Gravity-defying glaciers. Mirror lakes. Towering mountains. Tumbling waterfalls. Grazing elk. Is it really any wonder it takes all day to drive the mere 230km from Lake Louise to Jasper?
The Icefields Parkway, aka Highway 93, links the two towns in the Canadian Rockies, and is often cited as one of the most scenic drives in the world. With two lanes of tarmac in both directions, plentiful parking sites and a speed limit of 90kmh, the route is made for rubberneckers.
The parkway begins 2km outside of Lake Louise, a picturesque town in its own right and location of the renowned Fairmont property, the Chateau Lake Louise. The hotel, a grand old dame of Rockies opulence dating back to 1911, boasts a glorious site at one end of Lake Louise, with the Victoria Glacier suspended like a boa around the neck of Victoria Mountain at the far end.
Our road trip from Calgary starts on the right foot – checking in after detours to Banff and Emerald Lake, we are upgraded to a Lakeview Room, offering an unimpeded view of lake and glacier. We put the good luck down to a combination of being Presidents Club members and travelling between seasons, and drink to it over a dinner of beautifully prepared steak, fish and calamari in the saloon, one of the hotel’s less elegant dining options.
We set off for Jasper after a morning walk alongside the mirror-smooth lake and a massive breakfast, taken in the ground floor Poppy Brasserie where picture windows afford another stunning view of the lake.
It’s an awe-inspiring drive along Highway 93. Much of the road, set about 2000m above sea level, follows river valleys, with snow-capped mountains towering past the 3000m mark on either side. The mountains’ feet are swathed in dark green conifer forest, but the tree line peters out to reveal cliffs of weather-worn granite, the slopes streaked with waterfalls and raw scars from rockfalls.
The awe really sets in about 30km out of Lake Louise, triggered by Crowfoot Glacier above Bow Lake. It’s the kind of panorama that makes you fully appreciate the convenience of the many pull-over sites alongside the road – a circumstance that doesn’t go unnoticed by the ravens, who hop around as soon as the car pulls up in the hope of scraps.
Crowfoot Glacier has lost one of its three toes and is still shrinking, but continues to impress as it reigns over the valley. There are more than 100 glaciers along the route, but this lakeside setting and its proximity to the road makes Crowfoot one of the most impressive.
About halfway along the route, Banff National Park ends and Jasper National Park begins. The two parks are UNESCO World Heritage sites, totalling more than 17,000sq km and drawing literally millions of visitors each year.
Straddling the parks’ border is the Columbia Icefield, a massive shelf of ice covering more than 300sq km, feeding six glaciers and bordered by some of Canada’s highest mountains. The icefields, supplied by 7m of snow each year, feed rivers that run into the Pacific, Indian and Arctic oceans, and is one of only two such features in the world. The retreat of these glaciers is a concern for those who rely on that meltwater, but for casual visitors, they simply amaze.
On the glacier
To get a closer look, we pull in to the Icefield Centre, 130km from Lake Louise. It is a seasonal attraction offering the chance to walk on the Athabasca Glacier, Canada’s most visited glacier. The icefield buses ferry passengers on to the moraine, an area of rocky debris left behind as the glacier retreats. There, especially built transports capable of negotiating 20 degree slopes – the dirt road down on to the glacier is 18 degrees – make the journey up on to the ice. We’re lucky, and the wind blows just long enough to give us a taste of the icy breath more usually sweeping down from the ice sheet before abating, allowing us to enjoy a sunny 30-minute stroll on the cleared surface where blue ice sits beneath a frosting of snow.
In the interpretive centre, paintings show how the glacier has retreated since the first arrival of Europeans armed with easels. Currently, the Athabasca Glacier is up to 300m deep and about 6km long, but is 1.5km shorter than it was about 125 years ago.
Fuelled by coffee from the cafeteria, we drive on and find that, even in late October, when the glacier and snow-melt fed waterways are ebbing in the approach to winter, waterfalls at sites such as Tangle Creek and Bridal Veil are still worth pulling over for. At Tangle Creek, where a section of the falls are within easy walking distance of the road, the water’s edge is rimed with ice and icicles hang from the cliff.
About the 150km mark, the avalanche warning signs are given added import by a massive rock slide at Jonas Creek. A scar runs through the forest, and a wide tumble of jagged boulders as large as motorcycles covers the ground beside the highway.
A stop opposite Mt Kerkeslin is nicknamed Goats and Glaciers for its clifftop vantage over the Athabasca River and frequent sightings of mountain goats. Sadly, the goats are coy during our visit, and even at Jasper, where a herd has made its home, we see none. Elk and deer are plentiful, however, with a small herd of elk grazing alongside the road at the Jasper Park Lodge when we arrive. Caribou warning signs alongside the road and bear-proof bins point to other wildlife we aren’t lucky enough to spot.
Athabasca Falls, about 200km from our starting point, is the ideal place to stretch our legs. The river has cut its way through the rock to make a long, thin gorge, chiselling amazing shapes and holes in the cliffs made accessible by an array of paths and stairways. On the rocky beach where the river discharges once more into a lake, visitors have made numerous inukshuks: monuments of piled stones first erected by indigenous tribes to mark trails and hunting grounds. The symbol is common in the tourist shops as a symbol of safe travel and memorable locations.
The falls mark a junction; we turn off to follow 93A, a dual carriageway running on the western side and closer to the river. Our hopes of seeing goats or other wildlife on this quieter stretch of road are dashed, but the scenery remains impressive as the road twists alongside the river.
We reach Jasper in time to take in the sunset from the Old Fort Hill – the steep walk is worth it. We pause for elk crossing the road, then head on to the Fairmont’s Jasper Park Lodge, which boasts a picturesque lakeside site and one of Canada’s most highly regarded golf courses.
Our cabin view room is furnished in standard hotel fashion, but housed inside a long log cabin-style wing with common front veranda and private rear balcony. Water birds, including Canada geese, patrol the lawns.
The site dates back to 1915, and numerous mounted trophy heads and rough wood furniture reflects the resort’s early history in that era of expansion. The food, however, is thoroughly modern and sourced as locally as possible. Dinner includes salmon and pavlova.
The next day, we extend our parkways definition to include the 30km drive out to Maligne Lake, a postcard site where the canoes have been beached for the winter – one left right way up has its floor half-filled with ice despite the warm day. The speed limit has been reduced to 30kmh due to concerns for the safety of wildlife; it’s a relaxing drive out and back along the snaking road, broken by scenic strolls at Maligne Canyon and Medicine Lake.
And then it’s time to return, back along Route 93, pausing for a lunch of gourmet hot dogs at Saskatchewan Crossing and revisiting many of the sites encountered on the previous day. Still no goats, but no less entrancing the second time around, and truly sublime.