The Columbia Icefields: An Ice-Bridge between Jasper and Banff

BANFF & JASPER, Alberta

Nicholas J Parkinson
Staff Writer

Snocoach in front of the Columbia Icefields, Jasper National Park, Canadian Rockies

Snocoach in front of the Columbia Icefields, Jasper National Park, Canadian Rockies

Located on the boundary of Banff and Jasper National parks, adventure seekers in the Canadian Rockies find the Athabasca Glacier on the Columbia Icefields. For many travelers, walking on a glacier is somewhere near the top of life’s to do list, somewhere between skydiving and scuba diving.

The Columbia Icefields are part of the Icefields Parkway: the scenic route that takes travelers  over 230km from Banff to Jasper along the shoulder of the Great Divide, passing alpine lakes such as Lake Louise and affording amazing views of Victoria Glacier, Athabasca Falls, Lake Peyto, Crowfoot Glacier as well as other natural wonders. On the road, attentive photographers can catch bears, deer, elk, mountain sheep and moose. The day trip leads travelers by nine glaciers, two national parks and three eco-regions.

“The Icefields Parkway is one of the most spectacular stretches of highway in the world and it is often referred to as the Wonder Trail” according to former Icefields Parkway guide and employee at Sun Dog Tours, Paul Hardy. “It’s a totally unique experience, and something everybody should do when visiting the Rockies.”

Hardy works for Sun Dog Tours, which is based out of Banff and Jasper, and offers the Columbia Icefields tour from either direction. The tour’s biggest highlight, of course, is the Athabasca Glacier, when tourists are given a chance to first explore the interpretive glacier center and then walk on the ice. The summer tour, gives tourists a chance to learn a little about glaciology as well as taste and retrieve some of the purest water in the world.

During the Columbia Icefields tour, Sun Dog Tours offers a 90min Snocoach excursion over the Athabasca Glacier. This is a special bus that takes them over the Athabasca glacier, covering but a fraction of the 150 square mile ice cap. The Columbia Icefields are considered one of the largest accumulations of ice and snow south of the Arctic Circle, and can reach depths of 2,000 feet. The Columbia Icefields feed all three, Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic oceans, making it a primordial source of water for the northern hemisphere’s ecosystem.

“It’s without a doubt the most popular attraction in the Rockies,” he says. Still for Hardy, who has been running tours in the Canadian Rockies for over 14 years, it’s not the Athacasca Glacier that sends a shiver down his spine. Rather, it is the viewpoint at Bow Summit (6,785ft) when tourists are privy to a 360 degree aerial view of the Rockies from the highest point on the Icefields Parkway.

“The viewpoint of Peyto Lake from Bow Summit is one of the most spectacular sites in all of the Rockies,” he says, reminiscing on his days as a tour guide. Sharing the beauty of the Rockies with out-of-towners is just one of the virtues of being a tour guide.

Outlook of Peyto Lake along the Icefields Parkway, Alberta, Canadian Rockies

Outlook of Peyto Lake along the Icefields Parkway, Alberta, Canadian Rockies

Over a million tourists drive the Icefields Parkway each year, and while many do it themselves, Hardy recommends a guided tour for those who want to view the majesty of the Rockies in a peaceful environment. “There are so many places to see, so let a guide show you where to go rather than driving it on your own. The little known places to stop definitely make it worthwhile to go with a guide,” he says.

The day tour, which takes some 5-6 hours of the day, runs at US$130 per person, including the 90 minute Snocoach tour over the Athabasca Glacier. Tourists can pick up on the tour from either Banff or Jasper. “People do not need a car in either Banff or Jasper,” Hardy explains.

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