The Columbia Icefields Parkway is one of the worlds most scenic mountain drives that stretches 232km’s (144miles) between Lake Louise and Jasper. It is considered a sight that is not to be missed in the Canadian Rockies. You need to do the drive in a leisurely fashion. Devote a day to the parkway so that you can stop and fully enjoy all the attractions it has to offer.
There are views of some of the highest mountains in the Canadian Rockies with over a hundred visible glaciers, one of them is within walking distance of the parkway. There’s access to numerous hiking trails, pristine turquoise lakes, sweeping valleys and waterfalls and it’s one of the best places to see wildlife. Has it sold you yet?
You can take incredible photos right from the Icefields Parkway itself. Many of the scenic views are conveniently located from pullouts or reachable by short walks from the road. Without even getting out of your car the scenery is stunning.
Here are the highlights of the parkway in the order of how they appear along the route from Lake Louise to Jasper. The scenery is spectacular either way, but after driving it numerous times we have found that the direction heading south from Jasper to Lake Louise provides the best views of the mountains and glaciers. If you have the time, don’t hesitate to drive it in both directions.
Lake Louise to Bow Summit/Peyto Lake (40kms North Of Lake Louise)
Herbert Lake quickly appears at the beginning of the parkway, it’s just 15 minutes drive from Lake Louise. This is a great place for photography at sunrise and sunset. When the water is calm there is a beautiful reflection of Mount Temple. (51.459620, -116.223061)
The next body of water is Hector Lake, it’s the largest natural lake in Banff National Park.
At the same area where you get a glimpse of Hector Lake is the first lookout point you will want to stop at. It’s a surreal site to look across at the massive Crowfoot Glacier, it’s just a taste of the incredible scenery that is ahead. Try using a telephoto lens to zoom in on some of the interesting features of the glacier. (51.663103, -116.438443)
The access trail to Helen Lake is on the opposite side of the road near the viewpoint.
Just minutes up the road is beautiful Bow Lake and the Num Ti Jah Lodge that sits on the north shore of the lake. This is a nice area of the lake to explore, the Bow Glacier Trail starts from this area. Bow Lake is best photographed from morning to mid-day and in the evening to sunset. The lake is frozen until mid-June. (51.682188, -116.462030)
The next must see is glacier fed Peyto Lake located at the Bow Summit, and yes Peyto Lake really is that blue! This is the highest point of the parkway at 2088 meters/6850ft above sea level.
Walk up the paved trail to the wooden viewing deck that overlooks the lake and mountain valley. Sunrise or mid-day to mid-afternoon is the best light. A wide angle lens is needed to fully fit everything into frame. (51.719854, -116.494453)
Bow Summit/Peyto Lake To Saskatchewan Crossing (77 km North of Lake Louise, 153 km S. of Jasper)
Waterfowl Lakes offer nice reflections of the mountains when the water is calm. The light is best at sunrise to mid-morning and again at sunset. (51.832141, -116.614714)
Mistaya Canyon is reachable by a short trail from the parkway. Photos are best shot in the morning or when it’s overcast to avoid harsh shadows. (51.949523, -116.712405)
Saskatchewan Crossing is a junction of the North Saskatchewan, Howse and Mistaya rivers. This was an important settlement for over a hundred years, starting in 1807 when fur traders and explorers first travelled through the Rockies into British Columbia. There is a restaurant, accommodation, limited grocery supplies and gift shop. This is the only fuel station for the next 154 km’s to Jasper, so make sure you fill up.
A river plain just south of Saskatchewan Crossing.
Saskatchewan Crossing to the Columbia Icefields (127 kms North of Lake Louise/103km South of Jasper)
Keep a lookout on your right hand side for the Weeping Wall. A series of waterfalls that drop more than (100m/330 ft) from Cirrus Mountain. The light is best on the wall from mid-day to sunset. If the sun is hitting it just right near the end of the day it creates rainbows. (52.141659, -116.994080)
Bridal Veil Falls
sit in the distance on the other side of the valley. This raven decided he should be the star of the show and have his portrait taken with the falls in the background. (52.180304, -117.057179)
At the midway point of the parkway is the popular Parkers Ridge trail. It’s a 5.9km/3.7mile hike offering incredible glacier views.
A definite stop is the Columbia Icefields where there is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. The foot of the Athabasca Glacier is within walking distance of the parkway.
A 90 minute glacier experience tour is available in a giant 6 wheeled all terrain Ice Explorer that will take you right onto the glacier. Tickets can be purchased at the Columbia Icefield Visitor Center on the opposite side of the road, no reservations are required. Accommodation, a restaurant, gift shop and interpretative exhibit are located at the Icefield Center. Sunrise to mid-day and evening to sunset provides the best lighting for photos. (52.219591, -117.224786)
Hiking the popular Wilcox Pass Trail is a way to get up above the glacier, and it’s free! During the first part of September the pass displays warm Autumn colours. Bighorn Sheep are commonly seen in the pass as well as Mountain Goats.
The massive Stutfield Glacier is another glacier visible right from the parkway.
Columbia Icefields To Jasper
Keep a lookout for bighorn sheep, elk and mountain goat along this final stretch of the parkway.
Tangle Falls is located beside the parkway on the right hand side and sneaks up fast when driving in this direction. The parking is on the opposite side of the road. Layers of water flowing down the rocks make for some beautiful images. (52.267146, -117.286692)
Quartzite Boulder Field is an area with large pink quartzite rocks that border both sides of the road. They are covered in lichen moss. They sit just prior to the mountain range known as the Endless Chain. (52.430778, -117.408035)
The access road to Sunwapta Falls is located near the Sunwapta Falls Lodge, restaurant and gift shop. Just a few minutes up the road from the Sunwapta Lodge there is the access to Buck Lake, Osprey Lake and Honeymoon Lake.
Kerkeslin Goat Lick is approximately 15 minutes north of Sunwapta. Watch for slow to 5okm signs with an image of a goat on it.Mountain goats come to this area to lick the salty mineral deposits. They are often along the roadside or on the road itself, drive with caution.
There is a small parking area on the left side of the road. Follow the short trail up to the lookout area that offers views across the Athabasca River to Mt. Christie, Mt. Brussels and Mt. Fryatt.
Athabasca Falls carries the most water of any rocky mountain river. The 23 meter/75 ft drop is a roaring spectacle of power. The falls get very busy in the summer, arrive early or later in the evening to avoid the crowds. Take time to explore around all the trails, there’s a variety of nice photos to be taken. The most popular shot is the rushing falls with Mount Kerkeslin in the background. (52.668966, -117.881713)
Located a few minutes further north, a short and easy trail takes you to the turquoise blue waters of Horseshoe Lake. (52.698223, -117.864759)
- Further north there is access to Wabasso Lake, the Valley Of The Five Lakes and the turn off to Marmot Basin.
- As you get closer to Jasper and the end of the parkway there are a variety of accommodations, including Becker Chalets, Wapiti Campground and Jasper House Bungalows.
- The turn off to Whistlers Mountain and the Jasper Tramway are on the left hand side.
- The parkway ends at an intersection. Going straight will take you into the town of Jasper where there is accommodation, shopping, restaurants, the tourist information and train station.
- Turning right will take you to the Jasper Park Lodge, Annette and Edith Lakes and Maligne Lake.
Icefield Parkway Accommodation Options
- There are several campgrounds, hostels and lodges that you can use as a base to further explore the parkway. Most accommodation is open seasonally from May to October. It’s best to make plans ahead of time in the summer months as it books up quickly. Hotels and Cabins
- Mosquito Creek, Waterfowl and Rampart Creek Campsites are located in the Banff National Park end of the parkway. Banff National Park Camping
- Wilcox Creek, Columbia Icefield, Jonas Creek, Honeymoon Lake, Mt. Kerkeslin, Wapiti and Whistlers Campgrounds are located in the Jasper section of the parkway. Jasper National Park Camping
- The four hostels along the parkway are operated by HI, (Hostelling International). Take note that they are considered wilderness hostels, some of them have no running water, flush toilets or electricity. HI Alberta Hostels
Directions And Driving Times For The Icefields Parkway
- Heading from the west look for the exit sign on the Trans Canada Hwy #1, it will be approximately 15 minutes past the town of Field, and just prior to reaching the townsite of Lake Louise.
- From Banff or Lake Louise: Head west on the Trans Canada Hwy #1, 3km’s past the village of Lake Louise you will see the exit for The Icefields Parkway/Hwy 93N. The access is 50 minutes from Banff and 2.5 hours from Calgary.
- The distance of the parkway is 230kms/143miles, the speed limit varies from 50 to 90km’s.
- The driving time without accounting for any stops is 3 to 3.5 hours one way or longer depending on traffic.
- Don’t forget you are required to have a National Park permit to travel on the Icefields Parkway.
Winter Driving On the Icefields Parkway
- The parkway is open all year, but it is not uncommon for sections of the road to close during extreme weather conditions in the winter. Sometimes it can take crews days to clear the road after a heavy snowfall. From October to May all services including the gas station are closed along the entire route. Make sure you have a full gas tank, bring food, water and warm clothing.
- Check the weather forecast prior to leaving. Sudden weather changes can occur in the mountains, a snow storm can come out of no where even on a sunny winter day. Although it is a stunning drive during this time of year we would not recommend it to those not experienced in winter driving. To get an idea of the massive amount of snow this area can receive check out Bow Summit And Petyo Lake Lookout In Winter.