Jasper National Park Scenic Drives

Icefields Parkway

This section of text is a continuation of the Icefields Parkway, which begins at Lake Louise. To read about the first half of the route click through to Banff National Park Scenic Drives.

Sunwapta Pass (2,040 meters/6,690 feet), four kilometers (2.5 miles) south of the Columbia Icefield, marks the boundary between Banff and Jasper National Parks.

The following sights along the Icefields Parkway are detailed from south to north, from the Icefield Centre to the town of Jasper, a distance of 105 kilometers (65 miles). The scenery along this stretch of road is no less spectacular than the other half through Banff National Park, and it’s easy to spend at least a full day en route.

No gas is available along this stretch of the Icefields Parkway. The nearest gas stations are at Saskatchewan River Crossing (Banff National Park) and in the town of Jasper, 150 kilometers (93 miles) apart, so keep your tank topped up to be safe.

 Columbia Icefield

The largest and most accessible of 17 glacial areas along the Icefields Parkway is 325-square-kilometer (125-square-mile) Columbia Icefield, beside the Icefields Parkway at the south end of the park, 105 kilometers (65 miles) south from Jasper and 132 kilometers (82 miles) north from Lake Louise. It’s a remnant of the last major glaciation that covered most of Canada 20,000 years ago, and it has survived because of its elevation at 1,900 to 2,800 meters (6,230 to 9,190 feet) above sea level, cold temperatures, and heavy snowfalls. From the main body of the ice cap, which sits astride the Continental Divide, six glaciers creep down three main valleys. Of these, Athabasca Glacier is the most accessible and can be seen from the Icefields Parkway; it is one of the world’s few glaciers that you can drive right up to. It is an impressive 600 hectares (1,480 acres) in area and up to 100 meters (330 feet) deep. The speed at which glaciers advance and retreat varies with the long-term climate. Athabasca Glacier has retreated to its current position from across the highway, a distance of more than 1.6 kilometers (one mile) in a little more than 100 years. Currently it retreats up to two meters (six feet) per year. The rubble between the toe of Athabasca Glacier and the highway is a mixture of rock, sand, and gravel known as till, deposited by the glacier as it retreats.

The ice field is made more spectacular by the impressive peaks that surround it. Mount Athabasca (3,491 meters/11,450 feet) dominates the skyline, and three glaciers cling to its flanks. Dome Glacier is also visible from the highway; although part of Columbia Icefield, it is not actually connected. Instead it is made of ice that breaks off the ice field 300 meters (980 feet) above, supplemented by large quantities of snow each winter.

Exploring the Icefield

From the Icefields Parkway, an unpaved road leads down through piles of till left by the retreating Athabasca Glacier to a parking area beside Sunwapta Lake. An interesting alternative is to leave your vehicle beside the highway and take the 1.6-kilometer (one-mile) hiking trail through the lunarlike landscape to the parking area. From this point, a short path leads up to the toe of the glacier. (Along the access road, look for the small markers showing how far the toe of the glacier reached in years past; the farthest marker is across the highway beside the stairs leading up to the Icefield Centre.)

The ice field can be dangerous for unprepared visitors. Like all glaciers, the broken surface of the Athabasca is especially hazardous because snow bridges can hide its deep crevasses. The crevasses are uncovered as the winter snows melt. The safest way to experience the glacier firsthand is on specially developed vehicles with balloon tires that can travel over the crevassed surface. These Ice Explorers are operated by Brewster (780/852-6550, www.explorerockies.com). The 90-minute tour of Athabasca Glacier includes time spent walking on the surface of the glacier. The tour, which begins with a bus ride from the Icefield Centre, costs adult $50, child $25, and operates 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. mid-April to mid-October (try to plan your tour for before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m., after the tour buses have departed for the day). The ticketing office is on the main floor of the Icefield Centre (no reservations are taken), with the surrounding area resembling an airport departure lounge–check the television screens for departure times and ensure you make your way to the correct gate. Early in the season the glacier is still covered in a layer of snow and is therefore not as spectacular as during the summer. If you’re in Banff or Jasper without transportation, consider Brewster’s day trip to the Columbia Icefield, which lasts nine hours and costs adult $170, child $85, including the Ice Explorer excursion.

Icefield Centre

The magnificent Icefield Centre is nestled at the base of Mount Wilcox, overlooking the Athabasca Glacier.  The building is as environmentally friendly as possible: Lights work on motion sensors to reduce electricity, some water is reused, suppliers must take their packaging with them after deliveries, and the entire building freezes in winter.

The center is the staging point for Ice Explorer tours, but before heading out onto the ice field, don’t miss the Glacier Gallery on the lower floor. This large display area details all aspects of the frozen world, including the story of glacier formation and movement. The centerpiece is a scaled-down fiberglass model of the Athabasca Glacier, which is surrounded by hands-on displays and audiovisual presentations.

Back on the main floor of the center you’ll find a Parks Canada desk (780/852-6288)–a good source of information for northbound visitors–Ice Explorer ticketing desk, restrooms, and the obligatory gift shop.

Upstairs you’ll find the cavernous Columbia Cafe, with snacks and hot drinks to go on the right and an overpriced cafeteria-style restaurant to the left. Both are open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Across the hallway is the Glacier Dining Room, open 7 to 10 a.m. daily for a breakfast buffet, reopening 6 to 9:30 p.m. for ordinary Chinese-Canadian fare (mains range $19 to 34). The only redeeming feature of these dining options has nothing to do with the food–the view from both inside and out on the massive deck is stupendous. (For northbound travelers, my advice is to pick up lunch at Laggan’s Mountain Bakery in Lake Louise.)

The Icefield Centre also holds a limited number of hotel rooms (Glacier View Inn, 780/852-6550 or 877/423-7433, www.explorerockies.com). Check-in is on the main level.

The entire Icefield Centre closes down for the winter in mid-October, reopening the following year in mid-April. During summer, the complex (including display area) is open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, with reduced hours outside of July and August.

Immediately north of Icefield Centre is an unheralded pullout where few travelers stop, but which allows for an excellent panorama of the area away from the crowds. Across the glacial-green Sunwapta River is a wasteland of till and a distinctive terminal moraine left behind by the retreating Dome Glacier. Between the Dome and Athabasca Glaciers is 3,459-meter (11,350-foot) Snow Dome.

Glacier Skywalk

The architecturally impressive Glacier Skywalk projects out into the Sunwapta Canyon 280 meters (918 feet) above the valley floor. Access is by shuttle bus from the Icefield Centre (no passenger vehicles are allowed to stop), from where a short interpretive trail leads along the canyon edge and then out onto the glass-floored skywalk. Looking upstream from the skywalk, you can see the massive, ice-draped slopes of Mount Athabasca (3,491 m/ 11,450 ft) framed by the walls of the valley—a truly inspiring view of this great mountain. Directly across the valley is the ice-capped east face of Mount Kitchener. The Glacier Skywalk is operated by Brewster (403-762-6700, www.glacierskywalk.ca) May through October. Tours depart from the Icefield Centre daily between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. From the Skywalk, northbound travellers lose 300 metres (980 ft) of elevation over the next four km (2.5 miles), descending to the floor of the Sunwapta Valley.

Sunwapta Falls

A further 41 kilometers (25 miles) along the Icefields Parkway a 500-meter (0.3-mile) spur at Sunwapta Falls Resort leads to Sunwapta Falls. Here the Sunwapta River changes direction sharply and drops into a deep canyon. The best viewpoint is from the bridge across the river, but it’s also worth following the path on the parking lot side of the river downstream along the rim of the canyon. Two kilometers (1.2 miles) downstream the river flows into the much-wider Athabasca Valley at the Lower Falls.

Goat Lookout

After following the Athabasca River for 17 kilometers (11 miles), the road ascends to a lookout with picnic tables offering panoramic river views. Below the lookout is a steep bank of exposed glacially ground material containing natural deposits of salt. The local mountain goats spend most of their time on the steep slopes of Mount Kerkeslin, to the northeast, but occasionally cross the road and can be seen searching for the salt licks along the roadside or riverbank, trying to replenish lost nutrients.

Athabasca Falls

Nine kilometers (5.6 miles) beyond Goat Lookout and 32 kilometers (20 miles) south of Jasper, the Icefields Parkway divides when an old stretch of highway (Highway 93A) crosses the Athabasca River and continues along its west side for 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) before rejoining the parkway seven kilometers (4.3 miles) south of the town. At the southern end of this loop, the Athabasca River is forced through a narrow gorge and over a cliff into a cauldron of roaring water below. As the river slowly erodes the center of the riverbed, the falls will move upstream. Trails lead from a day-use area to various viewpoints above and below the falls. The trail branching under Highway 93A follows an abandoned river channel before emerging at the bottom of the canyon. Facilities at Athabasca Falls include picnic tables and washrooms.

Continuing North to Jasper

Take Highway 93A beyond Athabasca Falls to reach Mount Edith Cavell, or continue north along the Icefields Parkway to access the following sights. The first worthwhile stop along this route is Horseshoe Lake, reached along a 350-meter (0.2-mile) trail from a parking lot three kilometers (1.9 miles) north of Athabasca Falls. The southern end of this delightful little body of water is ringed by a band of cliffs (popular with locals in summer as a cliff-diving spot), but many private (unofficial) picnic spots line its western shoreline.

Two kilometers (1.2 miles) north of the Horseshoe Lake parking lot are a couple of lookouts with sweeping views across the Athabasca River to Athabasca Pass, used by David Thompson on his historic expedition across the continent. To the north of the pass lies Mount Edith Cavell. From this lookout it is 26 kilometers (16 miles) to the town of Jasper.

Maligne Valley Road

This 48-kilometer (30-mile) road leads south from just east of the town of Jasper to Maligne Lake, passing the following attractions.

Maligne Canyon

Maligne Lake, one of the world’s most photographed lakes, lies 48 kilometers (30 miles) southeast of Jasper. It’s the source of the Maligne River, which flows northward to Medicine Lake and then disappears underground, eventually emerging downstream of Maligne Canyon. The river was known to the natives as Chaba Imne (River of the Great Beaver), but the name by which we know it today was coined by a missionary. After his horses were swept away by its swift-flowing waters in 1846, he described the river as being “la traverse maligne.” Driving up the Maligne River Valley to the lake is a 600-million-year-old lesson in geology that can be appreciated by anyone.

As the Maligne River drops into the Athabasca River Valley, its gradient is particularly steep. The fast-flowing water has eroded a deep canyon out of the easily dissolved limestone bedrock. The canyon is up to 50 meters (165 feet) deep, yet so narrow that squirrels often jump across. At the top of the canyon, opposite the teahouse, you’ll see large potholes in the riverbed. These potholes are created when rocks and pebbles become trapped in what begins as a shallow depression; under the force of the rushing water, they carve jug-shaped hollows into the soft bedrock.

To get here, head northeast from town and turn right onto Maligne Lake Road. The canyon access road veers left 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) from Jasper.

An interpretive trail winds down from the parking lot, crossing the canyon six times. The most spectacular sections of the canyon can be seen from the first two bridges, at the upper end of the trail. In summer a teahouse operates at the top of the canyon. To avoid the crowds at the upper end of the canyon, an alternative would be to park at Sixth Bridge, near the confluence of the Maligne and Athabasca Rivers, and walk up the canyon. The Maligne Valley Shuttle (780/852-3370) stops at the canyon eight times daily along its run between 627 Patricia Street in downtown Jasper and Maligne Lake; fare is $15 one-way from town. In winter, guided tours of the frozen canyon are an experience you’ll never forget.

Medicine Lake

From the canyon, Maligne Lake Road climbs to Medicine Lake, which does a disappearing act each year. The water level fluctuates due to a network of underground passages that emerge downstream in Maligne Canyon. At the northwest end of the lake, beyond where the outlet should be, the riverbed is often dry. In fall, when runoff from the mountains is minimal, the water level drops, and by November the lake comprises a few shallow pools. Natives believed that spirits were responsible for the phenomenon, hence the name.

Maligne Lake

At the end of the road, 48 kilometers (30 miles) from town, is Maligne Lake, the largest glacier-fed lake in the Canadian Rockies and second largest in the world. The first paying visitors were brought to the lake in the 1920s, and it has been a mecca for camera-toting tourists from around the world ever since. Once at the lake, activities are plentiful. But other than taking in the spectacular vistas, the only thing you won’t need your wallet for is hiking one of the numerous trails in the area.

The most popular tourist activity at the lake is a 90-minute narrated cruise on a glass-enclosed boat up the lake to oft-photographed Spirit Island. Cruises leave in summer, every hour on the hour 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with fewer sailings in May and September; adult $55, child $27.50. Many time slots are booked in blocks by tour companies; therefore, reservations are suggested. Rowboats and canoes can be rented at the Boat House, a provincial historic site dating to 1929, for $30 per hour or $90 per day. Double sea kayaks go for $35 per hour and $100 per day. The lake also has excellent trout fishing; guided fishing tours are available.

All commercial operations to and around the lake are operated by Maligne Tours (616 Patricia St., 780/852-3370 or 866/625-4463, www.malignelake.com), based in downtown Jasper. At the lake itself, in addition to the cruises and boat rentals, Maligne Tours operates a souvenir shop and large cafe with a huge area of tiered outdoor seating overlooking the lake. At the adjacent Maligne Lake Chalet, which has been meticulously restored, the company serves a comprehensive afternoon tea (July and August 2 to 4:30 p.m. daily; $32), with the most sought after tables enjoying lake views.

The Maligne Valley Shuttle runs from the Maligne Tours office and from various hotels out to the lake 3 to 4 times daily mid-May to late September. The first shuttle leaves for the lake each morning at 8:30 a.m.; $40 round-trip.

Cavell Road

Mount Edith Cavell, at 3,363 meters (11,033 feet), is the most distinctive and impressive in the park. Known to First Nations as the “White Ghost” for its snowcapped summit, the mountain was given its official name in honor of a British nurse who was executed for helping prisoners of war escape German-occupied Belgium during World War I. The peak was first climbed that same year; today the most popular route to the summit is up the east ridge (to the left of the summit). The imposing north face (facing the parking lot) has been climbed but is rated as an extremely difficult climb.

For those less adventurous, several vantage points, including downtown Jasper and the golf course, provide good views of the peak. But the most impressive place to marvel at the mountain is from directly below the north face. The 14.5-kilometer (nine-mile) Cavell Road winds up the Astoria River Valley from Highway 93A, ending right below the face. This steep, narrow road has many switchbacks. Trailers must be left in the designated area at the bottom. Highway 93A was the original Icefields Parkway, following the southeast bank of the Athabasca River. The route has now been bypassed by the more direct one on the other side of the river.

From the parking lot at the end of the road, you must strain your neck to take in the magnificent sight of the mountain’s 1,500-meter (4,920-foot) north face and Angel Glacier, which lies in a saddle on the mountain’s lower slopes. On warm days, those who are patient may be lucky enough to witness an avalanche tumbling from the glacier, creating a roar that echoes across the valley. From the parking area, the Path of the Glacier Trail (one hour round-trip) traverses barren moraines deposited by the receding Angel Glacier and leads to some great viewpoints.

East Along Highway 16 from the Town of Jasper

From Jasper, it’s 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the park’s eastern boundary along Highway 16, following the Athabasca River the entire way. Beyond the turnoff to Maligne Lake, Highway 16 enters a wide valley flanked to the west by The Palisade and to the east by the Colin Range. The valley is a classic montane environment, with open meadows and forests of Douglas fir and lodgepole pine. After crossing the Athabasca River, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Jasper, the highway parallels Jasper Lake, which is lined by sand dunes along its southern edge. At the highway, a plaque marks the site of Jasper House (the actual site is on the opposite side of the river). The next worthwhile stop is Disaster Point, four kilometers (2.5 miles) farther north. This is a great spot for viewing bighorn sheep, which gather at a mineral lick, an area of exposed mineral salts. Disaster Point is on the lower slopes of Roche Miette, a distinctive 2,316-meter-high (7,600-foot-high) peak that juts out into the Athabasca River Valley. Across the highway, the braided Athabasca River is flanked by wetlands alive with migrating birds spring and fall.

Miette Hot Springs Road branches south from the highway 43 kilometers (27 miles) east of Jasper. This junction marks the site of Pocahontas, a coal-mining town in existence between 1910 and 1921. The mine itself was high above the township, with coal transported to the valley floor by cable car. All buildings have long since been removed, but a short interpretive walk leads through the remaining foundations. One kilometer (0.6 mile) along Miette Hot Springs Road, a short trail leads to photogenic Punchbowl Falls. Here Mountain Creek cascades through a narrow crevice in a cliff to a pool of turbulent water.

Miette Hot Springs

After curving, swerving, rising, and falling many times, Miette Hot Springs Road ends 18 kilometers (11 miles) from Highway 16 at the warmest springs in the Canadian Rockies (780/866-3939, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily mid-May to mid-Oct., extended to 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily in summer). In the early 1900s, these springs were one of the park’s biggest attractions. In 1910, a packhorse trail was built up the valley, and the government constructed a bathhouse. The original hand-hewn log structure was replaced in the 1930s with pools that remained in use until new facilities were built in 1985. Water that flows into the pools is artificially cooled from 54°C (128°F) to a soothing 39°C (100°F). A newer addition to the complex is a smaller, cool plunge pool. Admission is $6.75 for a single swim or $9.25 for the day (senior and child $5.25 and $7.75, respectively).

Many hiking trails begin from the hot springs complex; the shortest is from the picnic area to the source of the springs (allow five minutes each way). Overlooking the pools is a cafe, while a restaurant and lodging are just down the hill.

Mount Robson Provincial Park

At the northern end of the Canadian Rockies, spectacular 224,866-hectare (555,650-acre) Mount Robson Provincial Park was created in 1913 to protect a vast wilderness of steep canyons and wide forested valleys; icy lakes, rivers, and streams; and rugged mountain peaks permanently blanketed in snow and ice. The park lies along the Continental Divide in British Columbia, adjacent to Jasper National Park, and shelters the headwaters of the Fraser River, one of British Columbia’s most important waterways. Towering over the park’s western entrance is magnificent 3,954-meter (12,970-foot) Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.

Highway 16 splits the park in two, and many sights of interest are visible from the highway. But you’ll have to leave the car behind to experience one of the park’s biggest draws; the famous Berg Lake Trail is strictly for hikers.

Roadside Sights

Highway 16 enters the park from the east at 1,066-meter (3,500-foot) Yellowhead Pass, on the British Columbia to Alberta border. It’s the lowest highway pass over the Continental Divide. From the divide, it’s 60 kilometers (37.2 miles) to the park’s western boundary and the visitors center. Just west of the divide, a rest area beside picturesque Portal Lake is a good introduction to the park.

Continuing westward, the highway passes long, narrow Yellowhead Lake at the foot of 2,458-meter (8,060-foot) Yellowhead Mountain, then crosses the upper reaches of the Fraser River. The Moose River drains into the Fraser River at Moose Marsh, a good spot for watching wildlife at the southeast end of Moose Lake. Moose often feed here at dawn and dusk, and waterfowl are present throughout the day.

Continuing west, the highway parallels Moose Lake; waterfalls on the lake’s far side create a photogenic backdrop. As the road descends steeply to a wide, open section of the valley, it passes the main facility area, where you’ll find a visitors center, campgrounds, a gas station, and a restaurant. On a clear day the panorama from this lump of commercialism is equal to any sight in British Columbia. The sheer west face of Mount Robson slices skyward just seven kilometers (4.3 miles) away across a flower-filled meadow. This is as close as you can get to the peak in your car.

If you’re approaching the park from the west, you’ll see Mount Robson long before you reach the park boundary (provided the weather is cooperating). It’s impossible to confuse this distinctive peak with those that surround it–no wonder it’s known as the Monarch of the Canadian Rockies.