The Complete Guide to Alberta's Icefields Parkway

snowy mountain at the end of a straight highway surrounded by trees

Feng Wei Photography / Getty Images

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Icefields Parkway

Address
Icefields Pkwy, Jasper, AB, Canada

The 144-mile Icefields Parkway, or Highway 93, is one of Canada's most scenic road trip routes and is a must for visitors to Alberta. Dotted with dozens of viewpoints where you can see glaciers, waterfalls, lakes, rivers, forests, and valleys, the Icefields Parkway isn't a road trip you do in one go as there are so many worthwhile points to stop along the way.

The parkway starts in the town of Jasper, in Jasper National Park, and travels south to near Lake Louise, in Banff National Park. Many travelers will approach the parkway from the southern end, though, after arriving in the Banff National Park from Calgary. Whichever direction you approach it from or whether you drive the whole route or just part of it, the Icefields Parkway offers many glorious mountain views and a fun driving experience. Here's everything you need to know about driving Alberta's Icefields Parkway.

Best Time to Drive the Icefields Parkway

The Icefields Parkway is open throughout the year, but most travelers will prefer to drive it in the warmer months (May to October) when there's little chance of finding snow or ice on the road. As a mountainous area at a relatively high altitude (Banff sits at 4,537 feet), the climate along the Icefields Parkway is cool-to-warm in summer and very cold in winter. The summer months (June to August) promise the best weather for road tripping and sightseeing. In winter, avalanches may occasionally close part of the parkway, but usually not for very long before they're cleared.

Stops to Make Along the Way

The whole journey could be driven in around three hours, but that would defeat the purpose of driving this fantastic road trip. You can spread the trip out over a six-to-eight-hour day or make it an overnight trip. The many stops along the way are all worth your time, but you'll probably need to make a must-see list, so you don't run out of time—or gas!

  • Athabasca Falls: Around 20 miles south of Jasper, the 75-foot waterfalls are not exceptionally high, but they roar with a large volume of water, making them some of the most impressive falls in the Canadian Rockies.
  • Sunwapta Falls: Fed by the Athabasca Glacier, the Sunwapta Falls are divided into the upper and lower sections. The upper falls are easily accessible, but you need to hike a short distance (less than a mile) to get to the lower falls. The lower falls are definitely worth the walk if you want to escape the crowds in the summer. Sunwapta Falls are about 34 miles from Jasper.
glacier between mountains with pink clouds in a blue sky
Peter Unger / Getty Images 
  • Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield: The Columbia Icefield is the largest in the Rocky Mountains and the largest that sits south of the Arctic Circle. The icefield covers 125 square miles, is 328 to 1,197 feet deep, and receives up to 275 inches of snowfall each year. The Athabasca Glacier is one of six terminal moraines on the Columbia Icefield and is the easiest to visit. You can park quite close to it and walk right up to it or take a tour in a mammoth Ice Explorer vehicle. The Columbia Icefield Centre provides interesting exhibits on the science and geology of glaciers. It informs visitors about the threats of climate change: the Athabasca Glacier alone retreats about 16 feet per year. The icefield is about 65 miles from Jasper.
  • Glacier Skywalk: A mile or so further down the road from the Athabasca Glacier is the Glacier Skywalk, a cantilevered glass-bottomed walkway 980 feet from the ground, with great glacier and valley views. There's a fee to walk on the bridge. If you don't like the idea of the glass-bottomed floor, there is a nearby lookout point where you can also enjoy great valley views without the extra excitement. The Glacier Skywalk is 60 miles from Jasper.
  • Weeping Wall Viewpoint: The Weeping Wall is a series of waterfalls down a cliff face at the base of Cirrus Mountain that looks kind of like a wall that's, well, weeping. The highest falls come from around 330 feet above the ground. It's about 66 miles from Lake Louise, so it is closer to the southern end of the parkway than the northern end.
turquoise lake surrounded by Rocky Mountains and pine forest
 WanRu Chen / Getty Images
  • Peyto Lake: The glacier-fed Peyto Lake is that remarkable shade of opaque turquoise famous in this part of the Rockies. The glacial flour that creates the color is most present in the summer. This is a popular stop and for a good reason: the views from the high lookout point above the lake are incredible. Just don't be "that person" who scales the safety barriers to take a risky selfie in front of the view. Peyto Lake is about 26 miles from Lake Louise, so it can easily be visited on its own on a quick trip from Lake Louise or Banff.
  • Bow Lake and Crowfoot Glacier: Bow Lake is one of the biggest lakes in the Banff National Park, and the Crowfoot Glacier (that sort of looks like a crow's foot if you have a good imagination!) is suspended in the mountains behind it. As well as the attractive turquoise lake surrounded by mountains and glaciers, there's the nearby Bow Glacier Falls that are worth hiking to. It's about a 3-mile hike from the parking lot at the lake, and the walk is mainly around the edge of the lake.
turquoise lake with large hotel in background and mountains and pine trees
 Amanda White / Getty Images
  • Lake Louise: At the southern terminus of the north-south Icefields Parkway, where Highway 93 meets the east-west Trans Canada Highway, is gorgeous Lake Louise. Less than an hour's drive from Banff town (35 miles), Lake Louise is an alternative accommodation base, especially if you're looking for high-end accommodation. The views of the lake alone are worth your time, but there are also great hikes around Lake Louise, especially the short (an hour or two each way) Lake Agnes Teahouse hike.

Hiking Routes Along the Icefields Parkway

If you have plenty of time and aren't in a hurry to drive north to south (or vice versa), there are several great hikes, both short and long, that starts just off the parkway.

  • Lake Louise to Lake Agnes Teahouse: The Lake Agnes Teahouse is 1.3 miles above Lake Louise, at an altitude of 7,005 feet. The hike up takes between one and two hours and offers excellent views of Lake Louise along the way.
  • Bow Summit Lookout: This family-friendly hike takes visitors to the highest point along the Icefields Parkway, a lookout point where you can see both Peyto Lake and Bow Lake. Keep an eye out for marmot, ptarmigan, and pikas along the way. The return trip is only about 3.5 miles long.
  • Helen Lake: Adjacent to the Crowfoot Glacier at Bow Lake, the 4.5-mile in-and-out hike to Helen Lake is moderately challenging and very popular. As well as great lake views, a highlight of this trail is the gorgeous wildflowers in the summer. It can be done in between three and five hours, depending on your speed and fitness. Expect snow in the fall and spring seasons.
  • Paradise Valley to Moraine Lake: If you're an experienced hiker seeking a challenge, the strenuous 7.7-mile route between Paradise Valley and Moraine Lake will keep you interested. It can be done in one long day (about eight hours) by fit hikers. The lake views and forests of larch trees are the highlights.
woman sits on rocky outcrop with sweeping view of mountains and turquoise Bow Lake
Marko Stavric Photography / Getty Images

Where to Get Supplies

If you're spreading this road trip over more than one day, stock up on snacks in Jasper or Lake Louise/ Banff (whichever end you're starting from) and fill up your tank there, too. There are no major towns (or even minor ones!) between Jasper and Lake Louise, but a few seasonal settlements have limited supplies. There's one gas station en route, at the Saskatchewan River Crossing Resort, roughly halfway between Jasper and Banff, but be warned that the prices are steep. In the summer, there are a few places to eat and stay along the way, but prices tend to be high because of the lack of competition and the area's remoteness. Where possible, pack a picnic and snacks to eat en route.

Where to Stay

The towns of Jasper (at the northern end) and Banff (at the southern end) are the main bases for travelers wanting to drive the Icefields Parkway. They both offer a range of accommodation options, from simple campsites to upmarket hotels. Banff, in particular, is very popular in the summer, so it's a good idea to book lodging in advance. There's also accommodation at Lake Louise, the actual southern end of the Icefields Parkway.

If you plan to spend two days driving the Icefields Parkway, an overnight stop at the rough mid-way point makes sense. That's the Columbia Icefield. There's not much of a town there per se, but there is some accommodation in the area, including campsites and a lodge with views of the icefield. There are also some hostels along the way, at Mosquito Creek, Rampart Creek, and Hilda Creek.

Other Tips

  • The quality of the double-lane highway is generally good, but remember that some sections pass through winding mountainous terrain and take care. When there's snow or ice on the ground, extra care should be taken, and a four-wheel-drive vehicle is highly recommended for winter driving.
  • Most of the service stops along the parkway are closed in winter, so it's even more important to stock up on supplies in Jasper or Banff before hitting the road.
  • If you see wildlife (like bears, deer, or elk) while driving, it's best not to pull over to get a closer look. Many drivers do this, especially in the summer, and it can cause traffic jams.
  • Cell phone service is patchy along the Icefields Parkway and not available everywhere. Prepare to be disconnected for at least some of the trip.
  • You will need a national park pass (Parks Canada Pass) to drive the Icefields Parkway, and there are checkpoints where these will be checked. If you're coming from Banff or Jasper towns, you will likely have one of these passes already.
  • There are plenty of places to take a bathroom break along the way.
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The Complete Guide to Alberta's Icefields Parkway