Travel Guide: Columbia Icefields & Athabasca Glacier

I recently had the opportunity to camp along the Icefield Highway. I’ve always wanted to spend more time in this corridor but never have taken the initiative- until now. We tented near the Icefield’s Discovery Centre in Jasper National Park and used that as our base. There is a reason this glacier is the most visited one in North America. Not only is it extremely accessible but it’s absolutely stunning.

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Before you Go:

  1. It’s cold! There are prevailing winds coming off of the glacier, and the discovery centre sits at high elevation. Even during the summer, it can regularly get to zero degrees. If camping, bring a minimum -7 sleeping bag. If hiking, bring lots of layers.

  2. Gas up before you hit the road. Gas stations are periodically spaced.

  3. There aren’t any grocery stores nearby. The closest full store would be Jasper (100km away) or Saskatchewan Crossing which has limited supplies.

  4. The best time to visit is May-September.


Food:

The Icefield’s Discovery Centre has a restaurant as well as a cafe. The restaurant is buffet only for breakfast and lunch. Dinner is “reservations required”. The cafe has limited hours.

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Accommodations:

If luxury is your thing then the Glacier View Lodge situated right across from the Athabasca Glacier looks divine.
If you’re okay with pitching a tent or hauling a trailer, there are many campgrounds nearby. Camping is self-registration and “first come first served.”
Icefield Tent is a fantastic tent-only campground minutes away from the Icefield Centre.
Wilcox Pass is available for tents and motorhome/campers under 27’ also minutes away from the Icefield Centre.
Icefield Centre RV is right in the parking lot of the centre and fits motorhome, trailer, and RVs.
Jonas Creek Campground has motorhome and walk-in tent camp sites but is some distance from the centre.
Visit Jasper National Park Camping for up-to-date information. There are also many other accommodation options further away from the Glaciers.

Our Favourite 3 Hikes:
(Okay well it’s kind of a lie because they are the only hikes we did.)

Wilcox Pass:

Elevation Gain: 400m
Distance: 8 km return
Time: 3-5 hours
Difficulty: Moderate
There is also a possibility to continue to Tangle Creek Falls but I could not find concrete information on distance and elevation gain.

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AllTrails rates this route as moderate, but I saw families of all ages on this trail and people of all fitness levels. In my honest opinion most people could conquer it, it’s just about pacing yourself. There are also many areas that offer outstanding views, so if you are short on time/stamina it’s always possible to turn around before you reach the final viewpoint.

The actual trailhead is at Wilcox Pass but there is a steep shortcut right from “Icefield Tent Camping”. The trail stems off of the “walk-in” camping and follows the waterfall up the mountain. This shortcut is quite steep and covered in fallen rock. Good hiking shoes are recommended. For a more beginner friendly route- start from the actual trailhead.

The trail starts with a bit of a climb before opening up into the alpine. Views of the Athabasca Glacier are available in several areas along the trail. Once we reached the alpine we were graced with visits from Bighorn Sheep and Groundhogs. The trail does split off in a couple minor spots but just stay on the main trail as those lead back to the main trail anyway. The flowers and plants in the alpine are very fragile and sticking to the main trail helps protect them. We made the mistake of following a couple off of the main trail and having to pick our way through the remnants of a faded old path.

We sat for lunch well before we reached the final viewpoint because we wanted to bask in the glory of the glaciers and rams in peace. It was a magical lunch.

From there we continued past the trail fork to “Tangle Falls” up to the final viewpoint where we gazed upon exceptional panoramic views of the glaciers. I took a couple of photos but Gaia was set on climbing to the summit, so we doubled back to the trail that led to the summit. We climbed to the bottom of the scramble and then sat for another treat before deciding against a late summit and heading back down.

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This is a “do not miss” trail, even if you only climb the first kilometre you will not be disappointed. There are a set of Parks Canada red chairs that offer a stunning view if you start from the trailhead- we missed them because we started from the tent camping.

The payoff for all of that climbing up Wilcox Pass.

The payoff for all of that climbing up Wilcox Pass.


Parker Ridge:

Elevation Gain: 269m
Distance: 5km return
Time: 1.5-3 hours
Difficulty: moderate

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This trail is also rated as moderate but I once again saw families of all ages trekking up the mountain. This trail is a series of switchbacks and you gain elevation quickly. A sense of pride will well up inside of you as you realize how high above the highway you already are when you look back. We visited mid-July and there were tons of wildflowers dotting the trail.

The switchbacks carry on almost to the top of the trail, and then there is a bit of a long climb before the trail splits. Here you have the option of climbing over the the official viewpoint that offers a fantastic view of the glacier, or you can go right up the ridge for panoramic views of the valley below. I don’t think there is a better choice, both are great. The ridge has a couple of little rock shelters built along it to protect visitors from the prevailing winds.

There are fossils galore to be found on this trail. It was tough to remind my daughter that we strictly abide by “leave no trace” meaning we leave nothing behind and take nothing- she wanted to bring a fossil home so badly. I told her if everyone took one then there would be none left for other kids to look at. That seemed to work.

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Toe of Athabasca Glacier:

Elevation: 60m
Distance: 1.8 km return
Time: 30 minutes- 1 hour
Difficulty: easy

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This is really more of a jaunt than a hike. It doesn’t take too long, and is quite informative. The trail is littered with signs showing how far the glacier has receded in the past years. Walking on the glacier is not possible anymore unless you book an IceWalk (available at the Icefield Discovery Centre). If you are planning on spending some time in Jasper or Banff you can save 15% by booking a deluxe package.

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Other Activities:

Columbia Icefield Glacier Walk

Columbia Icefield Skywalk

We didn’t do either of these activities, but are hoping to make it back sometime soon.

More resources: AllTrails, Jasper Tourism, & Parks Canada.