Friday, August 20, 2021

Take your Family on a Guided Hike across the Athabasca Glacier

August is rapidly flying by, and with it grows my list of "summer fun activities not yet completed." Our list gets longer every year and it includes simple things such as "spend a day at a beach" or "ride a rollercoaster," all the way up to "go backcountry camping" or "camp on an island."

Of the more adventurous things on our annual summer fun list, one is always very challenging to complete, and that's "walk across a glacier" - because after all, how many glaciers do you know near Calgary where you can just walk up to the ice, hop on, and go for a stroll with the kids? (The answer, is not many!)

Checking fun off the annual summer list including "walk across a glacier!"

It's not every day you get to walk across a glacier with your kids!

Why Glaciers are so Special!

In three words, because "glaciers are disappearing!" If you've visited the Columbia Icefields Centre in Alberta, you're likely familiar with the Athabasca Glacier and the signs that you'll pass by as you drive up to the glacier telling you that in 1920 the glacier reached this point, or in 1960 it reached this new point. Even my husband can recall visiting the Athabasca Glacier as a child in the early '80s and it was much closer to the highway than it is now. It is rapidly receding each year and one has to wonder, how many years do we have left?

"Even if we significantly curb emissions in the coming decades, more than a third of the world's remaining glaciers will melt before the year 2100." - World Wildlife Org.


My husband remembers vividly his first visit to the Athabasca Glacier as a child, so much so that he was able to tell our son all about the experience. And I want my son to be able to do the same for his children, those children to their children, etc.

We are a "seize the moment" family and we try to take full advantage of every fleeting opportunity. This includes walking across 10 000 year old glaciers and trying to plan one glacier walk every summer somewhere in Alberta or BC.

Walking across a giant 10 000 year old sheet of ice!


The Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Icefields

If you drive from Lake Louise to Jasper, you'll pass by the Columbia Icefields Centre where you can visit the Athabasca Glacier. 

The Athabasca Glacier is a giant sheet of ice dating back 10 000 years. It is one of the glaciers that flows down from the Columbia Icefield, one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world.

Facts: 

  • The Athabasca Glacier is one of the six principal 'toes' of the Columbia Icefield - Wikipedia

  • The glacier currently loses depth at a rate of about 5 metres per year and has receded more than 1.5 km and lost over half of its volume in the past 125 years. - Wikipedia

  • The glacier still covers an area of approximately 6 sq km (2.3 sq mi) and at its thickest, measures 300 m (980 ft). - Travel Alberta 

  • The glacier is approximately 6 km (3.7 mi) long if you were to traverse it from the toe all the way up to the Icefield. - Wikipedia

On our recent tour, we hiked about 4.5 km up the Athabasca Glacier until we reached the large icefall below the icefield.

We spent 6 hours hiking across this giant sheet of ice as a family


Guided Tours with Athabasca Glacier Ice Walks 


We recently had the opportunity to join a guided full day tour with the Athabasca Glacier Ice Walks company on the border of Jasper National Park at the Columbia Icefields Centre. We met our guide in the parking lot closest to the toe of the glacier and there we were outfitted with any gear we'd need for our tour.

Our guide provided the spikes we'd need to walk on the ice and also had rain pants or hiking boots if anybody needed extra gear. There were 8 people on our tour (including my family and two friends who had come with us.) 

Approaching the glacier with our group

We had chosen the full day tour which would involve hiking across the glacier for 6 hours (9 km in distance return) to reach the icefall at the end of the lower glacier. For families wanting a shorter tour, there is also the half day option which does not reach the icefall, but still visits many mill wells and cool features on the glacier.

Both full day and half day tours go well beyond the spot that you'd get to visit if you were to take one of the giant snow coach busses onto the glacier. We had done that in the past, but wanted to go outside the "safe, machine packed area of the glacier" this time. We wanted a shot at the "real deal" this time, walking across the wild and natural glacier to see the ice in all its splendor.

The bus that we did not take! (We waved and then we passed them to go further up the glacier)

We got to have lunch inside the bottom of the icefall, which was crazy awesome, and our guide made many stops to tell us all about the glacier, its features, its uniqueness, and its history. 

Lunch inside the icefall at the end of the lower glacier 

And, I'd like to point out that you're welcome to ask questions and to "guide" the experience to receive the value and education you'd like to gain. Depending on the age of your children or youth, what they're studying in science, and what your family's passions are, you might have different topics you'd like your guide to address from climate change to in depth facts about glaciology and the history of ice.

My family had lots of questions around the surrounding mountains, climbing routes and how to make one's way through the icefall. We were especially interested in mill wells, crevasses, and the unique features of the ice. And at least one of us was very keen to get inside the ice if our guide found a tube or cave to explore (which unfortunately we didn't this time - but our guide did try!)

Our guide checking out a cool feature to see if we could go inside to explore

The guides are also excellent at "reading" the group. Ours could tell that we were a fast, strong, group and that we were especially interested in the ice itself. He took us up a bit higher into the icefall to have lunch and explore.

So please, use your guide to answer the questions that you as a family have. They are extremely knowledgeable and even my husband learned a lot (and he's been exploring glaciers on mountaineering trips for over 15 years.)

WOW Moment: In the photo below, the kids stand beside a metal post with yellow tape at the top. The glacier reached the top of that tape just 15 days before this photo was taken! And the pole was standing upright when the glacier reached the top!



Indigenous Led Tours with Athabasca Glacier Ice Walks 


Families will also be interested in knowing that you can join an Indigenous Led Tour where two guides will take you out on the ice, one focusing on glaciology and the history of the ice (as our guide did on our tour,) the other, a local Indigenous Interpretive Guide and Educator, sharing his unique perspective with an acknowledgement of the land from a First Nations perspective.

"Athabasca Glacier IceWalks is thrilled to be partnering with Zuc’min Guiding to provide guests with a learning opportunity with Tim Patterson, Indigenous Interpretive Guide and Educator, and ACMG Hiking Guide.
Guests will learn about the historical and current significance of the Columbia Icefield region through an Indigenous lens. Though no single Indigenous group was settled in the region, the mountain passes were used by several Nations for trading, both pre and post-European contact. From an ecological perspective, the Athabasca Glacier plays a critical hydrological role, supporting ecosystems and communities across North America. This walk will promote an understanding and appreciation of the importance of this water resource, today and into the future."

This is a half day, 3 hour tour, so you will not reach the icefall on this walk. 

Learn about the significance of the Columbia Icefield from an Indigenous perspective 

Highlights of our Tour: Exploring the Mill Wells 

I've walked on several glaciers before and have climbed many mountains requiring a glacier ascent. Never though have I seen giant mill wells like we did on the Athabasca Glacier. My son screamed when he got to peer down into the first one, and we were all left awe-struck at each and every one.

"A moulin (or mill well) is a roughly circular, vertical well-like shaft within a glacier or ice sheet which water enters from the surface. The term is derived from the French word for mill. They can be up to 10 meters wide and are typically found on ice sheets and flat areas of a glacier in a region of transverse crevasses"

Looking down into a mill well on the Athabasca Glacier 

In common speak, you'll be looking at giant holes in the ice that look like caverns with waterfalls pouring into them! My husband calls them "waterslides of sadness" which makes me laugh, but seriously you don't want to fall in a mill well! - and this is one of the biggest reasons you want to take a guide on the Athabasca Glacier.

Our guide had us walk single file behind him through the section of the glacier that had lots of mill wells, and he carefully walked us up to each hole one at a time, holding on to us as we peered down.

Our guide helping one of the kids look down into a giant mill well

You would not want to fall into this mill well!

Highlights of our Tour: Exploring the Icefall


We walked across the ice for about 4.5 km to reach the icefall at the end of the lower glacier but we were never bored as we constantly stopped to peer down into mill wells and study different aspects of the ice.

Our guide leading the kids up to the icefall

Upon reaching the icefall we were certainly glad we'd pushed on to the end because it was a surreal experience to be walking around inside a waterfall of jumbled ice. The photos below are some of my favourites of our time inside the icefall. 

A look at some of the interesting ice inside the icefall

And don't worry because your guide keeps you safe the entire time, chooses a careful line through the ice, and you'll only go up inside the icefall when conditions are suitable so that your spikes will work on the steep ice.

Walking through the icefall following our guide

A magical world few children will get to experience!

My boys on the Athabasca Glacier

Guiding the kids through the icefall 

A magical world of ice on the Athabasca Glacier

How amazing is ice!!

So glad I got to experience this wild place with my son!


What you need to Bring for your Glacier Walk

Nothing.

Well, not "nothing" but if it's technical gear, you don't need to bring it.

What you do need to bring is nothing other than what you'd bring for a normal day hike while expecting that the weather at the Columbia Icefields can be particularly variable! It can feel like winter in the middle of summer once you show up at the toe of the Athabasca Glacier and weather forecasts for Banff or Jasper can't really be trusted.

It's a wild world up on the Athabasca Glacier!

What to pack and wear:

  • A small day pack with your snacks, lunch, water, sunblock, sunglasses, a sun hat, etc.

  • Waterproof hiking shoes or boots. (If you don't have anything suitable, talk to your guide and ask to borrow a pair of boots.) - And you'll want warm socks that will keep your feet warm even if your boots get a bit wet.

  • Warm pants that can handle some moisture if it starts to rain. (Or bring shell pants with you.) And again ask your guide if you need to borrow a pair of shell pants. - Personally, I was way under dressed and would have been better prepared if I'd have dressed for X-Country skiing rather than summer hiking. You don't want ski pants, but waterproof shell pants with some fleece lined tights or insulated pants would be ideal.

  • Several layers up top including a t- shirt, a warm long sleeve shirt, an insulated mid layer like a light puffy, and a raincoat or Gore-Tex shell. 

  • Mittens of gloves and a toque (Trust me here!)

Expect anything when you pack for a day on a glacier!

Basically, we're talking about layers!! Have enough clothing that you'll be ok if it's 20 degrees and sunny, or if it's hovering around zero, windy, and lightly raining. You really never know what you'll get at the Icefields.

I suggest bringing more than you need and at least having it in your car. If you luck out and it's a gorgeous hot bluebird day, you can leave some of the winter clothing in the car, but at least you'll have it.

Looking down the Athabasca Glacier from the icefall

Book your Own Tour on the Athabasca Glacier 


Want to book your own tour? Visit the Athabasca Glacier Ice Walks website to find more information and to book a tour for your family.

And I have a promo discount code that's good through next summer. To receive the code just send me a message on either Facebook or Instagram, or email me

Looking inside a mill well at some of the incredible ice!

Where to Stay on the Icefields Parkway 


We spent the night before our tour at the Rampart Creek Wilderness Hostel. We had a private cabin for the 5 of us with bunk beds for six people. There was a shared common cabin as well with a fully equipped kitchen including dishes and cooking supplies, a propane powered fridge, two stoves, and two large tables for eating.

Don't expect anything too fancy (there's no microwave or coffee maker) as there is no electricity. The hostel makes do though with a combination of propane and solar charging.

Our accommodations at the Rampart Creek Hostel on the Icefields Parkway

From the hostel it was only a 30 minute drive to the Icefields Centre so we didn't have to get up at 5am to make the drive from Calgary. 

After our tour we easily made it home to Calgary the same day, stopping in Canmore for dinner.

Other hostels along the Icefields Parkway include HI Mosquito Creek (which is closer to Lake Louise,) HI Hilda Creek (which is much more rustic in nature and requires a short hike in,) and HI Beauty Creek (past the Icefields towards Jasper.)

Our sleeping cabin at Rampart Creek

Visit the Hosteling International website for more information on the wilderness hostels and to book a cabin or room for your family.

We found this to be significantly easier than camping for a night and we were more than comfortable at the Rampart Creek Hostel.

HI Rampart Creek on the Icefields Parkway

Touring the Icefields Parkway 


Spending the weekend on the Icefields Parkway? Check out my guide for other fun adventures you can explore with your family while you head out for your ice walk.


On our recent trip we headed out Saturday morning and hiked to Bow Glacier Falls at Bow Lake. We spent the day there before driving further to the hostel for the night.

Touring the Icefields Parkway

Bow Glacier Falls above Bow Lake

Visiting Bow Glacier Falls is a great adventure on the Icefields Parkway


Disclaimer: Our tour was graciously hosted for this review. As always, all words and opinions are my own and I wasn't paid for this story.








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