ends up in a lake on the other side. There are signs posted warning that people have lost their lives going past he guardrails to take pictures of the falls and tumbling to their death due to the hypothermia that sets in right away (glacial water is always freezing!) The falls itself is just one part of the whole picture that makes the area gorgeous, with mountains in the backdrop and chipmunks nibbling on pine cones on conifer-filled trails. It definitely is a must-see on the way to or from Jasper and right off the IcefielIc Parkway.
As you can see, there are numerous stops to be made on the IceIcefie Parkway to and from Banff to Jasper and vice versa. I’ve only outlined the ones we stopped at – there are many more stops one can make on this highway to see other landmarks: Herbert Lake, Mistaya Canyon, Panther Falls. The best thing about this highway is how little you have to walk to see the major attractions – the Parks Canada has ensured you have access to all the amazing natural wonders of the region. Even if you don’t stop ANYWHERE along the way, just the drive amidst the titanic peaks and along the turquoise rivers is well worth it!