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Review: Icefields Parkway



"One of the most beautiful drives in the world" - but not in our book....

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2493 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon

  • Jun 2009
  • Husband

139 people found this review helpful

This is often described as one of the most beautiful drives in the world. I know this is heresy and there will be howls of protest but to be honest we felt this didn’t live up to expectation. The weather was dull and cloudy with a lot of haze which didn’t help. We had also driven Crowsnest Pass, Roger's Pass, Kicking Horse Pass, so perhaps we were getting a bit blasé by the time we drove this.

I had a leaflet which gave distances between all the sights along the parkway but even keeping a close check on distance we still managed to miss many. A lot of the smaller sites are not signed or signed so late that you are past the parking area before you realise.

There are also a lot of the trees – very often there is a stunning view but you can’t see it for the trees….

It took us quite a while to get used to the red trees. Much of the forest is old mature forest as over the last 50 years there have been major efforts to suppress and control forest fires. It is now realised this has caused problems as heat is needed to crack open the resin sealed pine cones to release the seeds so they can germinate. There is less ground cover in old forest, so less food and fewer animals. The pine beetle population however has boomed and is now a major pest as it attacks older trees. In the first summer the needles turn deep red – the trees stand out against the green and it looks like autumn colours. The following year the needles fall off. The dead trees are referred to as the ‘grey’ forest as that is the colour of the dead, standing wood. Seeds won’t germinate because of above… There are huge swathes of grey forest covering the hillsides.

We had allowed 2 days for the drive having booked an overnight at The Crossing Resort at Saskatchewan Crossing – a large, rather dour place with basic motel style accommodation, restaurant and petrol. It didn’t sparkle but was clean and comfortable although expensive.

This was worth while as it meant we could park up and let the rain showers blow past before continuing with the drive. It also meant we had plenty of time and didn’t need to watch the clock.

Driving from Radium Hot Springs, the first view of Castle Mountain is superb. We had done the Johnson Canyon Walk the previous morning ( see separate review). Like all good tourists we drove up to LAKE LOUISE. By 9am the car park was busy and the lakeside throng with tourists. We did the short climb to Fairview lookout. It is shorter and and we thought it would be quieter than Agnes Tea House walk, which is mentioned in all the guide books. It was certainly quieter as we only saw 2 other people. It was good exercise with a good view back to Fairmont Chateau but not much else.

MORAINE LAKE was quieter but by midday parking was getting difficult. We admired and decided to push on. We had done the ‘must see‘ views but another time wouldn’t bother. I felt they are overrated compared with other less popular areas like Waterton Lakes National Park .

We missed the Herbert Lake Viewpoint which was not signed until you were on top of it.

We parked by Num-ti-Jah Lodge and did the short trail to BOW LAKE. There were signs at the start of the trail warning that a grizzly bear had been seen earlier in the week. We made plenty of noise as we walked to give any bears warning of our approach and time to escape. We had lost the sun and with it all the colour in the landscape. The rocks were a muddy brown colour and the water a deep threatening turquoise. There was scree at the bottom of the slopes and still some snow on the tops of the mountains.

We went into the gift shop at Num-ti-Jah Lodge for a cup of tea to warm us up. The tea was serve yourself in a plastic beaker but the gift shop was reasonable.

Just beyond is BOW SUMMIT which at 2088m is the highest pass in Canada.

Our next stop was PEYTO LAKE. This is one of the main sights on the drive. There is a huge car park and it is a steep climb up through the trees to the lookout over the lake. White pasque flowers were just coming into bloom along the trail. There was no sun and it was quite hazy making photography difficult. although the lake was the deep turquoise colour in all the photos. The atmosphere was rather spoilt by a noisy group of tourists.

Our final stop on the first day was for MISTAYA CANYON. There is a pull off at the side of the road and the canyon is reached by a short walk down an old logging road to a bridge across the river which looks down into the deep canyon with pot holes and natural arches.

Next morning started off bight – too bright as it didn’t last long and we had a day of sunshine and heavy showers. Our first stop was for the WEEPING WALL. This is a 600m cliff which is streaked by waterfalls fed by the melting snow on Cirrus Mountain. It must all have melted as by the end of June it wasn’t weeping very hard.

We missed the unsigned car park at the bottom of the ‘BIG BEND’ but did pull in to the small lay by at the top which had good views down the valley to the south and across to the bare mountain sides across the valley. There were several opportunistic ravens waiting to be fed.

The sun had come out, so we stopped to take photographs at PARKER’S RIDGE. We were seeing a lot more snow on the tops of the mountains now and the Ridge Trail was still closed.

We gave ATHABASCA GLACIER a miss. We had lost the sun and the cloud was well down. The car park was full and overflowing with other tourists and was horrible. I also have very mixed views about the sno-mobile trip onto the glacier. I feel we do enough damage to our environment without this. There was a steady stream of people walking across the morraine to the glacier snout. This is a long and soul destroying walk. Close to glacier snouts often appear dirty and unatractive. Glaciers are at their best from a distance. If you want to get close to a glacier Mt Cavell in Jasper is much better.

As we began to drop down the Sunwapta valley we lost the cloud and the sun came out again. This is an attractive stretch of road to drive. We pulled into an unmarked lay by for a break and quite by chance found the ‘BUBBLING SPRINGS’. We couldn’t find out any information about these. The water is cold and a pale blue milky colour. As the water bubbles up out of the pinkish mud it makes beautiful patterns.

Next stop was SUNWAPTA FALLS which is a short drive off the highway. The sun was still out. It is a short walk along a good path through the trees to the upper falls where the river drops down into a canyon. The path continues dropping down through the trees for another kilometer downstream to the lower falls. These get fewer visitors and are well worth the extra walk.

We turned off the Icefields Parkway to pick up Highway 93A to Jasper, stopping off at ATHABASCA FALLS. It was a glorious evening. From the car park there is a short wheelchair friendly path to a viewing area of the falls. Trails then drop down beside the falls to the river below.

After this it was a quick drive to Jasper, our next stop.

There is a map of the Icefields Parkway with points of interest here:

There is a detailed description of the drive here:

Our pictures of the Icefields Parkway are here:

This was part of a five week trip to Canada. There is an overall report of the trip here

I have written a series of detailed reports for some of the places visited for Silver Travel.

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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.

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