The Icefields Parkway is a 232 km stretch of road that cuts through the Canadian Rocky Mountains – beneath towering peaks, past deep gorges, glaciers and waterfalls. It connects Jasper and Banff National Parks and is rated one of the world’s most spectacular drives. Even if you’ve never been here, you might have seen pictures: turquoise lakes and blue rivers shimmering in the sun. But the Icefields Parkway is a whole different story outside the summer months. We drove this incredible route in April. Officially, spring, but the Canadian Rockies take their time to shake off winter.
Long, long ago
The Front Ranges of the Rockies are thrust-fault mountains, formed millions of years ago when immense pressure forced layers of rock to buckle. Glaciers then covered the area, even burying summits. About 15,000 years ago the ice began to retreat, and rivers started to flow down the glacial valleys. Plant and animal life flourished, allowing people to use the area. Archaeologists have discovered campsites dating back 13,000 years near the town of Banff.
The Icefields Parkway is a popular route. It attracts around 200,000 vehicles in July and August, but we had the road virtually to ourselves in April. No fighting for a park at the many viewing points at this time of year!
Allow plenty of time for stops along the route. You’ll be treated to jaw-dropping scenery from the comfort of your vehicle, but it’s worth pulling over at the roadside lookouts to enjoy the magnificent scenery. Many sites (including the Glacial Skyway) are closed outside the summer season, but there are still places to get out and stretch your legs. Don’t miss the Athabasca Falls, just outside Jasper.
The Parkway ends at Lake Louise – one of Canada’s most Instaworthy lakes. Visit in summer and you’ll be kayaking, or taking a dip – if you’re really brave. (The lake gets no warmer than 7 degrees even in summer). But for much of the year the glacial water is blanketed in white. It definitely still looked like winter when we visited, and we joined the steady stream of visitors walking the length of the lake, which was covered in thick snow. We also rented skates from the Fairmont Hotel and gave skating a try. Can’t say I showed a lot of skill in that area, but in my defence, the sun had turned the outdoor rink slushy, and even the pros looked to be struggling in the conditions!
Check for closures
The Icefields Parkway is open all year, but it does close for avalanches, and avalanche prevention work. This is most likely to take place in spring when the weather begins to warm up and the snow becomes unstable. We almost missed this iconic drive due to impending work. While in Jasper we discovered the road would be closing that day at 3pm because of the avalanche risk. We decided to cut our trip to Jasper short and hit the highway. So glad we did. I would have been pretty disappointed to meet a boom gate along Highway 93, get sent on a five-hour detour, and miss the Icefields completely! You’ll be charged a daily fee ($10.50/adult/day) to visit Banff and Jasper National Parks, as well as other Canadian national parks, but it is money well spent!
The Bow Valley Parkway is a scenic route that connects Lake Louise and Banff – a must-see addition to the Icefields Parkway. The area is popular with cyclists and hikers in summer, but even if you visit during the icy months, you should make the trek to Johnston Canyon and shuffle (very carefully) through the cave to the spectacular lower falls.
In Jasper, we stayed at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge – a 700 acre luxury resort that wraps around Lac Beauvert, just outside of town. The resort boasts great dining, a golf course and a substantial herd of elk that appear to favour the grass on the fairways. The many cabins that dot the property are super popular with families and their dogs!
At the Banff end of the Parkway, we stayed at the iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The luxurious lake-front hotel was originally built at the turn of the 20th century for alpine enthusiasts, but is now firmly on the tourist trail with 539 rooms, restaurants, bars, panoramic views and direct access to Lake Louise. But beware, the lake gets crowded even in the off season. Don’t expect to have it to yourself!
Julie Fison is a Brisbane author and travel lover. Her debut novel for adults, One Punch, is a compelling contemporary drama that tells the story of two mothers facing impossible decisions after one life-changing night. Julie has also written books for children and young adults, including the Hazard River series, stories in the Choose Your Own Ever After series, and a play for high schools, As the Crow Flies. When not at her desk, you can find Julie hiking a bush trail with her energetic border collie, exploring the outback, or chasing the perfect sunset. She is a committed traveller and enjoys sharing tips for midlife adventurers http://www.juliefison.com