Find out the best Icefields Parkway stops on a Banff National Park to Jasper National Park road trip using this one-day itinerary.
There are many famous road trips in North America — Highway 1 in California, the Florida Keys, Route 66, and, of course, the Icefields Parkway in Alberta, Canada. The first time I heard about the Icefields Parkway, I thought someone was referring to that Ice Truckers show on the History Channel, but as I began to plan our Canadian Rockies vacation itinerary, I soon learned more.
While the Icefields Parkway can get pretty snowy in the winter, it is by no means that extreme. The Icefields Parkway, officially Highway 93, stretches for 146 miles from Lake Louise in Banff National Park to the town of Jasper in Jasper National Park. While that sounds very far, it is possible to cover the best Icefields Parkway stops in just one day, as long as you plan ahead!
Traveling along this two-lane highway you will cut through the staggering peaks of the rugged Canadian Rockies and pass by more than 100 glaciers and numerous glacier-fed lakes of such a stunning blue you won’t be able to trust your eyes. It is easy to see why it is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the world.
Getting to the Icefields Parkway
While you can technically drive this Icefields Parkway road trip in three to four hours, you will want to get an early start and leave yourself a full day to have time to enjoy the stops along the way. The road is well-kept and has wide shoulders, making it possible for even large RVs to use. However, you need to share the road with bicycle tour groups that are powering through those high passes.
The Icefields Parkway drive runs from Lake Louise and continues 232 km along the Continental Divide to the town of Jasper. This Icefields Parkway itinerary assumes you are starting in Lake Louise, as that is the most common direction, but if you are flying into Edmonton and starting in Jasper, just follow this in reverse.
If you are leaving from Banff, you could take the Trans-Canada Highway for the faster route if you are trying to do it all in a day trip or take the Bow Valley Parkway from Banff to Lake Louise for a more scenic route if you are overnighting in Lake Louise and you are visiting in the summer months.
Just keep in mind that in 2022, Parks Canada started a three-year project where the eastern section of Bow Valley Parkway will be closed to public traffic from May 1 to June 25 and September 1 to 30 from Johnston Canyon to the Fireside Day Use area.
Along the way, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for black bears. A popular stop between Banff and Lake Louise on the Bow Valley Parkway is Johnston Canyon. Like many stops along the Icefields Parkway, this is one of the most popular attractions in Banff National Park, and the parking lot fills up early. It is a short hike but it offers amazing views of the Lower and Upper Falls. In the winter months you can try the Johnston Canyon Icewalk.
Once you get to Lake Louise, you will then pick up the Icefields Parkway in Lake Louise. Along the route, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. Closer to Jasper, you are apt to see elk grazing by the road, especially in the evening.
Tips for Driving the Icefields Parkway
Before you start your Icefields Parkway drive, there are some things you should know first:
- Be sure to gas up before you leave Lake Louise as there is only one gas station between there and Jasper, and you will pay a premium if you need to get gas there.
- Bring along snacks and refillable water bottles. You will pass a few places where you can get something to eat, like The Lodge at Bow Lake (formerly the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge), The Crossing Resort by Mt. Wilson, Icefields Discovery Centre, and the Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge, but these are few and far between.
- Expect very little cell service between Lake Louise and Jasper so download your music and any offline maps you might need before you leave. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the scenery along one of the most scenic drives through the Rocky Mountains. You can connect to WiFi at the Icefields Discovery Centre.
- Keep in mind that many of the popular attractions have small parking lots. Getting an early start is important in finding a spot in these lots.
- If you are returning to Banff after visiting Jasper, you can always split up the stops into two separate days and hit the second half on your return trip.
- You will need to purchase a National Park pass before driving the Icefields Parkway. These can be purchased at the gate in Banff or at visitor centers in Banff, Lake Louise, or Jasper. The quickest and easiest way is to purchase a pass online before your trip, and if you plan on visiting multiple National Parks is to invest in the Parks Canada Discovery Pass.
- If you want to visit any of the paid attractions along the Icefields Parkway, such as the Columbia Icefield Skywalk or the Columbia Icefield Ice Explorer Tour.
- Check road conditions, traffic, and attraction closures at http://www.pc.gc.ca/.
- Dress warm and in layers, wear comfortable hiking shoes, and bring bear spray on any hikes and even short walks.
- Charge up your camera and phone batteries because you are going to want to take a LOT of pictures! It may also help to bring a rain cover for your camera and a tripod if you have one to take pictures of the waterfalls.
Must-See Icefields Parkway Stops
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These are the best stops on the Icefields Parkway that you can fit into a one-day itinerary or spread out into two days if you are driving up and back. I’ll reiterate once again that it pays to get an early start to beat the crowds. You will need the extra time if you are visiting the Columbia Icefield.
You will begin your journey on the Icefields Parkway in Lake Louise. If you are staying overnight, I would recommend the charming Post Hotel & Spa (a Relais & Chateaux property) or the stunning Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
I would recommend spending at least one night in Lake Louise so that you have time to see some of Lake Louise’s attractions. Many people will pay an arm-and-a-leg to rent one of those iconic red canoes and paddle around Lake Louise for the ultimate photo opportunity. This glacial lake is the main attraction and if you want to save your paddling time until you get to Pyramid Lake in Jasper, you will save yourself some cash.
The other popular spot is Moraine Lake. It used to be that if you wanted to get a spot in the parking lot, you had to arrive before 5:00 am. Starting in 2023, Moraine Lake Road is closed to private vehicles so to get there you will need to either take a shuttle or book a bus reservation with Moraine Lake Bus Company.
If you are staying at one of the hotels by Lake Louise or Lake Moraine, you can take the Lake Connector Shuttle (reservations still needed and proof of hotel stay). Otherwise, visitors can book a spot on the Park and Ride Connector Shuttle from the Lake Louise Ski Resort. Reservations are required and will sell out very early when they open for reservations in late April, although about 60% of reservations will be released at 8:00 am, 48 hours in prior to the departure date and time.
Bow Lake and Crowfoot Glacier
After leaving Lake Louise, drive north for approximately one hour, and on the left, you will soon see your first stop, Crowfoot Glacier Viewpoint and Bow Lake. There are a couple of small parking lots where you can stop and take a short walk and follow a steep path down to the turquoise lake.
If you want to take the hike to see Bow Glacier Falls, I would recommend driving to the far end of the lake and parking at the Lodge at Bow Lake. This moderate hike is a 5.5-mile round trip. You can also pop into the Cafe at the Lodge.
After you head back to the highway, continue on for another 10 minutes until you see the signs for Peyto Lake on the left (when heading northbound.) Peyto Lake’s distinctive fox shape is one of the most iconic sites in the Canadian Rockies. It gets its beautiful color from the water that runs off the Peyto Glacier, part of the Wapta Icefield.
The Government recently spent nearly $3 million to expand the parking lots and improve the facilities and Peyto Lake, Bow Summit Trail, and the viewpoint are now reopened for visitors.
A ten-minute uphill walk will bring you to the viewing platform overlooking the famous fox-shaped Peyto Lake. The viewing platform can be extremely crowded, but if you can get into the corner of the lower platform, you should be able to get an unobstructed view of the lake.
If that doesn’t work, you can take one of the trails before you reach the viewpoint and walk down to an opening with an unobstructed view, just mind your step as the path is steep and there are a lot of loose rocks, making it slippery. There is also a second, unmarked viewpoint if you continue on past the first.
It is possible to hike down to Peyto Lake in about 30-45 minutes, which is something very few people do (this stop is popular with bus tours.) However, if you want to hit all these stops in one day, you probably won’t have time for the round-trip hike to the lakefront. Plan to spend about an hour at this stop.
The parking lot for Mistaya Canyon is also on the southbound side of the highway (on the left when driving north from Lake Louise to Jasper), about 25 minutes past Peyto Lake. The parking lot isn’t very large so I think the big busses skip this stop, meaning there are fewer people there too.
From the parking lot, it is about a one-kilometer hike down to the canyon (which means back uphill on the return.) At the canyon, you will cross over a bridge that spans the Mistaya River. From the bridge, you can see how the water has carved its way through the stone as the river flows from Peyto Lake and later meets the North Saskatchewan River.
You can then walk left or right along the rim of the canyon. Take a few minutes to walk down and sit on the rocks to observe the powerful flow of the river.
The Crossing resort at Saskatchewan River Crossing is located about halfway between Banff and Jasper, at the junction of Highway 93 and 11. This is where you will find a gas service station, a general store, a cafe, and a restaurant, as well as clean bathrooms. This is one of your few chances to get a bite to eat, fill up on gas, and grab some souvenirs.
On your way to the Columbia Icefield, you will travel along a hairpin curve known as Big Bend along Big Hill. If you want to stop here and take a photo of the road below, be very careful and make sure your car is completely off the road. There is limited space for turnouts here for a quick photo stop.
Not long after The Crossing, you will enter Jasper National Park. Just 45 minutes north of the Crossing you will come to the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. This is the home base for exploring the Athabasca Glacier and the various related activities.
The visitor center offers a restaurant, cafe, bathrooms, and a small exhibit/visitor center with a movie about glaciers. It is also where you can sign up for some of the excursions offered by Pursuit Banff. They offer two types of experiences, the Glacier Ice Explorer and the Glacier Skywalk, which can be combined into a Glacier Adventure ticket.
If you are interested in either of these activities, I would highly recommend you book a timed ticket in advance or you may arrive to find them sold out for the day, or you may need to wait two hours before the next availability.
The Glacier Ice Explorer tour uses large glacier trucks to take you up onto the Athabasca Glacier. You will then have 30 minutes to walk on ice that is over 1,000 feet thick! Just make sure you wear the appropriate footgear and that you stay within the designated boundary. It is extremely dangerous to walk on a glacier without a certified guide.
From the glacier or Discovery Centre, it is a short shuttle ride to the Glacier Skywalk, a glass-floored observation platform with floats 919 feet over the Sunwapta Valley. From here you can view the glaciers and rugged mountain peaks in the distance.
The only downside is that it is only accessible via a bus from the glacier or the Icefields Discovery Centre. So waiting for your timed ticket and then waiting for the next return bus can really eat into your day for a stop where you will likely only spend 15 minutes on site.
Tangle Creek Falls
After the Icefields Discovery Centre, you may be tired or running out of time and want to continue straight to Jasper. You can certainly do this and hit the remaining stops along the Icefields Parkway on your return trip. However, if you only have a day, try to squeeze in some quick stops at a few more waterfalls.
Five minutes further up the road from the Discovery Centre, you will come to Tangle Creek Falls. When traveling north, the falls are on your right (northbound side) but the parking lot is across the street on the left (southbound side) so be careful crossing the street.
This tiered waterfall is quite close to the road but if you want to climb up to the upper falls, you will need to scramble over some rocks so take care and watch your feet.
Another 35 minutes north will bring you to the turn-off for Sunwapta Falls, which is halfway between the Columbia Icefield and Jasper. The Upper Falls are just a five-minute walk from the parking lot. The Lower Falls are a little further (about 10 minutes) and worth the walk.
Be sure to bring your bear spray, even if you are just taking a short walk. I visited Sunwapta Falls with a local photographer and he told me that he once saw a bear walk along the path very close to the parking lot. Also, be careful where you look for those photo ops. The rocks get very slippery in the mist from the falls and you shouldn’t step beyond the barriers and take any risks just to get a good photo.
If you are hungry, you can always fuel up at the deli at the Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge.
Twenty minutes past Sunwapta Falls will bring you to your next stop, Athabasca Falls. This is also a popular stop for all the bus tours as well so expect crowds! These powerful falls have carved through the rock, similar to what you find at Mistaya Canyon.
There are different viewing platforms where you can capture some great pictures of the falls. If those are too crowded, you can also follow the signs to view the Lower Canyon. This walk will give you a great view of the Athabasca River and you may even get to see a scenic float tour going by.
After Athabasca Falls, the scenic mountain town of Jasper is only 25 minutes away. You can celebrate reaching your destination with a great meal at one of the restaurants in town.
There are many places to stay in town but we enjoyed a comfortable and affordable stay at Jasper House Bungalows.
Plan to stay a few days because there are so many things to do in Jasper. Be sure to at least hit the highlights like a boat cruise on Maligne Lake to Spirit Island, a hike in Maligne Canyon, and canoeing on Pyramid Lake.
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If you are planning on driving the Icefields Parkway, you may also want to look at these other related articles for Jasper and Banff: