5 Tips for Driving Canada’s Icefields Parkway
Featured destinations: Canada, Banff, Calgary
Published 30 March 2016
Highway 93 – otherwise known as the Icefields Parkway – is the ultimate way to discover the Canadian Rockies under your own steam. But with so much natural beauty and adventure to take in, the journey from Lake Louise and Banff to Jasper National Park can be a little overwhelming. Get prepared with these top tips for driving Canada’s Icefields Parkway.
Take your time
The scenery you’ll see without even stopping the car is incredible: think hundreds of glaciers, a green sea of lofty subalpine trees and pristine lakes and rivers in abundance. You can whizz through it all in little over four hours… But why would you want to? The Icefields Parkway is a place to be absorbed and enjoyed, not rushed. It’s one of those places that actually lives up to the hype – so take your time and stop to enjoy the sights as much as you can.
Plan your stops
It probably goes without saying that your beginning and end points – Banff/Lake Louise and Jasper National Park – each require a couple of days of exploration: whether you fancy hurtling down white peaks on a set of skis; mushing through the snow on a husky sled; romping through the wilderness in search of bears, elk and coyotes; or staring up at the cosmos in the Jasper Dark Sky Preserve.
On the road itself though, Hector Lake is the first must-see. The largest natural lake in Banff National Park, you’ll need to stop as soon as you catch a glimpse of it. The initial lookout points offers the best views of this majestic inlet, as well as the impressive Crowfoot Glacier behind. From the largest to the highest: Peyto Lake sits 2,088m above sea level. Glacier-fed, this high-altitude pool is a lake of postcard perfection, the water a milky, turquoise blue, fringed by crimson-striped rocks and a carpet of emerald forest.
Descend to Saskatchewan Crossing before entering the Icefields – unsurprisingly the best part. The Columbia Icefield in particular is worth a few hours of your time: it’s home to the Athabasca Glacier, one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. Park at Sunwapta Lake and you can literally walk up to it from there. Don’t walk on it without a guide though: the ice is slippery and full of cracks and crevasses. In other words, you could break an arm, a leg or worse. Head for the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre to join a tour (only $55pp). If you’ve got a head for heights, don’t miss the dizzying Glacier Skywalk either: a new glass-bottomed lookout that hangs over a cliff edge, with nothing but a 280-metre drop beneath your feet.
For one last photo op before reaching Jasper National Park, make a stop at the severely underrated Tangle Creek Falls. The spray from this multi-tier cascade is so powerful that it even reaches the highway – you can’t miss the left turning.
Check the road reports
The best time to drive the Icefields Parkway is June to September. Visit any other time and you run the risk of finding hotels, petrol stations and attractions closed for the winter and, even worse, roads blocked by snow and ice. But even in the summer bad weather is still a concern. Be sure to keep an eye on Alberta’s Official Road Reports for up-to-date information on the weather and the road conditions. The last thing you want to do is get caught in a blizzard, not to mention the Parkway isn’t exactly well-paved, so it can be even tougher to navigate safely in adverse weather conditions.
Make sure you take emergency equipment with you too (blankets, shovels, maps etc.) and bear in mind that you’re unlikely to get any phone signal on the road. Dress in layers as well, to help keep warm should the weather take a turn.
Organise your food and fuel
Places to eat, drink and top up on petrol while driving along the Icefields Parkway are few and far between, so it’s best to plan ahead. For starters, take a packed lunch or research the places you can stop for something to eat en route. There is a restaurant at the Columbia Icefield, but we prefer the cosy Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, which houses a quaint coffee shop called the Elkhorn Dining Room. Here you can enjoy a slab of cake or sample homemade sandwiches in front of a roaring fire. Fancy a stay here too, with a room overlooking the sparkling shores of Bow Lake? Room-only rates start from £113pn.
Likewise the Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge boasts an on-site restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch and evening dining at its Endless Chain Ridge Dining Room.
As for petrol, make sure you top up your tank in advance. There’s only one petrol station on Highway 93, located at The Crossing Resort, and the prices are high due to its isolated location. It’s possible to get from one end of the route to the other on a full tank though, so head to a garage in Banff or Lake Louise before you depart, then top up in Jasper before driving back.
Bring some road trip music
It goes without saying, but no road trip is complete without some great tunes. So whether you’re into AC/DC, Sheryl Crow or Tracy Chapman, make sure you stock up on CDs/MP3s. Check that your hire car actually has a CD player/USB or auxiliary port first though.
Anything else I need to know?
July to August is busier and hotter; June and September are cooler and quieter. Pretty much everything shuts down from October to April.
Remember to include a National Park permit in your budget too. You can get passes at the gates during the summer months or at the Parks Canada Offices in Lake Louise, Banff or Jasper. You can order them online in advance too.
Air Canada, British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic all fly to Vancouver – returns from £689. From here, Banff is a hefty 10 hour drive. Alternatively you can fly to Calgary or Edmonton for cheaper airfares and closer proximity to the Highway. If you opt for Calgary, visit at the beginning of July to witness the world-famous Calgary Stampede too.