crossing5oceans.com | Published June 16th, 2021 | Last Updated June 16th, 2021
All Images © 2021 - Kelly Girouard - Please Contact for Permission to Use
The Icefields Parkway in Alberta, Canada, deserves to be recognized as one of the best scenic drives the world has to offer, and it often is. With stunning snow-capped glaciers, lakes of turquoise, and soaring granite mountains, there are hours of incredible vistas to admire and explore.
The drive is approximately 3 hours or more depending on traffic and the time of year. If you plan to make stops on your way, which you definitely should, the route will take the entire day to complete. Read the article below for a guide on when to go, sights to see, and general information needed to make your road trip a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Table of Contents
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1 - When to Go
4 - Map it Out
MUST SEE SIGHTS
1 - In Banff
3 - In Jasper
When to Go
The best time to visit the Icefield’s Parkway depends on your travel style and how much time you have to spare. The busiest periods are the summer months of June to September. This means there will be more traffic, but you’ll also be more likely to have optimal weather. Remember, though, you’re in the Rockies, and it can still snow in the middle of the summer at higher altitudes. (I took the two photos below on the same day at the end of September. Different altitudes and areas of the Parkway can mean drastically different temperatures).
The Weather Can Vary Drastically on the Parkway - These Photos were Taken on the Same Day
In the Spring and Fall, which would be April - May and the end of September - October, there’s a higher chance of the parkway potentially being closed due to the weather, but it's also much less crowded.
In the winter, there’s an even greater risk of the roads being closed. While every effort is made to keep the Parkway clear and safe in the winter months, it’s more likely that they’ll become icy, or avalanches may block the path. If you don’t have time to wait for roads to clear, it may be best to plan this trip for late spring or summer.
Which Direction to Drive
One of the most frequently asked questions about the Icefields Parkway is whether the drive should be done from Banff to Jasper or Jasper to Banff to get the best views of the landscape; the good news is, there’s no wrong way to drive this route. I travelled from Banff to Jasper, then back again and found both directions equally impressive with stunning sights all around.
Planning your Visit
Since the drive from one direction to the other can take a full day, it’s best to give yourself a day or two to spend in Banff, drive the Parkway, then spend a day in Jasper or vice versa. There are beautiful points of interest in both cities, so it seems like you’d miss out if you drive the parkway and continue on without including them in your journey.
There are very few hotels to stay overnight on the Parkway, so depending on your budget and how far in advance you’re able to book, using Banff and Jasper as your base may be the only option for some travellers.
Map it Out
Use this Google Map link to help plan your route. The points of interest from this article are pinned on the Google map with descriptions and photos included.
Must see Banff
It's probably best to give yourself at least two days to see the sights in Banff, especially if you'll be adding in some shopping in the fabulous little boutiques and dining in the cafes and restaurants that line the main street.
LAKE MINNEWANKA BOAT TOUR
Just a short drive from the town of Banff, you have the opportunity to embark on a one-hour cruise on the incredibly picturesque Lake Minnewanka. As you cruise around the lake, the guide will give background on the indigenous people who once lived in the area surrounding this now-submerged town. Then, the cruise will carry on to Devil’s Gap, where it stops and allows passengers an opportunity to take in the magnificent scenery. During the cruise, the guide will also point out which wildlife to watch out for; while you’re not guaranteed to have animal sightings, previous trips around the Lake have resulted in spotting coyotes, big-horned sheep, deer and even bears. You can book this tour through the Lake Minnewanka website found here.
If you only have the time or budget for one attraction in Banff, it should be the Gondola. Take an eight-minute ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain and step onto a panoramic observation deck with a 1.6km wooden boardwalk, hiking trails, and two restaurants that offer lunch and dinner menus. The views are breathtaking! Be sure the weather is clear before heading out; there’s no sense paying for the view if clouds and inclement weather are obscuring the scenery.
The Spectacular Views from the 1.6km Wooden Boardwalk on Sulphur Mountain
Visitors taking in the Scenery with the Summit Building in the Distance
Views from Different Locations of the Banff Gondola Wooden Boardwalk
The town of Banff is as quaint and lovely as it gets with its stone-clad building facades, black iron lamp posts and mountain views rounding out the incredible backdrop. The main streets are lined with galleries, specialty shops, outerwear stores, cafes and souvenir shops. So, whether you’re window shopping or being swept away by the atmosphere, downtown Banff is a great place to explore!
CAVE AND BASIN
Visit cave and basin to learn about the discovery of Banff National Park by three railway workers in 1883. At the site, you'll visit a small museum, hiking trails that lead to various hot springs and enter a cave where the smell of sulphur permeates the grotto walls.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site
VERMILION LAKES VIEWPOINT
Vermilion Lakes are a series of lakes that offer incredible views of Mount Rundle and Sulphur Mountain; it's a great place to hike the trails, paddle across the water or take in a picnic lunch. The lakes are about 2.4 km away from Banff, so they are easily accessible while visiting the area and worth the trip for superb sunrise and sunset views.
Vermilion Lakes is a Great Spot to View Mt. Rundle and Sulphur Mountain
BOW VALLEY PARKWAY
This 48km route runs parallel to the Icefields Parkway and is a quieter alternative to the main road. Don’t let less traffic fool you; many people head straight for the Icefields route, not realizing this attractive alternative has breathtaking scenery, less congestion, areas to stop along the road and better opportunities to spot wildlife. This road meets up with the Icefields Parkway, a short distance away from Banff, so no need to backtrack to get to the main highway.
Bow Valley Parkway Views
Local Wildlife Grazing Along the Bow Valley Parkway
If I had to pick one location that left me breathless from the beauty of the landscape, it would be Lake Moraine. The remarkable turquoise waters are everything they seem to be in all the perfectly snapped photos I had seen in the past.
Moraine is a glacially-fed lake located 14km outside of Lake Louise, and trust me when I say it's a popular tourist destination, so arrive early! There are days when the lot is full by 8am. The road to Moraine is closed between the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend and late spring because of potentially dangerous conditions, so plan before you head out to avoid disappointment.
Lake Moraine is a Glacially Fed Lake that Sits 6,183 feet Above Sea Level
...And Yes, the Water Really is that Striking Shade of Turquoise
Cradled within mountain peaks, Lake Louise is glacially fed with a stunning chateau perched in the background. There are many activities in the area, including hiking trails, horseback riding, skiing, rock climbing, kayaking, canoeing and of course, just relaxing and taking in the superb views.
A Peaceful Paddle on Lake Louise
The Icefields Parkway
This 232km stretch of the Parkway has been rated as one of the top drives in the world by Condé Nast Traveller. Maybe I'm biased since I'm rating my own country, but I couldn't agree more! Check out the points of interest below to get a glimpse at this unforgettable stretch of highway through the soaring Canadian Rockies.
You’ll need to leave the Parkway and drive for about 30 minutes west to reach Emerald Lake; don’t let that deter you. If you're a photographer or just someone who loves to take in a magnificent landscape, this location is for you. Emerald Lodge is set on a private island at the Lake’s edge and is reached by crossing a long bridge that sits just above the water.
The Lodge on Emerald Lake is called 'Cilantro on the Lake'
Emerald Lake Lodge and Views
Herbert Lake is another location to capture beautiful photos of the mountains reflecting in the often still waters. Being so close to the more famous Moraine and Louise means that poor Herbert is often overlooked, but that's a good thing for visitors who want a bit of peace and tranquillity. Stop by this beautiful scenic lake to take in the views or enjoy swimming, canoeing, hiking and fishing.
Fall Colours Settling into Herbert Lake
Mt. Temple Reflected in Herbert Lake
Peyto Lake is accessible from the Bow Summit area of the Icefields Parkway. The route to the lake is signposted at the parking lot and leads to a paved trail that will take approximately 10 - 15 minutes to hike; it’s moderately steep, and it’s uphill all the way. That being said, the hike is well worth the view!
Fine-Grained Particles of Rock and Silt called Glacier Rock Flour give Peyto Lake it's Breathtaking Colour
SASKATCHEWAN RIVER CROSSING
The Saskatchewan River Crossing was so named since fur traders and travellers used it to cross the North part of the Saskatchewan River on the way to British Columbia in the 19th century. The spectacular view over the rolling landscape is worth a quick stop to take it all in.
There are a Number of Stops on the Parkway to View the Saskatchewan River Crossing
GLACIER SKYWALK AND THE ATHABASCA GLACIER
The skywalk gives visitors a bird’s eye view of the Sunwapta Valley on a glass platform over the valley floor. This may not be the best option for those with a fear of heights. Sadly when I reached the Skywalk, it was hailing, and the weather was miserable, so I opted not to be dangling 900 feet above the ground in icy conditions; I'm funny like that. Unfortunately, I saved this stop for my way back to Banff, so if you have great weather on your way to Jasper, be sure to stop the first time and not leave it to chance.
You can also experience the glacier by touring on an ice explorer truck, which takes visitors right on the 10,000 year-old sheet of ice. You can sign up for this at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre right across from the Athabasca Glacier.
The Athabasca Glacier is Located Almost at the Half Way Point of the Icefields Parkway
Landscape Views across from the Athabasca Glacier
The falls are easily accessed down a short trail from the parking lot. With a relatively short drop, it’s not the tallest falls you’ll see, but it’s very picturesque and worth the stop. The water swirls around an island of trees in the centre of the river, then converges on the other side to start its 60-foot drop.
Photography Tip - If you would like to take photos of waterfalls with a softened, blurred effect, you'll need a Neutral Density Filter to allow the shutter to remain open without blowing out the photo (overexposing it). I used the Tiffen Variable ND Filter with 2 - 8 stops of light for the Sunwapta and Athabasca Falls images below. The other pieces of equipment used were:
1 - A tripod to keep the camera steady while the shutter is open. I use the Manfrotto carbon fibre tripod since it's sturdy and lighter to carry around. The higher price is worth the quality and light weight.
2 - A remote to minimize camera shake when releasing the shutter. Choose the remote that works with your camera brand and model.
The Rushing Waters of Sunwapta Falls
Located about 30 minutes south of Jasper, the falls and the canyon itself are worth exploring. There are a few lookout points along stone-carved pathways that show the falls from various angles. The hiking path is approximately 1km long and will traverse concrete bridges. You may also like to walk along the interpretive trail, which details how the canyon was formed as well as describing the flora and fauna in the area.
The Beautiful Athabasca Falls are Located about 30kms South of Jasper
Must See - Jasper
Jasper National Park was founded in 1907 and was the fifth park created in Canada. It is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site for its glaciers, waterfalls, canyons and of course stunning landscapes.
MALIGNE LAKE SCENIC DRIVE
This 46km drive starts at Jasper and winds through majestic scenery until reaching Maligne Lake. There are numerous opportunities to spot wildlife such as mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, moose, and, if you're lucky black bears and grizzly bears. This route will take you on a beautiful drive past rivers, turquoise-coloured glacial lakes, and soaring mountain peaks.
The Stunning Views of the Maligne Lake Scenic Drive
This lake was named by the early native people from the area who believed the lake had magical powers. They reasoned that since the water vanishes and reappears each year that something mystical was happening. In actuality, in the spring, the water that runs off the glacier pours into the lake faster than it can drain. Then, as fall approaches and the runoff is not as strong, it allows the water to drain into a network of underground caves, making it seem as though the lake is disappearing.
Medicine Lake is 7km Long and Has a 13km Hiking Loop to Explore
Medicine Lake is Located 20km Southeast of Jasper
Wander the streets of Jasper to find salons, spas, restaurants, galleries, souvenir shops and jewellery stores. Personally, I enjoyed shopping on the streets of Banff more so than Jasper, but that’s not to say there are not some great local shops here that deserve to be explored. If you're looking for shopping in a town that's more low key and on the small side, then Jasper would appeal to you more than Banff.
JASPER SKY TRAM
The sky tram reaches the top in 7 1/2 minutes. It’s the highest and longest guided aerial tramway in Canada. Once at the upper station, you have the option of grabbing a bite at the Alpine cafe, taking in the views or hiking the Alpine trails. You can check the weather and skycams here before departing so you know if the trip up is worth the cost and the time.
Using the Jasper Sky Tram to Reach the Top of Whistlers Mountain at 7,425 ft
The Skytram is the highest and longest guided aerial tramway in Canada
2The Jasper National park is home to a wide variety of larger animals, including bears, wolves, moose, caribou, elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. There are also smaller animals such as pikas and marmots, to name a few. The best seasons to spot wildlife are during both spring and fall, but remember to keep your distance no matter the time of year. The photo below was taken with a zoom lens from across the street and in the safety of my car. I witnessed people walking directly in the path of this moose, during mating season no less, when they can be more aggressive. This moose was approximately 7 feet tall at its shoulders, and I'm told it weighs in at about 1200 pounds! No wonder locals were yelling at the tourists standing in front of it to move away and not be foolish.
Respect Nature and Photograph Wildlife from a Distance by Using a Zoom Lens
There were so many Opportunities to Photograph Wildlife Grazing at the Roadside
After spending many years travelling to other countries and continents, it was wonderful to discover a majestic road trip right in my own backyard. From the East Coast to the West Coast, Canada has many incredible sights to explore, but the beauty of the Icefields Parkway proves why it's often considered one of the best road trips in the world.