What you can expect to see (Highlights)
The Icefields Parkway takes you up one valley in the middle of the Rockies, with stunning mountain peaks and ridges on both sides of the roadway, and the parkway takes you through three different valleys: the Bow, the North Saskatchewan, and the Athabasca, and up several stunning summits between them.
Lake Louise has three areas worth visiting: the townsite (where the Icefields Visitor Centre is), the Ski Resort on the east side of the valley, and the Lake itself up the road from the townsite. During COVID the parking at the Lake is very limited and shuttle buses from the town or the overflow parking are even more limited, and even more so if you want to visit Moraine Lake. There are several great hikes (of varying difficulty) from the Lake
Heading north from Lake Louise, your first must-see spot is Bow Lake right beside the highway, with several peaks and glaciers on the opposite side of the lake. This lake is the source of the Bow River that flows through Calgary.
The road then climbs up Bow Summit and on the left is a parking lot and viewpoint overlooking Peyto Lake, one of the most photographed lakes in the Rockies.
Head further north to Saskatchewan River Crossing, where you can get gas and flush toilets. This is a wide valley where four rivers meet and flow east through a gap in the mountains toward Rocky Mountain House and beyond to Hudson’s Bay.
As you continue north you pass the Weeping Wall, with a bunch of waterfalls (some dropping over 100 metres) along a sheer cliff face, before coming up to the imposing Big Hill and Big Bend where the roadway zigs and sags up a steep 200 metre hill, and there is parking along the northbound (south-facing side) at the top where you have stunning views of the road you just drove up on.
At the top you pass Bridal Veil Falls (stop at the viewpoint) and on the left is Parker Ridge which is north-facing and snow covered for much of the year. The road continues to climb up Sunwapta Pass (elevation 2080m) and you begin the approach to the Columbia Icefields. You are now in Jasper National Park.
The Columbia Icefields are the largest south of the Arctic Circle and are 325 square kilometres in area, and in places a mile thick. From the parking lot you can hike toward the glacier across the gravel beds that used to be the bottom of the glacier. Signs mark the end-point of the glacier in different prior years, marking the pace at which the glacier is receding. You can take a Snow Coach tour up the glacier (which is saver than walking up, having to navigate the dangerous and often deep crevasses) and you book them at the Visitors Centre 2 km north on the highway, which has impressive exhibits about the glaciers.
The high peak to the north and west of the icefield is Mount Columbia (3,747 m, 12,293 ft). The Snow Dome of the icefield rises to (3,456 m, 11,339 ft) and water from here flows into three different watersheds, into the Pacific Ocean, Arctic Ocean, and Atlantic Ocean via Hudson Bay.
Five kilometres past the Visitor Centre is the Glacier Skywalk, a glass-floored horseshoe-shaped cantilevered overhang that has impressive views up and down the valley and across to the Icefields (Admission $$)
This section of the highway has a higher elevation and has more glaciers along the way, and along the east side of the highway you pass the Endless Chain, a series of peaks that form a continuous ridge over a 1000m above the parkway, that continues for sixteen kilometres.
Then you pass Sunwapta Falls, where the Sunwapta River drips 19 metres (60 ft) and 25 kilometres further you pass Athabasca Falls where the Athabasca River (after the Sunwapta has joined it) drops 24 metres and narrows into a gorge with a very high flow rate. Both have great trails with photo viewpoints.
You will pass Mount Edith Cavell on the west side, with an impressive trail and glacier. Then you pass the Jasper Tram, which is worth the trip up, fr its trails at the top, views overlooking the Jasper townsite and the wide valley in which it sits, and to the northwest you see Mount Robson (3954 m 12972 ft) the highest peak in the Rockies.
TIP: You might choose to go up the Tram on your route back, after having visited Jasper, and having some local familiarity of what you are seeing from up high.
The town of Jasper is a delight with a small pedestrian-friendly “downtown” beside the railway line and train station. Jasper feels much less “touristy” than Banff or Lake Louise to the south. Maligne Lake and Maligne Canyon are popular photographer’s destinations, just south of town.