After all of our travels over the years we’ve learned not to speak in definites, the minute you label something the most, or the best, or the, well you get the point, something comes along and outdoes it. The more we travel of the world the less we’re convinced there’s a best version of anything, but rather just new and different and exciting options. However, we have yet to experience any drive anywhere in the world that has topped the Icefields Parkway.
The Icefields Parkway just might be the most beautiful drive in the world.
Driving The Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway links the Canadian National Parks of Banff and Jasper. This 332 kilometer (207 mile) long journey winds its way along the continental divide and is chock full of epic views, glaciers, alpine lakes, and wildlife. It’s nothing short of amazing.
There are lots of ways to experience the Icefields Parkway, from tour buses to cycling tours, but personally, we think that the self-guided, drive it yourself method is the best.
To make the absolute most out of this drive you have to take it slow. Like, really, really, really slow. Turtle moving through molasses slow. There is so much to take in, and experience along the way if you rush it, you’ll forever regret it.
They say that driving on the Icefields Parkway is like driving on the backbone of the North American Continent since it follows almost directly along the spine of the continental divide.
If you’re planning on taking on this adventure we found this map from Park’s Canada to be a super handy tool to have on hand: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ab/jasper/visit/depliants-brochures/Parkway
What To See On The Icefields Parkway
Remember when we said to take it slow? This is why.
39 Kilometers ( 24 Miles) From Lake Louise
If you’re traveling from Lake Louise up the Icefields Parkway in the direction of Jasper, Bow Lake will be your first, pick your jaw up off the ground moment- but we promise it won’t be your last.
More than just a stunning lake, from this spot you can also take in sweeping views of the Crowfoot Glacier – shaped like you guessed it, a crow’s foot, Bow Glacier, and the Wapta Icefield.
Peyto Lake & Bow Lake Summit
44 Kilometers ( 27.3 Miles) From Lake Louise
Peyto Lake is the most photographed lake in all of the Canadian Rockies, a fact that was hard for us to believe after seeing the crowds at Moraine Lake and Lake Louise, but it’s true. In the height of summer, this lake takes on a bright turquoise shade, due to the amount of rock flour that flows into it from nearby glacial activity.
Bow Lake Summit is the best place on the parkway to steal a peek at Peyto Lake. If you make it here, you’ve also earned yourself some bragging rights. Bow Summit is the highest point on the drive 2,088 meters (6,800 feet) above sea level and is also happens to be the highest elevated point of any public road in Canada. Pretty cool, eh!
Saskatchewan River Crossing
79 Kilometers (49.08 Miles) From Lake Louise
Listen up! Saskatchewan River Crossing is the last and only place for public services (gas, restrooms, and dining) along the Icefields Parkway until you reach the Icefields Center. If you need something this is where you stop. The Icefields Parkway has steep climbs, and long sweeping valleys you’ll burn through more fuel than you think on this drive- it’s never a bad idea to stop here and fill up your tank, if you run out of fuel out there- well let’s just say it won’t be fun.
The Weeping Wall
106 Kilometers (66 Miles) From Lake Louise
We have heard The Weeping Wall is a beautiful sight to behold, unfortunately for us, we drove the Icefields a bit early in the season and missed out on the melt that makes this phenomenon appear. But if you catch it at just the right time of year, you can witness stunning waterfalls cascading 100 meters (300 feet) down this breathtaking sheer rock face.
Big Hill & Big Bend
115 Kilometers (71 Miles) From Lake Louise
You’ll know it when you get here, because just like the name implies, there’s a big hill, and there’s a big bend… a very big bend. In our humble opinions, this is one of the most incredible stops on the parkway, but drivers be warned, because the big bend is really more of a giant hairpin, if you pull off the side of the road make sure you are all the way off otherwise it won’t be good, because just past that big bend is one heck of a big drop!
120 Kilometers (75 Miles) From Lake Louise
This is the perfect spot to stop for those looking to get out and stretch your legs. This roughly 2-hour hike will bring you up to elevation for a good look at the Saskatchewan Glacier. We heard great things about this hike, but the bad news is that in the early Spring the trail is often closed for environmental reasons. We didn’t get to experience this one ourselves, but we know one day we’ll be back and it’s on the list!
The Columbia Icefields & Icefields Center
128 Kilometers (80 Miles) From Lake Louise
Roll this around in your brain for a minute- the Columbia Icefields, located spot on in the center of the Parkway, is the largest fields of glacial ice South of the Arctic Circle. If there was ever a time to use the term “jaw-droppingly beautiful” this is it. And for us, and many other visitors this is the ultimate stop on the Icefields Parkway.
We had an incredible time exploring the Columbia Icefields, we’ll be sharing those adventures in the next two upcoming posts- so stick around!
135 Kilometers (84 Miles) From Lake Louise
The Glacier Skywalk is an engineering wonder- you’ll never get to a more unique perspective than this, standing out on a glass catwalk over the gorgeous Sunwapta Valley. This is experience is not for the faint of heart or those with a fear of heights, you really do get the sensation of walking on air. But if you’re an adventurous soul, looking for unparalleled views of the Canadian Rockies than this is your spot!
We had less than high hopes for this experience but were pleasantly surprised- we’ll share more about this in an upcoming post about our, “Colombia Icefields Glacier Experience”.
Tickets for the Skywalk can be purchased at the Icefields Center.
177 Kilometers (110 Miles) From Lake Louise
You’ve probably heard of class 4 and even class 5 rapids, but have you heard of class 6? Visit Sunwapta Falls and you’ll be able to say you’ve seen them! Located just south of the town of Jasper, these impressive falls are best viewed in late spring and early summer when the flow volume is at its height. We stopped by a little too early for these falls to at their peak but it was still a beautiful spot to stretch our legs!
200 Kilometers (124 Miles) From Lake Louise
Sunwapta Falls are certainly not the tallest waterfalls in North America- that distinction goes to Yosemite Falls– however, what makes these falls so impressive is the sheer volume of water that flows across these rocks. It’s probably a little redundant to repeat this but as we’ve mentioned before later in the season = more snow melt= more impressive waterfalls. We were too early for the big show on these falls, so if you go be sure to send us some pictures so we can live vicariously through you!
Tips & Tricks For Driving The Icefields Parkway
Park Pass – The Icefields Parkway falls under the jurisdiction of the Parks Canada, and as such you need a pass to make the drive. Passes are sold at the information and visitors center in Banff, Jasper, and Lake Louise. The fine is a hefty one if you’re caught without a pass, so don’t skip this step.
Fuel- Get some. Hopefully, that made you laugh, and hopefully, at the same time, you’re taking that advice seriously. The Icefields Parkway is a long mountain road, you’ll climb a lot, you’ll descend a lot, and you’ll climb a lot again. You’ll go through fuel an awful lot faster than on normal highway routes. Fill up before you leave Lake Louise or Jasper, and double-check your fuel gauge when you get to Saskatchewan River Crossing, it is the only location on the Icefields Parkway that sells fuel.
Food- Pack some. Dining options along the parkway are limited to Saskatchewan River Crossing, and the Icefields Center, both of which sell overpriced mediocre food. Think, expensive cafeteria dining. Not great. But for what the Icefields Parkway lacks in dining accommodations it more than makes up for in free spots to pull out and have a picnic. So grab your cooler, slap together some sandwiches and get ready for 5-star views!
Lodging- The beauty of the Icefields Parkway lies in the untamed, untouched, remote nature of the region, there are no hotels or high rises marring the horizons, just sheer untouched nature. But that can also cause a bit of a pickle for those of us wanting to spend more than a day soaking in these views, but fear not, there are options!
There are campsites along the Icefields Parkway at Mosquito Creek, Waterfowl Lake, Rampart Creek, Wilcox Creek, and the Columbia Icefields. Keep in mind though that these operate on a first-come, first-serve basis. In the summer months particularly, they fill up fast.
The Icefields Center is the best location for RV campers- we predicted it would be the prettiest parking lot we ever slept in and we haven’t been proven wrong yet. There are plenty of spots here for rigs of all sizes. Tent camping is also welcome in the parking area of the Icefields Center. It’s the perfect location to spend a day or two exploring the area.
The Best Time To Visit- It’s hard to imagine a bad time to visit the Icefields Parkway. We made our trek along this iconic road in early May, and we were rewarded with snow, frozen lakes, and stunning views, despite missing some of the waterfalls at peak flow, we have zero regrets about our timing. However, while driving we did spot several signs warning of avalanches and even witnessed one ourselves. Considering all those facts, the winter months probably are not the best time to make this drive, but people do, do it.
Have you ever driven the Icefields Parkway? If you have what did you think- is it actually the most beautiful drive in the world? If you’ve had the joy of experiencing this journey, comment below and leave some tips for fellow travelers planning their adventure to the Icefields in Alberta!