Road Trip Along the Icefields Parkway

Last updated at July 06, 2023

Days in Banff can be strenuous and physically challenging. Having back-to-back days of hiking, shopping, and exploring can wear most people out very quickly. Exploring the Icefields Parkway is a great opportunity to take a relaxing drive without the fear of missing out on the many wonderful sights of the Canadian Rockies. Along this 232 kilometer stretch you’ll find yourself amidst tranquil lakes, majestic snow-capped mountains, stunning icefields, and torrential waterfalls. This highway connects the two beautiful national parks of Banff and Jasper; along the route you can visit the viewpoints or hike on less demanding trails and still get those Instagram-caliber photos.

Important Tips

Speaking from experience, there are many things that I wished I had done differently on my drive along the Parkway. These mistakes made my trip much more challenging than I had anticipated, so it’s best to be prepared.

  • Make a plan: before your trip you should allocate some time to plan out your itinerary. If you plan on doing the drive in one day, time is your budget. Figure out which stops you are most interested in and then research: how long is the hike? How much time do I have for pictures? A drive to Jasper along the parkway can take up to 3 and half hours not factoring any traffic. If you manage your time poorly and find yourself driving back very late like I did, you’ll find yourself on a very questionable journey back home in the pitch dark driving alongside 100-meter cliffs dodging nocturnal wildlife along the road. Decide on when you’ll start your day, and give yourself plenty of daylight on your drive back.
  • No service, download everything: besides the two stops along the route that I know of (Saskatchewan River Crossing and Columbia Glaciers Lodge), your cellular devices will be getting zero bars from the minute you enter the parkway all the way until Jasper. The most important thing you can do to save yourself worry is to download an offline map from Google Maps . This way, you can save your itinerary to your map and navigate with ease along the route. I completely forgot about this important Google Maps feature and I ended up missing several stops along my itinerary because I missed the turn. Most of the views and hikes along the parkway have signs a couple kilometers before the trailhead or viewpoint, but some of these signs are either facing the opposing traffic or have been faded out by intensive weather.
  • Keep your eyes open: passengers in the car finally have a more important job than the driver. The parkway is teeming with Canadian wildlife. Along the route you’ll spot signs for goats and elks. At night, I even witnessed a cougar walking nonchalantly on the highway. If you are REALLY lucky, you’ll even spot a bear. One of my favorite moments on this trip was filming a gigantic black bear snacking on a berry bush right next to the road. The moment felt surreal, and if you want to experience memories like these, I cannot stress how important it is to pay attention to the road!
  • No gas unless you have $$$: there is only one stop along the route to get some very overpriced gas, and it’s about halfway along your drive located at the Saskatchewan River Crossing.
  • No food unless you have $$$$$: again, there are only a handful of stops on the drive where you can get food from. I recommend packing a meal or picking up some of the premade ones from Safeway or Save-on-foods.
  • Bring layers: the weather along the parkway fluctuates a lot. Some of the lakes at the beginning of the trip will start out warm, but as you ascend the mountains and get closer to some of the glaciers, the wind chill will kick in fast. I recommend bringing along a windbreaker and longer pants.
LQ freezing near the glaciers
LQ freezing near the glaciers
  • Tickets please: if you haven’t already, you should consider getting a national park pass. Fees for these passes are listed on the official government website for Canadian National Parks but you can also check out my upcoming Banff planning blog post to decide which pass is best for you.

Icefields Parkway Itinerary

Building your itinerary before your drive is highly recommended. I personally decided to go with a very relaxing schedule and opted out of choosing destinations that would've taken me more than an hour to complete. The motto is to get the "best bang for your buck" (or I guess in this case time). Below is a screenshot of the route we took. I had expected to spend about 12 hours in total: 7 hours of driving and 5 hours of sightseeing with an extended break at Jasper. It ultimately ended up taking 14 hours in total to complete the trip, the biggest time factors being a very unlucky road repair causing about an hour of traffic and the slowdown when we drove at night. If you haven’t already, be sure to use my tips above to best manage your time!

Icefields Parkway Itinerary
Icefields Parkway Itinerary

1. Bow Lake Viewpoint

bow lake view point
Rain at Bow Lake Viewpoint

The very first stop on our route is Bow Lake viewpoint. This will be about an hour away from entering the Parkway. You’ll have the opportunity to glance at some of the amazing views of mountain ranges as you drive along the Bow River, but you’ll eventually reach a sign for Bow Lake Viewpoint. It’ll be very crowded in the parking lot as many tourists will be taking pictures here, but you can take the steep descent down to have a more intimate view of the lake from the beach.

lq emai and kevin in front of bow lake
Quick picture before the rain comes back!

2. Peyto Lake Upper Viewpoint

Peyto Lake is a very short drive away from Bow Lake viewpoint. The trail was 15 minutes of exhausting incline, but the view at the end made the effort worth it. The lake had a beautiful turquoise-green shine, a byproduct of rock flour created from the grinding of glaciers against rocks. The view of Peyto Lake was almost equivalent to Lake Louise on the Big Beehive trail, but at a tenth of the effort.

View at the Peyto Lake Upper Viewpoint
View at the Peyto Lake Upper Viewpoint

There is an additional trail called the Peyto Lake Panorama Overlook which will take up an additional hour but draw you away from the busy crowds. At the overlook, you can also spot the lake’s source Peyto glacier. Because of the time restraints, my party opted out of the hike, but it is worth doing if you are drawn into the lake’s beauty!

3. Big Bend

Big bend is about an hour drive away from Peyto Lake, and it’s impossible to miss. After hitting the hardest downhill right-turn bend I’ve done in a vehicle, you’ll climb to a viewpoint stop at the apex. There you can take a peek at the highway cutting between the beautiful valley.

Big Bend Valley
Big Bend Valley

4. Panther Falls

Panther Falls from Big Bend Viewpoint
Panther Falls from Big Bend Viewpoint

Panther Falls can be spotted from the Big Bend viewpoint! This is the first waterfall of many in my itinerary. The trailhead is just up ahead on the bend and will take approximately 30-45 minutes to complete. Unfortunately, because of some traffic we experienced, my group decided to skip out on these falls.

5. Athabasca Glacier

From the bend, it’s about a 20 minute drive until you arrive at one of the more popular attractions on the Icefield Parkway: the Athabasca Glaciers. We accidentally did the Forefield Trail, which was a rocky and challenging 40 minute hike to the actual trailhead (we missed an additional road that was slightly hidden that brought you to a parking lot much closer to the glaciers). Fortunately, we were able to capitalize on the breathtaking views the longer trail offered and trekked along small streams formed from the melting glaciers.

Rock Stacking on Forefield Trail
Rock Stacking on Forefield Trail

After reaching the toe of Athabasca, it’s about a 15 minute hike up to the edge of the glacier. Along the way, you’ll learn from the information boards the depressing effects of climate change on the glaciers and the staggering loss it endured.

kevin crying from climate change
group photo at the toe of athabasca

The Columbia Icefield tour buses can take you further up the glacier but tickets can go up to 100 dollars CAD. The ticket provides an additional experience on the Icefield Skywalk, but the queue times can be very long and requires a separate shuttle bus system. I also thought that it was extremely ironic that buses do their excursions over these poor glaciers and have humans tramp over the ice. The combination of the over-expensive ticket prices and the shameless operations for their “attraction” was reason enough for our party to skip the tour.

6. Tangle Creek Falls

tangle creek falls
kevin in front of tangle creek falls
Tangle Creek Falls next to the Parkway

This small waterfall was not on the itinerary, but the sight of it was so pretty we decided to make a spontaneous pit stop to check it out. It’s about 5-10 minutes away from the Athabasca Glacier and is situated right next to the road. Getting here can be a little precarious though as the parking lot is across the street from the actual falls and most of the foot traffic is dangerously close to the highway.

7. Sunwapta Falls

LQ and Kevin attempting to locate Sunwapta Falls
LQ and Kevin attempting to locate Sunwapta Falls

Sunwapta falls is about a 30 minute drive away from Tangle Creek Falls. The trail is an extremely easy 15 minute out-and-back and features a stunning view of the falls from a bridge. By following the fence, you can get even closer to the falls and bask in its epicness.

Bridge overlooking Sunwapta Falls
Bridge overlooking Sunwapta Falls

8. Athabasca Falls

Finally, the Parkway saved one of the best for last. Located about 15 minutes away from Sunwapta Falls, Athabasca Falls definitely stepped up the waterfall game to the next level. Just the size and grandeur of the fall itself is very impressive.

Mels and Anne in front of Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Canyon
Anne and Mels at Athabasca Falls (left) canyons and gorges of Athabasca (right)

You’ll also find some very crazy rock formations and canyons along the trail caused by the raging intensity of the falls. The trail leads you into this narrow stair path where you’re sandwiched between sheets of rock; it makes a great environment for pictures!

Sheets of Rock on the Trail
Sheets of Rock along the Trail