Six years ago I had just stepped off a plane from Blighty (the UK) and taken my first steps into the True North to begin my new life in Canada. The freezing wind and driving snow that I had been warned about were nowhere to be seen, which was surprising given I was in Calgary. It felt like summer, but being new to the country I was clueless how to make the most of my new home. For any of you out there facing such a dilemma, these are my insider tips on how to survive your first Canadian summer in style.
The May long weekend getaway is a Canadian Institution, when holiday deprived Canucks load up their vehicles with as much stuff as possible and hit the road.
However, anyone who has lived in the Lower Mainland on Canada’s West Coast for at least one summer knows that the key to an enjoyable extended weekend break is long term planning! If you to wait to the week before, the campsites are full, the ferry reservation spots are gone and the hotel front desk can only provide a sympathetic ear rather than a room. Don’t be caught with your proverbial pants down – click here to find out my favourite 5 long weekend getaways to help you plan ahead!
The 75 year old Icefields Parkway is without doubt one of the most spectacular mountain driving roads in the world as it traverses the rugged Canadian Rockies. A trip along Highway 93 in winter (very quiet) or summer (much busier) is an assault on the senses which will leave you breathless and in awe of truly how amazing Mother Nature can be!
The sub-alpine road is filled with so many easily accessible highlights, places to stop and memorable moments that a 3 hour drive can turn into days of adventure. The golden rule on this road is to triple the time you think you need and then add a few more hours just to be safe!
Most travellers will access the Parkway from Highway 1 just outside the village of Lake Louise. The 232 km journey through the pristine mountain environment starts in Banff National Park, and ends in Jasper National Park so make sure you purchase a Parks Canada Parks pass before you hit the tarmac – there are checks!
In the winter months, the road is a frozen wonderland so it is good to ensure you have decent winter tires. The road has no cell phone signal so make sure you pack everything you need, and let someone know where you are venturing to!
The first major highlight of the road trip greets you in a few minutes of your journey. Heading north look left to view Crowfoot Glacier. There is a rest spot at which your camera will make its’ first of many appearances!
Twenty minutes up the road you are in for a real treat. Avoid the temptation to stop on the road pull out and continue on to the left hand turn road which leads to a set of washrooms and the historic Num-Ti-Jah Lodge.
From here you will be able to appreciate the true wonder of this location. The Bow Glacier which is part of the Wapta Icefield is easily visible from the shore of Bow Lake. This glacier forms the source of the Bow River which flows via Calgary to Hudson Bay! There are also plenty of hiking trails including Bow Glacier Falls.
If you thought Bow Lake was an eye opener, wait until you see Peyto Lake! If heading there in winter you will probably need snowshoes to make the 20 minute walk up the snow covered access road to the viewing platform. You might also be lucky enough to capture the Northern Lights, and even a little snow art!
If arriving in the summer months, it’s a pleasant 15 minute stroll up the hill to view one of the undisputed jewels of the Rocky Mountains. Significant amounts of glacial rock flour flow into the lake, and these suspended rock particles give the lake its unique bright, turquoise colour.
Best to go early or late to avoid the tour buses that stop by to wonder at this true beauty of nature in the summer months. Indeed, the lake is best seen from Bow Summit, the highest point on the Icefields Parkway so don’t forget your hiking boots!
The river crossing is also home to the only services on the highway between Lake Louise and Jasper. If you need gas, be prepared to pay a higher price given the isolation of this location.
For those more interested in the huge Saskatchewan River, there is a view point and picnic area just across the road.
At the highest point on the road lies a confluence of 5 glaciers fed by the largest ice sheet outside of the Arctic Circle, the Columbia Icefield, which is about 325 square kilometers (125 sq mi) and up to 325m thick.
What is unique about this location is that you are able to walk upon the Athabasca Glacier via travel one of Brewster’s monster wheeled ice explorers. Be prepared for an 18% degree road (the 2nd steepest in North America) that drops you onto the glacier! Once on the glacier you are able to sample fresh drinking water and take as many photos as your memory card and the allotted 20 minutes will allow.
A recent addition to the Brewster family of Rockies attractions is the Glacier Skywalk. This cliff hugging pathway extends via a glass path over the valley to leave those with a fear of heights clinging to the railings. The walk offers unrestricted views of the valley and the Columbia Icefield above, and is a nice add on to the “must do” glacier tour if time allows.
You might be also lucky enough to encounter some of the locals. Give them some space and they might give you a smile!
There are many more highlights on the Icefields Parkway which we will leave up to you to discover such as Helen Lake, Parker Ridge and Mistaya Canyon – we don’t want to ruin all the Parkway’s surprises!
Our advice is take your time, bring a tent or even ride your bike if you don’t mind uphill climbs. Whatever happens don’t rush the Icefields Parkway – it’s a magic place to evoke your sense of wonder!