Exploring the Columbia Icefields

About two hours north of Banff, after a drive on Icefields Parkway through the beautiful, rural scenery of Jasper National Park are the Columbia Icefields. The Icefields are home to eight glaciers & some of the highest peaks in all of the Canadian Rockies. It’s very barren for most of the drive – no cell phone service up here! – & the scenery is absolutely breathtaking.

driving up the Icefields Parkway
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

Most visitors come to this beautiful part of Alberta to visit the Columbia Icefields Discovery Center, which is run by Canadian tourism giant Brewster Canada. This self-sustained building is literally in the middle of nowhere & is the launch spot for the very popular Glacier Adventure Tour, as well as the new Glacier Skywalk. We experienced both attractions during our visit.

made it! View of the Athabasca Glacier from the Discovery Center
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

Glacier Adventure Tour

First up on our Columbia Icefields exploration was the Glacier Adventure Tour. Tickets are timed entry, but luckily, we only had about 30 minutes to kill (reservations can also be made online in advance). Soon enough we were in line to board buses & on our way. After boarding a charter bus at the Discovery Center, a five minute ride half way up the Athabasca Glacier gets you to your transfer point. Our bus driver – a young college student hanging out in Jasper for his summer job – entertained the group with interesting facts & bad jokes during the ride.

heading down to the glacier
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

Once you arrive at the base of the glacier, you transfer from a standard bus to a giant Ice Explorer – a vehicle with huge tires meant to be able to handle driving on ice & snow (in fact, there are only a handful in the world). The most exciting part of this journey was traveling down the second steepest drivable “road” in North America. The “road” you’re driving down is actually a lateral moraine, a giant pile of rocks & debris left behind as the Athabasca Glacier has receded.

driving straight down a moraine
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

ice cruiser
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

Soon enough you’re on the glacier itself, in a circular area cleared away for exploration. There were five other buses on the glacier with us, making it a bit more crowded than we anticipated it being. We had 20 minutes to explore, which was an ample amount of time.

standing on the glacier
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

Guests are warned to stay within the circle, rather than venturing out onto the ungroomed glacier itself, as deep crevasses form throughout the glacier, some dangerously close to the visiting area. Good footwear is a must; you are walking on ice & the day that we were there, it was very slushy. Layers are also a must, as during our 20 minute visit it rained, sleeted, drizzled & was blindingly sunny (seriously – the weather changes every five minutes). Be sure & bring an empty water bottle to dip in the glacial run off – the water is pure enough to drink.

fresh, crystal clear water
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

glacial slush
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

Columbia Icefields
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

You might be wondering about the environmental impact. I’ll admit that it’s not something I normally think about while traveling, but the glacier is receding at an alarming rate – 16ft. per year; the glacier used to rest where the Discovery Center is now. I asked our tour guide about the negative impacts these tours had on the glacier & his resulting rant (“Are you kidding? These parks are disgusting! I can’t wait to get back to New Foundland!”) kind of gave me a knot in my stomach that we were doing more harm than good. Still, though, you’re walking on ice that’s thousands of years old & is as thick as the Eiffel Tower is tall – pretty cool.

Glacier Skywalk

After our bus ride back to the Discovery Center, we boarded another bus to head a few minutes down the road to the Glacier Skywalk. This attraction, which opened in May of this year, was built not without controversy; Parks Canada got plenty of flack for allowing a private company to come in & drill into the side of a cliff to build a permanent structure in the park (it’s a lot like the skywalk at the Grand Canyon in the U.S.).

Glacier Skywalk view from the parking lot
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

The Skywalk starts with a nice walk along a concrete walkway where there are good views of the valley below – look closely for the hidden waterfalls & keep your eyes open for mountain goats. We opted to try out the complimentary audio tour & listened to about half the prompts.

cool view of waterfalls
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

The Skywalk itself is a U-shaped viewing platform which juts out from the side of a cliff. As we approached the skywalk, we noticed a huge crowd walking (running, sitting, sprawled out) on the 1″ thick reinforced glass. B, being braver than I am (& also less claustrophobic about crowds) walked all the way out. I stepped one or two panels in, just to get enough of an experience to say I did it. Yup, I am a wuss.

B on the Skywalk
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

can you spot B in the yellow & gray jacket? I’m standing on the non-glass portion for wussy people
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

proof I stepped out!
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

There’s no time limit at the Skywalk & shuttle buses are constantly running. The experience would have been significantly enhanced if there were timed tickets: it was so crowded, it was hard to move. The phrase “Glacier Skywalk” is also a bit of a misnomer, as you can’t actually see the Athabasca Glacier from the walk itself, just a nice view up & down the valley. We came away from this attraction a little disappointed, but it was certainly unique.

Glacier Skywalk
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

The Icefields are really a whole day excursion if you’re staying in Banff (much more do-able if you’re in Jasper). One of the highlights of that entire day was stopping for a picnic on the side of the road in Banff National Park – a totally organic, unplanned moment.

our perfect picnic spot
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

Know if you go… 

– you will drive through Jasper National Park from Banff to get to the Columbia Icefields & you’ll need a valid park pass. We didn’t realize this & had left our multi-day park pass at the hotel. We had to buy a day pass in order to continue north. Watch for your exit to head north once you enter the park – it comes up quickly. If you spot the “Welcome to British Columbia” sign (as we did!) you missed it :)

– determine what activities you want to do in advance. If you’re interested in multiple experiences, it’s much more cost effective to buy a combination ticket.

– be prepared for crowds. We were very surprised how crowded it was, with charter buses of visitors swarming the Discovery Center. Consider going during the week for a slightly less busy experience (although it’s always crowded during the summer).

– there’s a ticket desk in the Discovery Center when you first enter from the parking lot. Skip the long line here & make your way to the main lobby where there’s a larger ticket desk.

– your only eating option up here is the cafeteria at the Discovery Center. Instead of eating there, pick up some sandwiches on your way north (there’s a great deli at the Lake Louise highway exit as you head north out of Banff) & find a picnic spot.

– you can book a private glacier hike in a small group – we definitely want to try it next time.

Our trip to the Columbia Icefields – & the associated activities – were provided compliments of Travel Alberta & Brewster Canada. All opinions are my own. 

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About christina

Christina is a 30-something D.I.N.K. travel writer & photographer who travels the world often wedged into the middle seat. Follow her on Twitter & Facebook.

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