Icefields Parkway, Canadian Rockies…I never knew Buddha made it to the Canadian Rockies. When it was time to move on to Jasper National Park there was only one way to go, so our group headed north on the famous Icefields Parkway. The cruise became such a persistent parade of natural wonders that I was forced to conclude this had been the inspiration for Buddha’s famous quote “happiness is a journey and not a destination”. Knowing full well I will never find words to express the exhilaration experienced during this road trip, please allow me to share highlights of a very happy journey.
Icefield Parkways is high on the list of the world’s highest paved roadways. But there are other ways to get high and Icefields Parkway also rests near the top on compilations of “most scenic” drives. The cruise is technically the 230 km/140 miles of Highway 93 running between Lake Louise and Jasper. Skirting the Continental Divide and completely within Banff and Jasper National Parks, the route is maintained by Parks Canada. This is a fortuitous arrangement because there are so many glorious stops along the way that it feels as if you are ‘sprint hiking’ more than driving. Aware of the numerous diversions, we had allotted an entire day for the ramble with only one deadline: an early afternoon reservation to tour Athabasca Glacier.
I cannot claim to be a hardened veteran of Icefields Parkway, but given we made the trek during the peak of tourist season in August; I’ll proceed by assuming our experiences were representative. Whenever you pull off it becomes apparent how many folks are accompanying you, but I was delighted to discover the traffic was never ugly when on the move. My suspicion is that owing to the road’s length it affords efficient ‘tourist dispersion’ and that was a huge plus, especially as I was behind the wheel for the duration.
Being a mountain highway, there are many ups and downs. Since the percentage of campers and RV’s is also high, elevation is a potential hazard when you’re running with these big boys. The good news is that even though the parkway is simply a two lane road for stretches, excellent maintenance and light traffic eliminated much dismay (i.e., we could usually pass bigger vehicles when their speed was crippled by steep ascents).
Delights are served swiftly and we made our first stop barely a half hour out of Lake Louise. Bow Lake is a pristine body of water framed by glacier studded mountains. The parking is just a gravel lot along the shoreline, but substantial in size and we had no troubles claiming a space before scrambling out to savor the scenery. Even though Bow does not possess the stunning blues of nearby glacial lakes, neither is it as walled in. Being more open and bowl shaped allows Bow Lake to become a massive reflecting pool and we were transfixed by mirror images of the mountains fringing the lake. It was as if an artist had finally stumbled upon a canvas vast enough to do justice to the grandeur of these magnificent peaks. Dazzled by the radiance, we eventually tore ourselves away and climbed back into the car.
Happiness is a journey, and only five minutes further on down the road we turned off to make the short drive to the Peyto Lake trailhead. Assuring you how near this is to Bow Lake, make sure you exit where “Bow Summit” is posted along the Icefields Parkway. Bow Summit is ideally perched to offer a visual feast of Peyto Lake, time to get your camera out!
There are a couple warnings before reaching the glory. As I mentioned, you dodge gluts of humanity while on the move, but stopping here was a morass. Fortunately we had rented a 4WD and were able to improvise a parking space, because the initial paved lot was filled beyond capacity. There is a second lot poised closer to the lookout platforms at the end of the trail: this is intended for handicapped and less physically able folks. The trail from the first lot only takes fifteen minutes to walk and is entirely paved, but it is primarily uphill and could pose a challenge for some.
I have scant recollections of the path because it was jammed with plodding human beings and sad to share it was not unlike being a department store at Christmas. The two platforms at the end were similarly packed, though it only required a modicum of patience before you could migrate to a front row along the railing. Once you are in the catbird seat, phew: new views of hues of blues will stir you through and through. Little did I suspect anything could challenge the colors of Moraine Lake, but Peyto Lake blue past the competition! Noticing some folks slipping downhill through the woods begged us to follow, allowing discovery of a ledge affording equally spectacular views without so many people around – just use caution as there is no fencing here.
Returning to the car brings to mind some more Icefields Parkway advice. A critical element of the drive’s beauty is the domination of nature and a marked absence of modern facilities. When trekking this is wonderful, but driving keeps you somewhat tethered: best to make sure your tank is full before starting off and do not expect convenience stores along the way. We had parked near bathroom facilities at Bow Summit and as we began I noted only two people were queued up. Hmmm, I thought, this might be the time to make use, but it was a passing thought and we were enthused to charge down the trail. After returning to the car and realizing we would mobile for a long stretch, it seemed best to avail ourselves of the rest rooms. Now, of course, the line was quite long and we wound up standing in line over twenty minutes. Thus my Icefields Parkway wisdom is to capitalize on conveniences should they present themselves.
After Peyto Lake the emphasis was moving towards Athabasca. For several hours we pushed north through a wild landscape unpolluted by evidence of mankind, and it was impossible to avoid a couple brief sightseeing stops. We eventually reached the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, the starting point for our Athabasca Glacier tour, where mankind returned with a vengeance. At the Centre you may dismiss earlier cautions about the absence of facilities, because here the ancient and the modern collide, residing side by side. The Discovery Centre is an impressive structure, offering every modern convenience imaginable in one spot amidst a splendid glacial field.
The enormous parking lot was practically full when we arrived, forcing us to park quite a distance away. We marched towards the Centre, amazed at everything it contained, which unfortunately included bazillions of fellow tourists. We arrived just after noon, meaning the main attraction was the huge cafeteria dining area. This would have been pleasant if several hundred guests had been removed: the menu is broad, the interior dining hall expansive, and there is a marvelous outside deck looking directly upon Athabasca Glacier. Alas, we found no open seating outside and even had to circle around inside for ten minutes before finding four chairs together.
Beyond the eating area, there is a gift shop, an information desk staffed by national park associates, even a pricey hotel on the top floors. Glacier tours depart every fifteen minutes and fortunately they have efficiently staged ticketing and boarding to expedite the volume of humanity they process. So in no time we found ourselves seated on a bus transporting us to the base of Athabasca Glacier, where we subsequently climbed aboard one of their massive Ice Explorers: monstrous all-terrain vehicles which creep up the glacier to drop visitors off for brief walking tour.
But goodness, how time flies on a happy journey. Looks like I am at the end of ink for this installment, so I will see you on the glacier when our Icefields Parkway journey continues in the next segment…