The Icefields Parkway – a 232 km stretch of road that connects Jasper and Banff National Parks – is rated one of the world’s most spectacular drives. Highway 93 cuts through the Canadian Rocky Mountains – beneath towering peaks, past deep gorges, glaciers and waterfalls. 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 the sights 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 across a blue lake, or taking a dip – if you’re really brave. But for much of the year the glacial lake is blanketed in white. You can walk the 2km to the far end of the lake, or rent skates from the Fairmont hotel and give iceskating a go. Can’t say I showed a lot of skill in that area, but it was fun to give it a try!
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 a road closure. While in Jasper we discovered the road would be closing that day at 3pm due to 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!
Bow Valley Parkway
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.
We stayed at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise – both excellent hotels, but beware, Lake Louise can get crowded even in the off season. Don’t expect to have the lake to yourself!