About an hour north of Lake Louise is the Columbia Icefield, a 325 square-mile glacier that is almost a mile thick. When this area was first explored a century ago, the glacier came past the current highway, though it is now a short hike from the parking lot. You can take a “cat” ride up the glacier for a close-up tour. Be sure to dress warm: the glacier sends off chilly breezes even in a July heat wave.
After visiting the Icefield’s enormous glaciers, enjoy the drop in elevation into Sunwapta and then the Athabasca Valleys, framed by smaller–but cunningly balanced–glaciers on the western side. Here are the attractions on the Icefields Parkway heading from south to north:
- Columbia Icefield
- The Icefield is 103 km (63 miles) from Jasper and is the largest glacier accessible by road anywhere. Over 10 m (33 ft) of snow falls each winter at elevations of over 3,000 m (9,845 ft) after moist ocean winds climb 2,300 m (7,500 ft) on the west side of Mount Columbia. The glaciers at the top of the Snow Dome are a mile thick, and you can take a “Snocoach” ride up the glacier, or hike up yourself (remember, its cold, even in July). There is an interpretive center, restaurant, and the only gas station between Jasper and Banff, open from May to September.
- Stutfield Glacier
- Sitting atop a 1,100m (3,330 ft) cliff, between Mt Kitchener and Stutfield peaks, this is the northeast “backside” of the Columbia Icefield.
- Sunwapta Flats
- The highway winds along 14 km (8 mi) of glacial streambed, only feet above the water.
- Endless Chain
- This “chain” looks like a slightly-serrated knife blade along the edge of the sky. It runs very straight and parallel to the east side of the highway for over 20 km (13 miles), with an elevation over a mile above the road. This formation is a tabletop mountain, similar to Mt Rundle which overlooks the town of Banff.
- Sunwapta Falls
- In this waterfall, a short walk from the highway, the Sunwapta River falls through a limestone gorge, just before it joins the the Athabasca River. It is similar to the Maligne Canyon, except the river is bigger.
- Athabasca Falls
This chasm through which the Athabasca River falls about 30 metres is a spectacular must-see. It is only 30 km from Jasper. You can cross the chasm on a bridge and take pictures from the bottom of the drop, to see where the river narrows to just a few
- Mount Edith Cavell
- Visible from the top of Whistlers Mountain (from the top of the Tram), this 11,047 ft (3,367 m) peak with its own glacier is named after a heroic World War I nurse. A roadway winds 14 km from the highway to a point under the mountain’s spectacular north face.
- The Whistlers
- This mountain just south of town is the site of the popular Jasper Tram. From the top you have unmistakable views of the town below, and often Mount Robson, Canada’s second highest mountain (at 12,972 ft
— 3,954 m) elevation it is unmistable by its perfect pyramid shape and ever-present cloud shadow, even 80 km (50 miles) away. To the south, you see Mount Edith Cavell (shown).
- Old Fort Point
- This is the location of the original Henry House Fort for the North West Company back in 1811, before Jasper House was built on the shores of Brule (“Broo-Lay”) Lake. When Jasper House was moved nearer to Jasper Lake in 1829, this fort became disused.