The Icefields Parkway is one of Canada’s most scenic drive. It serves as a link between Lake Louise and the city of Jasper and takes roughly around three hours of drive time without stops. However, why wouldn’t you stop? Every mile you cover, always something will make you clamor for your camera.
Emerald Lake is one of the many attractions on the parkway.
A week of exploring and gathering fantastic photos along the way through this epic road is about how much time I spent. I wished I had more time because I wanted to Kayak to Spirit Island but alas, was not able to. I did come home with many photographs from the journey and hope to go back someday to catch a sunrise on Spirit Island.
Maligne Lake is where Spirit Island is
What is it like driving like on the Icefields Parkway?
In the summer, lots of RV’s, tour buses and tons of other vehicles frequent the road so traffic can be congested. The top speed is capped at 90 kilometers an hour with some places capped at 50 kilometers an hour.
There is wildlife all over the place and you can even see them crossing the street so proceed with caution. Just scan right out your window and you are bound to see an elk, goat, and even grizzly bears.
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How much time should you spend on the Icefields Parkway?
This varies from person to person. I personally spent almost a week there while sleeping in the car. The reason is that I like to shoot photographs during the Golden Hour and I am always trying to catch as much sunrise and sunrises as I can.
You don’t wanna miss Vermillion Lakes and Mount Rundle
For an ordinary person/family, you can probably see the best highlights around 6-9 hours from start to finish. There are many pullouts with scenic attractions along the way so you have to pick your poison.
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What are the conditions of the road?
If you have driven through any decent U.S. highway that is what you can expect in Canada. There is not much difference save for some signs written in French. It has wild shoulders for making quick stops and rarely any potholes to be found.
When passing through this intense landscape with two high mountain passes it is a lot better than you would expect. Nearly all the street is easy to drive, with just a few regions of steep grade or switchbacks. Large RV’s do not have a problem navigating it.
When is the best time to check it out?
The peak time is from July through August. I visited around the latter part of September so I did not have to deal with a lot of tourists. The temperature is already cooling during my stay, which I prefer over the heat. Winter comes early and stays late in this section of the Rockies, snowfall inducing winter driving conditions can happen by mid-October and can last well into the month of May.
All services on the parkway for example restaurants; lodging and the only gas station have been closed from November to April. If you would like to experience the Athabasca Glacier Ice Explorer experience, it operates from around April to October.
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What about the weather and temperature?
In alpine places like this, the weather can change drastically many times during the day and the temperature change from day to day can be extreme. The higher you go in altitude the colder the temperature will be. I always recommend bringing layers of clothes to shed or wear as needed and wear comfortable shoes.
The spring and fall weather can always surprise you; these times may see heavy snowfall out of the blue. The summer will have many dry and sunny days, but you can experience rain as well as light snow at higher elevations. One of the months from November to April can be expected to have temperatures below freezing and a great deal of snow.
Should you go back and forth from one end and back?
I did and it was great! I recommend it because it is very easy to miss some cool spots not easily noticed on one side of the parkway. It is possible to stop at places of interest along the way and hit the ones that you missed on the way back.
Moraine Lake is one of the first things you can check out
The scenery is magnificent and distinct in both directions. You can either make the return trip in a full day or stay for a night or two at either end in Jasper or Lake Louise, returning from the opposite direction.
What about fuel?
Gas is very expensive because of the premium of being in such a remote location. Fill up your tank before you get to Banff, Jasper, or Lake Louise. There is only a couple of gas stations along the Icefields Parkway so plan accordingly.
The Transcanadian Rail
What about food?
If you can bring it from the outside do it. Most restaurants are not cheap and just plain overpriced in my opinion. Not to mention crappy. Bringing your own food, you can have a glorious meal and have a great view of a mountain or a glaciated lake over boring restaurant walls.
If you really insist. There are only a couple of restaurants on the parkway. The restaurants in Saskatchewan Crossing, in the Icefields Visitor Center, and in Lake Louise.
What about accommodation?
I went bare cheap. I had a tent that I was going to use but I found sleeping in the car with the seat down more convenient. Paying over $100 a night for a motel was not an option. Besides, the majority of the accommodation is nothing glamorous, only plain motel style rooms.
However, if you are all for comfort, there are some cottage-style accommodations in Jasper like the Becker Chalets. If you have an RV. There is RV parking in Mosquito Creek, Waterfowl Lake, Rampart Creek, Wilcox Creek and the Columbia Icefields. None of them has electricity or sewer services for RV’s, so plan to be self-explanatory during your stay.
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The campsites closer to the cities are available for reservations, like the ones near Jasper and Lake Louise. Expect them to be completely booked in the summer, you want to plan.
Don’t want to drive don’t have a car?
There are Brewster and Sun Dog Tours who provide shuttles and excursions along the parkway from Banff to Jasper.
What is it like driving in the winter?
The parkway is not salted and is not cleared down to the pavement as with other highways in Alberta, it stays as compact snow. There is not any maintenance done in any respect from 3:30 pm to 7 am from November to April.
It closes from a couple of hours occasionally for avalanche control for a couple of days during bad snowstorms. There is no mobile phone reception to phone for help and very light traffic during the winter season. All lodging, restaurants and the only gas station have been closed during the winter.
What about bears, are they going to maul me?
Well, yes if you are being an idiot. Grizzly is indeed present in the area and so are moose and elk – both are equally dangerous. Don’t hand feed any animals or feed them at all. Keep them wild and free.
Wildlife is easy to spot along the Icefields Parkway
Keep a reasonable distance from the animals and exercise fine judgment and you should be fine. I myself had a grizzly encounter. The bear woke me while I was sleeping in the car one morning – it was collecting berries along the road. I left it alone to do its thing and it left me alone.