Icefields Parkway, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada
Ahead of me, the road takes a turn and disappears over a ridge. It almost looks like it is driving straight into the mountains that form the backdrop beyond. These mountains – sharp and imposing, covered in snow, overpowering in size – will be the defining images of today’s drive.
This is the Icefields Parkway, one of the most beautiful roads in the world. As it passes amongst these stunning white mountains, it also leads past ancient glaciers, thundering waterfalls, glistening lakes, and endless forests.
The Icefields Parkway connects the two adjoining national parks of Jasper and Banff here in Alberta, Canada. Driving south, it starts in the town of Jasper and finishes at Lake Louise, a distance of 233 kilometres. It’s just the right length to be able to drive in a day and stop plenty of times to explore the incredible sights along the way.
In my case, I am staying at Jasper and have decided not to drive the entire length. Instead, I am going to drive to the border between the two parks, turn around, and come back to Jasper. Unless you are moving accommodation between Jasper and Banff, I would recommend you do the same. Driving the entire length in both directions in one day is possible but doesn’t give you time to appreciate things along the way.
And there are plenty of things to see along the way. The views from the road may seem like enough – with the majestic peaks up high and the rushing rivers down low – but be sure not to miss the other highlights that can be found just off the Icefields Parkway itself.
As I drive southwards from Jasper towards the edge of the park, I find one natural treasure after another.
Valley of the Five Lakes
One of the first places I come to is the Valley of the Five Lakes. I’ve covered it previously in my guide to things to do around Jasper, but it’s worth mentioning again briefly.
As the name suggests, there are five lakes here. Each is a slightly different size and depth, meaning the water appears to be a different colour in each one. There’s a hiking trail around the lakes that’s about 4.5 kilometres long and would take about an hour to walk, although there are ways to cut between the lakes and make it shorter.
The Valley of the Five Lakes is a wonderfully-pleasant spot for a hike… but it’s not as dramatic as what’s to come next.
About 30 kilometres from Jasper, I reach Athabasca Falls. I can hear the thundering of the water as soon as I get out of the car and, when I get to a view point of the falls themselves, I can see why it’s so loud. It may not be particularly tall (about 23 metres high) but there’s a huge amount of water rushing over the edge and down through the canyon below.
There are a few different spots to get a good look at Athabasca Falls and a bridge leads over the water to the other side. From here, you can go hiking along the river at the top of the falls or walk down to the bottom. Here, there’s a large lake with stunning scenery.
Back on the parkway and it takes another 25 kilometres until I hit my next stop, another set of beautiful waterfalls called Sunwapta Falls.
There’s a bridge crossing a canyon that gives you a spectacular view down to the falls, which are steep and narrow. The water comes from the large river, goes around a small island, and then rushes down as it squeezes between the rock cliffs beneath.
Further down, there is another set of lower falls that you can hike through the forest to see. In fact, there are paths down either side of the river that you could explore, if you feel like doing some walking by this point.
It’s possible to see a handful of glaciers from the Icefields Parkway as you’re driving along. One of the easiest to spot is the Stutfield Glacier. In fact, there is very conveniently a large parking area to stop the car, so you can get out and have a look.
The Stutfield Glacier is across the river, on the mountains on the other side, so don’t expect to be super close. However, it’s a stunning view.
I feel as though the glacier is also a perfect introduction to the area we’re going to hit next, the heart of Jasper’s frozen landscape.
The Columbia Icefield, the largest for which the parkway was named, straddles the border between Jasper and Banff National Parks. In fact, it’s actually the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains of Canada and the US.
Most of the action for the Columbia Icefield starts from the Icefield Centre, a large building on the eastern side of the road. As well as offering a restaurant and shops, from here, people buy tickets to head off to do the Glacier Skywalk or the Glacier Adventure. Instead of doing one of the paid tours, I instead decide to go for a hike.
From the centre, you can cross the road and walk along a trail to the foot of the Athabasca Glacier. Up close, it gets even colder, with the wind rushing down the freezing glacier and right into me. But the view is incredible and I feel more connected to the landscape here than any point during the day so far.
After spending a couple of days around Jasper for the Dark Sky Festival, I feel like hitting the road and driving along the Icefields Parkway has given me a different perspective of Jasper National Park. It’s highlighted the scale of the park and the extremes that you can find within it. Whether it’s a glacier, a waterfall, a river or a mountain, there’s something dramatic about the form here. This drive shows you the best of them all.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more info click here. You can see all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited here.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by Travel Alberta but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.