By Meghan J. Ward
Just west of Lake Louise is an exit many drivers cruise past without knowing what they are missing. Highway 93N – or the Icefields Parkway – is the most direct route from Banff to Jasper, but apart from linking these two mountains towns, it is also one of the most scenic highways in the world. Flanked by forested valleys and glacier-clad peaks, this unlikely stretch of road takes you into the heart of the mountain parks. The Icefields Parkway is marked with historic and scenic milestones, making it easy to stretch the 232-kilometre commute to many days of exploring. For a number of seasons, the Icefields Parkway was home for my husband (then boyfriend) and me when we worked and lived at a lodge on beautiful Bow Lake. Over the years, we grew fond of several stops along the road – some off the beaten track. So, as part of the 75th Anniversary of the Icefields Parkway, I thought I’d share my top picks for summertime stops! Some of these destinations require good hiking savvy, navigational skills and backcountry preparedness. Please consult with Parks Canada at a Visitor Centre prior to venturing out. Stops are in order from Banff to Jasper.
1. Herbert Lake
Just a few kilometres up from the exit off the Trans-Canada is Herbert Lake. The north side of the lake offers incredible views of Mount Temple, and when it is calm the reflection is stunning. In the summertime, this small lake often warms enough for a swim!
2. Helen Lake
Look for the trailhead for Helen Lake right off the Icefields Parkway and you’re in for a treat. You’ll do some hard work early on with this trail, but the good news is that you spend considerable time above treeline. For a few weeks in summer, this area is one of my favourites for wildflowers. Stop for a lunch break at Helen Lake and return the way you came, or head over Dolomite Pass or up Cirque Peak.
3. Crowfoot Glacier
Just before Bow Lake, keep your eyes peeled for a glacier on the flanks of Crowfoot Mountain in the shape of – you guessed it - a crow’s foot. You might be wondering where the third toe is. Word has it that it broke off and melted away in the 1930s!
4. Bow Glacier Falls
At Bow Lake, peruse the historic lodge then venture onto the trail just past the parking lot. Bow Glacier Falls is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated "easy" trails in the Canadian Rockies. Two-thirds of the way to the falls, you’ll come across a natural bridge, an unlikely boulder that offers safe passage to the other side of a deep canyon.
Bow Glacier Falls Trail. Photo-Paul Zizka Photography.
5. Peyto Lake
This quick stop gives you a bird’s eye view of Peyto Lake, one of Banff National Park’s most stunning alpine bodies of water. A trail takes you down to the lakeshore, and continues to various backcountry destinations. We recommend that advanced hikers take a day hike out to Caldron Lake via the terminal moraines that spill out beyond the Peyto Glacier.
6. Mistaya Canyon
Accessible via a five-minute walk from a roadside pull-out, Mistaya Canyon is a popular stop for good reason. For thousands of years water has surged through this narrow slot and carved a deep, thunderous canyon full of playful features. We love this place so much that we named our daughter after it!
7. Panther Falls
This waterfall is a hidden gem that can be accessed with a relatively short hike from the Bridal Veil Falls pull-out. It is perhaps so often missed because there is no signage off the highway! Hike to the bottom of the falls, or take a higher trail to meet up with the waterfall mid-way, which offers a bit of excitement and exposure (be careful!).
8. Parker Ridge
Get your hiking boots on and switchback your way up this roadside ridge for some impressive views of the Saskatchewan Glacier. It is the perfect way to stretch out your legs when you’ve been driving for hours, and the reward at the crest of this 2.7-kilometre trail is well worth the journey.
9. Athabasca Glacier
Now you’re in Jasper National Park, and this impressive toe of the Columbia Icefield is here to greet you. Hike to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier to take in the sheer scale of this place and the overwhelming effects that climate change has had on the ice here. Pop into the Columbia Icefields Centre for an educational tour of its natural history museum or hike up Wilcox Pass for expansive views.
10. Tangle Falls
This roadside waterfall is easily missed if you’re looking the wrong way. Look for them 6.5 kilometres north of the Columbia Icefields Centre on the east side of the road. The multi-tiered steps of this cascading waterfall are what make it so beautiful and unique.
11. Athabasca Falls
Close to the junction with Highway 93A you’ll find one of the most popular roadside stops, and it’s a great place to take a break. This powerful waterfall begins broadly then plummets through a narrow gorge. Our favourite part is a small canyon that the water has abandoned; it can now be explored on foot. For more information, please consult with our Visitor Information Centres.