The Canadian Rockies – Banff to Jasper & The Ice Fields Parkway

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“Adventure Tourism Information About Places Ya’Gotta Go To!”
Jasper National Park hostels
Icefields Parkway
Icefields Parkway
Photo: Travel Alberta
Author: Bob Kenyon

If you want to see the Canadian Rockies, there is one trip that you must take. The Ice Fields Parkway (Hwy. 93) is the road that travels between Banff and Jasper National Parks.

The Parkway follows the valleys that funnel the headwaters of the Bow, Saskatchewan and Athabasca Rivers into Alberta. These rivers are fed by the glaciers, high in the mountains, known as Crowfoot, Bow and Athabasca. The latter is better known as the Columbia Ice Fields and is a must see for any trekker to the Canadian Rockies.

The Ice Fields Parkway is great traveled either north or south and can be combined with a loop, east through Alberta, or west through British Columbia and on to Yoho, Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks. The northbound Parkway begins at Lake Louise Junction, on the Trans Canada #1 Highway, the village of Lake Louise. Parks Canada produces a map of the Ice Fields Parkway.

If you’re planning a trip to the Canadian Rocky Mountains and travel the Ice Fields Parkway between Banff and Jasper National Park you should book your hotels, car rentals and flights (see above), well in advance. For camping reservations, in the National Parks go to the Parks Canada Reservation Service.

In order to take in the great side trips and day hikes, don’t rush. You can easily drive the 230 km (143 miles) in a day and even do it as a full day, return trip, but that’s rushing it. For drivers, as in all of the National Parks, there is low speed limited imposed, for the protection of animals that cross the road. It averages 90 km/hr, with slower speeds for areas of greater animal concentration.

Actually, to really take in the Ice Fields Parkway, several days works great! If you plan to take all the many, great back country treks…Give yourself several weeks, as many of the trails connect. There are also one way tours that go from Banff to Jasper and in the opposite direction.

Anglers and and fly fishing enthusiasts will really enjoy Banff and Jasper but you need to have National Park fishing permit and motor boats are not allowed. You also have to be aware of catch limits and many anglers practice catch and release, but it’s also great to keep one for the pan.

For overnight back country treks, in Canada’s National Parks, permits are required, from the park office or online and can be difficult to acquire do to the quota system. Dogs are not allowed in the back country, of the National Parks, nor are open fires. Always check with the park office for trail closures, bear warnings and other regulations prior to departure.

Kootenay is a National Park and back country, overnight travelers will require permits. They must also be appropriately equipped with rain proof clothing, lightweight packs, tents, sleeping bags and cooking supplies. Many of things listed, above are available at our Ya’Gotta Adventure Travel Store.

Travelers into the back country should be trained in map and compass use, proper gear, layered clothing, emergency first aide, water purification, food storage and disposal. In these areas bear avoidance skills are mandatory!

Another rule of thumb, in the mountain back country, is that during the late spring (i.e. May/June), you should keep your treks to the lower altitude. High passes are often snow bound until after Canada Day (July 1). Even during July many of these areas are very wet with melt water, with streams and rivers running very high. Sometimes keeping your treks to later in the summer, or early fall can also reduce problems with mosquitoes.

Make sure to start early in the day, to enjoy the beauty of the mountains, in the morning. If you’re looking for accommodations, along the way, hotels are very scarce. Click these links for hotels at  Banff, Lake LouiseJasper and rustic hostels).

The road is great for experienced cyclists, but the climb up Bow Summit will be tough. Be prepared for shifts in weather and temperature, animals (even the occasional bear) on the road and many, many tourists.

There is regular bus service on the Parkway and it is also covered by many tour bus lines. At most junctions you will also see hitchhikers.

While you’re at Lake Louise, take in the lake and its many tourists. You can also walk into the lakeside Chateau Lake Louise and look around at this grand hotel. There also lots of great side trips. While at the lake shore you can either go to the top of big beehive, little beehive, with a stop at the lake Agnes Teahouse. A more strenuous trek is to the top of Mt. Fairview. These trek provide  spectacular views of the lake and the glacier that feeds it.

All together the Lake Louise area is a day hiker’s heaven, which includes treks to Larch Valley, Sentinel Pass, Paradise Valley, Eiffel Lake, Wenkchemna Pass, Consolation Lakes, Plain of the Six Glaciers and the Saddleback. For more information, check Parks Canada’s extensive list of hikes in the area.

Peyto Lake

Peyto Lake
Photo: Travel Alberta

After heading north from Lake Louise, you are now on to the Ice Fields Parkway. If it’s a sunny day, make sure to take the obligatory trip up to the famous Peyto Lake lookout, for one of the best examples of how minerals in mountain lake water, reflect light. This colour of this lake ranges from turquoise to teal!

Bow Lake

Bow Lake
Photo Travel Alberta

On this day you can also take in the great day hikes in the area. Some of the best are Bow Falls, which is well worth the short trek in to see how the water slides down this inclined rock face. A more extreme hike, but well worth the cross valley views the Crowfoot Glacier, is Dolomite Pass. From the top of Dolomite , experienced back country trekkers can travel down the Siffleur River to the Kootenay Plains and the North Saskatchewan River.

top of north molar pass

Top of North Molar Pass
Ya’Gotta Bob (behind)

For an overnight camp try for the Mosquito Creek Campground (23 km. north of Hwy. #1). There’s also hostel there and the trail head for the Molar Pass treks is right across the road. You can trek to either North or South Molar Pass. If you decide to go over the north pass, to overnight at Fish Lakes, be prepared for a lot of mosquitoes at the campground.

If you can’t find space there, move further north to one of my favourite campground at Waterfowl Lake (57 kms. north of Hwy #1). The trail to Cirque and Chephren Lakes leaves from there and both can covered as a 13 km. round trip day hike.

Shortly before the Parkway crosses over from Banff to Jasper National Park, you reach Saskatchewan River Crossing, where you find the only gas station on the route, which (of course in not important for the cyclists). What is important to all travelers, is that the road going east will take you out of the park and into central Alberta, via the David Thompson Highway.

In this part of Banff you will find the trail to Glacier Lake, for a long day hike, or short overnight trip. The area also provides access to the National Historic site of Howse Pass, David Thompson’s route he learned from the  aboriginals to go over the mountains. This route will take hardy tekers to Golden, BC. 2007 marked the bicentennial of the this fur-trade explorer’s trip over the pass.

You can also take the long switch back up to Sunset Pass, where you can day hike to Sunset Lookout (pack water). Serious backpackers or trail riders can continue on to Pinto Lake and also down the Cline River to the David Thompson Highway. Both this trail and Siffleur River go out of the park into wilderness areas, where the trails and campgrounds aren’t as well marked or developed as in the park.

In this area of Banff, you also find the Weeping Wall, where glacial springs, seep out of the rock face. This is a favourite spot for experienced ice climbers, in the winter.

Just north of the park, in south end of Jasper, backpackers will find Some of the best high country packing in the Canadian Rockies! the Glacier Trail (90 kms.) links to Nigel, Brazeau, Poboktan, and Jonas Passes. There is also access to Maligne Pass, which will take trekkers over to Maligne Lake and up into the rugged Skyline Trail!

No trip to the Canadian Rockies is complete without a trip to the Columbia Ice Fields. For trekkers, there are spectacular views of the Columbia Ice Fields, from Wilcox Pass and Parker’s Ridge. During the summer, in the high meadows of Wilcox Pass you will often find large, bighorn sheep rams grazing.

For a chilly night of camping, try the Wilcox Campground, south of the Ice Fields Interpretive Centre.

It’s well worth going to the toe of the glacier to see how fast it’s melting. You can also take an interesting trip through the Centre and many travelers take snow coach rides out onto the glacier.

Water that melts from the snow dome, at the very top of the glacier has the uniqueness of flowing to three oceans:

  1. Waters of Athabasca River flow north through Jasper and eventually enter the Arctic Ocean as the waters of the MacKenzie River.
  2. The North Saskatchewan River flows east through Alberta and Edmonton. From there it continues on into Saskatchewan. There it joins with South Saskatchewan River and continues through Manitoba to Hudson’s Bay and the North Atlantic Ocean.
  3. The Bow that flows south, goes through Banff and Calgary. It eventually joins the Saskatchewan system, via the South Saskatchewan River and continues on, as above.
  4. The Thompson River flows west, through British Columbia, to enter the Pacific Ocean.

Note: The two main watersheds of Alberta are the extensive MacKenzie and Saskatchewan systems. There is one more small watershed, in bottom southeast of Alberta. The Milk River flows (south of Medicine Hat) south into the Missouri and the waters enter the Gulf of Mexico, as the Mississippi River.

Sunwapta Falls Jasper National Park

Sunwapta Falls
Photo Travel Alberta

Further up the Parkway is Sunwapta Falls, the Glacier Skywalk and the trail head to Fortress Lake. You will sometimes see sure footed, white mountain goats on the slopes above.

Athabasca Falls Jasper National Park

Athabasca Falls
Photo Travel Alberta

When you get to Athabasca Falls, you must take a tour around one of the best examples of the power of water, in the Canadian Rockies. You can actually walk down ancient erosion channels, through the rock.

Be extra careful to stay inside, the security walls and fences and hold on the children’s hands. Often there are people fail to heed the the posted warning and are swept over the falls!

At Athabasca Falls turn off the Highway 93 and go onto the old 93A highway. This older version of the Ice Fields Parkway, will lead you to some great hiking to the Geraldine Lakes and two of the great Jasper backpacks…Fryatt and Tonquin Valley. You can also take the well known trip up to Mount Edith Cavell, the peak that dominates the Jasper skyline. Prior to arriving at the turnoff to Mount Edith Cavell and if you’re wanting a quiet campground than those near the town of Jasper, try the Wabasso.

From Jasper, travelers can loop back west to either Cariboo Country, down to the Okanagan Valley and Kelowna. Going east you can go to Hinton, with the turnoff to the Ram Highway, that leads to Willmore Wilderness area and Grande Cache. From Hinton, on the Trans Canada Yellowhead Hwy. travelers can head east to Edmonton.

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