Western Canada #06 - Columbia Icefields Parkway
Western Canada #06 – Columbia Ice Fields Pkwy
One day we decided to drive the Columbia Ice Fields Parkway into Jasper National Park
Columbia Ice Fields Parkway
Columbia Ice Fields Parkway
The Columbia Icefields Parkway is one of Canada's national treasures.. It extends from the just north of Lake Louise in Banff National Park 144 Miles (232km) north through the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site well into Jasper National Park. Along the way you traverse a vast wilderness of pristine mountain lakes and glaciers with broad sweeping valleys. It is really one of the most spectacular mountain roads in North America. And the driving is easy with only one section with a few sharp curves.
The route was originally the Glacier Trail, which opened in 1885 after the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed and brought increased tourist traffic to Banff National Park. In 1931, the federal government commissioned the construction of a single-track road between Lake Louise and Jasper as a Great Depression relief project. In order to employ as many people as possible, the road was constructed by hand and employed 600 men (sorry ladies). The road was completed in 1940 but by the 1950’s an increase in automobile traffic prompted a reconstruction (widening and straightening) which opened in 1961 as a paved modern 2 lane highway usually with wide enough shoulders to permit stopping when the urge dictates – which you do quite often due to the spectacular scenery.
Many people spend a full day driving this route one way – either from Banff to Jasper or vice versa. However, if you’re camping taking several days is not uncommon. Except at either end there are only one or two hotels along the route so if you want to spend several days and are not camping, book your room early.
Starting at the south end where the TransCanada Highway turns west just north of Lake Louise, the Icefields Parkway continues following the Bow River valley northward. After about 68 miles (10 km) the road ascends out of that valley and into another valley where it continues another 74 miles (119 km) to the town of Jasper.
We didn’t get all the way to the town of jasper on this trip. As we were time limited, we did an out and back route starting and returning to our hotel at Lake Louise and didn’t get all the way to north end of the road before we had to turn around for the return to Lake Louise. This route covered about three quarters of the parkways’ length which as fine and really filled a whole day.
After you split off from the TransCanada highway near Lake Louise, the first 46 miles (75km) of the highway, up to the intersection of CA-11 at Saskatchewan River Crossing, runs up the northern end of the Bow valley Along this section the road passes a half dozen or more alpine lakes, each one more beautiful than the last.
The first lake is Hector Lake which stays a mile or so away from the road however there are several hiking trails that take you to the lake itself. It sits to the west of the parkway and goes on up into a side valley, pretty much like Lake Louise. What differentiates Hector Lake from Lake Louise in popularity is simply that the railroad built a big hotel at Lake Louise but not at Hector Lake. So, everyone knows the first but has never heard of the latter – even though they are both equally stunning.
The next one you come to is Bow Lake that sits at the base of Crowfoot Mountain. The road goes right along the edge of Bow Lake so photography can be done with much less hiking. These two lakes, as well as most of the lakes in the region, are feed by glaciers.
On our visit in late May we found both of these lakes still frozen, but the thaw was near.
The next set of lakes that are nearby the roadway are the Waterfowl Lakes. We didn’t see any waterfowl but I presume from the name that they like this lake. Unlike the prior two lakes which were totally frozen over, this lake had no ice on it at all.
Icefields Parkway near Hector Lake
Icefields Parkway near Hector Lake
Mount Chephren & Waterfowl Lake (Icefield s Parkway)
Waterfowl Lake, Alberta, CN
As one travels up and down the Icefields Parkway it doesn’t take too long to realize that it is a very popular bicycle route as well as an automobile route. Even though you are in alpine topography and scenery, the roadway itself is not too difficult for bicycles. There are some ups and downs, but for the most part the road stays in the bottom of valleys with gentle curves, wide shoulders and not very steep or big hills to climb. From near Lake Louse on up to Bow Lake the road only gains around 700 ft. of elevation. Later on there are some more challenging sections but for the most part it doesn’t look too bad, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Bicycles along the parkway near Bow Lake
Of course two wheeled wildlife, being an invasive species, is not the only wildlife in these parks. Most of the native wildlife tend to stay away from the roads and where people are except, it seems, for the Big Horn Sheep which like to keep the grass trimmed along the sides of roads. In the early spring, after a long winter of slim pickings, these sheep have discovered that heat retention and infrared reflection off asphalt roadways tend cause plants to emerge earlier near the roadways. So, not wanting to miss out on the early bird specials, they have learned to ignore the traffic and photographers and are quite happy foraging along the sides of roads.
Big Horn Sheep along the side of the road near Saskatchewan River Crossing
North of Saskatchewan Crossing
After crossing the North Saskatchewan River (at the junction of RT-11) - and where we had lunch in between busloads of tourists – the Icefields Parkway continues on to the north following what I think is the North Fork of the North Saskatchewan River (Google is very sparse on river, valley, and mountain names). The river to the left of the road sometimes widens out to long skinny lakes only to revert back to river size a little further up the road. But the real scenery along this stretch of road is on the right side.
For a couple of miles there is a sheer cliff rising above you. This formation is called the Weeping Wall. The cliff itself is approximately 1000 feet high. In spring the faces of the cliffs are covered with a series of cascading waterfalls. It is said that the falls are fed from a large spring higher on the mountain and thus the water flows all year. However, according to some blogs I just read on the Internet by disappointed travelers, in the summer it’s just a cliff, so I guess there is some seasonality that affects the water flow. But, as luck would have it, we were there in early spring and the waterfalls were in full flow. In winter, the waterfalls freeze into towering pillars of ice and if the spring keeps flowing as is claimed new ice keeps forming all winter causing the entire cliff face to continually freeze into a beautiful blue wall of ice. It is considered one of the best Ice climbs in the world.
North Saskatchewan River (Possibly the North Fork)
Not much further up the road the river veers off to the west, but the road continues up a short side valley and then when it reaches the end of the valley climbs up to the next higher level through a 2 mile long broad sweeping switchback during which you climb nearly 1000 feet. Near the top of this loop there is a pull off where you have a grand view of the valley you just drove up.
Top of the switchback looking back on the road just driven
Panther Falls just past the top of the switchback.
Once through that switchback the road gently climbs a bit farther where it tops out at Sunwapta Pass which is 6,677 ft. (2,035m) high. As far as alpine passes go this one is quite unremarkable. In fact except for an unmarked pull off and parking area there is nothing to tell you that you have reached the summit and 2nd highest point on the parkway. Bow Pass which we went over near Bow lake near the start of the parkway is 113ft higher – whoopee. But, this is where you leave Banff National Park and enter Jasper National Park so I suppose it does have some significance although you’d think they’d put up a sign that you were entering Jasper National Park but there was none. And, guess what? The scenery was pretty much the same - spectacular.
The first major attraction, and probably the most well known feature on the entire parkway is the Athabasca Glacier. But, before I talk about the glacier itself, let me regress back a bit. The name of the parkway is the “Columbia Ice Fields Parkway” and it got its name from, you guessed it, the Columbia Ice Field. As you drive along the parkway which runs along the bottom of valley’s, you are skirting this icefield which remains just out of site in a large basin at the top of the first set of mountains to the west.
The Columbia Icefield is the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains and straddles the Continental Divide as well as the border between British Columbia and Alberta. It runs from the northwestern tip of Banff National Park and through the southern end of Jasper National Park. It has a surface area of about 125 sq mi (325 sq km) which makes it just a tad smaller than the city of Atlanta. The ice ranges from 330 ft. (100 m) to 1,198 ft. (365 m) thick with an average of 280 in (7 m) of snowfall per year.
Ice fields form where there is a basin that fills with more snow each winter than can melt each summer. So, each year as more snow falls on top of old snow, the weight of the new snow compact’s the old snow turning it to ice. Over time the top surface of the ice gets higher and higher until it overflows the rim of its basin and starts flowing out through valley’s as glaciers.
Like many such icefields worldwide, this one first formed during an ice age between 238,000BC and 126,000 BC. It kept growing till around 62,000 BC – around the time that Homo Sapiens began to appear on earth. After a period of shrinkage, the icefield started growing again around 18,000 BC when major land bridges around the planet started to be covered with rising sea levels. The last major period of advance occurred during the Little Ice Age, which lasted from about 1200 to 1900 AD.
The Columbia Icefield was one of the last major geological features to be discovered by man in western Canada. In 1827, Scottish botanist David Douglas was crossing Athabasca Pass—a major trading route located north of the Icefield—when he climbed one of the adjacent mountain peaks and reported sighting the icefield. In 1884, geology professor Arthur Philemon Colemann went looking for the ice field and the peak that Douglas had climbed but was unable to find either - however he did discover the route that would become the Icefield Parkway. Fourteen years later, in 1898, British explorer J. Norman Collie and some friends went in search of Douglas’ mountain and the icefield. It is unclear if they found the peak that Douglas had described, but they did ascend the Athabasca Glacier where they discovered an ice field that extended to almost every horizon. As Collie later wrote, “The view that lay before us in the evening light was one that does not often fall to the lot of modern mountaineers. A new world was spread at our feet: to the westward stretched a vast ice-field probably never before seen by the human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, unnamed and unclimbed peaks.”
The Athabasca Glacier is one of six main glaciers (or 'toes') coming off the Columbia Icefield. The Athabasca glacier is currently roughly 3.7 mi (6 km) long, with a surface area of about 2.3 sq mi and ranges to 980ft thick. The glacier is currently receding at a rate of about 16 ft. (5 m) per year thanks to global warming and in the last 125 years the front of the glacier has moved almost a mile up the valley losing over half of its total volume in the same time frame.
We visited the glacier in the mid 1970’s and at that time the nose of the glacier was quite close to the highway. Now it way off in the distance. In our first visit, before the big visitor center was put in, you would drive up alongside of the glacier to a set of buildings where there was a visitor center, restaurant and where you boarded the ‘snow coaches’ (a bus with tank like tracks in place of the rear wheels and skis in place of the front wheels) that took you out on the glacier. On our visit this year, the glacier front was up the valley, way past the place where we had boarded the snow coach before. Now you board a conventional bus at the new visitor center by the highway which takes you up, past where the old visitor center had been, to a new “transfer” point. Here you swap over to a new model snow coach which has giant rubber tires, but you’re still not to the ice. From the transfer station you go even further till you actually get up onto the ice.
If you buy tickets you can ride one of the snow coaches out onto the ice more or less to the middle of the glacier. Here you can get out and walk around on the ice. There are little yellow flags that form a perimeter for the area they want you to stay in as they have not tested the ice for hidden crevasse and weak snow bridges outside of this perimeter. I don’t recall such in the 1970’s but I guess someone wasn’t being careful and fell into a crevasse at some point so now they play it safer.
Athabasca Glacier from Visitor Center
Standing on Ice
Stream of melted ice on glacier surface
Mt. Andromeda at Athabasca Glacier
The last thing we did before heading back down the same highway and back to our motel at Lake Louise was the Glacier Skywalk. I do have to admit that this is not really consistent with nature and it really doesn’t allow you to see much that you can’t see from the roadway other than a lot of empty air below your feet. But, I guess since the Grand Canyon got one, the concessioner that runs the Athabasca Glacier Snow Coach tours on the Glacier decided they should have one too. Having said that, it is nicely done.
The Skywalk is a horseshoe shaped walkway sticking out from the side of a cliff 918 feet (280 meters) above the Sunwapta Valley near the Athabasca Glacier. At one time you may have been able to see the glacier from the skywalk but the glacier has receded up the valley far enough that it is now out of sight of the skywalk. This is a relatively recent addition to the area which opened in the spring of 2014 after 3 years of construction. There’s no parking at the skywalk so after you buy your tickets at the Glacier Visitor center you take a shuttle bus the 5 minutes to the skywalk.
It’s a nice attraction, and interesting to stand on a glass walkway almost 1,000 feet above the valley floor. And along the walkway from the bus loading area to the skywalk there are nature oriented displays along the way. Although not apparent at the time, having these nature displays has a side affect of de-clumping the crowd of people who all got off the bus at the same time such that they all don’t arrive at the skywalk itself in one big mass.
Skywalk jutting out from side of cliff over Sunwapta Valley
Glass floored Skywalk
Standing on air
Sunwapta Valley below Skywalk
I hope you enjoyed reading this episode of our Western Canada trip and that you’ll come back for the rest of our journey. Next time we’ll be heading south into Glacier National Park in Montana.
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(Info from Wikipedia and pamphlets gathered at various sites along the way along with attraction websites)
Keywords: alberta canada, athabasca glacier, banff national park, blog, bow lake, canada, candadian rockies, columbia icefields parkway, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogwca, glacier skywalk, hector lake, icefields parkway, jasper national park, waterfowl lake, weeping wall
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