It runs between Jasper townsite and Lake Louise, following in turn the Bow, Mistaya, North Saskatchewan, Sunwapta and Athabasca rivers, crossing the Bow and Sunwapta passes and presenting a panorama of peaks, glaciers, waterfalls and canyons.
Some landmarks bear the names of early guides and explorers - Wilcox, Stanley, Nigel. Others have descriptive names such as Tangle Ridge and Whirlpool River, or Indian names such as Sunwapta (turbulent river).
Once part of the vast ice sheet that covered most of Canada for more than a million years, the Columbia Icefield is the largest accumulation of ice in the Rocky Mountains. It blankets an area of nearly 300 square kilometres to depths of 900 metres. The most accessible of the many glaciers that jut from the main body of the icefield is the Athabasca Glacier, which can be reached from the Icefields Parkway. Tours on the glacier give visitors a close look at mill holes (deep, circular depressions) and crevasses (long, nearly vertical fissures).
Look for bighorn sheep and goats at Tangle Falls, Stutfield Glacier Viewpoint and Goat Lookout. Stutfield Glacier Viewpoint offers a view of the Sunwapta River, an excellent example of a braided river. The valley bottom is filled with sand and gravel spreading the river across the valley floor in interlacing channels. The Stutfield Glacier features a picturesque pair of ice falls, which spill down the face of Mt. Stutfield. Take the 1 km (1/2 mi) access road from the Icefields Parkway to Sunwapta Falls and Canyon and see where the Sunwapta River changes its course abruptly from northwest to southwest, then plummets into a deep canyon producing the spectacular Sunwapta waterfall.
Quartzite boulders litter both sides of the Icefields Parkway where rock slides have swept down here from the mountain slopes to the east. Above the boulder field, near the top of the ridge, is a distinct pink scar where part of the rock sheared away. The Sunwapta River now breaks in rapids over the foot of the slide area. The rock itself has been used extensively as building stone in Jasper National Park. To the southeast of Poboktan Creek loom Tangle Ridge and the 3,315 metre Sunwapta Peak. In the opposite direction, Endless Chain Ridge stretches to the northwest.
Just beyond this area is the Saskatchewan River Crossing, the junction of Highway 11. Take a short detour heading east and you'll discover fantastic tracts of wilderness noted for fishing, trail riding and hiking, such as the Wildland Recreation Area, White Goat Wilderness, Cline River and Abraham Lake.
Keep your eyes peeled for Bow Summit, which at 2,068 m (6,785 ft.) above sea level, is the highest point on the parkway and offers one of the best mountain panoramas in the world at Peyto Lake viewpoint.
Jasper and Banff National Parks border one another along the divide between the headwaters of the Sunwapta and North Saskatchewan rivers. Waters flowing north from this divide eventually reach the Arctic Ocean via the Mackenzie River, while those flowing south cross the Prairies via the Saskatchewan River to Hudson Bay. The Icefields Parkway crosses the divide at 2,035 metres above sea level. At this elevation snowbanks remain in sheltered areas throughout the summer. Like many high valleys near timberline, the bottomland near Sunwapta Pass is virtually treeless.
The Icefield Parkway ends in the picturesque village of Lake Louise. Located in the Bow Valley, the village provides shopping, accommodation, meals, automotive services and tourist information. 4 km (2.5 mi) above the village is the lake itself, dominated by the majestic Victoria Glacier. Near Lake Louise, visit emerald-coloured Moraine Lake. Surrounded by a panorama of 10 glaciated summits, the Wenkchemna Peaks, Moraine Lake is found at the base of the Continental Divide, the geographic point where all waters flow either west to the Pacific Ocean or east to the Atlantic Ocean .
Continuing past Lake Louise, look for the turn-off to Mount Eisenhower. According to Indian legend, this 2,862 metre turreted peak is the home of the Chinook - a warm, dry winter wind that sweeps out of the Rockies to melt snow in the foothills and prairies. A hiking trail winds for eight kilometres from a warden station to Tower and Rockbound lakes, hidden in a hanging valley behind Mount Eisenhower. Another trail follows a fire road to a lookout high on the mountain's flank.
Next stop along the road is Johnston Canyon, which was carved out of the soft underlying rock by Johnston Creek. Among the canyon's wildlife is the dipper or water ouzel, a bird which lives at the very edge of turbulent mountain streams. In feeding, the dipper will wade, swim, dive, and even walk underwater on the stream bed. In a meadow just beyond the canyon are a group of seven springs called the Ink Pots. Two of them are noted for their murky, blue-green color - a hue created by suspended sediments. To the west, open meadows mark the site of Silver City, a mining boom town. During its heyday (1883-85), the town boasted a population of 2,000, four general stores and several hotels. The mines failed to meet expectations however, and a disputed claim helped to speed the town's demise.
Proceeding up the highway you will find a nine-kilometre drive that skirts the shores of the three Vermilion Lakes. The surrounding wetland, a marshy area of the Bow River, is rich in plant and animal life. Sedges, rushes and swamp horsetail provide a habitat for beaver and muskrat. On slightly drier ground grow willows, black currants and bracted honeysuckle. Beyond the wetland are groves of white spruce sprinkled with poplars. Ringing the lakes are Sulphur Mountain, Mount Rundle and the peaks of the Sundance Range .
You will soon enter the town of Banff, which is a year-round recreation center for tourists, horseback riders, skiers, hikers and mountain climbers. Banff is the headquarters for the Banff National Park , which is the first and most famous of Canada's national parks with an incomparable combination of towering peaks and high meadows, emerald lakes and keen mountain air. These factors, and the sulphur hot springs, have made Banff National Park one of North America 's most spectacular scenic and recreation areas. It was here in the winter of 1883 that railway workmen noticed wisps of steam rising from a fissure on the south side of the Bow Valley. A candle lowered down the hole on a string revealed a cavern with a pool of steaming, sulphurous water. The upshot, in June 1887, was an Act of the Canadian Parliament designating 673 square kilometres around the springs as "Rocky Mountains Park". Be sure to check out:
- Cave and Basin Hot Springs - This is the birthplace of Banff National Park. In the early days, bathers descended into the cave by means of a ladder through a hole in the cavern ceiling. Since then a tunnel has been burrowed into the chamber so that visitors can view the historic site. Inside the grotto, jagged rock walls arch above steaming Cave Pool, fed by sulphur springs flowing at 675 litres a minute.
- Sulphur Mountain - One of Banff's most popular attractions is the Banff Gondola. Gondolas rise 690 metres to the summit ridge (2,348 metres) and a sweeping panorama of mountains and valleys. At Banff Upper Hot Springs, a rich in minerals, outdoor swimming pool (47 0 C), is open year round.
- Archives of the Canadian Rockies - These archives house a community library and research center for the history of the region.
- Banff Natural History Museum - Specimens of wildlife native to Banff National Park are displayed here.
- Luxton Museum - Indian lore and customs are shown in dioramas at the museum, which is built to resemble a 19th-century fur-trade post.
If you're looking for something to do this evening, a stroll through Banff's downtown area is a good idea, as the shops are open late.
The Parks Canada campground at Tunnel Mountain is the most convenient campground to use as a base for exploring Banff.
CanaDream Club attraction partners on today's route:
Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure
Lake Louise Sightseeing Lift and Gondola
Banff Hot Springs