Travelers on the Icefields Parkway stop for another amazing view

The natural world just doesn’t get any more beautiful than what you’ll find in Alberta’s Banff and Jasper National Parks. The sharp peaks of the Canadian Rockies dominate everything, and when you throw in icy turquoise lakes, roaming wildlife and everything in between, the combined 6,700 square miles of Parks Canada-protected land deserve all the time you can give them.

When visiting both, it turns out, a lot of that time will be spent on the road. Luckily, it’s not just any road that connects Banff and Jasper—it’s the Icefields Parkway, recognized as one of National Geographic’s 50 “Drives of a Lifetime.”

The Icefields Parkway, otherwise known as Highway 93, stretches 144 miles north to south through the exaggerated earth of the Canadian Rockies. It’s an absolutely unreal drive, one that in about seven hours (Banff to Jasper and back) inspired me at once to greater love for our planet and to hate the Massachusetts Turnpike even more.

I just couldn’t get enough of the experience, even when things went “wrong.” In fact, my favorite part of the journey between the two parks was probably our driver’s least favorite—when our motorcoach’s engine overheated and we had to pull over to clean the filter. As it happened, across the road from ground zero was a waterfall cascading down a giant rock face. I spent our down time scaling it and found impossibly fresh water and incredible views up above. Ten minutes later we were back on the road taking it all in once more.

Snow-tipped rock faces shooting skyward, massive glaciers slithering between them, roadside waterfalls and turquoise lakes just begging to be photographed—it really is, as the Banff Crag and Canyon famously put it, “20 Switzerlands in one.” Better yet, the Icefields Parkway is the Canadian Rockies experience—Banff and Jasper—by road, and it’s where a journey into both begins.

Tips for driving the Icefields Parkway:

  • There are long stretches without rest stops, so bring food and water
  • Gas is only available at one place—The Crossing Resort, near the halfway point—and it runs pretty expensive, so fill up before you get there
  • The speed limit is 55 mph (90 km/h) for most of the way, but expect it to slow in July and August, when the road sees about 100,000 cars a month
  • Wildlife sightings are common, but not for tourists; watch for vehicles and people wandering/stopped on the road

Helpful leads:

  • From the archives: Cool Popular Mechanics story on its construction from 1933
  • The company to take you if you need a coach (ask for Ian Hipkins)
The coach rests on the side of the Parkway as the Rockies loom behind it

Banff National Park

Canada’s first National Park (established 1885) spans more than 2500 square miles. It takes its name from Banffshire, Scotland, the hometown of two founders of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which played a huge role in popularizing the park as a tourist destination. These days, it might be a little too popular. At iconic spots like Lake Louise, the hordes of the camera-wielding are a little overwhelming, and the town of Banff itself no longer offers the quiet charm befitting of this rustic paradise. But that doesn’t really matter—the “touristy” label is relative when talking about 2500 square miles of National Park, and in town, tourists dollars help maintain a pretty awesome bar scene.

Just an hour-and-a-half-long drive west from Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1), Banff National Park requires visitors to pay a small fee at the park entrance, where the Icefields Parkway begins. Daily passes are no more than $10 CAN per person, and it’s an absolute steal given what you’ll find inside.

Lake Louise and Chateau Lake Louise sit a few minutes off the Icefields Parkway

Must-sees:

  • Bow Lake
  • Lake Louise
  • Peyto Lake
  • Upper Hot Springs
  • Moraine Lake
  • Lake Minnewanka
  • Crowfoot Glacier

Helpful leads:

Where to stay: The iconic, 770-room The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel really is the “Castle in the Rockies” it claims to be. The rooms are on the smaller side, but beyond that, the classic style, luxury, and history here (Marilyn Monroe is one of many distinguished guests to stay here) provide a one-of-a-kind hotel experience. A round at the historic Stanley Thompson 18-hole golf course, too, is worth the steep Green Fee.

Jasper National Park

North of Banff National Park along the British Columbia border, Jasper National Park spans about 4200 square miles, making it the largest National Park in the Canadian Rockies. It features the same incredible mountain-dominated terrain that Banff does, but with fewer tourists—though without as many outlets for outdoor excursions as well. This, I was told, can be traced back to Banff’s association with the Canadian Pacific Railway, whose president, William Cornelius Van Horne, famously said of the area, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.” The Rocky Mountain wilderness he spoke of is just as worthy of us imports in Jasper, and thanks to Van Horne, the central town (Jasper) is actually a bit cheaper on the wallet.

Coming from Calgary, the park is about three to four more hours from Banff on the Icefields Parkway. Again, a fee is required to enter the park, but if you’ve already paid for the day at Banff, you’ll be all set.

Visitor-made rock piles in front of the Athabasca Glacier

Must-sees:

  • Athabasca Glacier
  • Athabasca Falls
  • Snow Dome
  • Miette Hot Springs
  • Pyramid Mountain

Helpful leads:

Where to stay: The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge finds the perfect balance between rustic retreat and modern luxury. Warm, comfortable cabin-style rooms are spread across an incredible property that includes stunning Lake Beauvert, a boathouse, and a historic 18-hole Stanley Thompson golf course. The breakfast spread was also unusually impressive.

When to visit the Canadian Rockies

The best time to hit the road is between June and September. During these summer months, the Banff and Jasper landscapes are at their most brilliant, and the days are long and warm, with average temperatures hovering around the 70 degree mark. There are more tourists this time of year, but the tradeoff is you won’t have to deal with icy roads, chain/radial tire regulations and road closures, all issues in the winter. Plus, with 14-16 hours of daylight each day, you’ll have plenty of time to explore some of the area’s most spectacular spots—with time left over to try a true Alberta classic, the Bloody Caesar (much better than it sounds).

Helpful tip: Even in summer, the area’s microclimates—quick-changing, concentrated weather pockets brought on by elevation changes and mountain-hugging Chinook winds—allow for unexpected cold fronts. Pack some warmer gear just to be safe.

Elk beside the Icefields Parkway in Banff
Elk beside the Icefields Parkway in Banff
Crowfoot Glacier (part of Columbia Icefields) in Banff from the Icefields Parkway
Crowfoot Glacier (part of Columbia Icefields) in Banff from the Icefields Parkway
On the road to the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park
On the road to the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park
Sign pointing the ways to Jasper and Lake Louise on the Parkway
Sign pointing the ways to Jasper and Lake Louise on the Parkway
The Rockies whiz by quietly on the Icefields Parkway
The Rockies whiz by quietly on the Icefields Parkway
Black bear in Banff on the side of Icefields Parkway
Black bear in Banff on the side of Icefields Parkway
North Saskatchewan River from Icefields Parkway
North Saskatchewan River from Icefields Parkway
Bow Lake during a stop on the side of the Icefields Parkway
Bow Lake during a stop on the side of the Icefields Parkway
Lake Louise and Chateau Lake Louise sit a few minutes off the Icefields Parkway
Lake Louise and Chateau Lake Louise sit a few minutes off the Icefields Parkway
Classic view at Lake Louise
Classic view at Lake Louise
A girl looks out over Lake Louise with her feet in the cool water
A girl looks out over Lake Louise with her feet in the cool water
My room at The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
My room at The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
View from my room at The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
View from my room at The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Main courses at the Bow Valley Grill at The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Main courses at the Bow Valley Grill at The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Seared venison medallions at Bow Valley Grill
Seared venison medallions at Bow Valley Grill
Late night jazz plays in one of The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel's many lobbies
Late night jazz plays in one of The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel's many lobbies
Part of the impressive spa facility at The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Part of the impressive spa facility at The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Delicious ribeye with garlic butter at Saltlik restaurant in Banff
Delicious ribeye with garlic butter at Saltlik restaurant in Banff
Duck confit tacos with hoison sauce at Saltlik restaurant in Banff
Duck confit tacos with hoison sauce at Saltlik restaurant in Banff
Too many mountains to keep track of—but all gorgeous
Too many mountains to keep track of—but all gorgeous
Travelers on the Icefields Parkway stop for a view of the Rockies
Travelers on the Icefields Parkway stop for a view of the Rockies
Walking up the rocky hill to the Athabasca Glacier
Walking up the rocky hill to the Athabasca Glacier
In front of the Athabasca Glacier
In front of the Athabasca Glacier
Visitor-made rock piles in front of the Athabasca Glacier
Visitor-made rock piles in front of the Athabasca Glacier
One of many mountain-lake combos on the Jasper side of the Parkway
One of many mountain-lake combos on the Jasper side of the Parkway
A friendly stuffed bear family at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
A friendly stuffed bear family at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
My room at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
My room at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
My bathroom at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
My bathroom at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
Protein at Moose's Nook restaurant at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
Protein at Moose's Nook restaurant at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
Daily special at the Moose's Nook: bison short ribs
Daily special at the Moose's Nook: bison short ribs
Delicious and confusing fried watermelon with prosciutto at Moose's Nook
Delicious and confusing fried watermelon with prosciutto at Moose's Nook
Moose's Nook restaurant at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
Moose's Nook restaurant at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
A sign points the ways to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake just off the Parkway
A sign points the ways to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake just off the Parkway
Ian the driver inspecting the coach's overheated engine
Ian the driver inspecting the coach's overheated engine
Waterfall across the road from where the coach pulled off
Waterfall across the road from where the coach pulled off
Roadside waterfall from below, yet above the Parkway
Roadside waterfall from below, yet above the Parkway
View from atop roadside waterfall
View from atop roadside waterfall
The coach rests on the side of the Parkway as the Rockies loom behind it
The coach rests on the side of the Parkway as the Rockies loom behind it
Bloody Caesar
Bloody Caesar

 

Ian Livingston
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1 Comment On "Banff to Jasper on the Icefields Parkway"
  1. Brianna Langley|

    I’ve visited Rocky Mountains in Switzerland and Colorado before, and this looks like a beautiful mixture of both of those places. The one thing I missed during my visits was wildlife sitings, but it looks as though there is no shortage of that on the Canadian Rockies! I would absolutely love to visit sometime.

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