Canada’s scenery is everything Australia’s is not. Snow capped peaks reach to the sky, pine forests clothe the countryside in orderly dark ranks of trees and alpine lakes gleam under a northern sun. If you venture off the highways, bears, elks, squirrels, moose, hummingbirds, deer and beavers await you. The Icefields Parkway is a virtually linear drive from Banff to Jasper takes you past some of the most remarkable mountain scenery in the world but many of the best bits lie a short distance off the highway.
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Banff, 130 km from Calgary, was founded around hot springs by the men building the Canadian Pacific Railroad in the early 1880s. It became Canada's first park in 1885 and its creation was the birth of Canada's entire National Park system. Anyone who has been here knows why – the local scenery is breathtaking. While the Rocky Mountains are higher in the US, the colder conditions of Canada result in a lower tree-line so bare summits capped in snow seemingly rise forever.
Leaving Banff it’s a 50 km drive to Lake Louise that is in an even more spectacular setting. It has been described as “the jewel of the Rocky Mountains” and you’ll wonder how you could have ever thought lesser ranges awe-inspiring. If your budget can stretch to it, the place to stay is the Chateau Lake Louise right on the lake in a small glacial valley and pay for a lake-facing room.
The Chateau is the most perfectly located of the hotels built by the railroad in 1890 when train travel still had real glamour. Looking out the hotel windows, one could be forgiven for thinking that the view was painted onto the glass as the turquoise lake reflecting the jagged mountains filled with the Victoria Glacier appears too perfect to be real. Even if you don’t stay here you can drive out to the lake and wander the foreshores (or further into the mountains) – or even venture out in a canoe. There are several teahouses to use as goals on the walking trails.
The picturesque water of Lake Louise
Off the Trans Canada west of town is a picnic area right on the Continental Divide where water on one side runs to the Pacific Ocean while the other side goes to the Atlantic. Here you can see the water of the creek separate to start on the long divergent journey to the two oceans.
Can you improve on perfection? Take the short 12 km drive (off the Trans Canada south of town) to Moraine Lake to find out. The Valley of the Ten Peaks featured on the old Canadian $20 bill. It’s the only place where the scenery looks better than money. This is perhaps the best place in Canada to take a hike.
Just 2 km north of Lake Louise the Trans Canada Highway turns west towards Kamloops and Vancouver. For the Icefields Parkway turn north onto Highway 93 for the 230 kilometre drive to Jasper. The highway was first built in the 1930s and became the highway it is today in the 1960s. It mainly follows the valleys of the Saskatchewan and Sunwapta rivers, an excellent sealed road lined with breathtaking scenery. You must also buy a National Park pass upon entry into the park.
The highest point on the parkway is Bow Summit, 2067 metres above sea level and 40 km north of Lake Louise. A short drive then walk on the western side of the highway leads to a viewpoint over turquoise Peyto Lake with grey peaks towering behind. In a drive of superlatives, this is likely to be the highlight on a sunny day. The remarkable colour of the lake comes from the high quantity of glacial silt in the water.
Enoy the stunning views when driving along the Icefields Parkway
The one stop that everyone makes along the parkway is at the Athabasca Glacier that approaches close to the roadway from the expansive Columbia Icefield 105 km before Jasper. The 325 square kilometre icefield spills off Mt Columbia, at 3747 metres, the highest point in Alberta. It is said that the Columbia Icefield is the largest accumulation of ice in the Northern Hemisphere south of the Arctic Circle. Here you’ll find a wide range of tour options by Brewster from an over-snow vehicle that takes you right onto the much-receded glacier to the new Glacier Skywalk. The highlight of the one hour walk is stepping onto the glass-floored observation platform 280 metres above a valley and waterfalls.
Once north of the Athabasca Glacier the highway is running through the Sunwapta Valley. Just 55 km before Jasper a side road leads to Sunwapta Falls where the river turns a right-angled bend to drop into the Athabasca River. It’s a 15 minute walk to the lower falls. Only 32 km from Jasper another access road leads to Athabasca Falls set in a deep ravine.
Take a trip to the dramatic scenery of the Athabasca Glacier
There are numerous viewpoints along the parkway and most are worth a stop. The whole journey is through mountains and in National Parks. The four adjoining National and Provincial Parks here create one UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The end of the Icefields Parkway is at the junction with the Yellowhead Highway and the small town of Jasper. British Columbia is to the west, Edmonton to the right. Jasper is another tourist town but quieter than Banff. The main thing that nearly everyone does in Jasper is take a ride on the Jasper Skytram that takes seven minutes to lift you to an elevation of 2285 metres up the confusingly-named Whistlers Mountain for a great panoramic view.
If you take Highway 16 to the west, you’ll reach the Yellowhead Pass (1131 metres) 24 km from Jasper. As you clear the pass you enter British Columbia and Mount Robson Provincial Park. This is the headwaters of the mighty Fraser River and the location of the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies: Mt Robson, 3954 metres. Like Jasper National Park, this 224,866 hectare provincial park is home to a wide range of wildlife, some of which can be life threatening such as the black bears in the lowlands and grizzlies in the mountains. Mount Robson itself can be clearly seen from the Highway towards the western end of the park.
Take the ride to the top of Whistlers Mountain and enjoy the beautiful views
Canada is a very easy country to drive around. The roads are largely good and uncrowded and the drivers quite courteous. This particular drive really is the crown jewel in Canadian motoring holidays. There are so many places to stop and see that you really require your own transport. The only word of caution if you drive yourself is that the scenery really can capture the driver’s attention so you must consciously keep your eyes on the road and make the most of each parking area to take in the grandeur of the countryside through which you travel.
If you want to try another form of transport, you can take the train, the Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver to Banff or the alternate (or return) route between Vancouver and Jasper then drive the road in between.
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