“The world is a book and those that do not travel read only one page.”
The Icefields Parkway was my reason for visiting Canada (after seeing the photos on a blog!), and it didn’t disappoint.
The Icefields Parkway (Highway 93, or ‘Promenade des Glaciers’ in French) is a 230km majestic drive between Jasper and Banff. I have never travelled any other road in the world that has such a diversity of attractions – aquamarine lakes, spectacular mountain ranges, rushing waterfalls, glaciers and wildlife!
As we mentioned in our last blog, we took the old Highway 93A out of Jasper to try to spot bears. After days of “bear hunting” – today we saw plenty!
The old Highway 93A “is literally the road less travelled … offers a blissfully traffic-free experience as it slips serenely through deep, dark woods and past small placid lakes and meadows” (Lonely Planet Guide).
And then onto the Icefields Parkway…
230km of aquamarine lakes, spectacular mountain ranges, rushing waterfalls, glaciers and bear jams!
Athabasca Falls and Sunwapta Falls
Our first stop on the Icefields Parkway was the Athabasca Falls. These falls are known for being one of the most breathtaking and powerful falls in the Canadian Rockies.
The Sunwapta Falls are impressive for their height.
Both falls are fed by the Athabasca Glacier (we visit further on).
Columbia Icefield was a ‘must-stop’ destination for us.
These glaciers are the largest south of the Arctic Circle and are a remnant of the last ice age. The Icefield is huge, approximately 300km2 in area and 100 to 365 meters deep. Incredibly, the Athabasca Glacier feeds water off in three directions into three different oceans – the Arctic, the Atlantic and the Pacific.
We booked a tour onto the glacier itself in a large “snow-coach”. Make sure you have plenty of warm clothing, as you may need to wait for a coach.
Alternatively, if your budget doesn’t stretch to a snow-coach trip onto the glacier itself you can view the glacier from either the car park or the upper deck at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre (opposite side of the road).
We got to try pure glacier water (Tip: take a cup).
And just hang out on the ice.
Icefields Discovery Centre
The Discovery Centre – if for nothing else – provides fantastic photo opportunities and a great opportunity to get warm in the cafe and enjoy our new favourite Poutine!
However, the Discovery Centre is also a critical educational opportunity resourced by Parks of Canada. It provides an important opportunity to learn about the glaciers, how they were formed, and the impacts of climate change. It is pretty surreal to look at photos of the Athabasca Glacier 100 years ago when it came down almost to the road. And to learn about how each winter, because it is not cold enough and there is not enough snow, the glacier no longer recovers the ground it looses over summer.
The net result being the shocking reality – standing in front of a glacier that is now on the distant horizon.
The Glacier has retreated approximately 1.6km over the last 150 years.
Glacier Sky Walk
The Sky Walk is a glass-floored observation platform 280 metres above the Sunwapta Valley.
The Sky Walk itself was spectacular (but difficult to get a decent photo). If you don’t like heights this might not be your favourite spot on the Icefields Parkway.
However there were also plenty of opportunities for learning, the walking tour was informative both about the area, and its natural history, and also the engineering marvels involved in building the Sky Walk. We also checked in on the live bear safety talk, a fantastic idea for those of us that are not used to large wild animals!
Again, there can be a wait for the bus so make sure you have extra warm clothing.
“A traffic jam caused by tourists stopping to look at bears near the road”.
Today we were introduced to the legendary bear jams. Our first bear jam was exciting – it meant there were bears!! Hubby was made to drive slowly around the other cars while we were peering out the window, camera poised for the prized peek of the inevitable bear …
By the end of the day, we weren’t quite so enamoured with this man-made anomaly, tired and cold and wanting to get to our hotel. I wonder if the bears feel this way about the uninvited intrusion.
The Weeping Wall resembles a mountain with a river of tears – a spectacular photographic opportunity.
Peyto Lake and Bow Summit
This lake is famous for its stunning blue waters. Tourists are often photographed sitting high up on a cliff overlooking the aquamarine lake. When you get there in real life – you realise there are several safety barriers these tourists must be climbing up/over and around to get that iconic shot. We’ve decided to stay within safety barriers, particularly with children in tow – so our photos are from the safety of the lookout.
On the way back down the snow starts falling…
Bow Lake is another stunning lake lining the Icefields Parkway and a perfect place to view more glaciers – the Crowfoot Glacier, Wapta Icefield and Bow Glacier. And of course, it is surrounded by stunning mountains.
We hit more bear jams here – this bear really entertained the kids (and the crowds) with what they named “grizzlastics”. He was having a great time sunning himself on a hill, laying down, sticking his but in the air and at the crowds. We got the impression he was a regular.
We’ve got to say – stay clear of the bears! (this photo is reasonably well zoomed in). It is not safe for them to get accustomed to people, or to get distracted from their everyday activities – they need to do a lot of eating to put on weight for hibernation! The crowds were getting way too close at this bear jam.
Another beautiful glowing blue lake. Getting a little tired by now :). This one is on the list for tomorrow.
Accommodation – Cathedral Mountain Lodge
Our cabin at Cathedral Mountain Lodge was heavenly after a long day on the road.
I do regret that we were too stuffed to cook smores on the riverbank with the other guests, but the girls got an early night in and Hubby and I curled up in front of the fire with a lovely bottle of red wine.
Our budget doesn’t extend to eating out every day, so today the girls were very excited they got to try instant noodles for the first time! I finished dinner off with a salad – lettuce leaves, sprouts, cherry tomatoes and a bit of mayo (in the rinsed out noodle containers!). A token effort at vegetables. Nevertheless, the girls are excited.
The next morning we had a slow start, it was still snowing and we were still exhausted.
We took our time enjoying the amazing breakfast (included with our room) in the stunning great room, along with endless top-ups of coffee whilst the girls played chess in front of the lounge fireplace. Heavenly.
Tips for the Icefields Parkway
- Take every opportunity to learn – there is nothing like seeing the impact of climate change for yourself.
- We purchased our tickets as a Combo Package through Pursuit Tours. The bundle included the Maligne Lake Cruise, the Glacier Adventure (snow-coaches), the Sky Walk and the Banff Gondola. At CAD192+ each an adult, this was a lot of money, but we felt was well worth it for three days of attractions.
- Look out for room package deals that include breakfasts. The restaurant, and the dinner menu, at Cathedral Mountain Lodge, looked incredible. But at approximately CAD45 a main, our budget didn’t stretch to eating there with a family of four. We still got to enjoy the fantastic food (and the stunning great-room) for breakfast – a much cheaper option.
- Self-catering: We are travelling with a chiller bag of food (as well as glad-wrap, plastic knives and forks, and a sharp knife) so we can make our own breakfasts, lunches, and sometimes dinner!! All the rooms we have stayed in had their own fridges, even when they didn’t have a kitchen, so it was always practical to keep the food chilled overnight, as well as re-freeze ice packs.
This blog is part of the Amazing Journey Series.
Five years ago we re-evaluated our lives and our goals after the sudden loss of my mother in law. We vowed to slow down and to enjoy life with our small children. We got outside and explored. And we travelled. This Amazing Journey series documents our journey through Canada and the US, provides an insight on travelling with children, local destination tips and tricks, and, of course, gives an Accountant’s perspective on making the most of your holiday dollar. Earlier entries are here: