What is the driving time and distance?
The Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 N.) is a 230 kilometer mountain road running through the heart of Banff and Jasper National Parks. It serves as a connection between Lake Louise and the town of Jasper. It’s a minimum of 3 hours driving time, not accounting for any stops along the way.
Expect it to take longer in the summer months when RV’s, tour buses and plenty of other vehicles are on the road. The top driving speed is 90km/hr but there are places where you have to slow to 50 km/hr. Always keep alert for wildlife that may be near or on the road.
How Much Time Should I Allow To Experience The Parkway?
To really appreciate the parkway you need to take the time to enjoy the scenery and sights. Pack a picnic meal and make a day of it. You’ll have no problem spending 5 to 8 hours to get from one end to the other. There are numerous view-point pullouts, hiking and walking opportunities, waterfalls, lakes and attractions to see along the Icefields Parkway.
What is the Road Like?
It’s a fully paved road with wide shoulders. For passing through such an extreme landscape and two high mountain passes it’s probably a lot better than you would expect. The majority of the road is easy to drive, with only a few areas of steep grade or switchbacks. Large RV’s do not have an issue navigating it.
When Is The Best Time To Go?
Although the road is open year round most of the travel done on it is from May to October. The peak time to visit is from June to September, these months offer the best chance of good weather, favorable road conditions and wildlife viewing opportunities.
Keep in mind July and August can be crowded with tourists and June and September will be much cooler in temperature. Winter comes early and stays late in this part of the Rockies, snowfall causing winter driving conditions can occur by mid-October and can last well into the month of May. All services on the parkway such as restaurants, accommodation and the only fuel station are closed from November to April. If you want to experience the Athabasca Glacier Ice Explorer adventure it operates from approximately April to October.
What Can I Expect For Weather And Temperature?
Weather is highly unpredictable in the Rocky Mountains. It can change many times throughout the day and the temperature change from day to evening can be drastic. The higher you go in elevation the colder the temperature will be. Bring layers of clothing to shed or put on as needed and wear comfortable shoes.
From June to September the daily average lows can range from 3C. to 8C. and the average highs from 15c. to 22C. You can experience the whole range of these temperatures during your drive. It could be 15C. in Banff, then 2C. at the Peyto Lake Lookout and the Columbia Icefiedls and back to 15C. near Jasper.
The spring and fall weather might surprise you, these seasons can still see heavy snowfall. The summer tends to have many dry and sunny days, but you can experience rain and even light snow at higher elevations. Any of the months from November to April can be expected to have temperatures below freezing and lots of snow.
Should I Drive The Parkway In Both Directions?
If you have the time, absolutely. You can stop at places of interest along the way and hit the ones you missed on the way back. The scenery is stunning and different in both directions. You can either make the return trip in one full day or stay for a night or two at either end in Jasper or Lake Louise, returning in the opposite direction.
Fuel Up Before You Go
Fill your tank up before you go in Banff, Lake Louise or Jasper. There is only one fuel station on the parkway at the Saskatchewan Crossing, due to the isolated location it’s the highest price in the province.
Are There Restaurants or Places To Purchase Food?
It’s highly recommended to bring your own picnic lunch or dinner meal. Stop and eat it at one of the many scenic viewpoints. There are only a few food services on the parkway. The restaurants at Saskatchewan Crossing and at the Icefields Visitor Center serve mediocre over priced food and in the summer months there can be long line ups. The Crossing also has a small convenience store with limited items and inflated prices. Num Ti Jah Lodge closer to Lake Louise has a restaurant, it’s more of a fine dining experience, but you can stop in for coffee and a piece of pie. The Sunwapta Falls Resort also has a small restaurant.
Is There Accommodation on The Parkway?
Accommodation on the Icefields Parkway is limited to keep the environmental impact to a minimum. Most of the accommodation is nothing glamorous, just basic motel style rooms. They are expensive due to the cost to run in such an isolated location. Saskatchewan Crossing, the Icefields Visitor Center and Sunwapta Falls have accommodation. The exception to these would be the rustic but charming Num Ti Jah Lodge, it would be the highest priced of the bunch.
Within a few kilometers of Jasper there a some cabin style accommodations such as the Becker Chalets. Hosteling International has wilderness style accommodations at Beauty Creek, Hilda Creek, Rampart Creek and Mosquito Creek. These are rustic style bunks with no electricity or running water.
There are campsites along the parkway that operate on a first come, first serve basis. They fill up fast in the summer, arrive early in the day to get a spot. The sites are at Mosquito Creek, Waterfowl Lake, Rampart Creek, Wilcox Creek and the Columbia Icefields. Some have washrooms and running water, others have pit toilets. None of them have power or sewer services for RV’s, so plan to be self-sufficient during your stay.
The camp sites closer to the towns are reservable, such as the ones near Jasper and Lake Louise. Expect them to be fully booked in the summer, you need to plan ahead.
Can I Take An RV On The Parkway?
Many people take large RV’s on the parkway. There is space to park at most of the viewpoint pullouts and attractions, but in summer there will not necessarily be enough room to park due to the number of other vehicles. There is usually plenty of space at Crossing at Saskatchewan River and at the Columbia Icefields Visitor Center.
As for the road, there’s a section with some steeper grade and switchbacks as you get closer to Jasper, but otherwise it’s easy driving.
A National Park Pass Is Required
When you drive on the Trans Canada Highway through a national park without stopping you do not need a park pass, this is not the case for the Icefields Parkway. Even if you are driving straight through without stopping you are still required to have a pass. The pass is required beforehand and there can be a substantial fine if you are caught without one. They are available at the information and visitor centers in Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise.
What If I Don’t Want To Self Drive Are There Buses Or Tours Available?
Brewster and Sun Dog Tours offer shuttles and trips along the parkway from Banff to Jasper. Brewster also operates the Snow Explorer ride onto the Athabasca Glacier at the Columbia Icefields from mid April to mid October.
Winter Driving On The Icefields Parkway
If you do not have experience driving in snow and icy conditions it’s not recommended to drive the Icefields Parkway in the winter. The photos below were taken at the very end of March when we did a trip from Lake Louise to the Bow Summit and the Peyto Lake Lookout. The roads in this section were in descent condition because there had been no recent snowfall. Judging by the snow piled up on the sides you can imagine how much falls in the months prior.
If you do chose to go in the late fall or early spring, be prepared for full winter driving. From November to April winter conditions are a given, but even in October, May and early June the conditions can range from dry bare pavement to several inches of compact snow and/or icy sections. Make sure your vehicle has proper winter tires rated for snow and ice, they are the law from November 1st to March 31st. Pack an emergency kit for use in the event that you become stranded due to road conditions or heavy snowfall.
The parkway is not salted and is not cleared down to pavement like other highways in Alberta, it remains as compact snow. There is no maintenance done at all from 3:30pm to 7am from November to April. It closes from a few hours at times for avalanche control to a few days during bad snowstorms. There’s no cell phone reception to call for help and very light traffic during the winter months. You can’t rely on another vehicle coming by to help if you get into trouble. All accommodation, restaurants and the only fuel station are closed during the winter. For more information see Winter Driving On The Icefields Parkway.
Always check the road conditions before you go.