Driving the Icefield Parkway

Though the Icefield Parkway, the highway between Jasper and Banff in the Canadian Rockies, is only 288 km (179 miles) long, it can easily take all day or longer to travel because there are so many amazing places to see along the way. Come along with us and I’ll show you a few of the places that we stopped on our most recent trip.

Athabasca Falls

Approximately 30 km (19 miles) south of the town of Jasper, Athabasca Falls is neither the highest or the widest waterfall in the Canadian Rockies but it is thought to be the most powerful. The falls can be safely viewed and photographed from various viewpoints on both sides of the river. The parking lot is on the north side, but be sure to cross the pedestrian bridge and view the falls from the south side as well. The morning that we were there, the sun was in just the right position to create a vibrant rainbow in the gorge below the crest of the falls when viewed from that side.

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Sunwapta Falls

Another 25 km (15.5 miles) down the Icefield Parkway is beautiful Sunwapta Falls. Sunwapta means “turbulent water” in the language of the Stoney First Nations people.

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Columbia Icefield

Another 49 km (30 miles) southward brings you to the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre at the foot of the Athabasca Glacier. Entering the Discovery Centre was like visiting West Edmonton Mall at Christmas time or a Tokyo subway station at rush hour as tourists from around the world crowded in to purchase tickets to the various tours and adventures in the area! If you visit, however, descend the staircase to the lower level where things are a lot quieter. There you will find a fascinating display of historical photos and a diorama that provides an excellent overview of the entire ice field.

Straddling the Continental Divide along the Alberta/British Columbia border as well as Jasper and Banff National Parks, the Columbia Icefield is the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains and one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world. Meltwater drains to three oceans – the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Arctic via three great river systems – the Saskatchewan, the Columbia, and the Athabasca.

The most accessible part of the Columbia Icefield is the Athabasca Glacier. Even though it has receded significantly in recent times, this six kilometre tongue of ice flows to within one kilometre of the Icefield Parkway. During the summer months, adventurous visitors can hike out onto the glacier with a guide or explore it from the comfort of massive all-terrain vehicles. We chose simply to walk up the trail that leads to within metres of the glacier’s edge.

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The Athabasca Glacier is only one of many tongues of ice that flow from the massive Columbia Icefield. Right next to it is the Dome Glacier, less accessible, but also impressive. Look at that amazing snow pack atop the ridge! It reminds me of icing on a cake.

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Lower Waterfowl Lake

There are numerous glacier-fed lakes along the Icefield Parkway; too many to stop and photograph each one! Lower Waterfowl Lake struck me as one of the most beautiful.

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Yes, that truly is the colour of the water! The incredible turquoise colour is the result of glaciers grinding the rock beneath them into a fine powder called rock flour. Meltwater washes this powder into the lakes where it is suspended in the water. These silty waters absorb all the colours of incoming light except the striking turquoise or vivid blue that is reflected back to our eyes.

Lake Louise

If you stopped nowhere else along the Icefield Parkway, world famous Lake Louise is an absolute must! Named for Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, it is a truly awe-inspiring sight. With Victoria Glacier and an amphitheatre of rugged mountain peaks providing an imposing backdrop, it is a photographer’s delight.

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Stewart, Hyder and a river of ice!

As we travelled south on northwestern BC’s Cassiar Highway, a 65 km (40 mile) side trip took us into the tiny town of Stewart located at the head of the Portland Canal, a narrow salt water fjord approximately 145 km (90 miles) long. The fjord, the fourth longest in the world, forms a natural boundary between Canada and Alaska. Stewart boasts that its deep harbour is Canada’s northernmost ice-free port.

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I had to visit this picturesque spot if for no other reason than I was born a Stewart!

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Most tourists come for other reasons though including the Salmon Glacier, the fifth largest glacier in Canada. A self-guided auto tour brochure, available at the Stewart visitor information centre, explains the history and natural surroundings of the area as you drive the 37 km (22.9 miles) to the Summit Viewpoint overlooking the glacier.

Although the Salmon Glacier is located in Canada, accessing it requires crossing the border into Alaska at Hyder, just 3 km (2 miles) from Stewart. If you go, make sure you have your passport with you so you can re-enter Canada after your drive!

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Once a booming mining town, Hyder, with its population of “100 happy Americans” is almost a ghost town. Though there are still a post office, 2 motels and couple of stores, most of its main street is boarded up. This building, a gorgeous reminder of days gone by, was definitely my favourite.

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About 6 km (3.7 miles) after leaving Hyder, we stopped at the Fish Creek Wildlife Viewing Area hoping we might be lucky enough to see some of the bears that come to feed at the creek during the annual salmon run from July to September. Though salmon had been spotted further downstream, they hadn’t made it that far yet and there were no bears to be seen. Further up the road, however, we did see several of these little creatures.

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We weren’t sure what they were until we checked with a wildlife officer at the viewing site on our way back down and learned that they are hoary marmots. They seemed completely oblivious to or unconcerned about human traffic. In fact, at one point, three of them engaged in a playful wrestling match in the middle of the road while we and other motorists waited for them to tire and move on! I was able to walk right up to one of them to take pictures!

The drive to the glacier, some 4300 feet (1300 metres) above sea level, was almost like climbing a mountain by car! The narrow, bumpy road, unpaved after the Wildlife Viewing Area, clung to the mountainside as we climbed higher and higher. Soon we were passing expanses of snow!

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A little further along, the toe or snout of the glacier came into view.

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Continuing onward and upward, we enjoyed many views of the enormous river of ice.

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I was still awe struck when we reached the Summit Viewpoint and realized that there was so much more to the glacier than we had been able to see before that.

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It was chilly, but we ate our lunch overlooking the vast expanse of ice.

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Turning around and noticing the bluff overlooking the parking lot, I realized that it begged to be climbed, so off we went!

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I’m so glad we did. It was an easy scramble and the sights that greeted us were amazing!

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I think the views of the glacier were even better from the top of the bluff. Looking down on the parking lot and our vehicle on the far left (with our bright red kayak on top) helped put the vastness of the glacier into perspective.

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