We were sitting having breakfast in Banff and got talking to a couple who had just driven down from Jasper. As we were raving about how beautiful Banff was, the guy piped up with “If you think this is pretty, you ain’t seen nothing yet”. He was most certainly right! We have driven some amazing roads on our travels, Route 1 in California and the Beartooth Highway in Wyoming/Montana were stunning. The Icefields Parkway that links Banff and Jasper National Parks blows anything I’ve seen before out of the water.
Every turn in the road brings another turquoise glacial lake, towering mountain or vast glacier. I always feel like being amongst the mountains puts you in your place, surrounded by enormous natural wonders makes you feel very small and insignificant. The Columbia Icefield did this in a way I’ve never felt before. The icefield is 374km sq, meaning that if you took every person currently on the North American continent and stood them on the icefield, they would still have 1 metre sq of space each.
On our way up to Jasper we looked into options of actually getting ourselves on the ice. Unless you’re very experienced in this sort of hiking you should stay very clear of walking on a glacier by yourself due to how unstable they can be. Although the Columbia Icefield is vast, there is only one of its many glaciers that can be accessed easily and that’s Athabasca. Most people take the sno-coach option which is a specially designed bus that almost looks a bit like a long tank. It takes you up to a flat area on Athabasca glacier, you get out for a while to take pictures and then mosey on back. Aside from the environmental implications it’s a great way for less able people to have an amazing experience.
For an extra $20 we found that you can hike from the base of Athabasca with an experienced guide and spend 3 hours on the glacier. This option suited us perfectly and we had the most brilliant time learning about glacier formation and how they are being affected by climate change. Plus, it gave me the opportunity to tick a major priority off my bucket list for a fraction of the price it would be in New Zealand. To give you an idea of size, the ice we’re standing on in the above picture is thick enough to cover the Eiffel Tower!
My favourite photo of this area is this one of Paul at the bottom of the Athabasca glacier, it really puts the scale into perspective. The scary thing is, at the current rate of global warming this enormous glacier probably won’t be here for our grandchildren to see. Every winter the snowfall adds 15 metres to the glacier but the summer melt results in 30 metres disappearing so overall the glacier is retreating by 15 metres per year! The photo of Athabasca at the top of this page was taken from the Icefields Visitor Centre, the toe of the glacier would have been at the centre’s front door in the 1800s which gives you an idea of how quickly it’s retreating.
After the most incredible experiences and driving around the Parkway slack-jawed and awestruck we had to move on. With half the visitor count of Banff and three times the amount of wildlife, Jasper was next on the agenda…
If you’re interested in seeing the rest of my photos from the Parkway you can view them here