The Columbia Icefield is breathtakingly rugged and serene. Discovered in 1883 by three Canadian Pacific Railway construction workers, Banff National Park is home to majestic mountains, stunning glacial lakes, caves and roughly 250 glaciers.
Since 1940, the Icefields Parkway has given millions of visitors access to some of the most stunning sites that both Banff National Park and Jasper National Park have to offer. Aside from gorgeous glacial lakes, and majestic mountains, the Icefields Parkways offers views of several glaciers. In fact, a drive along the Icefields Parkway will take you past not one, but four icefields – the most famous one being the Columbia Icefield.
Partly in the northwestern tip of Banff National Park and the south end of Jasper National Park, the Columbia Icefield is positioned atop the triple Continental Divide. It feeds 8 major glaciers and its melt-waters empty into the Pacific, Atlantic and North Atlantic oceans.
The most visited glacier within the Columbia Icefield is Athabasca. Framed by Mount Andromeda on the left and Snow Dome on the right, Athabasca Glacier is a must see. Due to heavy snowfall in the winter (mid-Oct to mid-April), the best time to see the glacier is during late spring to early fall.
A hot spot at any time of year, the Icefield Centre can be as congested as Grand Central station during peak season. As with all tourist centres, many of the services inside the Icefield Centre are overpriced ($2.50 for a small bag of chips, $3.50 for a bottle of coke). However, there are also some valuable aspects of the centre, such as the Glacier Gallery Exhibit (lower level) and a breathtaking panoramic view of the Columbia Icefield.
It’s a 1-kilometer walk (or a short drive) from the Icefield Centre to the head of Forefield Trail -which takes you to the foot of the Athabasca Glacier. It’s an easy hike, and most importantly, it’s FREE! When you reach the foot of the glacier, there is a small roped off section of the glacier which you can walk on. DO NOT walk past the barrier!
Brewster’s Columbia Icefield Glacier Experience includes a tour onto Athabasca Glacier aboard a snocoach, as well as a walk on the Glacier Skywalk.
The drive from the Icefield Centre to the Snocoaches is about 8 minutes, as the road is narrow and steep in places. You’ll pass moraines on both sides of the road, as well as stunning views of Mount Andromeda and Snow Dome and crystal blue water flowing through cracks in the white snow.
The scene is surreal. In the dead of summer, which it is hot in the city, you’ll be freezing cold as you stand on the glacier. There is one very important rule on the glacier, stay within the barrier of the pylons. Every year there is a fatality on the ice because someone decided to walk past the barrier and falls into a crevasse (deep crack in the ice).
Even with the barriers, the experience is well worth the expense ($85 CAD if booked online, $94 CAD if you show up and buy a ticket).
The Athabasca Glacier is roughly 6 km long, and 270 ft to 1,000 ft thick. At one time, the glacier was all the way to the Icefields Parkway, however, it’s receded 1.5 kilometres in the past 125 years and continues to recede 2-3 meters every year. It’s disappearing quickly. How much longer will people be able to visit before it would be too dangerous?
There is a lot of talk around the globe about the ozone layer and how natural resources are disappearing. It’s becoming even more important for us to live a more green lifestyle, to preserve nature and help to educate each other. In Banff -as with all National Parks in Canada- protecting the environment is a top priority. With focuses on water conservation, minimizing environmental impact, recycling and special treatment systems, Brewster has created an award-winning environmental stewardship program that is helping to protect the Columbia Icefield (as well as other sites in Banff). Using low-water fixtures and recycling grey water, educating visitors, and using recycled materials such as asphalt are a few ways that Brewster is giving back.
HOW TO GET TO THE COLUMBIA ICEFIELD
Travelling to the Columbia Icefield may seem out of reach if you’re visiting Banff, Lake Louise or Jasper and do not have a vehicle. However, that’s not the case. Brewster offers guided Canadian Rockies tours that include transportation from either of the three towns listed above, as well as the guided tour of Athabasca Glacier (which has departures from Banff and Jasper).
If you have a car, drive down HWY 93 (from Banff take HWY 1 to HWY 93), the Columbia Icefield is very close to the border of Banff National Park and Jasper National Park.