Most of the famous images from the Banff National Park in Canada are on the Icefields Parkway. It’s insanely pretty.
It’s also a lot of driving, with dozens of pullouts and stops along the way. So how do you hit the highlights?
The first option is to take a tour. Mostly, I hate tours. They feel forced, boring and crowded. Occasionally, they make sense when you have limited time or knowledge.
But you can absolutely enjoy all the Icefields Parkway has to offer without getting into a bus full of strangers.
You will need a car of course, but you probably guessed that.
Along the way you will pass over 100 glaciers and a bunch of alpine lakes- the ones you see in photos that are that mesmerizing blue color. It’s not called the “Icefields” Parkway for nothing.
It is absolutely recommended that you plan to get up early if you really want to enjoy seeing everything into one day. There is the possibility of splitting it into two days, and adding a few more adventures- like the Bow Valley Parkway and Johnston Canyon.
In the meantime set your alarm. Canada is enormous.
Drive to the Icefield Centre:
This is the best way to start long adventures. Get to your end point and work your way backwards.
The drive from the town of Banff to the Icefield Centre is over 2 hours. It’s an incredible drive with stunning views, so make sure to have a full tank of gas and a charged camera.
The Icefield Centre is where you can see the Athabasca Glacier. There are about 4 others surrounding that area if you know how to spot them. (Look for an icy blue color coming off the mountain)
You can take a tour and actually walk on the glacier, which leaves from the center. You can also get fairly close yourself just off the highway. Depends on your budget.
If you do decide to do the “Glacier Adventure” book in advance, and choose a time before 1pm when all the tour buses arrive. Trust me. The Adventure also includes a trip to the Glacier Skywalk.
Personally I thought the view from the parking lot was better, but if you get a thrill from walking on glass over a canyon, then don’t miss it.
Stop at Mistaya Canyon:
If you blink, you will miss the pullout for this short jaunt. It will be on the right hand side, just after you pass Saskatchewan River Crossing. That town is also a good place to stop for a pee and to fill up your tank if you need it.
The short walk takes you down into the canyon where you have an amazing view of mountains and a deep river bed cut through limestone rock. It was one of my favorite little trips my entire time in Banff and off the beaten path.
I love the sound of rushing water!
You can make this walk as long or as short as you like. About 20 minutes down you will reach the river. If you continue another 5km you will reach Sarback Lookout if you feel like stretching your legs.
Take a Pic at Waterfowl Lake:
This lake is right along the Icefields Parkway, and offers a beautiful view. Exactly the one you were hoping for in Banff.
The lake is that unreal blue color and is surrounded by white snow capped mountains. When I visited in May, this was one of the few lakes that wasn’t still frozen.
This excellent timing between spots to get out and stretch your legs. Take a few pics and hop back in the car.
Hike up to Peyto Lake:
This is can be a bit of a challenge depending on the time of year. This trail is NOT maintained despite its popularity. In May, there was still deep snow making it difficult to reach the lake in the suggested 15 minutes.
It is absolutely worth the effort though. There is a long view down the valley and the lake looks like a fox head.
If you are feeling feisty, you can continue to hike in the area and get a view of Bow Glacier.
Hot tip- The hike from the lower parking lot to the LEFT is much easier than to the RIGHT, especially in the snow. The signs will direct you right. Left is a wide open road that is closed most of the year and easy to walk. Choose your own adventure.
At this point you are about an hour or so from Banff.
Visit Lake Lousie:
This lake is included on here because it is the most famous lake in the area. I don’t really understand the fuss.
It is a beautiful lake, no doubt. But after driving the Icefields Parkway, this seemed only OK to me. I know, what a snob.
Its popularity likely stems from the fact that it is close to Banff and is easy to walk around. I mean, entirely flat. There are some other hikes in the area if you’re interested and have time.
This might also be a good spot to start Day Two and skip it the first day. You’ll likely be tired at this point.
If you go on a weekend, it’s a mad house. Try to be there on a weekday- still crowded but less so.
Lake Morraine is can also be accessed from the highway near here and this is probably the vista you were imagining. Check conditions to see if the road is open.
There are some additional options for the Icefields Parkway, depending on what time you get up and start moving.
- Stop for lunch at Coleman Creek or Bow Glacier, both just off the highway with great views and picnic benches. Remember to pack your own, or stop in Saskatchewan.
- Get another hike in at Wilcox Pass. This is lovely outing near the Icefields Centre that takes you through glacier-carved meadows. It’s 2.4km (about 1 hr) to the first view point, or 8km round-trip for the entire hike.
- Visit Herbert Lake as an alternative to Lake Louise. This lake offers beautiful views of several peaks including Mount Temple. It’s also a great place to stop for lunch and much quieter than Louise.
There are so many options along Icefields Parkway that it would be impossible to list them all. It truly depends on what your interests are and how much time you have. And how motivated you feel. (Also recommend an easy, fun day in Banff)
It also depends HIGHLY on the weather. Many of these trails and hikes are closed in the winter due to the threat of avalanches. Unless you’re snow bunny, the best time to visit is from May through September.
Just remember it will be high season in Canada, which means more humans. Going in May was awesome- still snow making everything glow but most things were accessible. And fewer humans…
So get up early, wear good shoes and pack a lunch. And don’t forget your camera, it’s one of the most beautiful drives in the world!
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