The Athabasca Glacier is a massive glacial toe to the expansive Columbia Icefield that sits on the British Columbia—Alberta border in Canada. It is arguably the most accessible glacier in North America and offers visitors a chance to get up close and personal to an earth-shaping wonder.
The Columbia Icefields Discovery Center acts as the gateway for many visitors with interactive exhibits, tours, and features such as the Columbia Icefield Skywalk. Here lies the opportunity to stand on a glacier, a once in a lifetime experience.
It’s likely you’ll want to visit the Columbia Icefield when in the Canadian Rockies, as it’s one of the best things to do in Banff. Let’s break down some helpful tips for visiting the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield.
Get to Know The Athabasca Glacier
The Columbia Icefield is the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies and covers around 230 sq km (89 sq mi) at depths up to 265 meters (1,200 ft). The Icefield forms a high altitude ice-cap that lies on a plateau. The Athabasca Glacier is a large toe that extends down from the Columbia Icefield.
Athabasca Glacier sits at the base of several notable peaks such as Mount Athabasca, Andromeda, and Snow Dome. These peaks sit along the continental divide and most notable is Snow Dome where water flows to either the Pacific, Atlantic, or the Arctic Ocean.
At its terminus, the glacier sits about 1500 meters from the famed Icefields Parkway and a convenient parking lot makes it an easy walk. The proximity and the nearby Columbia Icefield Discovery Center make it possibly the most easily accessible glacier in the world. You can reach the glacier from your car in around 10-20 minutes.
Where is the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre?
The Glacier Discovery Centre is located on the Icefields Parkway—1 hour south of Jasper and 2.5 hours north of Banff.
From Banff, travel 55 km west on the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) to Lake Louise. Then it’s another 125 km north from Lake Louise on the Icefields Parkway to the Columbia Icefield. Along the way you’ll pass so many great stops like Bow Lake and Peyto Lake, so make sure to read out guide for the best stops
From Jasper, travel 108 km south on the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 N) to the Columbia Icefield.
Here is the location on Google Maps
**All vehicles must park at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre when visiting the Columbia Icefield Adventure and Skywalk. Visitors to the Skywalk must take the included shuttle from the Centre.
Columbia Icefield Tour Offerings
The Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre serves as a hub for visitors who seek a closer look at the glacier. A lodge, gift shop, cafeteria, theatre, fine dining experience, and tour center are all located at the center. From the center, you can book tickets on the Ice Explorer or Columbia Icefield Skywalk. Though it is recommended to book these in advance online if visiting during peak season.
Athabasca Glacier Ice Walk and Explorer
The “Ice Walk” tours across the Athabasca Glacier require advanced booking with the local tour company. We highly recommend booking an Ice Walk tour and not try to walk on the glacier on your own.
The other option to walk on the glaciers is via the Ice Explorer vehicles. A massive tour bus with wheels the size of a car drive visitors across the glacier to a large parking area on the glacier.
There you can disembark and walk around the glacier in a controlled environment. There are guides to inform you about the significance of glaciers, and many will get to drink straight from the glacier itself! It’s a pretty pricey experience that averages around $100 but includes the Columbia Icefield Skywalk.
The Ice Explorer is included in the Columbia Icefield Adventure ticket with the Glacier Skywalk. You cannot just purchase the Ice Explorer adventure on it’s own, the experience is only offered in conjunction with The Skywalk. The Skywalk is a one-kilometer glass platform that hangs above the Sunwapta Valley. A shuttle bus leaves from the discovery center around every fifteen minutes to the Skywalk which is 6 km away.
Is the Columbia Icefield Skywalk Worth It? (Jasper Skywalk)
You can book tickets online, but I wouldn’t recommend booking too far in advance as similar to Banff Gondola and Jasper Skytram, your experience can vary greatly with the weather due to poor visibility.
The Glacier Discovery Centre, Skywalk, and Ice Explorer Tour all open on May 6th, 2023. You can book tickets here on the Banff Jasper Collection website, or through a third party like Viator or GetYourGuide.
The Columbia Icefield Skywalk
The Columbia Icefield Skywalk is a glass-bottomed bridge that’s just north of the Athabasca Icefield, and is a popular stop on the Icefield Parkway. Tickets for the experiences operate on time slots so it’s best to purchase your tickets in advance to avoid a long wait or the tickets being sold out entirely.
According to your ticketed time, you’ll board a bus at the Glacier Discovery Center that will drive you to the Skywalk. It’s 6 km away from the Glacier Discovery Center and does not offer much in terms of views of the Athabasca Glacier, but instead the Sunwapta Valley.
The Skywalk is a kilometer long walk that first moves along interactive displays where guests learn about the natural process that formed the Rockies along with the fossils. You follow along through an audio guide that is available in a wide range of languages that should cover most visitors.
After, walk to the glass-bottomed bridge, it’s a short, but thrilling walk for many as they peer down on the valley far below. No need to worry about safety as these glass panels are literally bulletproof and then some. If you’re scared of heights it may make your heart skip a beat as the view down to the valley floor 300 meters below can be dizzying.
Summit Mount Athabasca
Mount Athabasca looms over Athabasca Glacier, but only a few get to see the view from the top. To reach the summit requires a long hike to a technical glacier crossing and then up an exposed face or col. The views are breathtaking in more ways than one. From the top, you can spot countless glaciers, icefields, and many of Alberta’s highest peaks.
The peak is one of many in the Canadian Rockies famous for reaching an altitude of 11,000 feet. Many climbers in the Rockies have the lifetime goal of summiting all 54 (58) of the peaks, and they are considered classic mountaineering objectives. In the photo above you can see Mount Columbia, Snow Dome, Andromeda, and Alberta. At 11,453 feet in elevation with a massive glacier and convenient location, Athabasca proves to be a tremendous first “11,000er.”
You cannot attempt this on your own without mountaineering experience, it is a serious mountain. We did a three-day mountaineering course with Yamnuska and summited on the third day – the experience was epic!
This is probably not for everyone as it’s a time commitment and is a great physical challenge, but definitely one of the more adventurous things to do in Banff. It’s also a great introduction for those interested in mountaineering.
Best Tips To Visit Columbia Icefield Athabasca Glacier
Walk on the Glacier with a Guide
PLEASE do not walk on Athabasca Glacier unassisted without mountaineering experience and equipment. That being said, it’s easy to walk on the glacier with a guide. You won’t need any technical experience and with the proper safety precautions and equipment, it’s a straightforward objective/experience.
There are some crevasses in the glacier and there have been a few cases of children falling into the small crevasses with a tragic outcome.
Even on a warm summer day, the weather around a glacier can be frigid as they create their own microclimates. Most notable is an effect called a Katabatic Wind, this is created as cool air draws off the glacier down to pockets of warmer air.
When you stand on Athabasca Glacier it feels a bit like standing in front of an open freezer, and is usually about 15° C cooler than what you experienced at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre. So make sure to pack a toque and warm jacket when you visit the glacier for a more enjoyable experience.
You do not need a reservation for the tours at the Icefield Discovery Center unless you have a large group, though reservations never hurt and do guarantee your time and booking. It gets busy at the Columbia Icefield during the summer months!
The only reservations that are required are for the guided Ice Walk as it is with an independent tour operator not associated with Pursuit and the Icefield Discovery Center. You can check out guided ice walk tours here.
The Ice Explorer Vehicles leave every 15-30 minutes in the summer and can cycle through a large number of visitors. As with most attractions in Banff and Jasper, it’s best to arrive early in the morning or late afternoon to beat the crowds. Our recommendation would be to shoot for an early morning and witness sunrise on the Icefields Parkway – a once in a lifetime experience!
Pack Your Lunch
There are not many options for food along the Icefields Parkway. When driving between Jasper and Banff you’re pretty much left with the Icefields Discovery Center or the disappointing Saskatchewan River Crossing. Both are overpriced.
We suggest picking up a packed lunch in Banff, Lake Louise, or Jasper. It all depends on where you’re staying the night before. While you’re on Athabasca Glacier bring an empty water bottle as you can fill right up from the source of glacial water!
Columbia Icefield Tours Are Seasonal
While you can drive the Icefields Parkway in the winter, weather dependent, the Columbia Icefields Discovery Center does close. Tours are operational in the summer months only and subject to seasonal weather. Roughly you can plan on the center to open from early May to mid-October. 2023 dates are set for May 6th to October 9th.
Get Discounted Tickets With Pursuit
While there are no coupons or many discounts for the Icefield Discovery Center experiences you can buy combo tickets. You can combine the tickets with the Lake Minnewanka cruise, Banff Gondola, Golden Skybridge, or Maligne Lake cruise for a discount.
The experiences are allowed to be used on separate days throughout the summer. While we’re more mixed on the experiences offered at the Discovery Center, both the Banff Gondola and Maligne Lake cruise are worth a visit for most. Below are some of the combo offerings from Pursuit.
- $85 Columbia Icefield Adventure Off-Peak Savings: Ice Explorer and Jasper Skywalk after 3:30 PM
- $97 Columbia Icefield Adventure: Ice Explorer and Jasper Skywalk
- $146 Pursuit Pass Jasper: Columbia Icefield Adventure – including Skywalk and Maligne Lake Cruise
- $140 Pursuit Pass Banff Gondola + Columbia Icefield Adventure: Banff Gondola and Columbia Icefield Adventure – Including Skywalk
- $199 Pursuit Pass Rockies Value (available June 2nd – October 9th): Includes a visit to the Banff Gondola anytime. And Visit after 3:30 PM the Columbia Icefield Skywalk, Columbia Icefield Adventure, Maligne Lake Cruise, Lake Minnewanka Cruise, and Golden Skybridge.
- $249 Pursuit Pass Rockies (available June 2nd – October 9th) Visit anytime the Banff Gondola, Columbia Icefield Skywalk, Columbia Icefield Adventure, Maligne Lake Cruise, Lake Minnewanka Cruise, and Golden Skybridge.
There are a few select discounts offered by at Columbia Icefield. The first is for Alberta locals, those who apply, must have a valid Alberta postal code and consent to receive email offers from Pursuit and get the ticket for $85.
The other is the “Family Experience” which pretty much entails one child admitted free with each regular-priced adult. This is available daily, for admission before 11 AM.
See All Pursuit Offerings Here
Consider Saving Your Money
In all honesty, we’re not big fans of either the Ice Explorer vehicles driving on Athabasca Glacier or the Columbia Icefield Skywalk. You can walk up to the terminus of Athabasca Glacier from the parking lot for free.
The Ice Explorer vehicles are massive and operate all day in the summer, that’s a lot of CO2 emissions doing damage to a precious environment. It’s crazy how much the glacier has receded in just 100 years, and there are photos at the Discover Center to show it. Soon, we might not have any glaciers left.
Honestly, the views from the cafeteria and restaurant of the Discovery Center are fantastic for free.
When it comes to the Skywalk the views and the novelty of a glass bottom are a bit of a letdown. For better views, go on one of our favorite hikes nearby called Parker Ridge. The ridge has tremendous views over the Saskatchewan Glacier that are phenomenal and the hike is easy enough to complete in under two hours. Another great hike nearby is Wilcox Pass.
All that being said, we do understand the want to see a glacier up close, and if you are going to gain knowledge about glaciers, I suppose we can sacrifice one in the hopes that others around the world are saved.
While we think you can get better views on a hike than the Skywalk, the Skywalk is accessible for all and will help everyone get the most out of their trip that may not have the ability to enjoy long hikes.
Directions To Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield
The Columbia Icefield is conveniently located off the Icefields Parks or Highway 93 that runs from Lake Louise to Jasper. The driving distance to the Icefields Discovery Center is 195 km and takes just under three hours from Downtown Banff. From Lake Louise the center is 130 km and takes around two hours to reach. Jasper is the closest at 105 km and 1.5 hours driving.
Of course, very few will drive the parkway in that amount of time as there are a plethora of worthy stops along the way. The Icefields Parkway is widely regarded as one of the most scenic drives in the world.
What Can You Find At The Columbia Icefields Discovery Center
There are a number of facilities at the Discovery Center. Even if you don’t have plans for one of the tours, it’s worth stopping for a refreshment, to stretch the legs, or use the washroom. You can find the following services
- Fine Dining Restaurant, Altitude Restaurant
- Glacier View Lodge
- Picnic Tables
- Overflow Parking/Camping For RVs
- Washrooms (running water and flush toilets)
- Interpretative Display From Parks Canada
- Information Desk
- There is no fuel! The closest fuel stations are in the town of Jasper and Saskatchewan River Crossing, and lastly there are gas stations at Lake Louise. Trust us – that’s it.
The Best Columbia Icefields Hotel
One of the best hotels in Jasper is right at the foot of the Columbia Icefield. The Glacier View Lodge is the only hotel in the area and is where you can stay if you want to wake up to views of the Athabasca Glacier.
If you don’t mind being a few hours from Downtown Banff, the Town of Jasper or really anywhere else I highly recommend booking a night here.
*It’s important to note this Jasper hotel is closed in the winter and books up quickly in the summer.
- Book on Booking.com – Glacier View Lodge
- Book on Hotels.com – Glacier View Lodge
Other Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier FAQ
Can You Buy Just a Ticket on the Icefield Explorer?
No, tickets are only sold as a combo that includes the Skywalk and the Icefield Explorer. You can however opt to buy just a Skywalk ticket, but not the other way around.
Is There Food at the Discovery Center?
Yes, there is the Altitude Restaurant that serves breakfast and dinner, as well as the Chalet Grab and Go for lunch, and a Starbucks.
Whare Are the Hours of the Columbia Icefield Experience?
The hours change by season. In 2023 the hours posted are:
- May 6 – May 19: 11 AM – 4 PM
- May 20 – September 30: 10 AM – 5 PM
- October 1 – 9: 11 AM – 4 PM
How Long Do I Get To Stay at on the Athabasca Glacier?
Guests get about 20 minutes of actual glacier time.
Is the Columbia Icefield Open in the Winter?
While you can certainly drive the Icefields Parkway and see Mount Athabasca in the winter, there are no experiences offered in the winter. All operations at the Discovery Center close in mid October for the season.
Is the Columbia Icefield wheelchair accessible?
The Columbia Icefield Adventure offers a unique opportunity for guests with mobility needs to experience breathtaking natural wonders. The Ice Explorers are equipped with wheelchair lifts, allowing guests to explore the glacier up close.
Additionally, accessible vans are available to transport guests to the Ice Explorer and Columbia Icefield Skywalk, where the entire 800-meter circumference is designed to be fully accessible for wheelchairs, strollers, and walkers. To ensure a seamless experience, guests with accessibility needs should call 1.866.506.0515 at least 72 hours before arrival to arrange accommodations and check-in at least 30 minutes prior to the tour start time.
Is the Columbia Icefield Pet Friendly?
It’s best to leave pets at home as they are not allowed on the Columbia Icefield Adventure or Skywalk.
How Long Do I Need at the Columbia Icefield
Leave yourself between 3-4 hours to enjoy all the offerings at the Columbia Icefield. The Jasper Skywalk takes about 1-1.5 hours to enjoy (including transport) whilce the Athabasca Glacier Ice Explorer experience takes about 2 hours to enjoy. If you are enjoying an Ice Walk tour, plan for that time added to your day.
Also nearby is Tangle Creek Falls, a quick 20 minute stop!
Where Do the Shuttle Buses Leave From?
The Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre is the departure point for shuttle buses to both the Columbia Icefield Adventure and the Columbia Icefield Skywalk. To streamline the process, the queue hallway is separated into two sides: one for guests embarking on the Columbia Icefield Adventure and one for those visiting the Skywalk.
Guests who have purchased the Columbia Icefield Adventure will proceed directly to the Skywalk from the transfer bays upon returning from the Glacier.
Do You Need a Parks Pass to Visit the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier?
All visitors need a Parks Canada Pass to access Banff or Jasper and drive on the Icefields Parkway. You can purchase a Parks Canada pass at any park gate, as you get onto the Icefields Parkway in either direction. Or you can buy Parks Canada passes in advance online. A Parks Canada Discovery Pass, which gets you entrance to all Parks Canada destinations for the year, is only $145.25 for a family.
Day passes are $10.50 per person, so depending on how many days you are staying and if you have plans to go to Banff, you may want to consider the Discover Pass.
Parks Canada Day Passes
Youth (up to 17): Free
Family/group of 7 people: $21.00
Day passes expire at 4 pm the following day.
ULTIMATE Guide To Purchasing A Banff Park Pass (Parks Canada Pass)
Hopefully, this helped you determine if you want to enjoy the Columbia Icefield Experience.
If you have any other questions, leave a comment or see our Canadian Rockies travel guide for more articles about photography spots, lakes, hikes, and everything else.
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Plan Your Trip to the Canadian Rockies
- Hiking in the Rockies: Purchase an AllTrails subscription to have a mobile map on you as you hike.
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3 thoughts on “Columbia Icefield (Athabasca Glacier) Experience: 25 Tips Before Visiting”
This is a supremely helpful guide for the icefield. We now know what to avoid. Thank you.
Very informative and helpful. I have been wondering if we could go to Skywalk first before our time for the Glacier field tour? Thanks for the response.
You can only go to the skywalk from the discovery center as there is no parking on the road, so you will have to go check in there first.