View of the Icefields Parkway

7 Scenic Stops on the Icefields Parkway

Considered the most scenic highway in North America, the Icefields Parkway winds through gorgeous mountain peaks, glaciers, and along more lakes than you’d think possible. The most spectacular site along this road is the Athabascan Glacier and the Icefields it is part of.

Named after these icefields, the Parkway starts off the Trans-Canada Highway just outside of Lake Louise.

Since we stayed in Canmore for our Banff vacation, we chose driving the Icefields Parkway for a day trip. We didn’t go all the way to Jasper, where this scenic road ends, though we were close enough at our final destination, the Columbia Icefields.

Start/Stop 1 – Lake Louise

Named after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta (1848-1939), Queen Victoria’s daughter, the lake is a well-known tourist destination.

Lake Louise
Lake Louise

However, the lake had another, much older, name. The Nakoda First Nation people, who lived in the area since ancient times, called it “The Lake of the little fishes”, presumably for the tiny fishes that live in it.

A glacial lake, it owes its gorgeous color to the rocks sediments carried into it by the surrounding glaciers.

It wasn’t the first time we visited Lake Louise; during our weeklong stay in and around Banff National Park, we stopped there often. Walking around the perimeter of the lake, we always enjoy the view and the lake’s color changing around each bend.

After a short walk on the shore, we got back on the road, heading towards the Icefields Parkway that starts just out of the tourist area.

Lake and mountains. Banff NP
Lake Louise in Banff National Park

Stop 2 – Herbert Lake

Our next stop was Herbert Lake, a few miles North of Lake Louise. We reached it right after we passed into the Yoho National Forest.

Herbert Lake
Herbert Lake

Smaller than most other lakes in the region, Herbert Lake is just as lovely. It can be a quick stop, but we’ve spent some time here, taking in the view and walking around the lake a bit.

The water in the lake is crystal clear and the pines around it offered great shade. Gorgeous blue flowers filled the area around the parking lot when we stopped by.

Though right on the highway, this lake is peaceful, attracting few visitors, or so it seemed to us. I heard though that tour buses tend to stop here. Still, I can’t imagine them staying long, so chances are, you might be the only ones when you stop. We were.

View of the Icefields Parkway
View of the Icefields Parkway

Stop 3 – Bow Lake

One of the largest lakes in Banff National Park, Bow Lake is about a thirty-minute drive from Herbert Lake. Fed by glaciers, it showcases a similar gorgeous turquoise color we admired at Lake Louise.

Bow Lake
Bow Lake

Since we spent a whole day at Bow Lake the previous day, we only stopped for a short time, to get out of the car and enjoy the view.

Stop 4 – Peyto Lake and Bow Summit

Next, we stopped at Peyto Lake and hiked out to Bow Summit, where we had a perfect view of the lake. Though a short paved trail leads to the overlook of one of the most photographed (for good reason) view.

The wooden balcony viewpoint was busy, as probably always. After a brief stop, we continued on the paved trail and hiked up about 1.9 miles to the next viewpoint at Bow Summit, even better than the first.

Fed by the Peyto Glacier, Peyto Lake is another glacial lake, showcasing the same gorgeous turquoise color as Bow Lake. From this height it looked even more amazing.

Peyto Lake
Peyto Lake. View from the end of the Summit Trail

Stop 5 – Mistaya Canyon

Just a few steps from the road, a short trail leads to the narrow and deep Mistaya Canyon.

The Mistaya River, originating at Peyto Lake, cut this canyon when its water plunged into this narrow opening in the rock. Watching the swirling, rushing river we can imagine it cutting away the limestone, changing the shape of the canyon.

Though short, the trail is slippery, with no barriers, so watch your step and watch your children. As you can imagine, the noise is deafening close to the rushing river, but overall this is a great experience. A must-stop spot along the Icefields Parkway. Even if you don’t spend a lot of time here, the experience is one you’ll never forget.

Mistaya Canyon
Mistaya Canyon

Stop 6 – Howse Pass and Lone Clearing

Next, a short stop at the view to Howse Pass and Lone Clearing taught us about the history of the area.

Howse Pass
Howse Pass

Howse Pass, a pass through the Canadian Rockies, connects Alberta and British Columbia, and it is a National Historic Site of Canada since 1978.

The view was magnificent, and from the interpretive signs, we also learned about ancient nomadic people who moved through here.

Ancient People who Used this Pass

The Piikani, also known as Peigan was one of the tribes who used the pass on the East. They moved nomadically through Lone Clearing long before European settlers came into the region. The area provided an abundance of food, from berries and roots to big game like elk, bison, and deer. After the arrival of Europeans, the Piikani still continued to pass through Lone Clearing to trade. Today, the Piikani Nation is a First Nation and still lives in the area, on the Piikani Nation Reserve.

Another tribe who used the pass on the West was the Ktunaxa, better known today as the Kootenay. Today, they live mostly in British Columbia, on the other side of the pass.

Stop 7 – The Columbia Icefields and the Athabasca Glacier

Columbia Icefields
Columbia Icefields

The Columbia Icefields was our final destination on this road. The Icefields Parkway continues on to Jasper, but since we stayed in Canmore and needed to get back there by the end of the day, we chose not to drive any farther.

Walking on the Glacier

It was amazing to not only see, but walk on the Athabasca Glacier. It saddened me to see the markers as we walked towards it, of how much it receded only in the past century. We saw first-hand that the melting of glaciers is not a myth.

Athabasca Glacier
The Athabasca Glacier

We kept walking and walking from the signs until we reached the glacier. Watching the numnbers, we noticed that the Athabasca Glacier has receded one mile (1.5 km) in the past 125 years and lost half of its volume. And this is just one glacier! Yes, we come face to face with this sad reality.

However, the glacier is still beautiful! I wish they didn’t have the buses taking people up into the ice. Though I’m sure it is a great experience, the huge buses must have an impact on the glacier, and not in a very good way. So no, we didn’t do it, on principle.

But we still enjoyed our time there. We walked into it a bit and watched small groups with guides moving farther in. While we thought it might be a fun experience, I had no desire to stay in the cold much longer.

From the looks of it, neither did the rest of my family. Walking on the glacier and looking up farther into it was a treat, but enough for us.

Facts About the Columbia Icefields and the Athabasca Glacier

During our visit, we picked up a few facts about the glacier and the icefield it is part of. Of course, I had to look at my notes when writing this, years after we visited, but to me, it was interesting even if I forgot parts of it (mostly the numbers)

The Columbia Icefield is the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains, encompassing 130 square miles, with 1200 feet at its greatest depth. The glacier extends between the summits of Mt. Athabasca at 11,452 feet on the East and Mt. Columbia at 12,294 feet on the West.

It drains into three oceans, the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic.

The Athabasca Glacier is only 2.8% of the Columbia Icefield, with an area of 11.5 square miles (30 square km), and between 270 – 1000 feet deep.

The Saskatchewan Glacier is much larger than the Athabascan Glacier, though it is not accessible nor visible from the highway. With an area of 23 square miles (about 60 square km), reaching and a depth of 1,450 feet (442 meters, it is the largest glacier in the Columbia Icefields.

Since it is the most accessible glacier, people measured the Athabasca Glacier over time and recorded the changes in its size. Though the glacier’s size fluctuated since they started measuring it, it has been receding constantly, and at a faster rate in the past century or so. Just since the mid-19th to the end of the 20th century, it receded about one mile (1.6 km). Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, it still keeps receding due to global warming.

Driving Back to Canmore

It was late in the day by the time we started making our way back. We still stopped a few times, revisited the same spots, but mainly stopped on scenic view pullouts along the road. We didn’t linger much, so we could get back to town before nightfall.

Quick Facts about the Icefields Parkway

The Icefields Parkway
View of the Icefields Parkway

Where is the Icefields Parkway?

The Icefields Parkway or Highway 93 is in Alberta, Canada, traveling through Banff National Park and Jasper National Park.

How long is it?

Paralleling the Continental Divide, the Icefields Parkway is 230 km or 140 miles. At its Southern end, it starts off Highway 1 or the Trans-Canada Highway, just outside Lake Louise and ends in Jasper at its Northern side.


You need a National Parks Pass to drive on the Icefields Parkway, given the fact that it is exclusively in two National Parks. (You can’t get to it unless you paid the fee before entering either Banff NP or Jasper NP. The best part: no commercial vehicles allowed on it.

When was it built?

The road was opened in 1940, as a single-track road, then turned into the highway as it is now in 1961. The road was predated by the Glacier Trail, opened in 1885.

On the Icefields Parkway

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