A ride along the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper National Park is a once-in-a-lifetime road trip, rightly said to be one of the most beautiful journeys on the planet. If you like hiking, photography, and wildlife, then driving through Banff National Park and Jasper National Park via this highway is a must, but there’s plenty of other things to see and do besides that golden trio.
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This guide to the Icefields Parkway covers the route from Lake Louise to Jasper National Park, points of interest you may want to stop to enjoy along the way, the best views and select short hikes, other activities, seasonality notes, as well as practical tips to ensure your excursion runs as smoothly as possible (after all, you’ll be driving into the wilderness!).
What is the Icefields Parkway?
The Icefields Parkway is a scenic driving route that links Lake Louise with Jasper, Alberta; thereby connecting Banff National Park with Jasper National Park. Established in 1940, the double-lane highway stretches for 232 kilometers (144 miles) and winds through the Continental Divide, flanked by incredible views of the Rockies, its glaciers, and its named-for icefields. The most scenic drive I have been on from Banff to Jasper.
Truly, the Icefields Parkway is an attraction in itself, claimed by top travel media outlets such as Conde Nast Traveller as one of the best drives in the world. Aside from the stunning mountain views, broken by blue-toned lakes and thick forest, there’s plenty to see and do between point A and point B.
Points of Interest Along the Icefields Parkway
These points of interest are listed in chronological order as if you’re driving from Lake Louise to Jasper, with the kilometers along the route marked for you.
Lake Louise (0km – start of the route)
Lake Louise is both the name of the famous lake in Banff National Park, as well as the hamlet (settlement smaller than a village) located just off the Trans-Canada Highway. Around 40 minutes west of the town of Banff, there are some independent restaurants and boutiques, as well as the famous tea houses in the summer. If you’re traveling during the winter, don’t miss the Ice Carving Festival in January and the international skiing competitions.
The glacial lake is one of Banff’s most famous sights and is particularly known for its vibrant turquoise color, caused by the rock flour carried via meltwater from the nearby glaciers. There are a lot of activities available at the lake, including hiking, biking, canoeing, rock climbing, horseback riding, and ice skating in the winter. Neighbors Moraine Lake and Lake Agnes can also be visited easily from here as well.
Bow Lake (39km)
Along the route from Banff to Jasper is another of Banff’s great lakes is Bow Lake, which lies along the Bow River, which in turn runs through Calgary and onto the Oldman River before it spills into the ocean at Hudson Bay. Though one of the smaller lakes in the region, Bow Lake is no less beautiful, surrounded by towering peaks from the Waputik Range, especially the Crowfoot Glacier (which is said to resemble a crow’s foot).
The lake is also known for the historic Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, which was built by Jimmy Simpson (1877 – 1972), an outfitter who explored the Canadian Rockies. The authentic guesthouse is still run by the family today.
Peyto Lake & Bow Summit (44km)
Peyto Lake is another of Banff National Park’s gorgeous sapphire lakes you can see along the Banff to Jasper route (you may notice a theme emerging here!) and one of the most visited and photographed in the region.
There’s a great trail that snakes from the lake up to Bow Summit, which has stunning views and is the highest point on Icefields Parkway at 2,088 meters above sea level. The well-marked hiking path is 6.6 kilometers long and rated as moderate difficulty. If you’re lucky, you may spot some wildlife on the trail, such as beavers.
Saskatchewan River Crossing (79km)
The Saskatchewan River Crossing is located within Banff National Park, at the junction of the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) and the David Thompson Highway (Highway 11), as well as a trio of rivers: North Saskatchewan, Howse and Mistaya. The crossing gets its name from its history, as the North Saskatchewan River was crossed by travelers and fur traders in the 19th century. Today, it’s used as a starting point for tours of the Columbia Icefield.
Top tip: note that Saskatchewan River Crossing is the only place between Lake Louise to Jasper where you can get gasoline, accommodation and food, though these services are usually closed in the winter.
Weeping Wall (106km)
The Weeping Wall is a set of cliffs around 1,000 feet tall, located at the base of Cirrus Mountain, close to the border that separates Banff National Park from Jasper National Park.
During the warmer months, the cliff faces “weep” as waterfalls, due to the melting ice and snow. The main waterfall is called Teardrop. However, in the winter, the waterfalls freeze and become a popular spot for ice climbing.
Big Hill & Big Bend (115km)
Big Hill and Big Bend are pretty much self-explanatory – you’ll know when you arrive here as you’ll see the hairpin turn that winds around the peaks. This area is known for its scenic views and it’s right on the road, so there’s no need to navigate to find it. Be careful if and where you choose to stop though, as this can block traffic, so your vehicle should be completely off the road.
Parker Ridge (120km)
Parker Ridge is a 2,255-meter ridge in the North Saskatchewan River valley. It’s a popular place for hiking in the summer and ski-touring in the winter, due to its easy access along the Icefields Parkway. The hiking trail takes around two hours to complete and has an elevation of 250 meters.
Obviously from such a height, the views are fabulous, with peaks such as Cirrus Mountain, Mount Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Glacier, Mount Athabasca, Hilda Peak and Nigel Peak. However, be mindful that the trail is usually only open at certain times of the year and usually closed from late spring to early summer for environmental reasons.
Columbia Icefield (128km)
The largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains and south of the Arctic Circle, the Columbia Icefield covers 325 square kilometers from the northwestern tip of Banff National Park to the southern end of Jasper National Park. The field varies from 100 meters to 365 meters in depth, and receives up to seven meters worth of snowfall each year.
According to experts, the Columbia Icefield was formed during the Great Glaciation (also known as the Illinoisan period) between 238,000 and 126,000 BC – before homo sapiens even existed on Earth! You can learn more about the region’s ancient history at the Columbia Icefield Center and Natural History Museum, which has displays on the icefield’s expanse, three meltwater drainages (Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific), as well as alpine wildlife.
During summer, you can venture onto the glacier, whereas in winter the Columbia Icefield is a known for ski mountaineering.
Glacier Sky Walk (135km)
On your drive from Banff to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway, you must stop at the Glacier Sky Walk. Not for those with a fear of heights, the Columbia Icefield Skywalk is a one-kilometer walkway that offers a bird’s eye view of the Sunwapta Valley, some 280 meters below. The walkway leads to a glass-floor observation platform, which makes for a jelly-leg-inducing thrill! There are also interactive storytelling displays that explain more about the landscape and its history, plus audio guides in five different languages.
Tickets cost CAD24.95 for adults and CAD12.50 for children (ages five and under go for free), and the skywalk is open daily from 10.30am to 5.30pm. If the thought of the skywalk makes you nervous, you can still view the Sunwapta Valley from a nearby lookout point.
Sunwapta Falls (177km)
The Class 6 Sunwapta Falls is a pair of waterfalls located on the Sunwapta River, within Jasper National Park – just off a 600-meter access road from the Icefields Parkway.
The name Sunwapta comes from the Stoney word for “turbulent water” and the falls are at their peak during late spring, when the 18-5-meter cascades are fed by meltwater from the Athabasca Glacier.
Athabasca Falls (200km)
Located on the upper Athabasca River, only 30 kilometers from the town of Jasper, Athabasca Falls is just west of the Icefields Parkway. The Class 5 waterfall is only 23 meters tall, but the force of its water is always substantial, even in the fall when river levels are at their lowest. Athabasca Falls can be viewed and photographed from various points and there are also multiple walking trails around the area.
Jasper Town (232km – end of the route)
The end of the Icefields Parkway (or the start, depending on which direction you go in), the Municipality of Jasper was established in 1813, more than a century before Jasper National Park was established (in 1907).
The townsite was further developed by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in 1911 and became a stop along the Canadian Northern Railway in 1912 under the name Fitzhugh. The town was renamed after the former fur trade house, Jasper House, which was located in the area.
You may also be interested to learn that an internment camp for Ukrainian “enemy aliens” was set up in Jasper’s Dominion Park in 1916, during World War II.
Today, Jasper is known as a relaxed, unpretentious town and the perfect gateway to exploring the natural wonders of Jasper National Park, no matter the season. There are plenty of drinking and dining options, festivals and events that celebrate the heritage of the mountains, plus outdoor adventure from hiking to golf, skiing to ice canyon walks.
READ NEXT: FOUR DAY JASPER NATIONAL PARK ITINERARY
Tips for Driving Banff to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway
Here are some tips for your drive from Banff to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway. Aside from scenic stops along the route, you’ll need some practical information about taking on this road trip. Here are a few important things you need to know:
Fill up your tank
Fill up on gas before you leave, as there’s only one service station along the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper at Saskatchewan River Crossing, and it’s seasonal (closed in the winter).
No Cell Phone Coverage along the Icefields Parkway
Driving along the Icefield Parkway you’re in the middle of the mountains, therefore note that cell coverage is very weak if existent at all. Plan ahead and prepare as best you can.
Treat the Landscape & Wildlife with Respect
Of course, it goes without saying that visitors to the national parks of Banff and Jasper should respect the natural environment and leave nothing but footprints. The parks are filled with more than 50 species of mammal (including grizzly bears and black bears) and 260 species of bird.
Sometimes wildlife behavior can be unpredictable, especially during mating season or when females are with young. Always stick to established trails to avoid trampling habitats and give any wildlife you encounter plenty of space – likely they’ll be giving you a wide berth too!
When to Go
The Icefields Parkway can be traversed at any time of year, but as you may expect, the experience is vastly different from season to season. Always check ahead as to what is open and available, as some attractions and activities are seasonal, and book accommodation in advance of your trip.
Although the winter months are chilly, the Narnia-like landscapes are a real treat and you can enjoy pastimes such as show shoeing or skiing. Some of the best places for trying out these snow sports are Bow Glacier Falls (warning: this area has challenging terrain), Peyto Lake, Nigel Pass and Valley of the Five Lakes.
Cycling Tour Along the Icefield Parkway
Driving isn’t the only way to navigate the scenic Icefields Parkway; you can also take in sweeping mountain views on a cycling tour. The cycling experience takes four days, so you have plenty of time to explore at various places along the highway, plus you’ll stay at rustic resorts and lakeside lodges.
Other Things to Know About the Icefields Parkway From Banff to Jasper
This guide is an introduction to driving from Banff to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway, though there’s plenty more to learn, especially if you have a special interest niche you’re looking to explore during your trip.
Did you find this guide helpful for planning your road trip from Banff to Jasper? Or have you conquered the Icefields Parkway already and have some top tips or additional off-the-beaten-path spots to recommend? Let us know in the comments below.
Planning a trip to Alberta? Check out these other blog posts to help you plan the ultimate trip:
- Things to Do In Jasper National Park in the Summer
- Four Day Jasper National Park Itinerary
- Top Things to Do at Banff National Park
- The Crimson Jasper
- Things to do in Lake Louise
- Must See Lakes in Banff National Park
- Stay at the Elk + Avenue Hotel
- Scenic Moraine Lake Hikes
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