When backpacking Banff to Jasper, you are sure to travel the Icefields Parkway, an epic road that stretches the 140 miles (230 km) between these Canada’s national parks. There are many beautiful stops along the way that you shouldn’t miss. Here is a guide to Canada’s most picturesque highway.
Canada is so vast that everyone seems to travel by car or in a huge camper van. As vehicle rental for non-Canadians can be expensive, we found a backpacker-friendly way to travel the Icefields Parkway. Sun Dog Tours will transport you between the national parks, as the friendly driver gives you local insight and stops at all the picturesque Icefields Parkway attractions on the way.
Set off early
At 8.30am our tour guide Kevin arrived with the bus to pick us up from our hotel in downtown Banff. The Sun Dog bus holds around 20 people, but we were lucky enough to have it to ourselves for this journey. Kevin has been a tour guide in this area for almost 30 years and his enthusiasm for the place shone through as he told us how the Banff townsfolk have created special bridges so the wildlife can safely pass over the roads.
Stop 1: Lake Louise
The first stop is the famous Lake Louise, a 40 minute drive north west of Banff town. At 9am, crowds of tourists were already there, admiring and photographing the view. It was cloudy when we arrived, but on a sunny day the bright blue hue of the lake must be even more breathtaking. The nearby hotel lodges have a Swiss Alpine feel about them, inspired by the first European explorers to settle here in the Rocky Mountains.
Stop 2: Bow Lake
The next stop on Continuing our Icefields Parkway tour is Bow Lake, 30 minutes north of Lake Louise. It is also bright blue, as it’s fed by the nearby Bow Glacier. As the glacier moves, it grinds the rocks beneath into silt. As the silt sits suspended in the lake’s water, the sunlight reflects the particles as a spectacular turquoise colour. To add to the lake’s beauty, we even saw a rainbow arching across the mountainside into the water.
Stop 3: Peyto Lake
Just four minutes’ drive away is Peyto Lake, just to the west of the Icefields Parkway. Viewed from high up on the Bow Summit, it’s another stunning sight.
Stop 4: Waterfowl Lakes
Another 12 minutes north along the highway takes you to the Waterfowl Lakes, offering an eerily beautiful view across the mist-shrouded mountains.
Stop 5: Lunch at Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre
Settle in for an hour’s journey, as the next stop along the Icefields Parkway will be for lunch. The Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre overlooks the Athabasca Glacier, part of the vast Columbia Icefield. There are special bus tours available here so you can walk across the ancient moving ice. Covering six square kilometres, it is up to 300 metres thick – almost as thick as the Eiffel Tower is tall. The centre itself has a comfortable canteen offering tasty and affordable hot and cold food.
Stop 6: The Glacier Skywalk
Our adventure for the day was the Glacier Skywalk, six minutes north of our lunch stop. It opened in 2014, receiving international media coverage. A cliff-edge walkway leads to a semi-circular glass-floored platform, jutting out over a 280 metre drop to the rocks below. If you suffer from vertigo you might be nervous, but it actually feels very safe on the platform. It provides astounding views of the Rocky Mountains. You almost feel that you can reach out and touch the scenery. A narrative audio guide details the natural features of the area, the local wildlife and how the Skywalk project was designed to respect the environment. It was awe-inspiring being out on the ledge and feeling so close to these famous mountains.
Stop 7: Tangle Falls
The afternoon leg of the Icefield Parkway drive is all about waterfalls. Just a minute away from the Glacier Skywalk are the beautiful Tangle Falls. You can walk up the rocks to look out from its various stages, as the water splashes by past the pine trees.
Stop 8: Sunwapta Falls
Just over half an hour north are the Sunwapta Falls. Here, fallen logs cross the crevice as the water cascades beneath.
Stop 9: Athabasca Falls
Finally, the most powerful waterfalls are the Athabasca Falls. Fed by the huge Athabasca glacier, they lie 20 minutes north west on your Icefields Parkway trip from Banff to Jasper national park. At these falls, you can clearly see how the intense force of the water has shaped the rocks, wearing them away over the years.
Stop 10: Downtown Jasper
The final destination, just 25 minutes’ drive away is the town of Jasper. If you look on a map, you can see that this quaint alpine town is even shaped in a letter ‘J’. For what to see and do in the stunningly beautiful Jasper National Park, check out my guide here.
Pick up an Icefields Parkway Driving Guide
So that’s it – your guide to driving the Icefields Parkway. We travelled from Banff to Jasper but of course your itinerary may take you on the opposite route. You can pick up an Icefields Parkway driving guide from a store or download it here to help you on your journey. We hope you enjoy the route as much as we did – and don’t forget your camera!
Next up, find out how to plan a Canada backpacking trip and the best way to cross the country, here.