Icefields Parkway – Ten things not to miss between Banff and Jasper
The Icefields Parkway, linking Banff and Jasper in the Western Canada’s Rocky Mountains, is considered one of the most scenic highways in the world. The road is about 143 miles and passes by glaciers, icefields, rivers, lakes and waterfalls.
The Icefields Parkway, otherwise known as Highway 93 North, is the main highway linking Lake Louise, just northwest of Banff, with the mountain town of Jasper. The road passes through both Banff and Jasper national parks.
This driving route is incredibly popular, and with good reason – it passes right through the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although you want to plan at least one day to drive the route and to taste some of the adventure along the way, there’s certainly enough there to keep keen backpackers, hikers, nature and trail lovers and photographers busy for many more days with the area’s countless backcountry trails and endless summits. You can also find lodging or campgrounds along the way to extend the adventure, or take day trips from Banff, to the south, or from Jasper, at the north. Kids and adults alike will love the thrill of catching a glimpse of rare wildlife on a trail or stepping out onto an immense glacier in the heart of the Columbia Icefield.
To help you plan your bucket list trip and make sure that you don’t miss a thing along the way, here’s my list of 10 things not to miss between Banff and Jasper!
The town of Banff
Although the pristine lakes and dramatic mountain vistas of the Icefields Parkway may be calling, don’t be in too much of a hurry to leave behind the town of Banff. There are many wonderful natural and cultural attractions here that will entertain the whole family and set you up nicely for your road trip. In particular, don’t miss the Whyte Museum, a fascinating introduction to the culture, history, nature and geology of the Canadian Rockies. Similarly, the Cave and Basin Natural Historic Site combines a cave tour, natural hot springs, and state-of-the-art attractions to complement Banff’s natural wonders. Take a ride up the Banff Gondola to Sulfur Mountain and top off the day in style with a drink in the bar of the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
Once you hit the road and embark on your Icefields Parkway trip, the first place to stop is the beautiful Lake Minnewanka. This stunning glacial lake is just over 3 miles from Banff, and is a popular spot for watersports, hiking and picnicking. The original name for this place, in the language of the indigenous Stoney Nakoda First Nations people, is “Minn-waki” (meaning “Lake of the Spirits”). It’s easy to see why – head for Lake Minnewanka at sunrise or sunset, experience the magical glow of the light on the water and the dark mountains behind, and you’ll be transported to another world.
This short hiking trail just outside of the town of Banff is one of the best places in the Rockies to catch a glimpse of elk out in the wild. Come in September and October when the rutting season hits, and you’ll be likely to hear the famous bugle call of the elk. It’s usually possible to watch the rutting elk from a safe distance across the river, making this a good option if you’re traveling with children. If you miss the elk here, there are plenty of other opportunities on the road north, particularly close to the town of Jasper.
Johnston Canyon is the site of a popular, family-friendly hike through one of the most beautiful canyons in Banff National Park. Over millennia, the rushing creek has carved a deep gorge into the limestone rock, creating weird and wonderful stone sculptures clothed in lush, green vegetation. At the culmination of the hike, you’ll find a beautiful set of waterfalls, where you’ll have a stunning view of the cascades from a number of viewing platforms.
Lake Louise is one of the most popular stopping points between Banff and Jasper, with its beautiful lake and quaint hamlet. However, if you’re looking for a really spectacular place for a pit stop, head a few miles away from Lake Louise to the glorious Moraine Lake. Nestled in the heart of the Valley of the Ten Peaks, this gorgeous turquoise lake was once featured on the Canadian $20 bill, and it’s one of the most iconic images of the Rockies. Come for a hike, hire a canoe and get out on the stunning waters, or simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the view. Plus, the Moraine Lake Lodge offers a little luxury for a stopover stay, too.
Mistaya Canyon, about 80 miles north of Banff, is one of the highlights of the Icefields Parkway, with its otherworldly, sculpted rocks and swirling waters. This magnificent sight is one of the most scenic spots in Banff National Park, and features a deep narrow canyon, littered with potholes and churning with gushing water. Mistaya means ‘grizzly bear’ in the language of the people of the Cree Nation, and when you hear the roaring water rushing through the gorge, you’ll understand why!
Glacier Skywalk and Columbia Icefields
The largest ice field in the Canadian Rockies, the Columbia Icefield covers 325 square kilometers and can be experienced through a state-of-the-art “skywalk” and glacier tour. This unique experience is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the geology of the Rockies and the history of the ice field, combining a tour of the Athabasca Glacier (pictured above) with a stroll along the glass-bottomed Skywalk. This is an adventure not to be missed, but make sure you book in advance as the tour is extremely popular and is often full in peak season. If you miss out, don’t worry – there are hiking trails that extend to the edge of the Athabasca Glacier, offering a good way to get up close to the ice on your own steam.
The Canadian Rockies boast a wide range of dazzling waterfalls and cascades, but the Athabasca Falls is one of my favorites (the cover image for this story is of the falls). The Athabasca River originates at the Columbia Icefield, and gathers steam as it approaches the town of Jasper, at the northern end of the Icefields Parkway. The glacial origins of the river mean that the water changes color depending on the amount of glacial “rock flour” (basically, a fine silt) it carries, which fluctuates with the seasons. This gives the waterfall a magical quality, with foaming blue waters, ethereal mists, and mosses and lichen clinging to the canyon walls. In winter the falls freeze completely, creating strange and wonderful sculptures of ice, suspended in mid-air until the spring thaw.
The deepest canyon in the Rockies, Maligne Canyon, is a natural wonder and a fantastic place to while away a summer’s afternoon. Formed by the erosion of a limestone deposit millions of years ago, this narrow, plunging gorge has steep walls, studded with fossils and clothed in fragrant mosses and lichen. A series of bridges traverse the canyon, meaning that you’ll get a chance to explore it from every angle, and snap plenty of photos of this glorious corner of the Rockies.
The mountain town of Jasper is the culmination of the Icefields Parkway when heading north, and this friendly resort is famous for both summer and winter adventure activities. One of the most popular attractions in Jasper is the Skytram, a guided aerial tramway that offers a panorama over the town and Jasper National Park. The ride ends at the Upper Station, where you’ll have a stellar view over the craggy mountains, turquoise lakes and the beauty of the Canadian Rockies. Do not also be in too much of a hurry to leave Jasper, since it is a town worth some relaxing and exploring, with a range of lodgings from luxury to casual.
You may also like to read more about specific Icefields Parkway hikes here, Hikes along Icefields Parkway.