Oddly enough, I’ve seen quite a few glaciers around the world, from the obvious Antarctica to New Zealand and even up in Iceland. I didn’t expect to find myself standing on one in the middle of Canada though, but that’s exactly where I was one Monday morning when I visited the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park.
Jasper National Park is huge, about 4,200 square miles, and to fully explore its beautiful mountain peaks and river-laden valleys would probably take a lifetime or two. It was my first visit to this part of Alberta and almost immediately I had fallen in love. That love affair was only stoked hotter as I drove from the Jasper Park Lodge to the Columbia Icefield along one of the most famous stretches of road in the Americas – the Icefields Parkway. The Parkway, which is celebrating its 75th birthday this year, is one of those legendary drives that everyone should try at some point in their lives. Driving through the mighty Canadian Rockies, the raw beauty of nature was almost too much for my brain to fully comprehend and I found myself stopping several times, trying to just soak up the scenery all around me.
After an hour or so of admiring the world flying past, and keeping an eye out for wildlife, I didn’t need a sign to tell me that I had arrived at the Columbia Icefield and the glacier itself. As unlikely as it seems, the Parkway leads drivers in front of the toe of the mighty Athabasca Glacier itself. That’s probably why this is one of the most popular areas of the park, and it’s probably also why the parking lot was nearly full and it was only nine o’clock in the morning. The Icefields Parkway connects Jasper with Lake Louise and Banff, so you have visitors to both areas who traverse the route and ultimately meet at Columbia, astride the Continental Divide itself.
The folks at Brewster Travel understood the appeal of the glacier early on, which is why today directly opposite the glacier you’ll find a massive complex, all dedicated to visitors and tours. One of the largest, and oldest, tour operators in the Canadian Rockies, they own rights to most of the most popular attractions in the area, including the rare opportunity to walk on a glacier itself. That’s how I found myself, bundled up in a hat and gloves in what was still technically summer, on a massive vehicle headed to the mighty Athabasca Glacier.
The Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure takes visitors directly to the surface of the glacier by Ice Explorer, a massive truck designed for navigating the ice, mud and snow of the glacier. It’s not a long trip, and the massive windows on all sides of the vehicle were great for admiring the landscapes leading up to the experience itself.
Once we stopped in the middle of a snowy lot, we had about 15 minutes to get out and explore, take photos and just admire the views. Spending time exploring a glacier isn’t an everyday activity for most people and this experience takes you right into the heart of the Athabasca itself. Of course it’s gorgeous, but I was more interested in the site itself. Sitting astride the Continental Divide, I stood directly in front of Snow Dome mountain. While unassuming, this is the hydrological apex of North America, which means that waters from the mountain eventually drain into three waterways: The Pacific Ocean, the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay. I find that amazing, and a demonstration of the might and wonder that only nature can provide. I’m a nerdy traveler though, so others may not find it as interesting as I do, luckily for them there are plenty of scenic places along the glacier for selfies and other quiet moments of reflection.
After trundling down the mountain from the glacier, and warming up over a much-needed cup of hot chocolate, I then boarded another bus for an equally immersive, if not completely different type of experience, the Glacier Skywalk. Just a few miles down the road from the Athabasca Glacier is a specially designed cliff-edge walkway that leads to a glass platform hanging high over the river valley below; 918 feet to be exact. The Glacier Skywalk combines those amazing views of the region that had me nearly veering off the road more than a few times along the drive, with information about the area both in terms of the geology as well as wildlife and even cultural exhibits. The real star of the show of course is that glass platform, where you can look down and see the rushing waters of the river below your feet. I love walkways like these because they provide a fun opportunity to get closer to the natural wonders surrounding you in ways that are exciting and unexpected.
And the views were absolutely worth the price of admission. In the distance I could see the glacier I had spent my morning exploring, and closer to the platform the forests and waterfalls of Jasper National Park were breathtaking to behold. From personal experience, pulling off the side of the highway in the Park isn’t always easy, and this is a great opportunity to spend as much time as you’d like admiring those views that are a focal point of any driving experience in the park.
Exploring Jasper National Park is one of the travel highlights of my life – really. I knew it’d be beautiful, that’s why I was there after all, but nothing prepared me for the immensity of the scenery and just how many moments of quiet perfection there’d be. I’m also an active traveler though, and spending the day exploring the Icefields Parkway and scrambling around on a glacier was the perfect way for me to spend part of my all-too brief visit to this truly extraordinary part of the world.