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!
There are two approaches to the 200 km drive from the Departure Bay ferry terminal at Nanaimo to Tofino…
Option 1: The Hare – Put your foot on the gas as soon as you leave the BC Ferries’ ramp and race the other long weekenders to Tofino in about 2 hours. Given that this is the preferred option of the masses you will probably spend the mountain pass section of the drive between Port Alberni and the Ucluelet / Tofino turn junction getting increasingly frustrated as you sit behind an impassable RV doing 20kph. There is another way…
Option 2: The Tortoise – Our preferred option is to take our time, make a day of it and stop at some magical places on route. Here are a few places you might want to consider hitting the brakes for:
Located off Highway 4 just before Parksville, Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park features a wide, shallow beach that recedes over a kilometer at low tide combined with walking trails through old-growth forest. There is also a camp site there if you want to stay a little longer. A nice place to wake up to in the early morning sunshine, especially if you have caught the first ferry of the day!
This is a popular tourist spot signposted by slow down signs and cars waiting for a parking spot. If you are lucky enough to find a space, you will be rewarded with a beautiful walk through an ancient forest of giant Douglas fir trees.
A note of caution – despite its coastal location on an inlet and being surrounded by a stunning mountains, there is very little here in the way of local authentic eateries – your only real options are the fast food chains you see from the highway.
This is a nice spot to stop for lunch, and to have a paddle in the relatively warm waters. If you are lucky you might get chance to watch one of the famous water bombers take off or land on the lake. There are also a few camping spots around if you want to stay longer.
Rocks & Mini Waterfall
As you start your drive through the mountains you will pass by a pull out next to a river and a large mass of smoothed rocks. Take a few moments to pull over and explore the waterfall, and admire the power of the river – don’t get too close though!
Often this lake is mistaken for the Pacific Ocean by the weary traveler as they descend from the mountain pass. However, with its pristine calm waters, surrounded by mountain peaks, disappointment will be quickly replaced by the clicking of the camera lens.
Situated in the majestic Pacific Rim National Park a few kilometers before Tofino, Long Beach is the jewel that draws visitors to this westerly point on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. With miles of sandy beach, predictable swell to surf and a rainforest backdrop you may never want to leave.