Thursday, April 25, 2019

A Family Guide to the BEST Adventures on the Icefields Parkway (Lake Louise to Jasper)

The Icefields Parkway is one of the world's most beautiful driving tours, and with a bit of careful planning (and willingness to go for a short hike,) it's actually possible to escape the crowds!

Bow Summit Lookout, Icefields Parkway, Banff National Park

We love exploring and hiking on the Icefields Parkway because once you get a half hour past Lake Louise, the crowds start to thin out a bit, and the scenery is every bit as spectacular! Yes, it's still busy in the middle of summer, but we're talking 50 people at a popular viewpoint instead of 200! (Step into a pair of hiking boots and it's easy to leave the crowds behind completely!)

Quick Intro: Where I'm Sending you to Explore

The Icefields Parkway, Highway 93 North, connects the Village of Lake Louise in Banff National Park with the Town of Jasper in Jasper National Park to the north. 

The parkway is 232 kilometres in distance and without stops you can complete the drive in 2.5 to 3 hours from Lake Louise to Jasper. From Calgary, you can easily drive out to Louise, enjoy a stop or two along the Parkway, and still arrive in Jasper for dinner that night.

Precautionary notes before heading out:
Panther Falls, Icefields Parkway

  • This area sees a very long winter! Expect lingering snow on trails into early to mid July.

  • Bring a pair of gloves, a hat, and layers of clothing including a warm sweater and a jacket any time you travel through this area. It generally won't go above 20 C in the daytime and it can easily drop to 5 degrees Celsius at night (even in the middle of summer.)

  • You can hike to the toe of a glacier on this highway (without climbing!) Again, bring warm clothes and don't rely on a pair of sandals as your footwear of choice while out exploring.

  • There is ONE gas station located between Lake Louise and Jasper, at Saskatchewan River Crossing, and you shouldn't need me to tell you that the gas there is not cheap. Fill up before you start your drive!

  • There is no cell coverage for the entire duration of the drive between Louise and Jasper. Make sure you're prepared before you start out.

  • Services are limited and any food you'll find is expensive. Pack snacks and a lunch for your trip rather than relying on the busy cafeterias at the Saskatchewan River Crossing or at the Columbia Icefields Centre. - Also know that there are only services available in the summer (June - September.) Winter travel on the Parkway is a bigger adventure.

  • The speed limit is 90 Km/hour. Don't speed! Expect to encounter wildlife, hikers crossing the highway, or slow moving vehicles at any time. Chances are you'll be driving well under 90 at times. - And do not get outside your vehicle if you see an animal that you absolutely must take a photo of (or stop in the middle of the road!)

  • A park pass is required to drive this highway (even if you don't stop.) You can purchase a day pass at the gates as you leave either Lake Louise or Jasper if you don't have an annual Discovery Pass. 

Standing on the Athabasca Glacier, Icefields Parkway 

Our Favourite Adventures along the Icefields Parkway 

Below are our favourite adventures along the Icefields Parkway, starting in the south and working north towards Jasper.

This list will grow each year as we discover new things to do, so it won't always be a top ten list. And yes, you should save it for the future since I'll keep adding to it.

Finally, for driving locations, open Google Maps and you should be able to find each destination. There's also a good map here on the Parks Canada website

All links below provide more information on the hike or destination. 

Red Chairs on the Wilcox Pass Trail, Icefields Parkway

1. Hiking to Helen Lake 

We haven't done this hike since our son was a baby and we carried him up to the lake in a child carrier. Time to return! 

The hike is 6 km one way so save the adventure until your children can tackle a 12 km hike with 455 metres of height gain. You'll be rewarded with gorgeous views when you arrive at the lake and hopefully lots of marmots running around in the boulders.

Gorgeous scenery en route to Helen Lake along the Icefields Parkway 

2. Hiking around Bow Lake (with an extension to Bow Glacier Falls)

There's an easy trail around the shoreline of Bow Lake to the back of the lake. Escape the crowds by hiking further to Bow Glacier Falls (4.6 km one way.)

For a paddle-hike adventure, paddle across the lake and then continue on foot to Bow Glacier Falls. (This has been on our list of things to do for years. Hopefully this is the year!)

Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway 

Want a bigger adventure? Take the kids on an overnight backpacking trip up to the Bow Hut, one of the Alpine Club of Canada huts. The hut can be reached in an 8 km hike from the parking lot at Bow Lake. 

We spent a night at the Bow Hut in 2019. Read about the adventure here: Bow Hut Family Alpine Adventure 

Bow Glacier Falls above Bow Lake 

3. Hiking to the Bow Summit Lookout from Peyto Lake 

Enjoy a beautiful hike to the Peyto Lake Lookout.

Then, leave the crowds behind for the 2.9 km one way hike to the Bow Summit Lookout (where you'll get views of Bow Lake.)

And there are usually lots of marmots on this trail as an added bonus for the kids.

2021 UPDATE:  This area has been closed as of August 2019 for repairs to the parking lot. It will not open for the 2021 season. 

Hiking to the Bow Summit Lookout with views of Peyto Lake below 

4. Hiking to the bottom of Panther Falls at the Big Bend 

Between Saskatchewan River Crossing and the Columbia Icefields Centre you will drive up a big hill and around the "big bend" hairpin turn. There are two parking lots on the Big Bend, each provided for tourists to pull over and take photos. Pull over into the uppermost parking lot at the top of the Big Bend.

Escape the crowds in the parking lot by hiking down the signed trail (far right side of the parking lot) to the bottom of Panther Falls in an easy 0.5 km outing. (Just warn the kids in advance that they will be hiking down to the falls and that they'll have to climb back up after.)

Panther Falls, Icefields Parkway 

5. Hiking Parker Ridge to the Saskatchewan Glacier Viewpoint 

This is an easy hike and was one of my son's first big solo hikes without the child carrier. The Parker Ridge Hike is only 2.7 km one way and you'll gain 250 metres on the well switch-backed trail.

From the top of the ridge enjoy views of the Saskatchewan Glacier and off-trail rambling in either direction. If you're fortunate enough to be staying at the HI Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel, you can follow the ridge all the way towards the Hilda Glacier and descend a creek down to the hostel in a beautiful day trip.

Read More about our adventures here:

Hiking along Parker Ridge, Icefields Parkway 

6. Visiting the Columbia Icefields Centre and walking on the Athabasca Glacier 

We've visited the Columbia Icefields Centre many times and you can read all about our adventures in the following stories:

Standing on the Athabasca Glacier, Columbia Icefields Adventure 

Read more about tours offered here including the Icefield Glacier Adventure where you ride a snow coach out onto the glacier, and the Skywalk, a cliff-edged glass sidewalk and observation platform with fantastic views! 

Glacier Skywalk and Observation Platform with Mount Athabasca in the background 

And for those who'd rather hike across the glacier rather than riding a bus, check out the tours offered by the Athabasca Glacier Icewalks company. The full day tour takes you to the far end of the glacier and the base of the icefalls (much further than you'll go on the snowcoach bus tour.)

Take a guided tour on the Athabasca Glacier

7. Hiking the Wilcox Pass Trail in Jasper National Park

Reach the Columbia Icefields Centre and you're officially in Jasper National Park now.

Wilcox Pass is one of our favourite hikes along the Icefields Parkway for easy access to great views. It's only 2.4 km return if you want to reach the first viewpoint, which is ideal if you're traveling to Jasper and need a rest stop to stretch the legs (and let the kids burn off some energy.)

If you have more time and energy, you can hike all the way to the pass in an 8 km return hike. Elevation gain is only 390 metres as well so this is not a challenging hike.

Views from the Wilcox Pass Hike, Jasper National Park 

8. Visiting Sunwapta and Athabasca Falls 

Next up on the drive north to Jasper, you'll pass the day use areas for Sunwapta Falls and Athabasca Falls. If you only have time for one, stop at Athabasca Falls. If you have time for both, they are short walks and mostly a good excuse to get out of the car to stretch the legs. (Though Athabasca Falls are pretty spectacular.)

Prepare to be overwhelmed by tourists at both spots as they are very popular with tourist busses.

Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park 

9. Jasper Sky Tram and Hiking to the top of Whistlers Summit

This one is not cheap, but it's 100% worth the expense! From the upper station of the sky tram, the summit is only 200 metres above you and the views are phenomenal as you leisurely hike through the alpine environment for 1.2 km (one way,) on the lookout for marmots.

I'll never get tired of this hike, and you'll leave two thirds of the crowds behind as soon as you start hiking towards the summit.

Read more about the Jasper Sky Tram here

Hiking through alpine meadows en route to the Whistlers Summit off the Jasper Sky Tram

And now that you've officially arrived in the Town of Jasper, you'll want to check out these stories below:

Our Top Ten Favourite Things to do in Jasper 

Where to Camp in the National Parks of Alberta 

Viewpoint above the Jasper Sky Tram on the hike to Whistlers Summit

Need accommodations and don't want to camp? Check out the accommodations offered by Hosteling International Canada. HI Canada operates and maintains many wilderness hostels across the Rockies, 6 of which are located along the Icefields Parkway!

HI Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel on the Icefields Parkway 

Below are wilderness hostels located on the Icefields Parkway (links go to the website or to a story I've written on that hostel:)

The hostels are in order as you'd pass them from south to north.

HI Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel

HI Rampart Creek Wilderness Hostel

HI Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel

HI Beauty Creek Wilderness Hostel

HI Edith Cavell Wilderness Hostel

HI Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel

And there is a great non-wilderness hostel in Jasper as well that's very comfortable with private rooms. Read more about it here:


  1. This will be the summer I finally get to Peyto Lake. I hope! Some fab suggestions here!

  2. Really appreciate these articles and tips!

  3. thanks - great information