One of the main reasons we wanted to visit Alberta was to drive the Icefields Parkway, one of the worlds most scenic roads. In fact, National Geographic calls it a “Drive of a Lifetime” and it’s often referred to as the “Most Beautiful Drive in the World”. I’ve always dreamt of doing it so after a night at Lake Louise we set off to fulfill that dream.
What is the Icefields Parkway?
Bit of background first then. The road between the towns of Lake Louise in the south of Alberta up to Jasper is called the Icefields Parkway. It’s 140 miles long and is officially part of Highway 93. Completed in 1940 it’s the only major route up through the Canadian Rockies to Jasper. The speed limit is 55mph, sometimes much less, and no commercial vehicles such as trucks or vans are allowed to travel on it.
Why is the Icefields Parkway so famous?
It’s all about the scenery. The mountains and lakes of Alberta and of course the glaciers and icefields all along the road for pretty much its complete length. The scale of both the road and the surrounding area are what makes it so unique.What I’ve always found fascinating about it is that there are no shops, just one petrol station, and no towns on the road at all and no turnings to other places. It’s just a single road running through the mountains.
Before we started the journey though we decided to make an early morning detour up to Moraine Lake just outside Lake Louise in Banff National Park. We’d seen horrendous queues the previous day so shot up there before breakfast to beat the crowds. Every leaflet said it worth seeing so we thought ‘why not’. Was it worth it?
A handful of cars and a brave bunch of foolhardy tourists were already there as we hiked the steep Rockpile Trail up to check the morning view. It was breath-taking. Not many things absolutely stun you but Moraine Lake was perfect. The colours in these photos are exactly as it looked, almost unreal. We’ve never seen anything quite so beautiful.
Almost looks like Jo is staring at a brightly coloured poster doesn’t it? Apparently that view is known as the ‘Twenty Dollar View’ as it has appeared on the back of the Canadian 20 Dollar bill. Also it’s been used by Google, Blackberry and Microsoft as backgrounds on various computers and phones so you may have seen it before. We couldn’t take our eyes off it.
Quick stop for breakfast in Lake Louise village and then off down Highway 93 to see what all of this ‘Greatest Road Ever’ business was all about.
The Icefields Parkway
First thing we hit was the entrance booths where you need to buy a National Park Pass. Obviously being experienced Land Sailors we’d prior purchased ours the day before and flew by on the super-express-got-a-pass-already lane. Very smug! Immediately the traffic thinned out and the scenery seemed to become even more dramatic if that was possible.
Although it’s possible to drive the Parkway in around 3 hours we really wanted to make the most of this experience and had pinpointed a few places to stop along the road.
As we have to return by exactly the same route in a week we decided to leave Hector Lake for that time and passed it by travelling parallel to the Bow River between the Waputnik Icefield and Mount Hector. Our next stop was just past Mount Crowfoot on the Bow Pass where we parked up in a fairly busy parking area in order to walk up and see Peyto Lake. The steep walk through the forest was quiet and relaxing and the views from the top were incredible. Brilliant blue water and mountains as far as the eye could see.
Unfortunately our five minutes of peace were shattered by the arrival of a coach party who all simultaneously decided that they needed to take as many selfies as possible with the most noise possible. Absolute carnage ensued with pushing and shoving and even some shouting! I’ll admit that it was me that shouted. A group of camera-happy posers refused to let a lady pushing her son in a wheelchair through so I sort of got a bit involved and told them all what to do. In the politest way of course.
It was actually quite entertaining watching them all act so rudely toward each other and wondering what the panic was as the mountains had been there quite a while and weren’t going anywhere.
Travelling past fabulously named places like Mount Totem, Mount Murchison and the Mistaya River we reached the Saskatchewan Crossing where we entered the Wilson Icefield and continued north. Past Mounts Amery, Cirrus and Saskatchewan we reached the Sunwapta Pass, Just past here is the Icefields Centre at what is probably the most famous stop on the road, the Columbia Icefields. This is the largest icefield in Canada and sits across the edges of Banff National Park and Jasper National Park to the north. It’s over 120 square miles and the Athabasca Glacier stops a couple of hundred metres from the road. Looks fantastic.
Tourists can take a snowcoach up onto the glacier in the summer months and actually explore it at close hand. It’s not cheap but supposed to be quite an experience. We decided we’d skip it and just have lunch! Grabbed a couple of chairs and sat in the sunshine in t-shirts and shorts at the bottom of the glacier.
The Skywalk and Sunwapta Falls
Moving on after lunch we entered Jasper National Park and passed by the famous Glacier Skywalk. There had been huge queues down at the Icefields for this and all the brochures and leaflets made it look fantastic. Without ‘dissing’ it too much we were delighted that we hadn’t spent a cent on it as it looked a real disappointment. Nuff said.
The sun beamed down as the drive took us past Tangle Creek and Mount Stutfield. Further on we passed Mounts Wooley, Mushroom and Gong before turning off to visit the waterfalls at Sunwapta. As I switched the engine off in the little car park the heavens opened and in seconds we were in the middle of a torrential rainstorm! Out of nowhere. A brief committee meeting decided against leaving the dryness of the car so we left Sunwapta and pushed on (maybe we’ll have another go on the way back).
Passing Honeymoon Lake and Mount Fryatt we headed up to our next ‘hopeful’ stop. The rain stopped as quickly as it had started and we reached Athabasca Falls in the same bright sunshine we’d had earlier. Crazy.
We spent over an hour hiking up and down the steep paths and cliffs around Athabasca Falls and marvelling at its sheer power. Waterfalls, especially big ones, just look uncontrollable and wild and certainly make you feel completely powerless in their presence. Bet this one looks terrifying in the middle of winter.
Edith Cavell and the Valley of the Five Lakes
The final part of the journey took us up into the town of Jasper and the end of the Parkway. Passing Wabasso Lake and the Astoria River we marvelled at the huge Mount Edith Cavell (named after the WWI nurse who saved over 200 Allied soldiers before being executed in 1916). After passing the Valley of the Five Lakes, which we vowed to visit later, we eased our way into the town of Jasper and the end of the drive.
Was it a Classic Drive?
As you all know I’m not big driving fan, it’s usually just a means of getting from A to B. But this was something completely different. Almost every minute of our four hour plus trip was exhilarating with unbelievably beautiful views around every single corner. It just didn’t stop. The scale of the Canadian Rockies here is just mind-blowing and these words and pictures really don’t do it any justice at all. It was more than a classic drive though, it was completely brilliant. And you know what? We’re doing it again next week when we drive back down to Jasper. That’s how amazing it is!