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Icefields Parkway Travel Guide

The Icefields Parkway stretches through the Canadian Rockies, a road-trip destination admired all over the globe for its outstanding natural beauty. This route is among the most serene drives you will ever explore, filled with diverse landscapes, stunning mountains, and ancient glaciers. It was even named ''the drive of a lifetime'' by National Geographic.

Dramatic clouds over Jasper National Park on road of the Icefields Parkway in Alberta, Canada

The travel experts at Canadian Train Vacations help visitors to Canada plan their trips to Canada. Many of our most popular itineraries in the Canadian Rockies include a guided tour along the Icefields Parkway.  

With this travel guide , we will share with you all the interesting stopping points on the Icefields Parkway (1) drive, its history, and what you need to know before hitting the road. 

What is the Icefields Parkway?

If you've only ever heard of the Icefields Parkway, here are some more details to help you plan your trip.  

The Icefields Parkway is a scenic drive stretching about 232 kilometers or roughly 144 miles that joins Lake Louise to Jasper. It's within the borders of both Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada. 

With endless views of untouched landscapes, towering mountains, ancient glaciers, and crystal-clear, turquoise lakes, it's a paradise for nature buffs.  

It's not just about the views, though. The parkway also offers beautiful hiking trails such as the Bow Summit Lookout and Mt Edith Cavell, educational stops, wildlife spotting, and mountain lodges conveniently located along the route. Some of the main attractions are Big Hill and Big Bend, Bow Lake, Weeping Wall, and the Glacier Sky Walk, just to name a few. 

In a nutshell, the Icefields Parkway is a remarkable scenic route worth exploring. 

History of the Parkway

Before the Icefields Parkway was built, much of the region wasn't accessible, and the beauty of the mountains and glaciers lay hidden. 

In the 1930s, the Government of Canada decided to construct a road to make this natural beauty open to everyone. Another major boost though was also the demand for employment during the Great Depression. 

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Development and Milestones

Construction on the parkway started in 1931 and was done mainly by hand. The workers faced multiple challenges due to the rough terrain and unpredictable weather. 

Ten years later, in 1940, the 230-km single-lane stretch between Lake Louise and Jasper was officially opened. However, it was a bit primitive by today's standards and had multiple gravel and natural surface sections. 

In 1961, however, the Icefields Parkway was completed and entirely paved. This significant milestone improved the Parkway's accessibility and safety. 

Impact and Changes Over the Years

The construction of the Icefields Parkway did more than provide a breathtaking route for motorists — it unlocked the region's tourism potential. It also supported economic growth by creating jobs and attracting visitors, which benefited local communities. 

Today, the Icefields Parkway is recognized as one of the world's most scenic drives with more than 1.2 million people visiting every year. It's more than just a road — it's a journey taking you through spectacular landscapes, wildlife, and into the heart of the Canadian Rockies

It represents the vision and resilience of those who laboured to give us this great highway. 

Notable Events

The Icefields Parkway and its surrounding regions were traveled by First Nations peoples and European fur traders long before the construction of a formal road. 

  • The Athabasca Glacier along the Icefields Parkway was a training site for the Lovat Scouts — a specialist unit of the British army during the war. 
  • Fred Brewster's Icefield Chalet was established in 1939, catering to a large number of tourists. It also drew attention for being a summer skiing destination. 
  • The road's breathtaking sceneries attracted Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, and Jimmy Stewart in the 1950s, who filmed in the area. 
  • In 1969, Brewster started operating their snowmobile tours on the Columbia Icefields — an iconic attraction along the parkway. 

Honouring the Land

Before we set off to explore the breathtaking Icefield Parkway, let's take a moment to appreciate its rich history and the efforts made to preserve its beauty. 

Focusing on the Indigenous history and culture that has thrived here and the remarkable role of Parks Canada will help us better understand this extraordinary landscape.

Indigenous History and Culture

The Icefields Parkway not only boasts incredible natural beauty but also a rich indigenous history and culture. 

Before it’s current development, the path of the Icefields Parkway was a crucial route for Indigenous communities for hunting, trading, and commuting. They had been using this path long before the Europeans arrived in what is now known as Canada. 

This spectacular route travels through lands that are home to various Indigenous groups, such as the Ktunaxa, Secwépemc, and Aseniwuche Winewak Nations. For centuries, these communities have co-existed in harmony with the land. 

Understanding the significance of these indigenous cultures reminds us to respect and preserve natural spaces. 

Parks Canada and the Icefields Parkway

It's important to recognize that Parks Canada plays a crucial role in keeping the Icefields Parkway as beautiful and pristine as it is today. 

Dedicated to preserving and protecting the area's natural environment, Parks Canada ensures the necessary infrastructure maintenance for visitors to experience the parkway safely. 

They also promote sustainable tourism practices, so travelers from near and far can enjoy the wonders of the Icefields Parkway without disrupting its delicate natural balance.

#1 Travel Tip: Experience it with a guide

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This world-famous drive is best done with a local guide who can give insights into the local history, geology and wildlife. Plus, you can look out the vehicle windows while someone else navigates the road.

Louise Weiss
Director of Legendary Hospitality

Planning Your Icefields Parkway Trip

Before experiencing the marvels of the Icefields Parkway, you need to carefully plan your trip. Here are important factors to consider.

Best Time to Visit 

The ideal time to visit Icefields Parkway is between June and September when you can better experience the lakes, glistening glaciers, and blooming wildflowers in full splendor. 

These months offer warm weather and longer daylight hours, giving you enough time for exploration and picture-perfect moments. 

Ideal Seasonal Activities 

Depending on the time of year you visit, the Icefields Parkway offers a variety of activities to suit your interests. 

Summer months (June to August) are perfect for Icefield Parkway hikes, bicycling, and wildlife spotting. As autumn rolls in, the vibrant hues of the changing foliage become the main attraction. 

And if you're a winter sports enthusiast, the colder months provide excellent opportunities for skiing, snowshoeing, and ice climbing. 

Weather Conditions and Preparation 

Weather in the Icefields Parkway region can vary drastically throughout the year. 

Summers (June to September) are generally mild, with average temperatures ranging from 5°C to 20°C (41°F to 68°F). However, unexpected rain showers and temperature drops are not uncommon, so pack layers and appropriate rain gear. 

Winter months (November to February) are chilly and snowy, with average temperatures between -12°C and -2°C (10°F to 28°F). If you're planning a winter visit, come equipped with warm clothing and proper footwear for snowy conditions. 

Duration of the Journey

The Parkway stretches across 232 kilometers (144 miles) of scenic roadways between Banff and Jasper — and a straight drive without stopping will take about three hours. 

However, the timeframe of your Icefields Parkway tour will depend on your planned activities. 

Consider setting aside at least two days, with a stop halfway, to fully appreciate the landscape, and sights, and take part in outdoor activities.

Rental Car Considerations

Renting a car is the most popular way to explore the Icefields Parkway at your own pace. 

Remember to book your rental car well in advance, especially during the peak season, as demand can be high. Ensure you're comfortable driving on mountainous roads and familiarize yourself with local road rules. 

Check with your rental company about seasonal tire requirements or carrying snow chains. Lastly, don't forget to fuel up before starting your journey, as there are limited fuel stations along the Parkway. 

Exploring the Parkway's Attractions

Icefields Parkway's best stops are filled with nature's masterpieces, each offering a combination of beauty, tranquility, and adventure.

1. Jasper National Park and Banff National Park

As the main starting and ending points of the Icefields Parkway, Banff National Park and Jasper National Park boast incredible landscapes. 

Witness an array of wonders — from lichen and moss-covered canyon walls of the Athabasca Falls to the streams cascading from the Weeping Wall. 

Appreciate the beauty of these parks, and also enjoy activities such as hiking and paddle boating in the opaque aquamarine waters of Lake Louise.

2. Lake Louise

Lake Louise, the 'Jewel of the Canadian Rockies', is known for its serene turquoise water surrounded by majestic mountains. Enjoy picturesque paddle boat rides, and rewarding hiking trails, and observe ever-changing beauty from sunrise to sunset. 

The historic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise further complements the stunning landscape.

3. Bow Lake

Bow Lake, though smaller and less frequented than Lake Louise, also has an aura of tranquil beauty. 

Fed by the icy waters of Bow Glacier, the lake is an idyllic spot for those peaceful strolls and relaxing picnics you crave. Nearby, attractions like the Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint and Num-Ti-Jah Lodge also provide enriching experiences.

4. Peyto Lake

Peyto Lake glows with an amazing turquoise color, and the best view is from the trail viewpoint. If you're up for a short exploration, the Bow Summit Lookout Trail unveils even more breathtaking vistas.

5. Sunwapta Falls

Sunwapta Falls is a definite must-see sight. Where two waterfalls converge, they create a fascinating view that is sure to captivate any visitor.

6. Saskatchewan River Crossing

The Saskatchewan River Crossing, located at the junction of Highway 93 and Highway 11, is also a gateway to further stunning sights. But more importantly, it's the only place on the Parkway to fill up your gas tank.

7. Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield

The Athabasca Glacier is among the natural treasures found in the Columbia Icefield, the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies. As North America's most visited glacier, Athabasca Glacier draws visitors with its icy beauty. 

For your Icefields Parkway glacier tour, remember to stay safe behind the barriers, and park at the Icefield Centre. Yo can also drive up to the foot of the glacier for a clear view.

8. Athabasca Falls

Close to Jasper, Athabasca Falls captivates with its powerful cascade and rugged beauty. Drivers should plan a stop to take in the amazing spectacle, where turquoise waters carve through ancient rocks. The accessible viewpoint offers a brief yet awe-inspiring encounter, making it an essential stop for an unforgettable Canadian Rockies journey.

#2 Travel Tip: Plan your stops

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There are long stretches of this highway without gas or rest stops. Plan your stops accordingly for comfort and safety.

Blog Author - Athena McKenzie
Athena McKenzie
Content Manager

Winter Adventures on Icefields Parkway

When winter comes to Icefields Parkway, it brings a whole new level of excitement and beauty. Don't let the chill deter you — there's a lot of adventure waiting for you in the snow-covered landscapes of this scenic route. Do note that road closures can happen in winter months. Do ensure your car is prepared for the road conditions.  

During the winter, a guided tour is highly recommended.

Essential Information about Icefields Parkway

Before setting off on your adventure down the Icefields Parkway, there are a few vital pieces of information to understand. Stick to the essentials, and you'll be well-prepared for your road trip. 

  • Road Overview and Conditions: Icefield Parkway road conditions can vary depending on weather and season. Make sure to keep an eye on weather reports and check the current road conditions. Always have winter tires installed during the colder months. 
  • Wildlife Encounters and Safety Measures: Remember, you're on their turf! You may encounter wildlife such as deer, mountain goats, and even bears along the journey. Maintain a safe distance, never feed them, and stay in your vehicle if you encounter large animals. And always observe posted speed limits. 
  • Services and Gas Stations: Only one gas station is available on the Icefields Parkway — at the Saskatchewan River Crossing Resort. So always fuel up your vehicle before starting your journey. 
  • Connectivity — Cell Services and Signal Strength: Don't count on a strong cell signal throughout your trip. Service along the parkway is nonexistent, so download Icefields Parkway maps offline beforehand and inform someone about your travel itinerary ahead of time. 
  • Dining and Amenities: Some options for dining along the Parkway include Altitude Restaurant, Num Ti Jah, and the Crossing. However, several picnic areas along the route are also perfect for a packed lunch in the stunning natural settings. As for restroom facilities, almost all the main sites have either drop toilets or full rest-stop facilities.

Safety and Tips for Travelling Along Icefields Parkway

Staying safe and knowing how to handle emergencies is critical when exploring the spectacular Icefields Parkway. Here are some essential tips to help you have an enjoyable experience. 

Tips for Wildlife Encounters 

  • Keep a safe distance: Maintain a distance of at least 30 meters for animals like moose, deer, or mountain goats and 100 meters from bears. 
  • Never feed wildlife: Feeding attracts animals to roadsides, creating dangerous situations for them and other travelers. They also increase the risk of spreading disease. 
  • Drive cautiously: Be aware of wildlife crossing the road and observe posted speed limits. 
  • Stay in your vehicle: When you encounter large animals, remain in your vehicle to avoid startling or provoking them. 

Driving Safety Measures 

  • Check weather conditions: Always check the Icefield Parkway weather forecast before setting off and avoid driving during severe weather or poor visibility. 
  • Use winter gear: Equip your vehicle with winter tires to ensure safe driving in snowy and icy conditions 
  • Take breaks: Stop frequently to rest, stretch, and appreciate the scenery. 
  • Be prepared for emergencies: Make sure your vehicle is fueled and in good condition. Bring a fully charged mobile phone, blankets, emergency supplies, and extra food just in case. 

Emergency Contacts and Assistance 

  • Police, Ambulance & Fire – Dial 911: If you are in an emergency, dial 911 for assistance when you get reception. 
  • Parks Canada Dispatch – Dial 403-762-1470: For urgent situations in parks that do not require immediate assistance, get in touch with Parks Canada's dispatch line. 
  • Park Information Centers: If you need any help or information, visit the Jasper or Banff Park information centers during your trip. 
  • Payphones: There are a limited number of payphones along the Parkway, which you can use in emergencies. 

Stay safe and enjoy your journey along the breathtaking Icefields Parkway! 

Final Thoughts

The Icefields Parkway offers the adventure of a lifetime that combines incredible natural wonders with wildlife encounters and unforgettable scenery. Though you can complete the drive in just a few hours, take the time to let the magic of the experience really sink into you — as each mile brings something new to discover. Consider a guided tour for the most relaxing and immersive experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long is the Icefields Parkway?

The Icefields Parkway Canada covers a distance of 232 kilometers (144 miles). It connects Lake Louise to Jasper and offers multiple opportunities for sightseeing, hiking, and photography.

Is the Icefields Parkway open year-round?

Yes, the Icefields Parkway is open year-round. However, make sure to check the weather and road conditions before starting your journey. Winter months can be challenging due to snow and ice.

Do I need a National Park Pass to drive on the Icefields Parkway?

Yes, you will need a National Park Pass to drive on the Icefields Parkway since it passes through both Jasper and Banff National Parks.

You can choose from two kinds of park tickets — a daily pass and a discovery pass.

The daily pass lets you into the park for one day. The cost is $10.50 every day for each adult.

The Discovery Pass lets you visit all of Canada's National Parks and national historic spots. A family or group pass costs about $145 and can be used by up to 7 people.

You can get your pass either at the park entrance gates or buy them online.

About the author: Louise Weiss is Director of Legendary Hospitality with Fresh Tracks Canada. Having worked in the Canadian travel industry for more than 25 years, she enjoys sharing her local expertise with visitors. She is based in North Vancouver and has spent time... Read more

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