Journey Along the Icefields Parkway:  A Canadian Rockies Adventure

By Jim Chamberlain

The valley stretched out before me as I gazed at the blue-green waters of a mountain lake beneath the craggy peaks of a spectacular mountain range, the Canadian Rockies. The Icefields Parkway is one of the most scenic highways I have traveled, and it is the gateway to the some of the most accessible alpine scenery in the world.

The road starts in the bustling town of Banff, Alberta, and travels 143 miles through both Banff and Jasper National Parks as it winds its way north. Banff is a picturesque mountain town where I took a chairlift to vistas of the surrounding mountains as well as visited great Railroad Era hotels like Banff Springs and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.

The Vermilion Lakes reflecting the craggy peaks of Mount Rundle was my first stop in the early morning. I watched ducks floating on the smooth glassy water beneath the mountain’s reflection as I began my morning drive north.

Mt. Rundle and Vermilion Lakes

A short fourteen miles from Banff leads you to Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. This alpine lake sits beneath Victoria Glacier, and you can enjoy the amenities of one of the great Railroad Era hotels along its shoreline.

Lake Louise and Victoria Glacier

The next morning, I took a detour to Moraine Lake, which is in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, to see the alpenglow as the sun rises in the morning and strikes the top of the mountains. This is the classic vista of the Canadian Rockies and a must see when traveling in Banff National Park. I drove north past Bow Lake where the Crowfoot Glacier stands perilously above the glacial waters. Peyto Lake was my next stop along the winding highway north of Lake Louise. The viewpoint is one of the best in the Canadian Rockies and on a cloudless day you see all the way north to the peaks in Jasper National Park. The weather in these mountains is unpredictable and can change rapidly but even low clouds lend a texture and mood to these mountains.

Moraine Lake Alpenglow

A large brown bear suddenly ran across the highway in front of my car near the Saskatchewan River crossing. Wildlife is abundant here. Both black and brown bears are common sights. Elk regularly camp out on the Banff Golf Course in summer. Mountain goats and Dall Sheep can be seen usually at a distance on the cliffs.

The highway has specially designed wildlife corridors over or beneath the highway to allow the normal migration of the various species that inhabit this wilderness. Waterfowl Lakes hosts a variety of, you guessed it, Canada geese, ducks, and other feathered swimmers.

Mountain Goats

The highway continues north passing vista after vista of these Canadian Alps. At the junction of Banff and Jasper National Parks sits the Icefields Discovery Center. A small black bear was rooting around the edge of the parking lot as I pulled in. The Athabasca Glacier can be viewed crawling down or more recently retreating up the mountain side from the Center’s patio. This is the place to take a tour up onto this 10,000-year-old sheet of frozen water on the giant Ice Explorer or walk along the glass Skywalk where you are over nine hundred feet above the glacier.

I opted for the glacier tour. The giant wheels of the Explorer turned slowly as we crawled away from the visitor center and climbed along the moraine of rock and dirt of the retreating glacier before it climbed onto the blue-green ice. I was standing on a giant river of ice gazing at the sights around me. There were hanging glaciers, mountain peaks covered in snow, cracked ice, and rivulets of running water so cold it numbed my tongue when I tasted it. This is an experience worth the trip.

Peyto Lake and the Canadian Rockies

The town of Jasper lies sixty miles north of the Discovery Center but my exploration of this part of the Canadian Rockies will have to wait for another time. I look forward to my next trip to Canada so I can visit Maligne Lake, the largest lake in the Canadian Rockies. Pyramid Lakes and the views from the Whirlpool River are also places I need to visit.

You can visit this amazing place with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes in September 2022 for 7 days and see many of the sites I photographed plus several more. The scenery is spectacular. You will visit both Jasper and Banff National Parks with Photographer Jim Steinberg. Limited seats are available—you can see the details and register at the AHPS website.

Jim Chamberlain is a Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes