The largest and most accessible of 17 glacial areas along the Icefields Parkway is 325-square-kilometer (125-square-mile) Columbia Icefield, 132 kilometers (82 miles) north from Lake Louise and 105 kilometers (65 miles) south from Jasper. It’s a remnant of the last major glaciation that covered most of Canada 20,000 years ago, and it has survived because of its elevation at 1,900–2,800 meters (6,230–9,190 feet) above sea level, cold temperatures, and heavy snowfalls.
From the main body of the ice cap, which sits astride the Continental Divide, six glaciers creep down three main valleys. Of these, Athabasca Glacier is the most accessible and can be seen from the Icefields Parkway; it is one of the world’s few glaciers that you can drive right up to.
The magnificent Icefield Centre is nestled at the base of Mount Wilcox, overlooking the Athabasca Glacier. It is a staging point for tours onto the glacier, but also has the Glacier Gallery, a display area detailing all aspects of the frozen world, including the story of glacier formation and movement. Back on the main floor of the center you’ll find a Parks Canada information desk (780/852-6288), a tour ticketing desk, restrooms, and a large gift shop.
Upstairs you’ll find a variety of uninspired eateries. (For northbound travelers, my advice is to pick up lunch at Laggan’s Mountain Bakery in Lake Louise.) The entire Icefield Centre closes down for the winter in mid-October, reopening the following year in mid-April. During summer, the complex (including display area) is open daily 9 a.m.–11 p.m., with reduced hours outside of July and August.
Across from the Icefield Centre, an unpaved road leads down through piles of till left by the retreating Athabasca Glacier to a parking area beside Sunwapta Lake. Like all glaciers, the broken surface of the Athabasca is especially hazardous because snow bridges can hide its deep crevasses.
The safest way to experience the glacier firsthand is aboard an Ice Explorer, a specially developed vehicle with balloon tires that can travel over the crevassed surface. A 90-minute tour includes informative commentary and time spent walking on a section of the glacier that has been checked for crevasses. Tours operate 9 a.m.–5 p.m. mid-April–mid-October (try to plan your tour for before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m. to miss the tour-bus crowd) and cost adult $47, child $23.
No reservations are taken; instead head to the ticketing office on the main level of the Icefield Centre. For tour information, contact Brewster (403/762-6700, www.explorerockies.com).
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition