Driving the Icefields Parkway, Part I: Jasper National Park

As the title of this blog implies, I usually find traveling by plane or train (and for that matter, walking, sailing…) preferable to driving.  Still, there are some places that are just made for the automobile, where the drive is part of the experience.  In 2014 I was fortunate enough to experience two such roads: The Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park, and the Icefields Parkway in Alberta.

A mountain along the Icefields Parkway close to Jasper. Infrared, HDR. Lowell Silverman photography, 2014

The Icefields Parkway (Alberta 93) connects the Yellowhead Highway (Highway 16) in Jasper with the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) near Lake Louise, a distance of 230 km (140 mi).  The road could theoretically be traveled in about three hours without stopping, but only by travelers somehow immune to the route’s incredible scenic splendor.  (With stops, it took us about 6.5 hours southbound.) The route threads its way through the wilderness, the snow capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains rising on both sides.

Traveling southeast from Jasper, the first 108 km (67 mi) of road are inside Jasper National Park; the remainder is within Banff National Park.  For that reason, a pass from Parks Canada is required to drive the road.  The road or portions thereof  may be closed during severe winter weather.  Fuel is only available (at high prices) at Saskatchewan River Crossing, located 153 km (95 mi) from Jasper.  In comparison to other scenic roads like the Going-to-the-Sun Road or Crater Lake National Park’s rim road, the Icefield Parkway is an easy drive.  It has wide shoulders, mostly gentle curves, and no sheer drop-offs.

1 Elk

On Saturday, October 18, 2014 my father and I left Jasper around 8am and picked up the parkway.  The sun was just coming up as we started the drive.  Just outside of Jasper we caught sight of an elk moseying across a field.  It was a mostly cloudy day, although here and there the sun tantalizingly poked through the clouds.  These high contrast scenes were challenging to photograph and I had to bracket a lot of them for later HDR processing.

3 Morning HDR
Morning sun catching some clouds near the north end of the parkway. HDR
5 Sun Peeking Through
Crepuscular rays and a distant mountain to the southeast. Converted from RAW, slightly cropped.

For the first 54 km (35.6 mi) or so, the road shadows the Athabasca River.  (Actually, the river’s source is the Columbia Icefield, which the parkway also goes past.)  It’s impossible to properly describe the sheer beauty of the route, with incredible new sights around every curve, so I guess I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

4 Athabasca River
Athabasca River and cloud shrouded mountains
HDR panorama of the Athabasca River along the Icefields Parkway, with Mt. Fryatt (center left with sharp peak) and Mt. Geraldine at (center right, partially obscured by clouds)


5 Icefields Pkwy

9 River n Mts HDR

14 Near Ath G

Around 10am we arrived at the Columbia Icefield, which covers an area of about 325 km2 (125 mi2) of mountains and including multiple glaciers.  The ice and snow here are estimated to be greater than 300 m (984′) deep in some places. We parked at the Icefield Centre (Icefield Parkway km 103, mile 64 southbound), a building with primarily commercial purposes.  It hosts a restaurant, gift shop, and is the starting point for tours by snow coach to the Athabasca Glacier.  As far as I can tell, there’s no museum there, just informational placards outside.

13 Near Athabasca G HDR
Mountains in the Columbia Icefield, HDR

14 Near Ath G

Athabasca Glacier

36 Athabasca Glacier

The Athabasca Glacier is the glacier most prominent when viewed from the Icefields Parkway (and the most easily visited).  The glacier peaked during the Little Ice Age a few hundred years ago and has been in retreat since 1844, when its toe was 1.5 km further down the valley than it is today.  The glacier has lost over half its ice since it was at its furthest extent.

The trail to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier demonstrates how quickly the glacier has receeded

Markers indicate the glacier’s extent in different years.  The lateral moraine on each side also demonstrate how thick the glacier was in the past.  Although the glacier began receding before human activities began having a major impact on the Earth’s climate, Global Warming has probably sealed the glacier’s fate.  It is projected to melt completely within the next few decades.


At one point, ice reached the top of the lateral moraine pictured

I began to hike towards the toe (end) of the glacier.  My father said a few decades ago he’d walked on glacier itself.  Now, though, the rocky trail was too uneven for him and he retreated to the car.  It was hard to believe that the trail was over ground that, within my lifetime, had been buried by glacial ice.  I approached as close to the glacier as permitted by Parks Canada, which was still a few hundred meters from the toe of the glacier.  Numerous warning signs implored visitors not to approach the glacier without a guide due to extreme danger from crevices and cold, rapidly flowing meltwater.  The group walking in front of me casually stepped over the caution tape, ignoring the signs.

15 Athabasca Glacier
Toe of Athabasca Glacier seen from the vantage point that is as close as Parks Canada permits without a guide, though numerous people are visible who have chosen to proceed despite the warnings.

I returned to the car and we got back on the road.  I took over driving for the next 50 km (31 mi) until Saskatchewan River Crossing.  We didn’t pull over much to take pictures because heavy clouds made for rather unimpressive views.

At km 108 (mile 67) we reached Sunwapta Pass, the boundary between Jasper National Park and Banff National Park.  This seems like a logical place to split this article.  In Part II, I’ll be covering the second half of the Icefield Parkway drive including a small detour we made to view the impossibly blue wonder that is Peyto Lake.


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