Icefields Parkway

(Reminder: this post is being published well after our visit here, we are currently in Portland Oregon until Sept 4th)

“The view that lay before us in the evening light was one that does not often fall to the lot of modern mountaineers. A new world was spread at our feet: to the westward stretched a vast ice-field probably never before seen by the human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, unnamed and unclimbed peaks.

-J.Norman Collie 1898 after discovering the Columbia Ice Field

The Columbia Icefield is about 325 square kilometres (125 sq mi) in area, 100 metres (330 ft) to 365 metres (1,198 ft) in depth and receives up to 7 metres (280 in) of snowfall per year. It is surrounded by beautiful mountains like the one pictured above. The two lane parkway was built in 1931 (as a relief project during the Great Depression) and follows the precious Glacier Trail which was opened after the Canadian Railway opened the transcontinental line.

The parkway is about 140 miles long and runs from Jasper National Park to Lake Louise in Banff National Park. It is an amazing drive and I highly suggest you try to make it. I would love to go back in late fall when there is snow on the ground, but given the number is gates and signs along the road it is pretty obvious that major portions are closed to traffic in winter so timing would be a real issue

As noted in the previous post we started down the parkway about 2:30 with the hope of reaching Lake Louise after the afternoon crowds had left but early enough for us to still get to Golden and our accommodations there by suppertime. So while we made a number of stops along the parkway, we could have spent a great deal more time if we had of had it.

Our first stop was a quick one along the highway to see the multiple cascades of the waterfall below.

From here we drove past mountain after mountain like the one in the title picture until we reached the Athabasca Glacier. This glacier is one of six “toes” of the icefield. Below is an online photo of the icefield. It’s amazing to think that what we saw was just one teeny tiny bit of it. I think the glacier we visited is the one running down towards the bottom right of the picture.

Athabasca is the most visited glacier in North American according to Wikipedia. Of course they also say it is “easily” accessible. Hmm, I guess in the sense that you can drive relatively close and don’t have to climb up and over mountains that is true but for this old fat out of shape fellow, it was far from easy!

You can see the glacier from the highway and there is a visitor’s center with a beautiful terrace looking across the highway to the glacier. Of course, there isn’t enough parking so we elected to go straight to the gravel parking lot on the glacier side of the highway.

The road to the toe (and parking) is built on the land where the glacier has retreated since the 1800s. There are signs along the road and then the hiking path that note where the toe was at various years. It is sad to see the signs getting closer and closer together. Currently, the glacier is receding about 16 feet a year. 😢

As you can see in the picture of Mike above, the trail takes you up and over some hills. What you can’t see is just how steep it really is or how rocky and uneven. Needless to say, we were very out of breath and sweaty (despite the cold temperatures caused by the air blowing over the ice) when we finally got to the end of the walkway.

We enjoyed seeing the toe but elected to not go down and actually touch it-we had done that in Alaska and we was tired (and still had the hike back to the car). But the views from upclose were interesting.

We also elected not to take the Glacier Adventure Drive onto the glacier itself. For a mere $103 you get driven onto the glacier and get to walk in it. In the picture below you can see the snowcoach on the far left and those specks to the right are people out for a walk. The snow coach looks pretty cool but we wondered how bad it is for the glacier.

After catching our breath and taking way more pictures than necessary we headed back to the car. It’s in that crowd of vehicles down by the pond. Phew, going down was just about as rough as going up.

Oh, the Visitor’s Center is the whiteish building at the base of the trees in the upper right quadrant of the picture above. It sits where the toe of the glacier was in 1844 when after an earthquake event the glacier started to recede.

Our next stop was at Peyto Lake. The color in the pictures below is not due to a filter, that’s really how it looks. It’s due to some scientifically explainable phenomenon due to the rock “flour” that is suspended in the lake water and reflects just the wave lengths of sunlight. The flour is created by the glaciers grinding against the underlying rock. All I know is, it’s mesmerizingly beautiful.

After the lake we rode up and across Bow Summit the highest point of the parkway, 6,840 feet. One of the nice things about the parkway is that it basically follows the continental divide so the road is relatively flat. There aren’t the switchbacks and steep slopes we experienced on Beartooth going into Yellowstone or The Road to the Sun at Glacier National. But all along it there are just beautiful mountains everywhere and the occasional goat!

About 7 pm we arrived at Lake Louise and while the signs still said the parking lot was full, they weren’t stopping you from going in we went. We quickly found a spot and headed for the lake (with hundreds of friends-yes it was still crowded!)

The lake and it’s setting are indeed beautiful but we determined that the other lakes along the drive are just as beautiful and without the crowd and traffic issues here.

That’s Queen Victoria Glacier behind is that feeds the lake. Looking out on the lake is the historic Chateau Lake Louise built by the railroad. Like the other railroad lodges, it was initially quite beautiful.

However, after the above burned in the early 1900s, it was replaced with a less lodgy facility which has since been added to several times (2004 is the most recent) and to us is like any other big resort hotel-albeit one with an incredible view!

We left Lake Louise with plenty of time to make the less than hour drive to Golden but as we were finishing listening to our app tour guide, he mentioned two stops in Yoho National Park which we had to drive through.

The first was for the “Spiral Tunnels”. You will recall that we had been relatively high in the Rockies, so the grade to get back down on the western side was very steep. In fact, two steep for trains to safely make it down or easily back up. After several major accidents, a series of tunnels were built that spiral through the mountains so that the horizontal length the train travels is increased thereby reducing the grade. One can stand and see the train go into the first tunnel, come out a tunnel below (going the opposite direction) while the end of the train is still going in the upper tunnel! I’m putting pictures of it (and a diagram) below but I know it’s hard to see what is really happening through the trees. If you’re interested, here is a Link to a YouTube video I found that shows what we saw.

The second stop the guide mentioned was for a beautiful waterfall. Hmm, time is getting short, how beautiful can a waterfall be…I mean we have seen several just today. Unlike the narration in Yellowstone, the Canadian Rockie version doesn’t give you as much information as to the time it takes to reach sights of interest. We were torn, hotel or waterfall? We decided we might jot get back so we took a leap of faith that we could get to this waterfall and still make it to our hotel before the reception desk closed. 🤞🏻

It turns out it was about a 25 minute drive to the parking lot but boy are we glad we did it. Takakkaw Falls was the highlight of our visits to the National Parks in the USA and in Canada. It is indeed “magnificent” in any language whether seen from a distance, anywhere on the 3/4 mile walk to get closer, or at its base. Just incredible!

After the walk back to the car (turns out we walked 6 miles and 20 stories that day) we sped away from the falls, thankful that we weren’t driving a camper as there were special instructions for them on how to back down a section of the hairpin turns as the turns are too tight to make otherwise so they provide a long pulloff at each end!

Thankfully we made it to the motel with 30 minutes to spare and weren’t even the last folks to check in.

It was a very very long day-remember we left Hinton about 7 am and visited Jasper, the Icefield Parkway, Lake Louise and Yoho all in about 14 hours. Goodness so much beauty!

For anyone thinking about visiting the Canadian Rockies, we would highly recommend not killing yourself to see Lake Louise-the other lakes and glaciers are just as beautiful if not more so. We would suggest trying to stay in one of the accommodations in Jasper-there are some that are not expensive as the former railroad lodges so they are a little more affordable. Don’t be like us (me) and presume that there aren’t affordable places. It would have been great to wake up looking at one of the many glacier fed lakes. Oh well next time!

Our biggest advice is to make sure to include Yoho National Park. Why this isn’t on more people’s radar I don’t know. Thank goodness for the Gypsy Tours app or we wouldn’t have known about it. I am sure the other sights in Yoho are beautiful, but we barely had time for the falls, so again…next time.

Speaking of next time….the next post will be about our short stay in Kelowna, British Columbia. Hope you’ll hang around for it.

One more look at the Magnificent just as the sun was going down. If you look atb nothing else on this post, take the 12 seconds to watch this!

4 thoughts on “Icefields Parkway

  1. Your 12 seocnd video of the waterfall made my day, utterly priceless.
    Love being a virtual traveller with you two.
    I have done trips in the Rocky Mts three times in my life and will never forget those vistas.


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