Leaving Lake Louise, two highways diverge just a short distance to the north. Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Route, shoots off to the left, headed to Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest. The other route, Highway 93, better known as the Icefields Parkway, goes north, into the wilder country, the route less commercial but known to the seasoned traveler. It is the road into the heart of the Canadian Rockies, the road leading past dramatic landscapes and postcard perfect scenery. It was taking us to where I had set my sights so many months ago. The end of the rainbow . . . at least for this particular trip.
Stretching for 144 miles between Lake Louise and Jasper, those who are fortunate enough to drive this parkway might respond to its scenery in different ways, but the common denominators could be expressed in feelings of awe, inspiration, excitement, or incredulity. The highway parallels the Continental Divide, following in the shadow of the highest, most rugged mountains in the Canadian Rockies. And then there are the glaciers—over a hundred visible from this road. The highway provides access to numerous hiking trails, pristine azure lakes, verdant meadows and tumbling waterfalls. Several campgrounds are located along the drive. Simply everything a traveler with camera in hand could ask for, as well as plenty of pull-offs giving opportunities to pause for a better look, snag a photo or twelve. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “drive by shooting”.
It began as a narrow gravel road, built as a make-work project between 1931 and 1940, providing alternative employment during the Great Depression. The road that exists today was constructed between 1956 to 1961, becoming wider and paved. Although it is now an excellent highway, it does have its hazards. Hilly and curved, the scenery is so distracting that it can give cause for accidents. As he was scouting out the best possible route for this road, surveyor A.O. Wheeler wrote:
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 . . . this wonder trail will be world renowned.
And so it is.
About midway along the parkway, we crossed the boundary between Banff and Jasper National Parks. A couple of miles further is the Icefield Centre, nestled at the base of Mount Wilcox. Overlooking Athabasca Glacier, it is located at the Columbia Icefield, the largest and most accessible of 17 glacial areas along the parkway. Open from mid-April through mid-October, it is a first-class informative visitor center, providing a history of the glaciers as well as being a staging area for taking tours out onto the glacier.
Another big attraction is also available to visitors. The relatively recent Glacier Skywalk provides the means by which curious and fearless customers are able to venture out onto a glass-floored skywalk. Jutting out over the Sunwapta Valley nearly 1,000 feet below, the inspiring view is to the ice-draped slopes of Mount Athabasca. A controversial structure (their lengthy “privacy fence” blocks those scenic views from travelers along the parkway), some would call it an abomination to such a pristine, natural setting. How such a commercial, costly enterprise was able to build on national park lands seems to be the question not readily answered. One suspects money and political clout could be at the heart of the matter.
Putting politics and worldly cares behind us, we found our little piece of paradise nearby in Wilcox Pass Campground. Ideally located for glacier viewing, as well as some prime hiking trails, we were fortunate to snag a good site in this non-reserveable primitive campground. It would be just us, the jagged, snow-capped peaks and plenty of outdoor activities for the coming days.
A crisp, cold following morning was greeted energetically and enthusiastically. Wrapped in polartec jackets and warm gloves, we were taking off before breakfast to catch early light on Athabasca Glacier. And to beat the other curious visitors.
An outstanding mountain view was waiting once we broke out from the campground’s canopy of trees . . . a view to get one’s blood flowing, a sight to rid the remnants of sleep from one’s eyes.
As you stand at the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, the immensity of the Columbia Icefield is almost beyond comprehension. The largest and most accessible of 17 glacial areas along the parkway, the Columbia Icefield is a remnant of the last major glaciation that covered most of Canada 20,000 years ago. From the main body of the ice cap, sitting astride the Continental Divide, six glaciers spill out between the mountains down through three main valleys, like the arms of a giant octopus. Of these, Athabasca Glacier can be seen from the highway and approached by a short, uphill trail. Close enough to see its cracks and crevices, to observe its meltwater flowing downhill into Sunwapta Lake.
Only skilled climbers and guided tours venture out onto its ever-changing surface, which is a complex and beautiful mix of crevasses, icefalls, streams and ice of a dozen hues.
The Athabasca Glacier occupies a U-shaped valley, scoured when the glacier was larger. The rubble-strewn terrain is a ground moraine, the most common of a till landform. This till covered the surface of the ground underneath the glacier, having been left in place when it receded. One of its attributes is the multitude of peach and apricot-colored chunks of dolomite dotting the landscape. Yes, it’s a bleak picture, but typical of a glacial plain.
The speed at which glaciers advance and retreat varies with the long-term climate. Athabasca Glacier has retreated to its current position from across the highway, a distance of more than one mile in a little more than 100 years. Currently, it is retreating up to six feet per year.
Recording the terminus of Athabasca Glacier, these stone markers give a picture of where the ice once reached. Proof of how quickly things can change.
Glaciers and ice sheets cover 10% of the earth’s surface, and store 75% of the planet’s freshwater. With the shrinkage of the glaciers, the ones in the Rockies are now at a minimum not seen in 3,000 years. And the trend is continuing, with the statistics to prove it. A troubling aspect to our supply of freshwater.
On a much lighter note there’s good trails to take, giving different perspective to these glacier flows. After one of our hearty breakfasts, we headed up the Wilcox Pass Trail, its trailhead at our campground gate.
Reaching a height of 11,450 feet, Mount Athabasca steals the show on this hike. Collie and Hermann Woolley made the first ascent in 1898. From its summit, they claimed the “discovery” of the Columbia Icefield. Today Mt. Athabasca is probably the most frequently ascended alpine peak in the Canadian Rockies.
And what a view of Athabasca Glacier—so much more than from our early morning walk. A perfect example of an outlet valley glacier, it drops about 2,500 feet in slightly less than 4 miles from the icefield rim at the skyline to its terminus,. A prominent icefall near the rim marks its steepest drop, where the glacier attempts to conform to a cliff in the bedrock.
Eleven years ago we had taken this trail, during a whirlwind 3-day trip to Banff. A day’s drive up to the Icefield Center gave us the opportunity to take Wilcox Pass Trail. On this spectacular trail I sincerely hoped someday I would return. When we’d have more time to explore and to see sights missed, while we still had the fitness to do it right.
This time we’d do more. See more. Hike more. Enjoy more. We’d stay in these ice-covered mountains, just as I had envisioned. Wilcox Pass was just the beginning. More trails led out from here.
Parker Ridge is one of the best. Yes, it’s popular, as any great trail would be. But it’s a superb trail that leads to a high alpine meadow. Not to mention the view from the ridge, overlooking a glacier more than a mile wide. It packs a lot of punch in a relatively short hike. Once you make the steep, switchbacking start. We made an early start.
Crossing a subalpine meadow, the trail leads through a forest of Englemann spruce. Behind that forest looms the high ridge, our destination. Looking bleak, it disguises the rewards waiting to be seen from the top.
The horn mountain shapes of Mt. Athabasca and its outlier, Hilda Peak, are prominent landmarks to the west. The summits of these mountains protruded above the hundreds of feet thick ice sheets during the last Ice Age. Since the retreat of the ice, alpine glaciation has continued to whittle away at the mountainsides, creating the peaks seen today.
A blast of icy wind greets us as we attain the ridgecrest. Time to stop and put on those jackets, taken off as we made our ascent. Another equally impressive sight greets us as the views into the glacial valley below us open up and reveal hidden beauty. What a sight to see! What a privilege to behold! We stand in reverence and silence, no words can express what lies before us.
With a length of almost 4 miles, this outlet valley glacier of the Columbia Icefield is the longest in the Rockies. The Saskatchewan Glacier descends more than 2,200 feet in elevation from its rim to terminate in a marginal lake, the headwaters of the mighty North Saskatchewan River. The braided river flows through the rubble of the valley below, an area occupied by the glacier less than 100 years ago.
The exposed crest of Parker Ridge is a windswept land of rock, snow and treeless tundra. Its climate is dictated by high elevation and its proximity to the Columbia Icefield. It’s a place of dramatic contrasts, ranging in scale from close up views of alpine flowers to the sweeping vistas of the Icefield.
What could possibly make our stay here at Wilcox Pass any better? To know me is to know the answer. Just down the road a few miles, a very popular but worthy waterfall is waiting there, beckoning me. Tangle Falls gets its name back when the early outfitters were hacking through this untrodden wilderness. Untracked bush was known as ‘shin tangle’, and someone thought it a fitting name for the falls. Personally, I don’t get the connection. Nevertheless, it was a formidable falls. From all its perspectives. And a challenge to climb and photograph.
After three short days we were moving on, heading further north to the Jasper area. Our time here on the parkway had been as rewarding as we had hoped. Too short a time, but plenty full nevertheless. Our departure was more tolerable knowing we’d be passing this way on the return leg. Not just driving through, but setting up camp again. Among these magnificent glaciated peaks.
the sights we’d seen . . .
would guarantee we’d be returning for more.
From the overwhelmingly magnificent Icefields Parkway,