The Icefields Parkway in the heart of the Rocky Mountains is one of the most scenic highways in the world. It stuns with unrivalled beauty between Jasper and Lake Louise.
Four hours spent glued to the window: the drive from Jasper is a never-ending parade of majestic snow-capped mountains, monumental glaciers and widely branched riverbeds. Dense forests snuggle against barren rock faces; autumn-yellow larches sparkle between dark spruces. An image so beguilingly beautiful that it is hard to let go. Behind every bend yet another “Wow” moment. Even the briefest glimpse at a map is synonymous with missing yet another such precious moment. The mood can be likened to a New Year’s fireworks display: here a view into a sweeping side valley, there a three-thousander of the impressive mountain chain reaching majestically for the sky. Situated in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, the Icefields Parkway is 140 miles (232 km) long and rightly considered one of the world’s most spectacular highways.
Stress-free discovery tour
Although Canada’s First Nations people traversed the area thousands of years ago, and it was later used by fur traders as a hunting and trading route, the Icefields Parkway was never considered a transit route. Trucks –unlike cyclists and pedestrians for whom there is a separate hard shoulder– are prohibited on the route. In the early twentieth century, the founding father of today’s visitor-magnet showed foresight by recognising the tourist potential of the “Wonder Trail” in the province of Alberta.
“Through dense primeval forests, muskeg, burnt and fallen timber and along rough and steeply sloping hillsides, a constant flow of travel will demand a broad, well-ballasted motor road,” wrote Irish immigrant Arthur Oliver Wheeler in a 1920 journal entry. From his topographical surveys, the construction of a single-track road finally began in 1931, also as part of a giant scheme to create jobs during the era of the Great Depression. Men, machines and horses were put to work for nine years to complete this epic masterpiece that, today, allows for the surrounding Canadian Rocky Mountains UNESCO World Heritage Site to be experienced so closely.
The Parkway is especially busy in July and August, when up to 100,000 vehicles a month traverse the route – cars, motorbikes, camper vans and, of course, tourist buses. The photo motifs are seamlessly strung together like a precious pearl or diamond necklace: the crystal-clear Athabasca Falls are superseded by the long, star-shaped Peyto Lake whose intense turquoise colour requires no post photo-editing or airbrushing. Framed by the Ten Peaks that reflect on its emerald surface, Moraine Lake makes eyes sparkle. Even hardened locals cannot help but marvel at the sight. At the “must-see” stops, tourist guide Nate is just as busy and excited about taking an infinite number of photographs as the hordes of Asian, American and European day-tourists. “It is impossible to become oversaturated by this landscape. Except, perhaps, if you have a heart of stone,” he says and steers the minivan at a demonstratively leisurely speed of 30 m/h (50 km/h) along Highway 93. The speed permitted is, in fact, between 45 and 55 m/h (70 to 90 km/h). But who wants to hurry here?
Gigantic snow worlds
We take a short toilet break at the Athabasca Glacier. Tourists are transported from the information centre in special off-road omnibuses onto the Columbia Icefield. The route to the ice field is getting longer each year. Where up to half a century ago the ice was metres thick, it has receded and left nothing but scree in its wake. With a surface of 325 square kilometres, the name-giving spectacle of nature along the Icefields Parkway is still one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world. Since 2014, this prodigious snow world can also be viewed from the Glacier Skywalk. The hoof-shaped glass-floored lookout overhangs the valley by 35 metres. Visitors can enjoy the landscape at their feet and the XXL mountain panorama before them from a 280-metre drop. The price: 29 Canadian Dollars. “A right rip-off,” Nate hisses.
The good news: it is easy to escape all the hustle and bustle. Just a few minutes’ drive from the main traffic route things get quieter. Observed from the highest point of the Wilcox Pass Trail, the teeming masses on the car park of the visitor centre shrink to miniature anthill size. The nature reserve is home to thousands of miles of hiking trails. Those who desire to spend more than a day in the Icefields Parkway area should make sure to book overnight accommodation well in advance. Campsites and hotels are just as scarce along the route as opportunities to stock up with food or petrol.
A bit of solitude, a bit of partying and four-legged visitors
The Sunwapta Pass marks the boundary between the Jasper and the Banff National Parks. The two-lane asphalt road meanders gently through the sweeping valley. Rather than in vertiginous serpentines so typical of the Swiss Alps, the highway winds unhurriedly in generous curves up to its highest point, the Bow Summit at 2088 metres above sea level. Mountain goats peep down onto the road from their sheer-face habitat. Wildlife traffic is to be expected here at all times. Moose and deer, but also wolves and coyotes are regularly sighted. And the occasional bear will also deign to cross the tarmac, habitually causing a traffic jam. “In such instances, the motorists pose a greater danger than the wild animals,” Nate reckons. Vehicle drivers will slam on the car brakes without warning, or incautiously jump out of their vehicles in order to capture the moment on camera.
Without question, the “Wonder Trail” is a very busy place. But, ironically, we encounter a surprising calm at otherwise highly frequented spots. Perhaps we are just lucky, or perhaps it is thanks to passionate mountaineer Nate that we take the slightly longer footpath to the viewing point above Moraine Lake. In any event, this priceless sight, which once graced the Canadian twenty dollar bill, we have all to ourselves, for several minutes, without another soul in sight. One final deep breath before it is time to return to civilisation. The Parkway officially ends in Lake Louise. But after a short coffee break in the picturesque Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel, we journey on to Banff and arrive there just before sunset. This is not a problem given that, even if tired from all the fresh mountain air, no one goes to bed early in Banff. People in this lively town with 8000 inhabitants are young, enterprising, international and ready to party. Live music is played every day of the week in the Rose & Crown Pub that serves dangerously good margaritas called “Magpie & Stump”. Rather than in the midst of the wilderness, it feels almost like being in a hip neighbourhood somewhere in Vancouver or Calgary. Were it not for the shop windows that, besides trendy brand garments, have protective bear sprays on display. And as if more proof were needed: a fur-clad farewell committee, made up of deer, turns up at breakfast to graze in the hotel flowerbeds. Oh, Rockies!