On the Icefields Parkway: Stunning Aerial Views of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains
IT’S ON JUST about every list of scenic drives in the world. The Icefields Parkway is the legendary 232 kilometre highway that runs through both Jasper and Banff national parks in Alberta. This is smack in the middle of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, the North American equivalent of the Himalayas. Though not as high they are nevertheless spectacularly beautiful, jagged, rocky peaks streaked with bright white snow against Canada’s big blue sky.
Rockies glacier lake (BreatheDreamGo)
I drove the Icefields Parkway both directions, from where I got off the train in Jasper (read about my epic train journey here) to Banff, and back again, over the course of five sunny, warm days in June.
During the course of my drive, I saw several golden-fleece grizzly bears nibbling grasses by the side of the road, herds of big horn sheep, a lone elk silhouetted against the dusky sky and graceful deer crossing the road like ladies of leisure. I also saw majestic mountains serenely reflected in mirror-like lakes, forests of dark evergreen trees, waving golden grasses by the roadside.
Note: I took the Grizzly bear photo below, from the car, with the help of a telephoto lens. It is dangerous and illegal to get out of your car in the presence of elk and bears! You may see people doing it, but they are in the wrong. Do not join them. If an animal attacks a human, the animal is “put down” — which makes the humans involved in the incident implicit in their death.
Grizzly bear (BreatheDreamGo)
The entire drive is a pristine, picture-perfect postcard of scenic beauty, very carefully maintained by the national parks service. It is indeed a Canadian treasure, one of the most special and beautiful tourism experiences you can have in this vast nation.
This is more that just traveling a mountain road; it’s a journey of the self and a celebration of protected wilderness grandeur. Icefields Parkway.
There is so much to see and do along the Icefields Parkway, I could write a book — and in fact many books have been written about this region. However, in this blog post I am going to just highlight two of the amazing experiences you can have.
Walking on Air: The Glacier Skywalk
Opened on May 1, 2014, the Glacier Skywalk is a brand new way to truly appreciate the Rocky Mountains. The attraction is right on the Icefields Parkway, very easy to find, about halfway between Banff and Jasper.
Head straight for the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, where you park your car, buy tickets and take a very short bus ride to the Skywalk. Once there, a walkway with interpretive displays and an audio tour leads to a glass-floored observation platform 280 metres (918 feet) over the Sunwapta Valley.
When I arrived at the soaring viewing platform, I stepped gingerly on the glass floor — and saw just about everyone else doing the same thing. It is eerie and disorienting at first, but when you get used to it and relax, you have all the time in the world to take in the sweeping views and feel you are almost soaring in air.
The Glacier Skywalk is an engineering marvel, and cleverly designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. It was also built offsite, to minimize the environmental impact as much as possible.
Stopping at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre is also a good idea to take a rest and have lunch. There’s a restaurant and cafe, and a large outdoor terrace ideal for a picnic. When I was there, I got really lucky! I met a group of 34 travellers from India who brought their own lunch, and invited me to join. We sat on the terrace in the sun, and ate spicy dal, rice, curd, pickle, sweets and talked about Canada and how much they loved the “natural, pure, untouched beauty,” as one young woman, Shreya, said.
Though I am wary of tourist attractions in general, the Glacier Skywalk is one that I can honestly recommend because it enhances appreciation of the environment. In fact, it was built to get people out of their cars and engaging with the natural world. It is extremely well designed, and well worth the stop.
Mariellen Ward is a travel writer and publisher of the meaningful adventure travel blog Breathedreamgo.com for seekers and travellers to India, Canada and beyond.