The Icefields Parkway, or Hwy 93, is a scenic drive that has visitors flocking from around the world to see. It’s where one can come to enjoy a drive-in nature, surrounded by waterfalls, rock spires, ancient glaciers, and turquoise lakes.
I’ve yet to drive down a road as beautiful as the Icefields Parkway. However, there are some things to know before you set out to drive the Icefields Parkway. This is no ordinary road after all.
Things to Know About Driving the Icefields Parkway
What is the Icefields Parkway?
The Icefields Parkway has been deemed one of the most beautiful road trips in the entire world, and for good reason. Not only are you in the Canadian Rockies, but each and every turn on this road is met with mountains, icefields, waterfalls, and tons of glorious stop-offs that will have any visitor beaming with delight. We’ve driven the Icefields Parkway many times and it honestly never gets old so we wanted to put this itinerary together so you are sure not to miss anything.
The Icefields Parkway is a 232 km stretch of double-lane highway taking you along the Continental Divide. It runs from Lake Louise to Jasper, which are both fantastic places in themselves. You can drive the parkway in either direction and in multiple days.
How Long Does it Take to Drive the Icefields Parkway?
The fastest you could drive the entire parkway is three hours. Though, just driving straight from Lake Louise to Jasper in one sitting without enjoying all there is to offer would be a real shame.
What is the Ideal Time to Drive the Icefields Parkway?
If you have the time I would give at least two full days to driving the parkway. With a stop overnight somewhere in the middle near the Columbia Icefields center. That being said we’ve done it a few times as a day trip and would say that 6-8 hours will give you ample time to take in the views, get out of the car at many viewpoints (though nowhere near all), and in general, have a very nice day.
There are 20 or so must-visit sites along the way, and there is absolutely no way you can cover them all in a day unless you start at sunrise and end at sunset – rushing through every stop. If you want to do any hiking along the parkway this time will need to be accounted for too.
When is the Best Time to Drive the Icefields Parkway?
The Icefields Parkway is great no matter the season. It is open all year unless avalanche conditions are too high during winter storms — closures rarely last more than a day. Many people would say the best time to drive the Icefields Parkway is in the summertime, between mid-June to early September. This is when the days are long, the wildflowers are blooming, and the lakes are in their prime.
For winter travel the best time to drive the parkway is between December and March when the peaks are snow-capped and it feels like you’re driving through Narnia. Though this is the most dangerous time to drive the Icefields Parkway and road conditions deteriorate in the winter. It’s also worth noting that services on the parkway like restaurants, accommodation, campsites, and the only fuel station are closed from November to April.
In my opinion, the best time to visit the parkway is in June or September. Early June is as close to summer as you’re going to get without the hordes of tourists and crowds, and if you drive the parkway in late September the road will be awash with fall colors.
Should I Rent a Car for the Icefields Parkway?
There are a few ways to see the parkway. A personal car, RV, bus tour, motorcycle, or if you’re really hardcore you can bike it. In the summer you’ll find a mix of all these things. I would suggest driving the Icefields Parkway in any of the above besides a bus tour.
I’m not a huge fan of bus tours on the parkway. It’s a small road and large buses typically crowd the road, and all pull over at the same stops at the same time creating a bit of a jam. Plus, there are so many wonderful places you will miss if you decide to take a bus tour, they only stop at a handful of places.
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Is There Wildlife on the Icefields Parkway?
There is a plethora of wildlife along the Icefields Parkway. Be prepared to see deer and elk, and if you’re lucky a bear or coyote. We almost always see a bear when driving the parkway, but they do stay away from traffic and noise pollution so you may not see them in the summer months. You’ll probably be tempted to pull over if you see wildlife, but it’s best not to do this. This is what we call a “Bear Jam” and is a real problem in the park.
Once one person pulls over to get a closer look at a bear, another car pulls over, and another, and so on. Eventually, people are getting out of their car taking selfies (yes I’m serious), which is not only dangerous to you, but also to wildlife. Parks Canada discourages pulling over for bears and has even made it illegal for buses to do so. They can issue tickets too. So if you see a bear on the road, slow down and admire it from the car, and do not stop and cause a traffic jam, please.
What is the Road Like on the Icefields Parkway?
You can expect a fully paved two lane road. It’s honestly hard to believe such a nice road was built given the location.
Where Can I Fill Up on the Icefields Parkway?
There aren’t many gas stations on the Icefields Parkway so you will really have to plan accordingly. If you’re coming from Lake Louise you should fill up at the village before getting on the parkway. If you’re coming from Jasper then fill up there.
These will be your only chances to fill up, besides the Saskatchewan River Crossing, which charge higher than average prices (Saskatchewan River Crossing closes in the winter meaning there is nowhere to refuel along the Icefields Parkway).
Is There Service on the Icefields Parkway?
Don’t expect to get much of a cell phone signal on the Icefields Parkway. If you’re driving from Lake Louise you’ll lose a signal sometime after Herbert Lake. If you’re driving from Jasper you can expect to have a signal until just after the Valley of the Lakes Trailhead.
There are a few times along the parkway where you will be able to make calls and check emails if need be. I typically get a signal at the Saskatchewan River Crossing and Columbia Icefields Center, but that’s it (and not in the winter when they turn it off). Unplug and enjoy nature – it’s what you’re here for!
What Can I Eat on the Icefields Parkway?
As far as restaurants go there aren’t many along the Icefields Parkway. The Num Ti Jah Lodge at Bow Lake has a restaurant, as well as the Saskatchewan River Crossing, and the Columbia Icefields Center.
All are overpriced, but if you’re hungry it’s likely you won’t care. I would recommend packing a cooler with food and bringing a nice container of coffee before heading out on the drive. There are plenty of nice places to eat with picnic tables.
I would suggest picking up food at the grocery store in either Canmore, Banff, or Jasper before making the trip. If you miss this opportunity there is a gas station at Lake Louise with ready to eat food as well as the Trailhead Cafe for coffee.
Where Can I Stay Along the Icefields Parkway?
There aren’t many places to stay along the Icefields Parkway, and certainly nowhere super fancy. If you’re after a full hotel stay I would suggest the Fairmont Park Lodge in Jasper or staying in Lake Louise in Banff. However, there are a few Icefield Parkway hotels including the new Glacier View Lodge at Athabasca Glacier, or the rustic Num Ti Jah Lodge at Bow Lake.
There are a few hostels along the route at Mosquito Creek, Rampart Creek, and Hilda Creek that are basic bunks in shared rooms. There are also a few Icefield Parkway camping spots that all operate on a first come first serve basis, check those out here. On weekends in July and August, they fill up incredibly fast so plan accordingly.
Do I Need a National Park Pass to Drive the Icefields Parkway?
You will need a Parks Canada Pass to drive on the parkway and there are booths just as you’re leaving Lake Louise and Jasper to check if you have them.
You can purchase a Parks Canada pass at any park gate. Or you can buy them in advance online. A Parks Canada Discovery Pass which gets you entrance to all Parks Canada destinations for the year is only $139.40 for a family. Day passes are $10 per person, so depending on how many days you are staying you may want to consider the Discover Pass.
Can I Drive the Icefields Parkway in the Winter?
The Icefields Parkway is open all year round, though I wouldn’t advise driving it in the winter unless you have experience with winter driving. If there’s been a big recent snowfall I would check conditions and make sure you have a sturdy 4×4 vehicle at the very least. Your vehicle should have winter tires if you’re driving in Alberta in the winter anyway and should have an emergency kit in case you are stranded. Winter conditions last from November to April, but even October will see some snow in the Rockies.
The parkway isn’t plowed to the extent that other roads in Alberta plowed and it is generally not salted. As mentioned above there’s no cell phone reception to call for help, and it gets very very very cold in Alberta in the winter. Getting stranded could mean life or death if you’re unprepared. Winter traffic is low compared to summer so you could be waiting a bit until a passerby comes along.
I should also mention that the only place you can fill up, the Saskatchewan River Crossing closes in the winter so you must get on the Icefields Parkway with a full tank of gas.
Can I Hike Along the Icefields Parkway?
I’m happy you asked! There are plenty of hiking opportunities along the Icefields Parkway! Some of the easier hikes you can do are Parker Ridge, Bow Glacier Falls, the Valley of Five Lakes, and the hike to Hector Lake. Longer full-day hikes and scrambles include The Onion, Jimmy Simpson, Little Hector, Observation Peak, and Helen Lake and Cirque Peak.
Are There Rest Stops Along the Icefields Parkway?
There are plenty of places to make a put stop for a rest room if need be. Almost all the main sites of portable toilets and with The Crossing and the Columbia Icefields Center having full rest stops.
What Are Some Must Visit Stops Along the Icefields Parkway?
I figured this would be a question so I’ve put together an entire post on my favorite stops along the Icefields Parkway here! See the map below for reference as well.