Canadian Icefields Parkway – Most scenic drive in Canada
During this post I will introduce the 232 km Canadian Icefields Parkway, known to be the most scenic drive in Canada. Our journey starts at Banff National Park, Lake Louise and heads up north all the way to Jasper National Park in Alberta Canada.
You can drive along the Icefields Parkway in both directions from North to South (Jasper to Lake Louise) or South to North like in this post.
The Canadian Icefields Parkway with its towering, ragged mountains, icy blue lakes (or just icy lakes in our case) and shimmery crystal ancient glaciers is quite possibly the most scenic drive on earth of this kind and should be on your road trip bucket list. That is to say if you like endless jaw-dropping views and stopping at every corner to marvel at mother nature’s beauty.
The journey along Highway 93, the Icefields Parkway, is listed in National Geographic’s Drives of a Lifetime and with good reason. The Canadian Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 North) can be completed within 3 hours of driving but that would be a total waste.
Take in the beauty of the Canadian Icefields Parkway
The Canadian Rockies are famous for their breathtakingly beautiful national parks and most importantly those pictures that you see of bright blue water or sparkly ice lakes are actually real! No filter needed, to the contrary you have to de-saturate them a bit in Lightroom. Depending on the time of the year you visit the Icefields Parkway, you might get these icy blue lakes still covered in ice or during the process of losing their winter coat.
No matter the time of the year, it is stunning!
Luckily the Icefields Parkway highway was built with numerous stopping points. You will soon realise why! Firstly, about every 100 metres another jaw dropping view opens up in front of your eyes. Secondly there is the possibility of spotting wildlife just about around every turn. Consequently, it’s best to be THE TOURIST and wear your camera around your neck, and most importantly stop at every single lay-by and check it out. I said it already but I will just say it one more time, this is an experience not to be rushed. If really you only have one day make it a total full day experience, but better would be investing in 2 days. If you do not have the time, I would suggest to skip it all. You will be so disappointed not having the time to stop wherever you want. Trust me on this.
Stops along the Canadian Icefields Parkway
As I mentioned before DO NOT STRESS, you must take your time and even better allow 2 or even 3 days.
As the twins were still young when we travelled and not experienced hikers, I will concentrate more on the viewpoints, and the easy strolls from the car park to a lake, waterfall or another jaw dropping viewpoint. Sure thing is, that this drive will leave you in awe.
Any hikes mentioned on this post are recommendations we have been given but we have not hiked them ourselves. If you do have all the time on earth check out the NP website for more amazing hikes to discover throughout the Canadian Icefield Parkway.
There are plenty of Icefields Parkway stops where you can take in the wild natural beauty and explore. These are our favourites in order from Banff up to Jasper!
the very first lake when leaving Banff with a great picnic place. Not many people stop here but please do! Walking down to the lake between the special skinny tree forest is an experience in itself. And watch out for beavers along the shore.
You can walk to another lake called Hector Lake which is a 10km (6mi) loop hike. Apparently an easy, mostly flat, well maintained path and not crowded at all.
Driving distance from Lake Louise: 20km
Driving distance from Jasper: 212km
Type of stop: Road side viewpoint with picnic place
early in the drive you will see one of the most underestimated spots on the Icefields Parkway. It is the headwater of the Bow River and the perfect spot to view the Crowfoot Glacier, Wapta Icefield, Bow Glacier, Crowfoot Mountain and Mount Thompson.
There’s also a hiking trail at Bow Lake to see the Bow Glacier and Bow Glacier Falls. Apparently, the hike is moderately easy and just about 9km round trip.
Driving distance from Lake Louise: 36 km
Driving distance from Jasper: 196 km
Type of stop: Road Side parking viewpoint
as you have just been in awe at your previous stop be prepared as your mouth is just about to open even wider. This is a must stop and probably one of the most famous stops during the whole Icefields Parkway.
Depending on the time of the year you visit, you may not be able to drive up to the Bow Summit parking lot as it is still covered in snow. In 2019 this was the case even by the end of May. But this has not stopped us from visiting the viewing platform.
Walking 20min uphill in the snow on what should have been a paved path was so much fun and made it even more adventurous. And with a little snowball fight on the way, we did not even feel the strenuous snow path.
We reached the The Bow Summit parking lot at 2067m, still very much covered by snow in about 20 minutes. From there it is an easy 2min stroll where the lake’s viewing platform awaits you.
Most certainly you have seen a picture of the lake many times before, and you were wondering if it had filters on it and if it is really that colour. Well see for yourself!! Although we did not have the silky, turquoise water but the crystal icy lake. One could start to see the turquoise colour slightly shimmer through the ice and we could very well imagine how it would look in summer months once the ice had melted. But honestly, we loved the way we saw the white fox surrounded by evergreens, mountains, and glacier ice.
This will be your highest elevation on the Canadian Icefields Parkway.
Driving distance from Lake Louise: 42 km
Driving distance from Jasper: 190 km
Type of stop: 20min short hike lower parking lot / or stroll from upper car park
parking at Mistaya Canyon is along the west side of Icefields Parkway situated at the side of the road. A wide gravel trail brings you in less than 500m to the stunning canyon where roaring, frothy water churns through rocks below.
Driving distance from Lake Louise: 73km
Driving distance from Jasper: 159 km
Type of stop: parking at the side of the road followed by a very short hike
Saskatchewan River Crossing,
back on the road and passing by several large mountain peaks, your next stop is the Saskatchewan River Crossing. It’s here where the North Saskatchewan River meets the Mistaya and Howse Rivers. We thought it was pretty spectacular to see the snaking flow of the riverbeds along this shallow, gravely stretch, with the mountains all around.
Depending on the time schedule you’re on, you have the option to hit one of the few nearby trails, grab a bite at the picnic area or simply observe this amazing view and see if you can spot some wildlife. Whatever you do have your camera close by.
Driving distance from Lake Louise: 76km
Driving distance from Jasper: 154 km
Type of stop: parking at the side of the road followed by an easy stroll to the river
The Crossing Inn, STOP, overnight, refuel and eat.
It had taken us the full day to arrive at this point. And we were so glad that we had booked a room at the Crossing Inn. Nothing special but there is also not much around. You might see some wildlife coming into the Inn grounds. We heard that a mama bear visited regularly, often seen by the petrol station.
The views are nice and we had an amazing full moon night.
Driving distance from Lake Louise: 77km
Driving distance from Jasper: 153 km
Type of stop: Overnight
Cirrus mountain viewpoint,
after breakfast at the Crossing Inn, get ready for the 2nd part of the most amazing road trip along the Canadian Icefields parkway, which is as jaw dropping as the 1st part. With your nose glued to the window you will drive towards the border where Banff and Jasper National parks meet.
The view down the valley from this roadside pullout sums up what the Canadian Icefields Parkway is all about in my eyes - a stunning road framed by breathtaking mountains. Just another typical scene on the Icefields Parkway!
Shortly after this beautiful viewpoint is the starting point of Parker's Ridge hike. People say if you only have time to do one hike along the Canadian Icefield Parkway, make it the Parker’s Ridge one. The hike is about an hour uphill to the top of the ridge line, with gentle switchbacks offering you epic views of the surrounding mountains.
Driving distance from Lake Louise: 116 km
Driving distance from Jasper: 116 km
Type of stop: Road Side viewpoint, with an optional hike
Athabaska Glacier and the Icefield Discovery Center,
the Columbia Icefield Discovery Center at the Athabaska Glacier is the largest in the Canadian Rockies. You can walk up to the glacier, just park your car on the other side of the Icefield Center and follow the path.
Or join one of their expensive trips where you board this big Ice vehicle which will drive on to the glacier so you can stand on it, take a picture and leave again.
Sorry but this was not our thing. It was so cold during that day we even skipped the hike to the glacier from the parking lot.
But it is still an impressive site and well worth the stop to take a shot of the glacier even if it is from afar.
Driving distance from Lake Louise: 129km
Driving distance from Jasper: 103 km
Type of stop: Short hike to the glacier or visit the Discovery center
Columbia Icefield Sky walk,
a glass floored viewing platform that hangs 280 metres above the valley and waterfalls below. This needs to be booked at the Icefield Center and you will be taken by a bus from there to the sky walk.
I have got to be honest with you, their website makes it sound like you are walking on a glass bottom sky walk over the glacier. At least we understood it like this and this is why we booked their expensive Sky Walk ticket.
Let me tell you it is nowhere near the glacier, but next to the road built out over the canyon. You will be driving past it if you carry on to Jasper. There is no pull-out nearby so it is not possible to stop and have a look from the road.
We were lucky as we were nearly alone on the Sky walk as it was early morning before all the buses arrive.
BUT this photo below is from a road side stop further down direction Jasper. It was free of charge and quite impressive in my opinion.
Don’t understand me wrong, you still have an impressive view over to the Columbian Icefields high up the mountain, some of which measure nearly 100m thickness.
It is all very well explained and nicely done with audio in different languages and information boards. But if you miss this part you have not missed much along the Canadian Icefields Parkway.
Driving distance from Lake Louise: 129km
Driving distance from Jasper: 103 km
Type of stop: Parking at the Icefield Discovery Center plus private bus ride
Wow, what a surprise this was. Shortly after the Icefield Discovery Center we saw a pull out on the left and wondered why, as there was nothing to discover at first, until we turned our heads to the right and saw this most beautiful waterfall cascading over different terraces.
Even if you’re not yet a waterfall lover, park your car and head over to the other side of the road. You can climb up to the 2nd level and have even more of a breathtaking view and a feel of how beautiful this place is. Apparently, this is a good place to see mountain goats. We did not see any.
Driving distance from Lake Louise: 134km
Driving distance from Jasper: 96 km
Type of stop: Road side viewpoint
this is without a doubt out one of my favourite falls in the Canadian Rockies. You will have seen many photos of this place and it lives up to all expectations. A beautifully photogenic place. This incredible 18m waterfall, fed by the Athabasca Glacier is a very fast flowing fall, framed by the leading lines of the Spruce trees and placed slightly below the island where the Sunwapta River splits in two.
Although not as impressive as the Upper Falls, the short hike (1.3k) takes you to the Lower Falls along the pine forest path. CARFUL you must have bear spray with you!!
Driving distance from Lake Louise: 178 km
Driving distance from Jasper: 54km
Type of stop: Off road parking with a very short hike
if chasing waterfalls is not yet one of your favourite activities in Canada, then it will soon be. There are so many and especially if you are visiting during late spring when the glaciers are starting to melt, they are quite powerful and impressive.
Same with the Athabasca falls cascading 23m down the gorge from the Athabasca River, fed by the massive Columbia Icefield.
Numerous platforms and walkways where you can safely view and photograph the falls are only a short distance from the car park.
Driving distance from Lake Louise: 202 km
Driving distance from Jasper: 30km
Type of stop: Off road parking with a very short hike
Prepare for your escape on the Canadian Icefields Parkway
When to visit
High season is July – August, and this is also the time when pretty much every tourist in the whole Alberta region is also in the park. So be careful as there might be quite some traffic, and lots of cars pulling in and out from the numerous viewpoint pullouts.
We visited end of May and also all photos are from this time. Canada had quite a hard and long winter in 2018/19, which is why most of the lakes where still frozen and there was still a lot of snow on the ground.
This, has not by any means, decreased the quality of our trip. We loved to travel during this time, out of tourist season. It is also the season where you may have a better chance on seeing wildlife. The wildlife is like us, they don’t like the crowds. Therefore, when the park fills up with tourists the wildlife usually goes higher into the mountains and away from the road. Meaning you have less chance to see bears right from the comfort and safety of your car.
If you are planning a trip before May check with the Canadian Parks website if the road is open as it can be closed during the winter months.
Before you are heading out on your adventure along the Canadian Icefields Parkway road trip, pick up a map in the Banff Tourism Office along Banff Avenue, the main street through town. Another option to pick up one of the maps would be at the start of the drive by Lake Louise.
To have an idea of what the maps look like Parks Canada has one available online to print off.
The Icefields Parkway own website also has a similar map with other interesting points.
Most importantly make sure you have an entry ticket into the park. Depending on how long you stay, you can purchase passes based on the number of days. As this was part of our epic road trip through Canada BC and Alberta, we purchased an annual National Park Entry Pass, straight at the very 1st park we entered which was in Vancouver Island. You can get them at any park offices.
Make sure your tank is full in Jasper or in Banff, depending on which side you are starting this truly beautiful adventure because there is only one place to fill up, within the Canadian Icefields Parkway and prices are quite high.
Likewise with your food supply especially if you’re planning on camping on the way. There are very limited supply points on the road.
The better you plan this the more you can enjoy the Canadian Icefields Parkway. As a result of good planning you can make the most of all scenic viewpoints, squeeze in one or two hikes on the way and still be at your overnight destination in time before dark. Also, if time is limited, you do want to plan this drive perfectly so as not to miss out on the to-do-list. In other words, plan ahead!!
The Icefields Parkway has little to no mobile phone service. Plan to be disconnected while on your drive and as a result you can give full attention to this most beautiful piece of nature.
Remember you are driving in the mountains, consequently the weather can change quickly and therefore make sure to have appropriate clothing with you.
Carry bear spray with you!!
Don’t take this lightly. You most probably will see a bear, (especially if you travel off peak) and trust me, to have the bear spray handily right next to you and not in your backpack, is a very comforting thing. So please ALWAYS have the spray with you! We saw 17 bears on your Canadian trip and honestly, we thought we would not see any for sure. Bears are living there, it is not a myth.
Oh, and under no circumstances try to feed wildlife! The fines are high (up to 25.000 CAD!)
Hike in bigger groups
Don’t forget you are in bear country!! Therefore, if you are planning on doing any hiking, even if it is just down to another waterfall, make sure to be in a bigger group (4+). If you are a solo traveller, wait at the car park and ask to join another group. This is your chance to make some new friends. During the summer you should have no problem in joining a group as the park is quite busy.
Parks Canada – You will find up to date information about campsites, hiking trails & any wildlife warnings. Road conditions and or closures are also listed here.
If you are considering driving the Icefields Parkways during the winter months PLEASE check out the parks website and get as much information as you possible can
You never know when they are working on a road due to damage, avalanche or other problems. Check out the Road website from Alberta
Accommodations along the Canadian Icefields Parkway
If you have the time spend 3-5 days along this beautiful road, go hiking, relax by the rivers and try to see some wildlife.
The minimum you should spend here is at least one night. Discover first the Banff NP side, sleep at the Crossing Resort Hotel and then carry on with the Jasper NP section. Or vice versa.
If you’re lucky and you have more time than us, here are some suggested accommodations along the way.
Name of Accommodation
Mosquito Creek Hostel
The Crossing Resort
Rampart Creek Hostel
Hilda Creek Hostel
Beauty Creek Hostel
Sunwapta Falls Lodge
Type of Accommodation
So, are you ready to hit the road along the Canadian Icefields Parkway?
I hope that this information provided here will prove itself useful when planning your road trip along the Icefields Parkway.
Should you have more questions don't hesitate to write them in the comments!
Thank you & Never forget to travel
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