Columbia Icefield (Athabasca Glacier) Experience: 25 Tips Before Visiting

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 with 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.

Cameron Views Columbia Icefield

You’ll likely want to visit the Columbia Icefield 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

Athabasca Glacier From Discovery Center

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.

Mount-Athabasca-and-Andromeda-Icefields-Parkway-Banff

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 from its peak flows to the Pacific, Atlantic, or Arctic Ocean.

athabasca glacier - glacier discovery center
The Columbia Icefields Discovery Center

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 in your car in 10-20 minutes.

athabasca glacier

Where is the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre?

Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre
Source: banffjaspercollection.com

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 fantastic stops like Bow Lake and Peyto Lake, so make sure to read our 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

Athabasca Glacier Retro Icefield Explorer

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. You can book tickets from the center on the Ice Explorer or Columbia Icefield Skywalk. However, booking these online in advance is recommended if visiting during peak season.


Ice Explorer Trucks

Athabasca Ice Explorer

The Ice Explorer is the most popular experience and tour on the Athabasca Glacier. The tour takes visitors high up the glacier and drops them off on the glacier to experience it first-hand. This is done with massive trucks that drive up the steep moraines of the glacier before driving across it to a designated area.

Icefield Explorer Truck Intetior With Driver
Icefield Explorer Trucks

The designated area is a roped-off area free of crevasses that is safe to explore, granted it’s not a vast space. Trucks are pretty cool, and it’s definitely something that will thrill young children. Once you arrive at the Athabasca Glacier, you can walk around the small area for about half an hour to take in the views. There are guides to inform you about the significance of glaciers, and many will get to drink straight from the glacier itself!

Natasha Standing In Front
Guests On Ice Explorer Walk

It’s a pretty pricey experience that averages around $100 but includes the Columbia Icefield Skywalk. However, it allows for a much closer experience with the dramatic peaks and glaciers. Tickets include the Columbia Icefield Skywalk, so the whole experience takes several hours.

The Columbia Icefield Adventure ticket with the Glacier Skywalk includes the Ice Explorer. You cannot just purchase the Ice Explorer adventure on its own. The experience is only offered in conjunction with The Icefield Skywalk. The Skywalk is a one-kilometer glass platform that hangs above the Sunwapta Valley. A shuttle bus leaves from the discovery center every fifteen minutes to the Skywalk 6 km away.

Is the Columbia Icefield Skywalk Worth It? (Jasper Skywalk)
Columbia Icefield Explorer Buses

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 significantly 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. 

Athabasca Glacier Ice Walk

athabasca glacier
Drinking from the glacier!

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 trying to walk on the glacier on your own.

athabasca glacier
Repelling into a crevasse with Rockaboo

If you want to actually repel into a crevasse on your glacier experience, Rockaboo is the only guiding company certified to do that. It’s a pretty cool experience and another way to learn more about the science and importance of glaciers.


The Columbia Icefield Skywalk

The Columbia Icefield Skywalk is a glass-bottomed bridge just north of the Athabasca Icefield and is a popular stop on the Icefield Parkway. Tickets for the experiences operate on time slots, so purchasing your tickets in advance is best to avoid a long wait or the tickets being sold out entirely.

Pathway Columbia Icefield Skywalk

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 from the Glacier Discovery Center and does not offer many views of the Athabasca Glacier, but instead the Sunwapta Valley.

Columbia Icefield Skywalk

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 available in a wide range of languages that should cover most visitors.

After walking to the glass-bottomed bridge, it’s a short, but thrilling walk for many as they peer down on the valley far below. There is 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 see the view from the top. Reaching 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. You can spot countless glaciers, ice fields, and many of Alberta’s highest peaks from the top.

Natasha on Mount Athabasca
On the summit of Mount Athabasca

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 a great physical challenge, but it is definitely one of the more adventurous things to do in Banff. It’s also an excellent introduction for those interested in mountaineering.


Best Tips To Visit Columbia Icefield Athabasca Glacier


Walk on the Glacier with a Guide

athabasca glacier

Please do not walk far on Athabasca Glacier unassisted without mountaineering experience and equipment. That being said, walking on the glacier with a guide is easy. You won’t need any technical experience; with the proper safety precautions and equipment, it’s a straightforward objective/experience. There are some crevasses in the glacier and a few cases of children falling into the small crevasses with tragic outcomes.


Dress Warm

athabasca glacier

Even on a warm summer day, the weather around a glacier can be frigid as they create their own microclimates. Most notable is a Katabatic Wind effect, which 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 pack a toque and warm jacket when you visit the glacier for a more enjoyable experience.


Consider Reservations

Herbert Lake
At Herbert Lake on the Icefields Parkway

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. We recommend shooting for an early morning and witnessing sunrise on the Icefields Parkway – a once-in-a-lifetime experience!


Pack Your Lunch

picnicking along the Icefields Parkway
picnicking along the Icefields Parkway

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

athabasca glacier toe

While you can drive the Icefields Parkway in the winter, weather dependent, the Columbia Icefields Discovery Center does close. Tours are only operational in the summer months and are subject to seasonal weather. Roughly, you can plan for 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

Cruising on Maligne Lake
Cruising on Maligne Lake

While there are no coupons or many discounts for the Icefield Discovery Center experiences, you can buy combo tickets. For a discount, you can combine the tickets with the Lake Minnewanka cruise, Banff Gondola, Golden Skybridge, or Maligne Lake cruise.

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, the Banff Gondola and Maligne Lake cruise are worth visiting 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 the Banff Gondola, Columbia Icefield Skywalk, Columbia Icefield Adventure, Maligne Lake Cruise, Lake Minnewanka Cruise, and Golden Skybridge anytime.

There are a few select discounts offered at the Columbia Icefield Center. 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 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

parker ridge hike
The Parker Ridge Hike

We’re not big fans of 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, and get a lovely view. It’s also possible to hike a little further to the toe of the glacier yourself. However, we recommend a guide if you want to walk far on the glacier.

athabasca glacier
ice explorer
These massive trucks run to and from the glacier all day, every day, in the summer.

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.

Columbia Icefield / Athabasca Glacier

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

Icefields Parkway

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

Columbia Icefield / Athabasca Glacier

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:

  • Cafeteria
  • Fine Dining Restaurant, Altitude Restaurant
  • Starbucks
  • Glacier View Lodge
  • Picnic Tables
  • WiFi & Cell Coverage
  • 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

Glacier View Lodge Interior

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.


Other Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier FAQ

Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier
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.

What 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 if partaking in the Ice Explorer Tour. If doing an IceWalk guests will be on the glacier about 2 hours.

Is the Columbia Icefield Open in the Winter?
winter at the Columbia Icefield

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

Adult: $10.50
Senior: $9
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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About Cameron

Cameron is a resident of Canmore, Alberta. After traveling the world for six years, he settled down in the beautiful Bow Valley with Natasha. He has been featured as a travel expert with numerous publications worldwide and has spoken on several occasions about the power of travel. He has a passion for all things in the Canadian Rockies and loves to spend his time snowboarding, scrambling, camping, biking, and trail running. Conservation is a deep fundamental in his life, and he aims to inspire others to care about our natural world. You can learn more on the about us page.

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4 thoughts on “Columbia Icefield (Athabasca Glacier) Experience: 25 Tips Before Visiting”

  1. 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.

    Reply
  2. Extremely useful information that covers a lot of relevant ground. For the life of me, I couldn’t find elsewhere such clear information about whether we had to take one of those red and white buses to see the glacier (every search result showed these buses everywhere). Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

    Reply

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