The Columbia Icefield is just one of the many attractions along the Icefields Parkway. It is home one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. The massive six kilometer long and one kilometer wide tonque of the Athabasca Glacier flows to within walking distance of the Icefields Parkway.
What’s visible from the road is only a small portion of the Columbia Icefield, the rest of the ice mass is hidden beyond the mountains. There are six glaciers that it feeds. The three that can be seen from the parkway are the Dome, Stutfield and Athabasca. The Columbia Icefields is the largest mass of ice in the Rocky Mountains. It stretches 25 km’s across the Continental Divide. This is one of only two places in the world that forms a triple continental divide. The waters from the glaciers and melting snow flow across North America north to the Artic Ocean, east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to the Pacific Ocean.
You can go beyond just viewing the glaciers from the parkway by taking the Ice Explorer Adventure. It is a giant 6 wheeled all terrain vehicle that looks like something out of a futuristic movie. During the 90 minute experience it will take you right onto the Athabasca Glacier.
From the Icefields center passengers are loaded into a regular transport bus and taken across the parkway to be loaded into the Ice Explorers that were specifically designed for glacier travel. It’s a bit like being in a slow giant roller coaster as the vehicle makes it way along the moraine to the glacier.
Once the vehicle is parked you can get out and stand on ice that is thousands of years old. If you want to get a feel for what the the last ice age was like, this experience will give you a good idea.
UPDATE: The Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure ticket price now includes the Glacier Skywalk. A one kilometer glass platform hanging from the cliff edge looking into the Sunwapta Valley. Their website recommends allowing 3 hours for the total excurion to both attractions. A shuttle bus leaves approximately every 12 minutes from the Columbia Icefields Discovery Center to take ticket holders to the skywalk platform area.
Tips For Seeing the Athabasca Glacier And Columbia Icefields
- You can book online tickets for a specific date and time, but we don’t recommend committing yourself ahead of time. Wait for a day when you know there is good visibility. Bad weather or fog can totally obscure the view.
- A reservation is not required unless you have a large group. The Snow Coaches leave every 15 to 30 minutes in the summer months to keep thins moving but it can get quite busy by late morning. If you don’t have a reservation arrive just before or when they open at 9am or for one of the later rides of the day after 4pm or 5pm. By this time the tour groups and most of the crowds have moved on.
- Discount tickets area available for the Icefield Explorer Adventure combined with the Banff Gondola and/or the Banff Minnewanka boat cruise, and they can be used on separate days.
- Consider packing a lunch, there are limited options on the parkway, some find the food pricey for what you get at the Icefields Center cafe.
- It can be windy, cold and icy during any month on the glacier. Wear good walking or hiking shoes. In July and August you may still want to wear a light jacket. Outside of the summer months a warm jacket, hat, scarf and gloves may be required. Bring sunglasses, the reflection off the glacier is strong.
- Carry an empty bottle or cup so that you can drink some refreshing water right from the glacier.
Ways To See The Glacier Without Paying For The Ice Explorer Adventure
- If you are not doing the Ice Explorer Adventure you can walk up the trail from the parking area to the foot of the glacier for a closer view. Never attempt to walk on the glacier yourself. Several deaths have occurred from people falling through hidden crevices and holes that are covered by a thin layer of snow. You can walk on the Athabasca Glacier with an experienced guide see Athabasca Glacier Ice Walks for more information.
- From the Icefield Center on the other side of the road you can get a different view of the Icefields from the parking lot and from the upper level patio where the cafe is located. There’s no charge to visit or park at the center.
Directions And Driving Times To The Athabasca Glacier And Columbia Icefield
The Columbia Icefield is located on the Icefields Parkway/Hwy 93N that runs between Lake Louise and Jasper.
Distance from Banff 195km, 2 hours 40 min. From Lake Louise 130km, 1 hour 40 min, from Jasper 105km 1 hour 25 min. Driving times will vary with road conditions and traffic.
From Banff or Lake Louise:
Head west on the Trans Canada Highway #1 from Banff and go past the Lake Louise exit. Continue west for two kilometers and take the exit for the Icefields Parkway/Highway 93N. Keep careful watch for the sign, it comes up quickly and people frequently miss the turnoff and end up in Field, B.C.
The Icefields Parkway is accessible from the western end of the town of Jasper. It starts at the junction of Yellowhead Hwy.
Information For The Columbia Icefields Discovery Center
The Discovery Center is located across the parkway from where the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca glacier is. This is where you park and where you will first board a regular bus to take you across the parkway to board the giant Ice Explorer buses that go onto the glacier.
- Snacks, restaurant and washrooms are available
- Picnic tables are available both in the lower parking lot and on the viewing deck.
- There’s a Parks Canada interpretative display and information desk where you can learn more about Jasper National Park and the Columbia Icefields
- Take note that the nearest gas station is at the Saskatchewan River Crossing, 52 km’s south and is only open seasonally. Lake Louise and Jasper are the only other places to get fuel.
- Hotel accommodation is available at the Icefield Center from early May to mid-October.
Seasonal Dates Of Operation, Hours And Rates For the Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure
- No reservation is required for the Ice Explorer. Tours leave every 15 to 30 minutes in the summer months, weather permitting.
- Seasonally open from approximately mid-April to mid October, always check their site for most current dates and times.
- April 15-29th 10am to 4pm, April 30-May 27th 10am to 5pm
- May 28th to September 4th 9am to 6pm
- September 9am to 5pm, October 1 to 21st 1oam to 4pm
- October 3-16th 10am to 4pm
- Rates are as follows, plus G.S.T. Adults $80, childrend 6-15 years $40, children 0 to 5 years free when sharing a seat with and adult
- Combo discount packages are available if your also interested doing either the Banff Minnewanka Lake Cruise or the Maligne Lake Cruise and Banff Gondola.
See their site for the most current information: Columbia Glacier Icefield Adventure