Icefields Parkway – simply stunning!

We had lived in Banff nearly 9 months before we made it up to Jasper. We had free Glacier Adventure tickets on our Banff Ambassador passes so we had to wait for the long Winter to end before we could make use of them as the Glacier is closed during the Winter. We set off in rain and low cloud and after getting on the Icefields Parkway just after Lake Louise the rain turned to heavy snow and we were only able to get small glimpses of the surrounding mountains through the clouds. Very disappointing.Had a pit stop for petrol and shared a Poutine at Saskatchewan River Crossing which is a complex consisting of a restaurant, diner, gas station, large souvenir shop and motel near the mighty Saskatchewan  River. Tip: Don’t buy gas from here as it is very expensive. We carried on up the road and stopped at Sunwapta Pass to admire the sprawling valley below as the clouds started to clear.Arrived at the Icefields Centre at around 2pm and the Glacier Adventure complex was awash with tourists. We presented our Banff Ambassador passes at the ticket desk and were told the next available tour was at 4:30pm so we had a look around and then went to have a snooze in the back or the car on our new self inflating mattress. At 4:30 we were ushered onto a Brewster bus and driven by a driver with very bad jokes, 5 minutes up to the Ice Explorer bus depot. There, we got off the Brewster bus and onto a huge, specifically designed Ice Explorer bus with wheels taller than me! As it slowly meandered up the road to the Glacier, we passed through a ‘wheel washer’ which was just a big puddle that washes any mud off the wheels before going down a VERY steep hill onto the Glacier. The bus only goes about 30km an hour at top speed.Once on the Glacier there was a small area that your could walk around on that was clearly marked out with signs but a lot of the tourists (mostly Asians) were going over the barriers and climbing up onto the ice to take photos. The poor drivers had to keep telling them to get back to the safe area. I think we were quite lucky really, had we gone up onto the Glacier earlier we would have been rained on and not seen much but as it happened the rain cleared and the sun came out when we were there in the late afternoon. The Athabasca Glacier is one of the six principal ‘toes’ of the Columbia Icefield, located in the Canadian Rockies. The glacier currently recedes at a rate of about 5 metres per year. 

We jumped back on the bus and headed back along the Parkway for a couple of kilometres to the Glacier Skywalk. This is a large U shaped lookout platform towering over the side of a glacial valley. The great thing about it it that it has glass floors so you can look down to the valley floor below. I found it a tad eerie as I don’t particularly like heights. It’s made of thick glass and a type of iron that changes colour over time to blend into the landscape. Along the path to the platform is information about the landscape and wildlife in the area.

After our Glacier Adventure we headed back up the Parkway where we stopped briefly at a roadside waterfall before heading to the town of Jasper. In Jasper we stopped for dinner and a look around the small and very quiet tourist town then made our way to the Hi Jasper where we had a bunk for the night. 

On the drive up, about 20 metres before the hostel we came across 2 black bears, just having a sniff and look at the car in front of us. It was pretty cool but I’m glad I was in the safely of the car. 

The following morning we left Jasper after having breakfast at a roadside diner and fortunately the weather had cleared so we were able to get amazing views of the Rockies all the way back to Banff.

Stopped briefly and had a stroll around the rocks at Horseshoe lake then again for a wander around Athabasca Falls which was nice but there were far too many people there. Also stopped at Sunwapta falls where we saw some rock climbers setting up some sort of Canyon crossing device. Had a few more brief photo and toilet stops along the way and we were just amazed at the sheer scale of the different mountains that stood along the roadside. I’m not surprised this stretch of road is on all the ‘worlds best drives’ lists, it’s just stunning. Massive peaks, glaciers, plaited rivers, semi frozen lakes, thick forest and glacial valleys make for interesting driving.We came across a ‘bear jam’ just before leaving Jasper National Park and had to avoid cars passing 2 coaches parked on the side of the road watching a large Grizzly Bear feeding on roadside flowers. We didn’t stop but I managed to get a shot of him.Out last stop of the weekend was a place I had wanted to visit for ages. It’s in all the tour brochures and posters and is one of the big tourist attractions in the area.

Peyto Lake Is a glacial fed Lake that lies just off the Parkway. After a 10-15 minute walk though Alpine vegetation you reach a viewing platform overlooking the lake and valley. It’s an amazing view and the colour of the lake rivals any in the Rockies. Plus it’s shaped like a wolf which is cool. It was definitely a highlight of the weekend for me.

The Icefields Parkway is an amazing drive, if you ever go to the Rockies, hire a car instead of going on a bus. There are so many places we missed but you would miss so much more being stuck on a bus. Definitely a weekend to remember in my world travels.

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