The 7 Best Stops on the Icefields Parkway

The Icefields parkway is more than a road connecting Banff and Jasper National Parks – it’s an attraction in its own right. As one of the most scenic drives in the world, packed with lakes, mountains, wildlife, and glaciers, there are countless stops that can be made along the 140-ish mile long route, but these 7 really stand out.

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1.     Herbert Lake

Distance from Lake Louise: 6km
Trail length: 1 mi / 1.6 km loop
Difficulty: Easy

Herbert Lake is a fantastic stop that most people overlook during their visit. It’s a small, quiet, clear lake at the beginning of the drive from Banff National Park. There’s a parking lot immediately to the left of the road, only about 6-kilometers past Lake Louise. And then from there, there’s a dirt trail about 1-mile long that goes around the lake, but I think the views with the mountains in the background are optimal as soon as you get to the water. However, if you do venture around the lake, there’s a diving board anchored on the opposite shore. Even in the height of tourist season, there will likely only be a few cars in the lot and a few corresponding people in or around the lake. So that can be a nice change of pace to some of the other stops on the parkway (and in Banff and Jasper).

2.     Peyto Lake

Distance from Lake Louise: 44km
Trail length: 0.8 mi / 1.3 km out-and-back
Difficulty: Easy

As one of the more popular stops on the Icefields Parkway, Peyto Lake has been built up with a paved trail to an official viewing platform overlooking the lake and the glacier that feeds it. The only thing to note, is that the paved trail is mostly uphill and will probably be busy most of the day. To avoid the crowds, you can either arrive early in the morning or around sunset, or take one of the other trails to a less-traversed viewpoint. There are several non-paved trails you’ll see on your way to the viewing platform that go off to the right of the main path through the trees to these unofficial spots. Make sure you’re wearing descent shoes if you go this route because the trail can be a little bit treacherous. You can also venture down beneath the platform, or continue on to a second viewpoint. There’s no platform at the second viewpoint, but similar to the unofficial viewpoints, there is a clearing that gives great views of the lake.

If you’re looking for even less people to share the views with, or are interested in a more challenging hike, continue on another ~2 miles up the Bow Summit Trail. After the main viewpoint, continue on the paved trail until it splits into multiple paths. Take the middle one and then take the dirt trail on the left. The complete antithesis to the main platform experience, having the entire trail to yourself is not uncommon. Make sure you have 2-3 hours to get all the way there and then back to the parking lot.

3.     Mistaya Canyon

Distance from Lake Louise: 75km
Trail length: 0.6 mi / 1 km out-and-back
Difficulty: Easy

Mistaya Canyon was my favorite stop on the Icefields Parkway for a few reasons; parking is convenient, the hike down to the canyon is short and easy, and the views of the river and canyon are unmatched. It is easily some of the best views for the smallest efforts between Banff, Jasper, and the Icefields Parkway.

The bridge over the canyon is reminiscent of Maligne Canyon in Jasper. You can safely look down into the depths of the slot canyon that the river has cut into the landscape. From there, you can go out on the flat rocks that hang out over the water to enjoy the nearby mountain views in one direction, and an alternate view of the canyon in the other direction.

4.     Athabasca Glacier, the Columbia Icefield, and the Glacier Skywalk

Distance from Lake Louise: 130km
Trail length: n/a – guided tour
Difficulty: Easy

The Athabasca Glacier is part of the Columbia Icefield and is located just off the Icefields Parkway, which makes it one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. If you want to go out onto the glacier, the best plan of attack is to buy tickets in advance (because they will definitely sell out) to either a guided hike or a tour on an “Ice Explorer” vehicle, which will probably meet and leave from the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Center; a huge building opposite the glacier along your drive. 

In addition to the glacier itself, the Glacier Skywalk is nearby. And by “nearby”, I mean a 10-minute drive down the road. The ticket to the Skywalk is usually included in the Ice Explorer Vehicle tours but can also be booked individually if you aren’t interested in the other activities it’s bundled with. Regardless, personal vehicles can’t be parked at the Skywalk, so you have to have a ticket and get on a bus from the Discover Center to be able to visit. Based on the name, I figured it would be out over the glacier, but, in fact, it’s over the Sunwapta Valley that the Columbia Icefield is crawling towards. After walking past some displays about the geology, biology, and formation of the area, you’ll see the large glass bottomed semicircle, cantilevered out over the valley.

The Skywalk is a great add on to the Ice Explorer tour and the views are beautiful, but in my opinion, they weren’t any more spectacular than the views of the park that you can get from free hikes in the area. So, if you are visiting in the winter when the Skywalk is closed, don’t fret about it too much.

5.     Sunwapta Falls

Distance from Lake Louise: 177km
Trail length: 1.6 mi / 2.6 km out-and-back to the lower falls
Difficulty: Easy

Another easy but impactful stop along the Icefields Parkway is Sunwapta Falls. The upper falls are right off of the parking area and there are several viewpoints built around it. There’s a picturesque little island of trees situated at the head of the falls that you’ll quickly recognize from the internet if you’ve ever googled Sunwapta. If you’re short on time, you can stop to take in the upper falls, and be back on the road in less than 15 minutes.

However, just a 1.3km hike away will get you the added bonus of seeing the lower falls as well! There are signs to clearly point you in the right direction. If you follow them, you’ll quickly leave behind the relatively crowded area of the upper falls. At the end of the gently-sloped dirt path that follows the river through the forest, you’ll actually find not one, but three waterfalls that make up the lower falls!

6.     Athabasca Falls

Distance from Lake Louise: 201km
Trail length: 0.5 mi / 0.8 km out-and-back
Difficulty: Easy

It’s not the height of Athabasca Falls that makes it so impressive, but the width and the power of it. In fact, it’s considered the most powerful waterfall in the Canadian Rockies. The short trail from the parking area will take you to multiple viewpoints, both above and below the falls, so that you can see it from all angles.

It might take a little bit of time to cover the short trail distance, because Athabasca Falls is one of the most popular stops on the Icefields Parkway; tour buses tend to stop here, causing a bit of a back up at the viewing platforms. Even with all the people around, it’s definitely worth a stop.

7.     Valley of the Five Lakes Trail

Distance from Lake Louise: 222km
Trail length: 3 mi / 4.8 km loop
Difficulty: Easy

A hike that is often synonymous with Jasper National Park, but is technically on the Icefields Parkway, is the Valley of the Five Lakes Trail. The 5 lakes are all awesome shades of blue-green due to the glacial waters that feed them, and the third and fourth lakes considered the most beautiful.

The trail starts at a marked parking lot, and goes through the forest for a little over a half mile before arriving at a bridge. On the other side of the bridge, you can choose to go to the left and double the length of your hike to go allllll the way around lake #1 before joining the loop, or you can continue directly onto the short loop that stays closer to the lakes. The tip we got from a local is that if you go clockwise around the small loop, the beginning will take you through a more thickly wooded area that has a lot of mosquitos in the summertime; instead, go counterclockwise from lake 5 to 1, and then turn around like it’s an out-and-back trail instead of a loop.

 

That hike is a little bit longer and will take closer to 2 hours than 1, but is more enjoyable because you avoid most of the mosquitos and get to see all the lakes twice! And of course, that time estimate doesn’t account for if you choose to stop and take a dip in any of the lakes, something plenty of people stop to do on a warm sunny day.

Other Stops Along the Parkway

Although these my favorite stops along the Icefields Parkway, there are countless others, both big and small. As you’re driving along, most of the stops near the road are denoted with signs so that you know where to pull off and park. Some of the smaller stops, or things further from the road may be a little more hidden, so it’s good to venture out onto the parkway with a plan already in place for what you want to see.

Or on the flip side, if you don’t want to have to plan the stops out at all, there are guided tours that will take you all the way from Banff to Jasper, vice versa, or spend the day on the Icefields Parkway before returning to your starting point.  

What do You Need to Traverse the Icefields Parkway?

Entry is free to each of the individual places listed above, but you must purchase a Canadian Park Pass to get to the Icefields Parkway (or Banff, Jasper, or any other National Park in Canada). When you go to buy your pass before your trip, you can enter the details of your visit into the park pass website, and they will suggest either day passes, or a “discovery pass” that’s good for a year, to get you the best value. For a trip 7 days or longer, the discovery pass will be the better choice. And, if you want to use your park pass to visit Jasper, Banff, and Yoho in addition to the Icefields Parkway, you can follow this ready-made itinerary!

Another thing you need is a map. I suggest downloading the map of the entire Icefields Parkway before going there, because there is no cell service for most of it (starting shortly after you pass the Parkway entrance gates from Banff and Jasper).

Gas, Food, and Restrooms on the Parkway

Most of the large stops (including all 7 stops listed above) along the Parkway have some sort of restroom facilities; they might just be a couple of drop toilets, but that’s better than nothing! The Saskatchewan River Crossing and the Columbia Icefields Glacier Discovery Center both have fully-plumbed restroom facilities. However, they are both closed in the wintertime.

On the other hand, there are not a lot of gas stations. Actually, there’s only a single option – at Saskatchewan River Crossing. And since they have a monopoly on gas on the Parkway, you will pay extra if you have to fill up there. It’s much better for your wallet to top off the tank before you leave Banff or Jasper.

As far as food goes, there are options available at the Saskatchewan River Crossing and the Columbia Icefields Glacier Discovery Center. Again, those are not open during the winter, and since there aren’t a lot of choices, they will be overpriced. I suggest stopping by a grocery store in Banff or Jasper and packing a lunch (and some snacks) for your journey instead. Pretty much anywhere you look along the Parkway has great potential for a quick picnic stop.

Wildlife along the Way

Banff, Jasper, and the Icefields Parkway are home to a lot of wildlife, including bears, wolves, cougars, moose, mountain goats, marmots, elk, deer, and many more. Although it’s really cool to see wildlife up close, we all need to make sure we do what we can to keep ourselves and the animals safe during these encounters. That means just using your camera’s zoom instead of crowding the animals, packing out your trash to keep their environment clean, and refraining from feeding animals any human foods. Then there are a few extra considerations to be made for the bears.  

While bears aren’t hibernating, you’ll likely see a few of them in the parks. You’ll want to have bear spray that can be used to protect yourself if you run into a bear while out on the hiking trails. You can rent bear spray for around $10/day or buy it from most outdoor stores, some hotels, the Banff Visitor Center, as well as some grocery stores. Bears don’t want to be around a ton of people, so if you remain calm and talk loudly, the bear will likely amble away. Your bear spray is only needed as a last resort if that doesn’t work. You also can’t fly with bear spray, so make sure you wait to grab it until after you arrive.  

If you see bears or other wildlife while driving down the Icefields Parkway, it will be tempting to stop and pull over, but doing so can quickly create a dangerous situation. It’s easy for a wreck to happen as people stop their cars suddenly to try to see the bear. Because of this, Parks Canada has made it illegal for buses to pull over and may issue tickets to drivers that become part of the traffic jam. Another issue is when people start getting out of their cars to approach the bear for pictures. This is incredibly dangerous and should absolutely never be done!

Where to Stay on the Icefields Parkway

In keeping with the spirit of the accessible wilderness of the Parkway, the main options for accommodations are camping; there are campsites located at Mosquito Creek, Silverhorn Creek, Waterfowl Lakes, Rampart Creek, Wilcox Creek, the Icefield, Jonas Creek, and Honeymoon Lake. For almost all of these, reservations are made on a first come first serve basis, so if you’re set on camping, make sure to show up early to try to secure a spot.

If you’re not a fan of camping, there are a couple of hotel options:

The Lodge at Bow Lake – Bow Lake wasn’t on the list of my favorite stops because there are only so many hours in a day. However, if you’re staying at the lodge there, you will have the chance to explore it as well!  Plus, nearby Peyto Lake is one of the busiest attractions. Staying close by gives you the chance to get there early or go late to experience the beauty of the area without having to fight through crowds.

Glacier View Lodge – this lodge is actually on the 3rd floor of the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Center with excellent views from the rooms and the hotel lounge. Staying here also gives you the option of booking exclusive experiences on the Icefield Skywalk and the Glacier itself.

There are also plenty of hotel options in Lake Louise (Banff) and Jasper, close to the entrance of the Parkway that serve as great launching points for a day of exploration!

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