There are many, many beautiful drives in this world, and one of the best is undoubtedly Icefields Parkway, the colloquial name for Highway 93 that heads north from the Lake Louise area in Banff National Park in Canada, and ends at Jasper National Park. The entire drive is roughly 143 miles, which can take at least three hours but can be much longer, depending on how many places you stop, and how much time you spend in each location. And believe me, there are many, many places to stop along the way. Some of them are just pull outs alongside the road, overlooking a beautiful view. Other places are opportunities to get out and stretch your legs on a short hike. But trust me, you will almost overdose on beautiful nature by the end of this drive (in the best way possible). You will definitely get your fill of mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and in the fall, colorful fall foliage. Roughly half of the drive is still within the confines of Banff National Park, while the other half is within the confines of Jasper National Park.
I had the opportunity to drive the Icefields Parkway twice, once out to Jasper National Park, and upon my return to Banff. It enabled me to maximize my sightseeing. There are many things to like about Icefields Parkway, one of which is that large commercial trucks are banned, which makes for a more peaceful drive. During the high tourist season, the drive is likely to be packed with cars, but during my visit in late September, it was blissfully free of cars. Of course it wasn’t empty by any stretch of the imagination, especially mid day, but there were stretches I didn’t see too many cars, particularly in the morning as I was heading north. It made for a very pleasant day. The drive was my only activity for the day, and I was staying in Jasper National Park, so it wasn’t like I had to rush back to Banff. I could take all the time I needed to see what I wanted.
The weather for the drive out to Jasper National Park was clear and sunny, the perfect day for this drive. It made the lakes that much bluer, the fall foliage that much a brighter yellow, and the mountains just stand out. I started early in the morning, because I wanted to maximize my time, and leave time to do a few short hikes out to waterfalls. Plus starting early meant that much more time encountering few tourists.
My first stop was at Hector Lake. The sun was up, but the temperature was still cold, so that some steam rose off the lake, producing some very picturesque morning views.
Another short stop was at the roadside pullout opposite the Crowfoot Glacier lookout, so see the glacier nestled among the folds of Crowfoot Mountain. The glacier originally had three toes, but one of them melted away by the 1940s.
Shortly after, I passed the turnout or Peyto Lake Lookout, which apparently is one of the most popular places to stop along the parkway. However, there was construction in the parking lot, so it was closed. However that didn’t stop many tourists, who just pulled off the road onto the wide shoulder and walked up. I debated stopping, but decided not to, since there were so many other places I intended to stop along the way, and figured that I would consider stopping on my return trip, if the weather was good.
My first short hike of the day was down to Mistaya Canyon. The trail head is off the large parking lot. The trail is only .3 miles down from the pullout. The trail was reasonably easy to negotiate, though it was a bit rocky in places. It was a bit steep going down, and I knew I would have to hike it back up on the return.
At the end of the main trail ends at the bridge over Mistaya River. The river runs rapidly in this area, and the steady pounding of water has eroded the limestone walls over many, many years to form the picturesque, curving walls of the canyon.
My legs were feeling refreshed now, I kept driving down the road. I would often feel compelled to stop along the way, and pull off to admire the beautiful nature. I was especially taken with the frequent scenes of statuesque mountains, topped with snow and ice, and fronted by bright yellow trees, in the full bloom of fall foliage. Luckily, most of the shoulders along the road are wide, so I could easily pull off. Plus the traffic wasn’t overwhelming, so I didn’t feel I was impeding anyone’s travel.
About ⅓ of the way along Icefields Parkway is the only gas station for the entire drive, at Saskatchewan River Crossing. It also has a small restaurant and gift shop, which makes for a nice place to get out and stretch your legs, and get some snacks. The demarcation point between Banff and Jasper National Parks is around the Columbia Icefields Centre, which provides trips to Athabasca Glacier (detailed in an earlier blog post). Since I had already visited the glacier, I just kept driving north into Jasper National Park.
Among the nice places to stop alongside the road are the numerous waterfalls that are easily viewed from the road. One of them is Bridal Veil Falls, which is a steep, narrow waterfall. It can be reached by a hike, but it can also be viewed from the parking lot (assuming you have good zoom). Another one is Tangle Falls, which is viewable from the road not far north of Athabasca Glacier. To view the falls, the parking lot is just off the road across from the waterfall and I walked across the road to enjoy the splashing waterfall.
As nice as those waterfalls were, they weren’t the highlight of my drive. Those were Sunwapta Falls and Athabasca Falls. Both of these are closer to Jasper, and very popular with tourists. The first one I came to was Sunwapta Falls, which is about a 30 minute drive south of Jasper. This is a very popular stop along the parkway, and next to the Sunwapta Falls Resort.
There are viewpoints at the Upper Falls, which is just a short jaunt from the parking lot. The falls are beautiful and rushing. There are viewpoints right at the top of the falls, and at a bridge overlooking the river and falls. If my body was feeling up to it, I would have hiked down to the Lower Falls, which are supposed to provide more solitude among the waterfalls, but I was feeling a bit tired, and my feet were a bit sore for the walk back up the trail.
My final stop of the drive was at Athabasca Falls. If you love waterfalls like I do, it can be hard to get enough of them, and all the falls look different, so it doesn’t start to feel repetitive. Athabasca Falls are hugely popular, with a very large parking lot for cars and tourist buses, and the short trail to the falls is filled with tourists, particularly later in the afternoon when I visited.
The trail to the falls is easy and flat to reach. I knew I was getting close to the falls, because I could feel the spray from the falls. There were numerous viewpoints to take great photos of the falls, some of them on the bridge overlooking the falls, and some of them closer to the top of the falls, which produced some beautiful rainbow views.
After looking at the top of the falls, I took the trail that descended along the top to the canyon. It provided some nice views of the Athabasca River flowing through the curvy limestone canyon, where it widens out into a wide, blue river.
After that, my day’s journey was set to come to an end as I approached Jasper. While I didn’t stop at every possible pullout and viewpoint along the way, I saw plenty to fill my appetite for beautiful nature. I was glad I took all the time I did on the drive out, because when I returned just a few days later, the clouds had rolled in, the snow was drifting down at some of the landmarks at a higher elevation, and the naked mountaintops were now dipped in pure white snow. If you have the opportunity to drive Icefields Parkway, definitely take advantage of it. While the road is officially open year round, it can often be closed due to excessive snow between November and March. The road will be clear during summer time, but it can be filled to the brim with tourist cars and buses. But in the shoulder season of September, especially late September, it is a great opportunity to see all the sights the parkway has to offer, with incipient fall foliage, and fewer tourists. Just gas up beforehand, and go. The open road awaits you.