Guide to the Icefields Parkway: An Epic Road Trip

This guide to the Icefields Parkway tells you everything you need to know to plan your journey down the two-lane highway that connects Banff and Jasper. The Icefields Parkway, otherwise known as Highway 93, stretches 144 miles (232 km) and is considered to be one of the world’s most scenic mountain drives. To truly enjoy the breathtaking scenery this route has to offer, make sure to take your time and stop along the way. If you are planning a trip to Banff and/or Jasper National Parks, this guide to the Icefields Parkway will help you maximize your time and plan ahead!

The drive from Banff to Jasper would take approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes end to end without any stops. In addition to the stunning Canadian Rockies, there are numerous glaciers, turquoise lakes, and waterfalls to entertain you along the route. It is also one of the best places to spot wildlife. Pull over at one of the scenic overlooks to snap pictures, go on a short hike to view some waterfalls, or learn about the Athabasca Glacier at the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre. Depending on where you stop and how long you spend at each place, the drive could (and should!) take most of the day.

Guide to the Icefields Parkway

Here are some points of interest along the Icefields Parkway in order of appearance from Lake Louise to Jasper: 

Bow Lake

[Distance from Lake Louise: 24 mi / 39 km]

About 24 miles from Lake Louise, Bow Lake lines the Icefields Parkway on your left. On a clear day, this is a perfect place to stop and see the Crowfoot Glacier, Wapta Icefield, and Bow Glacier.

Bow Summit + Peyto Lake

[Distance from Lake Louise: 27 mi / 44 km]

Right after Bow Lake, glacier fed Peyto Lake is a must-see. If you haven’t gotten out of your car yet, do so here. Pull off the highway at the Bow Summit parking lot, which is the highest point of the Icefields Parkway at 6800 feet above sea level. From the parking lot, there is a paved trail that climbs uphill to a wooden viewing deck overlooking the lake and surrounding mountain valley. It will be crowded, but this stop is worth it.

Peyto Lake is fed from the Peyto Glacier, which can be seen to the left of the viewpoint. This glacier is part of the extensive Wapta Icefield, which extends into Yoho National Park in British Columbia. There are multiple areas along the platform to take pictures of both the lake and the glacier. Many people venture off the viewing deck for a better viewpoint from rock outcroppings. Or, follow the trail up to a less-traveled upper viewpoint

Guide to Icefields Parkway Peyto LakeIMG_0696Guide to Icefields Parkway view of Peyto Lake

Saskatchewan River Crossing

[Distance from Lake Louise: 49 mi / 79 km]

After Peyto Lake, continue north for about 22 miles (35 km) to reach the Saskatchewan River Crossing. This is a significant location where the North Saskatchewan, the Howse and the Mistaya rivers meet. This area was an important settlement for fur traders and explorers during the early 1800s. The only gas station before Jasper is located here! Fill up if needed. There is also a restaurant, limited groceries and a small gift shop.

Weeping Wall

[Distance from Lake Louise: 66 mi / 106 km]

Keep an eye out on your right for the Weeping Wall, a series of waterfalls that drop more than 330 feet down the gray limestone cliff of Cirrus Mountain.

Big Bend + Big Hill

[Distance from Lake Louise: 71.5 mi / 115 km]

You will definitely know when you arrive at Big Bend and Big Hill as they are appropriately named. Big Bend is a famous hairpin turn that wraps in a circle before climbing up Big Hill into towering peaks above. You will be able to see Big Bend on the map as you approach. The climb up Big Hill is steep and offers expansive views of the valley and river below – for  the passenger in the car. There is a turnoff/lookout area at the top of Big Hill. For the driver, the experience of Big Hill and Big Bend is better on the route from Jasper to Lake Louise.

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Wilcox Pass Trail

[Distance from Lake Louise: 77 mi / 125 km]

The Wilcox Pass Trailhead is located near the Wilcox Creek Campground, a few minutes before the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. This is a popular and rewarding day hike that takes hikers safely near the edges of the Athabasca Glacier with views of the Columbia Icefield and surrounding mountain peaks. The trail also provides an opportunity to see mountain goats and bighorn sheep. This hike is approximately 6 miles (9.6 km) round trip.

Columbia Icefield + Discovery Centre

[Distance from Lake Louise: 79.5 mi / 128 km]

The Columbia Icefield and Discovery Centre are located at roughly the halfway point along the Parkway. This is also the boundary between Banff and Jasper National Parks. The massive Columbia Icefield is what the Icefields Parkway is all about: it is the largest icefield with the most accessible glacier in the Canadian Rockies, the Athabasca Glacier.

Guide to Icefields Parkway Athabasca Glacier

Fun Fact: The waters from the Columbia Icefield flow to three different oceans – the Arctic, the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Accommodations, restaurants, a gift shop and interpretative exhibit are all located at the Discovery Centre, which is operated by Parks Canada. It is free and open daily from May 1 to mid-October. This is a busy place, as it is one of the few stops along the Parkway for food, public restrooms and WiFi. If you want to experience the icefield up close, the Discovery Centre is where you can purchase tickets for one of the glacier tours operated by Brewster.

Glacier Adventure

[ Tour rates and booking information ]

The Glacier Adventure includes a tour out onto the Athabasca Glacier via a massive Ice Explorer and a self-guided visit of the Glacier Skywalk. From the Discovery Centre, visitors take a short shuttle ride to the Ice Explorer boarding area. These humongous vehicles slowly transport you out to a safe, roped-off area of the glacier where you can walk around, take pictures and drink flowing glacial water. Visitors have about 40 minutes to explore before boarding the Ice Explorer and driving back to the shuttle area. This time, a new shuttle will pick you up and take you to the Glacier Skywalk, a cliff-edged walkway that juts out over the Sunwapta Valley. At the end of the walkway, a glass-bottomed, U-shaped walkway provides a unique and exhilarating experience for those who are brave enough to try it. Board a return shuttle when you are done exploring for the return trip back to the Discovery Centre.

IMG_0671Guide to Icefields Parkway group photo on Athabasca Glacier

Fun Fact: At this point, the glacial ice is as deep as the Eiffel Tower is high (1000 feet)! The Glacier Skywalk extends over the Sunwapta valley at the same height.

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Tours leave every 15 to 30 minutes depending on day and weather and fill up quickly during peak season. This tour included many transfers from shuttles to Ice Explorers to shuttles and back again, but everything ran very smoothly and there was no extra waiting around. Throughout the tour, guides tell you all kinds of interesting facts about how the glacier was formed and the rate at which it is currently melting. Overall, we were impressed with the Glacier Adventure and thought it was worth the expense and time we spent on it. For planning purposes, allow at least 2.5 hours for this tour. Make sure to use the restroom before you leave the Discovery Centre; there are no facilities on the shuttle buses, on the glacier, or at the Glacier Skywalk.

Pro Tip: I would highly recommend reserving your tour time in advance. We arrived around noon on our first trip up the Parkway to Jasper and tours were sold out until 3:00 pm! We did not want to wait around the Discovery Centre for three hours so we booked a tour time for our return route back to Banff three days later. Booking in advance also saves you 10% off the ticket price.

Sunwapta Falls

[Distance from Lake Louise: 110 mi / 177 km]

Sunwapta Falls consists of upper and lower waterfalls that are fed by the Athabasca Glacier. The upper falls are easily accessed from the parking lot. A short hike takes you down through a pine forest to the lower falls, where you’ll see three waterfalls spread over the Sunwapta River. Visit in late spring or early summer, when the snowmelt is at its peak. The restaurant at Sunwapta Falls Lodge is a recommended stop for a hearty meal before reaching Jasper.

Mount Kerkeslin Goat Lick

[Distance from Lake Louise: 120 mi / 194 km]

About 15 minutes north of Sunwapta is a place where mountain goats congregate to lick the salty mineral deposits left here. Make sure to slow down and drive with caution in this area; goats are often along the side of the road or in the road itself.

Athabasca Falls

[Distance from Lake Louise: 124 mi / 200 km]

One last stop before Jasper allows visitors to see powerful Athabasca Falls. Originating from the Columbia Icefield, the Athabasca River carries the most water of any rocky mountain river. There is a small parking lot with several walking trails to different vantage points around the falls. The trail is mostly paved and there are concrete bridges over the river gorge. Cross the bridge and walk down the stairs to see the gorge caused by the river. This area gets very busy in the summer, arrive early or later in the evening to avoid crowds. 

Guide to Icefields Parkway exploring at Athabasca Fallsimg_0368Guide to Icefields Parkway group photo on Athabasca River


Planning Tips

Here are a few tips to know before you go:

  • Make sure to bring a good map! There is no cell service the entire length of the Parkway so you will not be able to depend on your phone to navigate or look up information as you travel.
  • Fill up your gas tank! Between Lake Louise and Jasper, there is only one gas station at the Saskatchewan River Crossing.
  • If you are driving in the spring, fall or winter, make sure to check road reports and weather conditions before you leave. Here is a good winter driving guide. For road conditions, call 403-762-1450 (Banff) or 780-852-3311 (Jasper).
  • A national park pass is required to drive the Icefields Parkway. They are available at the information and visitor centers in Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise.
  • Depending on your itinerary, you might drive up the Icefields Parkway on one day and down the same route on another day. Split the highlights and stops between each leg of the journey if you have time.
  • The scenery is spectacular no matter which direction you are headed, but the scenery from Jasper to Lake Louise provides the best view of the mountains and glaciers.
  • There are twelve campsites, six hostels and three resorts along the Parkway offering overnight accommodations. 
  • Do you plans include Banff National Park? Stay in one of Parks Canada’s oTENTiks or hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House.

icefields parkway

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