We visited the Banff National Park and the scenery and landscape were simply magnificent. The lodges and resorts, too! We stayed in the Moose Hotel & Suites and it was cozy and comfortable even though it was just a four-star hotel. We visited there in early October (yet it was already snowing – I mean really snowing in Calgary), there’s no better thing to do than soaking in an outdoor hot tub and watching the snowfall. I have written about a 4-day perfect itinerary in Banff to enjoy some of the best of the national park has to offer.
While there were so many places to visit (the lakes!) and to do (the boat rowing!) in Banff, that day we had to make a 2.5-hour drive (185 kilometers) to one place that was basically the freshwater source that flows into three oceans – Columbia Icefield.
The icefield sounds to me, it’s also the connecting point of the Banff and Jasper National Park. While Banff is obviously more famous among worldwide (or national) tourists, Jasper has a feeling of remoteness and rustic charm that one would instantly feel that laid-back vibe moving from Banff to Jasper. Since 2018, several projects took place including the addition of a bypass lane at the East Gate, road reconstruction on Marmot, and Pyramid Lake Road, making it easier to get to. Jasper National Park is the largest of Canada’s Rocky Mountain Parks, and part of the UNESCO Heritage Site. It’s covered by alpine meadows and forest with broad valleys, wild rivers, glaciers, and more. Some highlights in Jasper are Mount Edith Cavell, Athabasca Falls, Sunwapta Falls, Maligne Canyon, Medicine Lake, or Maligne Lake. I would have traveled north and stayed in one of those lodges or cabins in the mountain park – but since I didn’t, we just visited the icefield that day.
Driving on Icefields Parkway
Before arriving at the icefield, we drove along the Icefields Parkway. This unlikely stretch of road takes visitors into the heart of Banff and Jasper National Parks where nature rules and one can’t help but feel overcome with wonder. It has been referred to as “the Back Bone of the Canadian Rockies”. National Geographic calls it “One of the World’s Ten Greatest Drives”… WoW.
It’s possible to travel this route in just three hours from Lake Louise to Jasper but it would be a crime. This is so much more than 232 km of road. It’s a journey through captivating landscapes and natural history. It presents the best hiking, biking, and photo opportunities in the Canadian Rockies. There are unforgettable stops along the way – some off the beaten path. Historic and scenic markers dot the Icefields Parkway but there are some locations tucked away, unsigned, where you may find your “mountain moment”. Obviously, we couldn’t stop at every one of these spots from Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, Peyto Lake, Mistaya Canyon, and so on – we did stop at one place, in particular, the horseshoe bend 10 minutes away from the Columbia Icefield Discovery Center. The dramatic turn is a perfect spot to take photos of the surrounding mountains. One of the best resources for an Icefields Parkway road trip is found at icefieldparkway.com. This website gives information on picnic spots, hikes, photo opportunities, wildlife sightings, and resources for winter travel. The reception on the Parkway is bad in several parts – download a map at the “Parkway Planner” or GPS tour guide that will point out the popular spots and share some great history, too.
Well, “luckily” for us, we had quite an unstable day to have the farthest day trip that we had when we were in Banff. We had a glorious sunny morning while we had breakfast in an intimate breakfast place (filled with people though) at Banff Avenue, clouds came as we drove down the parkway – the wind blew and snow fell, and then the sun came back out, and then snow fell again. It wouldn’t be much of a problem had we were just having a casual laid back day on the road. The Motorized Tours bus could close due to unstable weather up at the Icefield.
Heading to Columbia Icefield Info Center
The Columbia Icefield and Info Center are located about 160 kilometers away from Banff (trust me, when you are in Canada, this scale sounds so small), and there are three things (mainly) to see when you are at the Icefield. The Glacier Exhibits illustrate the effects of global warming, the Glacier Skywalk, and the 90-min Motorized Tours that take visitors onto the glacier. Of course, don’t forget to enjoy lunch at the restaurant or cafe, observe the wildlife, or even have a picnic, and sign up for guided ice walks during summer, or the weather was nice.
Evenings are magical at the Columbia Icefield. Experience this first-hand with an exclusive tour that includes appetizers on the glacier. Then come inside for dinner at Altitude Restaurant. Available Fridays, June 22 to September 21 with an additional fee; Have a taste of their roasted beet and chevre salad. For something more special, go for the locally sourced bison burgers in Chaley.
So first thing first – we arrived at the Icefield before noon yet the Motorized Tour was about to suspend due to the unstable weather. We had the tickets and we had to wait until the weather was okay for us to enter the glacier. Well, luckily, we had all day for this day trip and so we just hung around and waited for the announcement. The visitor center is not that big and both the restaurant and the waiting area are packed with tourists as the tours were pushed back – visitors kept coming and we were all stuck in the center due to the afternoon snow.
Yes, we had a window of sunshine when we just arrived at the center. After we got the tickets, we headed out for a walk for an overview of the icefield. The Athabasca Glacier forefield trail passes through an area that, less than 100 years ago, lay beneath the glacial ice! The trail offers an excellent view of the Athabasca Glacier and the landscape it has sculptured. Sturdy shoes and a jacket are recommended for crossing this rocky, breezy terrain.
From full table service to a casual pick-up-and-go menu, the Glacier Discovery Centre has them ready. Both Chalet and Altitude Restaurants are on the second floor of the Centre.
The importance of Columbia Icefield
The Rockies is the major mountain range in North America and it’s created by tectonic movements and gigantic landmass. Glaciers in the north began carving the landscape of western Canada more than 3 million years ago. Today, Columbia icefield is the largest icefield in North America and the origin of fresh water to the entire continent that flows into three oceans – the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, and the Arctic Ocean. Its meltwater affects the lives of tens of millions of people. Along the way, these rivers wind across thousands of square kilometers and provide water to wetlands, crops, hydroelectric generators, and municipal water supplies.
What is an Icefield?
An Icefield is a body of ice with an area under 50,000 square kilometers. Icefield is formed when accumulated snow compresses under its own weight and turns into ice. Columbia Icefield covers an area of 165 sq. kilometers – about the size of Metro Vancouver. It has six main glaciers that flow from the Columbia Icefield: Castleguard, Saskatchewan, Athabasca, Dome, Stutfield, and Columbia. The visitors center is located under the Athabasca Glacier.
The Columbia Icefield receives about 10 meters of snow per year. However, global warming harms the icefield. Although the glacier is constantly moving downhill, it is melting faster in the summer than it can expand in the winter. This causes the glacier to shrink over time. The Columbia Icefield lost 23% of its area between 1919 and 2009, an area of almost 60 sq. kilometers! The reduced size has tremendously changed how it looks to tourists and possibly the lives of our future. In 1844, the Athabasca Glacier covered the entire area of where I stood, and the terminal moraine was formed by the glacier and then shrunk tremendously to the current location, which is up at the mountain top in the icefield; while the glaciers expand and shrink over the centuries as the balance between snowfall and ice melt shifts. The Athabasca Glacier is receding at about 5 meters per year.
When I was standing closer to the glacier that the wind grew stronger. In fact, the Columbia Icefield acts like a large air conditioner. The air above the icefield becomes cold and heavy. Pulled by gravity, this “heavy” air slides down the Athabasca Glacier and washes out into the valley. This is called a katabatic, or descending wind. So there are some precautions before heading out: Check trail and weather conditions to make sure it’s safe. Travel in a group and choose a trail suitable for the least experienced member in the group. Pack adequate food, water, clothing, first aid kit, bear spray, and maps for a hike. Stay on the designated trails to prevent trail damage. Give wildlife space. Last but not least, dispose of human waste at least 70 meters from any water source. Bury solids 15 centimeters deep and pack out toilet paper.
Every year, thousands of visitors arrive, each seeking their own adventure. For the experts, they might even climb to the summit of Mount Athabasca with climbing rope, ice axées, helmets.
Since you will be stepping on on a thousand-year-old ice structure, it’s going to be slippery and cold. Wear comfortable and appropriate footwear, and in that sense, no slippers, sandals, or high-heels.
Hopping on the Snow Coach
Back to the center, the visitors are still packed inside the hall and waiting for the snow coach to operate. After a lot of waiting, finally, the weather condition improves and we get to board the snow coach at almost, 4 pm ~.
Originally, tours fill quickly and depart every 15-30 minutes, and operate from 10 am to -6pm in different periods of the year. This is how we got to experience geology in action – we could set foot or on the glacier and look more closely at the end of the Athabasca Glacier. We had to take the snow coach (i.e. Snow Coach) because the road up the glacier was pretty steep with an average gradient of 6.13%. That’s why the passengers won’t even stand straight in the coach when it descended from the glacier and fell back into their seats. We only have about 20 minutes and it’s a small area that we could take pictures and set foot on the glacier. The weather was still quite unstable; by the time we got up there, it started to snow and the wind was hitting at us from every direction. We could see the glacier a little bit more clearly or drink the glacial water if we were on a sunny day. But well, I guessed that was also a good experience to feel the true colors of mother Nature?
Since I have already explained that the Icefield is the freshwater source for three continents in the world. What’s better to drink right from the source? In summer, visitors could drink fresh and pure glacier water from the icefield. Bring a small bottle and have a try!
Usually, the best time to visit the Columbia icefield is before 11 am or after 3 pm. Beat the crowds, increase your chance of wildlife sightings, and take advantage of enhanced experiences like a guided morning tour on the Glacier Skywalk.
Glacier Skywalk – a cliff-edge walkway over Sunwapta Valley
Finally, we headed to our final stop, the Glacier Skywalk. The Glacier Skywalk is a great way to experience geology in action. It was built on top of Sunwapta Valley – which over years, has become a safe haven for plants and animals. Ongoing erosion has transformed these valleys of the Canadian Rockies into one of the world’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders.
The monumental force of glacial action creates U-shaped valleys, as rock and soil deposits are bulldozed away by the advancing ice flow. Some of the plants and animals that call this region home are found only in high alpine environments. The ice that carved valleys like the Sunwapta started retreating about 11,000 years ago when humans had already started to enter the Canadian Rockies. Just imagine… during the last major ice age, the ice that carved this valley reached a maximum depth of 1 kilometer!
The snowfall was getting intense by the time we were at the Skywalk and we couldn’t see the valley below clearly. We could still hear the running water and imagine what it would be like. As a glacier moves, embedded stones scrape against the rock below, leaving long lines in the flattened rock surface. These parallel scratches in the rock, or glacial situations, tell a story about the direction in which glaciers once flowed and the distances they traveled. Similar patterns have been seen in rock outcropping across the world, including Central Park in New York City, indicating that glaciers once covered these areas. Glaciers are not only capable of dragging stone as they move, but have even carried gigantic boulders upon their backs.
It is possible to visit the Glacier Skywalk independently without setting foot on the glacier. Single attraction admission from $31 adult/$16 ages 6-15.
Not to mention the rich fossil discovery, rock collection, and wildlife in the area, there is so much more for visitors to discover.