I've driven the world-renowned, beyond beautiful Icefields Parkway many times over; it just doesn’t get old. The scenery is unfailingly stunning, weather permitting -- turquoise lakes, mountainous peaks, twisting roads and even Canada’s largest icefield. This drive defines the word roadtrip : adventurous, impactful, awe-inspiring. Not to mention it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a nature lover’s fantasy and a photographer’s dream.
Need further convincing? Here are 17 excellent reasons why a drive down the Icefields Parkway is an absolute must-do if you’re visiting the Canadian Rockies.
Distances from both towns (Lake Louise and Jasper) are indicated for convenience. I wouldn’t recommend trying to hit all spots in one (very long) day, so pick and choose the ones you prefer, and stop by the ones you missed on the way back. Better yet, plan an overnight or two somewhere along the way. So whether you’re leaving from Lake Louise or from Jasper, set your odometer to zero, slap on some great driving tunes, and let the jaw-dropping begin.
The drive of a lifetime. --National Geographic
1. Herbert Lake (7.3 kms from Lake Louise - 226 kms from Jasper)
Roadside viewpoint - Parking lot (1-minute walk to shoreline)
Lake Herbert appears soon after leaving Lake Louise, and its waters are usually glassy-calm (great for catching reflections). Mount Temple is visible, with its glacier perched on its summit. It’s worth parking the car in the small lot and walking 30 seconds to the lakeshore to see Lake Herbert from a different viewpoint.
2. Hector Lake (22.9 kms from Lake Louise - 211 kms from Jasper)
Roadside viewpoint, shoulder parking - 5km walk (one way) to lakeshore
Hector Lake is another glacier-fed lake, but you’ll have to get your legs moving to see this one up close. From the roadside shoulder (where you can leave your car), there is a 5km downhill walk (one way) that brings you to the water’s edge. It’s on my bucket list. Hike to Hector Lake
3. Mosquito Creek (28.4 kms from Lake Louise - 205 kms from Jasper)
Parking lot at Mosquito Creek Hostel - Campground
There’s tons of hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice climbing to enjoy throughout the year, and the scenery is lovely regardless of the season.
4. Bow Lake (40.5 kms from Lake Louise - 194 kms from Jasper)
Roadside viewpoint - Leisure walks from large parking lot
You might want to hang out here for a while; there’s plenty to enjoy around Bow Lake. Take a stroll around the grounds. Visit Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. Enjoy an ice cream or a hot drink by the lakeshore. Follow the trail (heading right around the lake) to Bow Glacier Falls - a beautiful, easy, and family-friendly hike (1.5 hours one way).
5. Peyto Lake (45.5 kms from Lake Louise - 188 kms from Jasper)
Parking lot - Brief uphill walk to viewpoint (or to Bow Summit Hike, 2-3 hrs)
At 2070m, this is the highest point of the entire Parkway, and arguably its most popular stop; no hopes for any romantic alone time here! This turquoise glacier-fed lake was named after Wild Bill Peyto, a British pioneer, guide and park warden in the early 1900s.
If you can spare 2-3 hours or need a break from the crowds, take an unofficial (but perfectly safe and legal) trail to Bow Summit. From the viewing area, turn left and head up the hill on the paved trail. At a 3-way junction, take the middle path. You’ll eventually pass a signpost. Straight ahead, a gravel road will lead off the paved trail. Follow gravel switchbacks to the final lookout spot.
6. Waterfowl Lake and Mount Chephren (61.3 kms from Lake Louise - 172 kms from Jasper)
Roadside view - Many walks from Waterfowl Lakes Campground parking lot
This is probably my favourite roadside view on the Icefields Parkway. So accessible, yet so stunning.
7. Mistaya Canyon (75.1 kms from Lake Louise - 158 kms from Jasper)
Parking lot - 8min (1 km) downhill walk to canyon.
The Mistaya River carved through limestone over tens of thousands of years to create this thunderous canyon, which means 'grizzly bear' in the Cree language.
Exercise extreme caution if you choose to walk on the very slippery rocks, as there are no guardrails keeping unwary visitors from plummeting to their chilly deaths.
8. Saskatchewan River Crossing (80.3 kms from Lake Louise - 153 kms from Jasper)
Parking lot - Restaurant, restrooms, gas station and store
The Crossing Gas Station and Store is the perfect (albeit the only) spot to refill on necessities, although be warned that the gas here is quite pricey. Don’t risk it though; there is no other gas station between Jasper and Lake Louise. If you need to, just fill it up and suck it up!
Also of note in this region is the beautiful David Thompson Highway (Hwy 11), a turnoff just south of The Crossing Store. Although David Thompson County is outside the boundaries of Banff National Park, its mountain views rival those of its neighbour. I drove one hour down the highway, then turned around again to continue my trip on the Icefields Parkway. Totally worth the 2-hour detour.
9. The Weeping Wall (106 kms from Lake Louise - 125 kms from Jasper)
That’s right, a wall that weeps. This intimidating, enormous rockwall has dozens of cascades spewing out of it, each at least 100m high. If you’re passing by in wintertime, you might be lucky enough to spot some ice climbers clawing their way up, as this is an understandably popular area for the sport.
10. Big Bend - Cirrus Mountain Lookout (116 kms from Lake Louise - 118 kms from Jasper)
They don’t call it Big Bend for nothin’. Yes, you really did just drive up from that tiny road down there. And drivers, if you see cyclists clambering up Big Bend, for Pete’s sake, encourage them and honk. A lot. It’s kind of a rule. Be cool.
11. Parker Ridge (118 kms from Lake Louise - 115 kms from Jasper)
Parking lot - One-hour hike (one way)
This is just about as far North as you can get on the Parkway and still stand within Banff National Park. The Parker Ridge hike is as stellar a best-bang-for-your-buck as a hike can possibly get. Just a short, one-hour uphill walk on switchbacks (2.7 kms) gets you this incredible sight of the Saskatchewan Glacier. This is where I take visiting family and friends for that WOW factor. You’ll wanna sit and stare for a while.
12. Wilcox Pass (128 kms from Lake Louise - 106 kms from Jasper)
Parking lot - Moderate ridge walk from Wilcox Creek Campground (you can turn around at any time.)
Just over the border inside Jasper National Park, Wilcox Pass is easily one of the best day hikes in Jasper NP. The reward-to-effort ratio is pretty high on this one, although not as high as Parker Ridge. Keep going as far as you would like along the ridge, but it won't be long before you get amazing views of the Columbia Icefield. When you’ve had your fill of the majestic landscapes across the road, just turn around and march straight back to the car.
13. Columbia Icefield (130 kms from Lake Louise - 103 kms from Jasper)
Roadside views - Columbia Icefield Discovery Center
The Columbia Icefield Discovery Center is open from May to October (check website for dates) and offers all kinds of cool activities, including a snowcoach ride onto Athabasca Glacier (Ice Explorer Tour) and a Skywalk Adventure on a glass-bottomed, raised platform (918 feet high). Walk on a glacier and float above the valley floor - fun for your kids and your inner child!
14. Tangle Creek Falls (137 kms from Lake Louise - 96.5 kms from Jasper)
Roadside view - Parking lot across road from falls
Tangle Creek Falls is a multi-tiered cascade that’s worth a quick stop, especially if you have a camera and tripod. Be careful while slowing down and turning into the parking lot, as there’s a hidden corner right around the bend.
15. Sunwapta Falls (179 kms from Lake Louise - 55.8 kms from Jasper)
Parking lot - 1min walk to falls
Beautiful Sunwapta Falls are fed by the Athabasca Glacier, which is part of the Columbia Icefield. There’s a 2km trail leading to smaller-but-still-beautiful Lower Falls (not pictured). I don’t know what it is about falling water, but I find waterfalls mesmerizing and stunning and so very photogenic!
16. Athabasca Falls (202 kms from Lake Louise - 32.4 kms from Jasper)
Parking lot - 1min walk to falls
Just like Sunwapta Falls, Athabasca Falls is an easily-accessible viewing area, so you certainly won’t be the only ones admiring the crashing water. Don’t let the crowds stop you.
17. Edith Cavell Mountain 244 kms from Lake Louise - 27.7 kms from Jasper
Hwy 93-A begins near Athabasca Falls parking lot
Cavell Meadows Trail is renowned as a beautiful hike, famed for its close-up view of Angel Glacier (pictured above). This one is high on my bucket list. Unfortunately, Hwy 93-A was closed due to hazardous weather when I came through. (I mention it here in case it’s open when you swing by.)
Apparently, Hwy 93-A is worth the drive for the views alone. It runs parallel with the Icefields Parkway, so it’s not a detour on your way to or from Jasper. There's nothing to miss on the Icefields Parkway in that particular stretch, so I would recommend taking 93-A if it’s open; you have nothing to lose.
Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.
-- The Dalai Lama
There’s nothing quite like a long drive on an open road, with good music and good company (even if YOU are your only company) to clear the mind. So what do you need to recharge; how do you like to remember a trip? Bring your journal, your guitar-ukulele, your favourite book, your best camera, or nothing at all. Pack a tent and a sleeping bag, and you can be much more spontaneous. Press your reset button under the stars, against a tree or over a waterfall.
So there you have it, folks! The Icefields Parkway, bursting with beauty. If it somehow disappoints you, please check your pulse.
I want to see more beautiful sights of the Canadian Rockies !
The Parkway connects Lake Louise and Jasper; we’re talking 230 kms of two-laned, entirely paved highway, and it’s in excellent condition with wide shoulders and occasional passing lanes. Even large RVs navigate it easily. Give yourself at least 5 or 6 hours one-way (that’s two full days for the entire Parkway), plus some time to enjoy Jasper and-or Lake Louise. Relax, savour the different landscapes and take in Canada’s most majestic scenery.
Note that winter tires are very seriously recommended from early fall to early summer (yes, you read that correctly: from October to June). They are required by law between November 1st - March 31st. The Parkway sometimes closes due to bad weather or avalanches; always check road conditions before heading out. And don’t forget your Parks Canada pass and emergency kit.
Dial 5-1-1 (within Alberta only) or 1-855-391-9743 toll-free