Mid vacation, I made an adjustment to my itinerary when I decided only to do one Lake Louise hike and not two, so I was left wondering what to do with my free day. After some consideration, I decided to take a day trip out to Athabasca Glacier. It is a large glacier (though receding) as part of the Columbia Icefield, and the trip takes you out to walk on part of the glacier and then to a viewpoint overlooking the valley. I did some hemming about this, because the glacier is a stop along the Icefield Parkway, which I knew I was going to be driving in a few days’ time. But a visit out to the glacier (as opposed to just looking at it) and the viewpoint are really only available through a tour. It doesn’t have to be a formal tour bus tour from another city, and you can make arrangements at the glacier visitor’s center. I decided to do a tour to give me a break from driving, so I could focus on the sights around me, and the glacier and viewpoint tour (and lunch, always a plus) were included.
It’s a full day tour starting in the morning pickup at Lake Louise with some stops along the Icefields Parkway for views, such as Bow Lake and Howse Pass. This was my first look at the amazing scenery along the Icefields Parkway and gave me a preview of what I was going to see and what other stops I’d want to make on my own. The weather was pretty good that day, and it was another sunny day that showed off the mountains and surrounding countryside in the best light. Everywhere I looked, the natural beauty was just awe-inspiring.
The visitor center is called Columbia Icefield Centre is large and packed with people, especially midday. It seems to cater more toward the large tourist groups like mine, though you could come as an independent traveler and join one of their tours to the glacier. If you want to visit during high season, it would probably be best to go with a tour group, or at least buy your ticket in advance. The centre is only open from May to October, though the summer months are the most popular.
The view of the glacier is pretty good from the visitor center, though obviously it is a more distant view. To get a closer look, you can either park across the road and walk up to the edge of the glacier via some walking trails, or to get an even better view (though obviously you have to pay for it) take the tour that takes you out to the glacier to walk on.
The trip out to the glacier was in a specially designed super truck with massive tires that can crunch along the glacier ice safely. Once out in the glacier field, you are allowed to walk around a specially designated area that has been treated so you can walk on it safely. You can look around and basically see yourself surrounded by glacier ice and a nice view of the valley. The glacier ice was reasonably easy to walk on, as long as you were careful and not stupid.
After the trip back from the glacier, you make another stop at a specially constructed viewpoint over the valley. It is called the Glacier Skywalk, which is just a tad misleading, because it is not near the glacier, and you can’t even see it from the viewpoint, since it is further along the valley.
But the view itself is worth it. It’s a little unnerving walking out on the skywalk, because it is one of those massive structures that jut over open air with clear plastic for floors (like the skywalk at the Grand Canyon). You know it’s safe, but I did keep wondering what was the maximum capacity of people allowed on the skywalk at any one time. It wasn’t crowded or anything by that point, since we were later in the afternoon, but it was a bit windy, which rocked the skywalk a bit.
I was entranced by the view, because it was over a tree lined valley and I could see numerous waterfalls dot the valley, and flow into the river. The walkway is suspended over the Sunwapta River and the surrounding Mt. Kitchener.
Overall it was a nice way to spend the day. It is certainly not a cheap way to spend the day, because a day long tour in the Banff area is not cheap. If you want to see the same sights, but save some money, I recommend starting a tour directly from the visitor’s center, and buy your tickets in advance during high tourist season.