Icefields Parkway, Jasper and Banff National Parks

You must visit here. It is simply one of the most beautiful places we have ever experienced.

Not only is the Icefields Parkway rated one of the best scenic drives in the world, the National Parks are full of prime wildlife watching, with animals frequently found on and beside the road as you drive. The scenery is incredible with spectacular mountains, azure blue lakes and epic glaciers.

Before you go, make sure you check what passes, accommodations and facilities will be open, as many of these may be closed in the winter months. Some roads will be closed/impassable during this time.

What wildlife can I see?

We went in mid-May, which is a while after hibernating creatures have emerged for spring. As you drive the Icefields Parkway and points along the way, you’ll commonly see black bears (along with their cubs), elk, caribou, bighorn sheep and moose. We really weren’t sure how much wildlife we’d see on the road, but literally  just by the sign announcing that we had joined the Parkway we saw a black bear. We took this as a good sign and indeed it was. You’ll also see moose and elk close to towns, especially around Jasper.

Grizzly bears, coyote, cougars, lynx and wolves can also be found in the area, but we did not see any on our trip (but did see grizzly bears at Great Bear Lodge in the Great Bear Rainforest).

 

If you venture up into the hills and mountains, either by foot or by cable car (see Banff Cable car below) you can come across hoary marmots, chipmunks, pika and golden-mantled ground squirrels.

How to get there?

We flew into Calgary, which is the nearest big international airport, where we hired a car (after some time exploring the city) for the trip up the Icefields Parkway.

Banff town is about an hour and a half’s drive from  Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway. From Banff it’s about a 40 minute drive to Lake Louise, where you pick up the Icefields Parkway (also known as Highway 93).

If you drove non-stop from there to Jasper, it would take you around 3 hours, but then you’d be missing all the fun!

What else can I do there?

Where do we start? In Banff, take the Banff Gondola to the summit of Sulphur Mountain for a spectacular view over the Rockies and Banff town. As you walk around the summit, you may see marmots and ground squirrels. You may also decide to hike the trail back down to Banff rather than take the gondola. Back in town, you can also take walks along the Bow River and to Bow Falls, which is a nice place for a picnic.

Lake Louise is a must to get the picture postcard views of the lake, with it’s azure blue waters. From there you can also hike up the mountain trail to Mirror Lake and then the Lake Agnes (this will take you approximately 3 hours up and down).

There are many places to stop along the Parkway, but the following are things we did.

  • Bow Lake, sits right by the road so is easy to stop at. In the Bow Summit area, there is a short walk to Peyto Lake, another body of water almost equal in beauty to Lake Louise
  • At the Glacier Discovery Centre, you can join the Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure, a trip in a specially-designed off-road vehicle up on to the glacier, where you can get out and walk on the top of the glacier. Not far from here is the Glacier Skywalk, a glass viewing point that hangs over the Sunwapta Valley
  • The Athabasca Falls is covered with bridges and walkways, where you can while away a couple of hours exploring the river and falls

In Jasper, you can visit Maligne Lake and take a boat ride on the lake to the lovely Spirit Island. Around Maligne Lake there are a variety of trails for you to hike and  you’ll often see moose and elk as you walk. Also in Jasper Miette Hot Springs,  which is s a nice place to relax and soak in the warm waters. You may also see bears on the drive up from Jasper.

 

Maligne Canyon is similar to Athabasca Falls, with trails and bridges along the river. If you still haven’t seen enough lakes, the beautiful and Pyramid Patricia Lakes are short drives from Jasper.

If you’re after a bit more adventure, there is good white water rafting to be had on the Athabasca River, with a range of runs depending on ability (and water levels). We went with Jasper Rafting Adventures, but due to the season we were limited to a pretty sedate run.

Where to stay?

Although there are places to stay along the route, including lots of campsites, most of these were still closed when we visited. We stayed at either end of the Parkway,  at the Fairmont Chateau in Lake Louise, which is a beautiful, but rather expensive hotel. We aren’t normally this extravagant, but we were on our honeymoon! At the other end we stayed at the Alpine Village in Jasper, which we used as a base to explore the area further. There are other lodges; hotels and campsites in and around Jasper, so there is a accommodation to suit everyone.

Where to eat?

The Fairmont Chateau obviously has a range of restaurants and cafes, but it is expensive. We did try the fondue, which was incredible, but pricey. There is a teahouse by Lake Agnes to reward yourself after your hike up, but it was still closed for winter when we visited.

All along the Icefield Parkway, there are many places to stop for picnics, with stunning scenery to admire as you eat.

There is a good range of restaurants and cafes in Jasper and we tried a few!

  • Evil Dave’s Grill, as it’s name implies, serves a load of “wicked” sounding delicacies such as Fiendish Falafel and Diabolical Tenderloin.
  • The Other Paw Bakery was our favourite place for coffee and sandwiches/snacks/lunchboxes that we could take-away for picnic lunches.
  • The Jasper Pizza Place serves wood-burning oven baked pizzas and also has a nice roof terrace on which to sit and have a beer or two.