The Athabasca Glacier is a massive glacial toe to the expansive Columbia Icefield that sits on the British Columbia—Alberta border, Canada. It is arguably the most accessible glacier in North America and offers visitors a chance to get up close and personal 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. It’s the opportunity to stand on a glacier, a once in a lifetime experience.
The Athabasca Glacier
It 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 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.
The Columbia Icefield Glacier Center 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.
However, the “Ice Walk” tours across the Athabasca Glacier require advanced booking with the local tour company. As pretty big environmentalist and mountain sports fanatics, we highly recommend booking an Ice Walk tour and moving along the glacier on your own volition.
The other option to walk on the glaciers 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. It’s a pretty pricey experience that averages around $130 but includes the Columbia Icefield Skywalk.
In 2020 the Columbia Ice Explorer suffered a terrible accident when one of the massive vehicles rolled injuring and killing several tourists. It’s a terrible tragedy that is still under investigation and at the moment Pursuit has discontinued the service. We are uncertain of the future of these tours and will update once a decision is made in the future.
Traditionally the Ice Explorer is included in a Glacier Adventure ticket with the Glacier 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. 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.
Columbia Icefield Skywalk
The Columbia Icefield Skywalk is a glass-bottomed bridge that’s just north of the Athabasca Icefield 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 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 the 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.
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 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, 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 The Athabasca Glacier
Walk on the Glacier
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. So make sure to pack a toque and warm jacket when you visit the glacier for a more enjoyable experience.
No Reservations Required
You do not need a reservation for the tours at the Icefield Discovery Center unless you have a large group. 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.
The Ice Explorer Vehicles leave every 15 to 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.
Pack Your Lunch
There are not many options for food along the Icefields Parkway. You’re pretty much left with the Icefields Discovery Center or the disappointing Saskatchewan River Crossing. 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!
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 late April to mid-October.
While there are no coupons or direct discounts for the Icefield Discovery Center experiences you can buy combo tickets. You can combine the tickets with the Lake Minnewanka cruise, Banff Gondola, or Maligne Lake cruise for a discount. The experiences are allowed to be used on separate days. While we’re more mixed on the Discovery Center experiences both the Banff Gondola and Maligne Lake cruise are worth a visit for most.
Save Your Money
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. While the views from the cafeteria and restaurant of the Discovery Center are fantastic for free.
When it comes to the Skywalk views and the novelty of a glass bottom are a bit of a let down. 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.
Directions To Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield
The Columbia Icefield is conveniently located off the 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 Lake Louise the center is 130 km and takes around two hours to reach. Japser 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 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.
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