Although you can easily drive the parkway in a few hours, starting from either Lake Louise in Banff National Park at the highway’s south end or the town of Jasper to the north, allow a full day if you can. You’ll want to stop frequently to take photos, go hiking, or walk on the Athabasca Glacier.
Driving Canada’s Icefields Parkway | The Road Trip of a Lifetime
Carolyn B. Heller | Author & Travel Writer
Carolyn's Guide to this Iconic Canadian Road Trip
Here are some tips to consider before setting out on your trip:
Allow several days for your Canadian Rockies holiday, including the Icefields Parkway drive. Calgary is the most convenient international gateway, 90 minutes east of Banff. Another option is to fly into or out of Edmonton, a four-hour drive east of Jasper.
Summer is peak season in the Canadian Rockies, so book early if you’re planning a July or August trip. In September or October, the crowds begin to lessen slightly, and the weather is usually still fine – a good alternative to the jam-packed summer season. While it can snow at any time of year, be prepared for heavy snowfall and extremely cold temperatures between November and April.
You'll need a Parks Canada Pass
The towns of Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper, as well as the Icefields Parkway, are all within the national parks, so you need to purchase a Parks Canada pass to drive anywhere within these park boundaries. Buy your pass online in advance, at the park entrance gates on Highway 1 south of Banff or Highway 93 outside of Jasper, or at any of the park visitor centres.
Start Your Road Trip in Banff
Though the Icefields Parkway itself begins outside of Lake Louise, it’s worth spending time to explore the Banff region before you head north.
In the town of Banff, visit the Cave and Basin National Historic Site to learn how the discovery of underground hot springs led to the creation of Canada’s first national park, or stop into the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies for exhibits on mountain culture and regional art.
Banff National Park has more than 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) of hiking trails to explore, from short easy strolls to more strenuous adventures. Spend an hour on a leisurely cruise across Lake Minnewanka, the largest lake within Banff National Park, or ride the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain, where you can take in the panoramas across six surrounding mountain ranges. Finish your day with a soak in the warm mineral waters at Banff Upper Hot Springs; go at sunset to watch the sun glow across the mountains.
It’s easy to walk between Banff’s in-town attractions, and you can ride the local Roam Transit buses to destinations outside the town core. Avoid driving if you can, since the town streets get extremely congested, especially in summer and early fall.
Where to Stay in Banff Before Setting Off on Your Road Trip
As soon as you check into the Mount Royal Hotel, right in the centre of town, head for the roof. From this top-floor perch, you can check out the mountain views while you have a drink in the Cascade Lounge or soak in the rooftop hot tub. The 133 guest rooms at this rambling boutique lodging, which reopened in 2018 after a major renovation, are decorated with Canadian-made furniture and quilted headboards. Amenities include Wi-Fi, one-cup coffeemakers, and free parking in the small outdoor lot.
Stay in a Chic Lodge with an Outdoor Hot Tub
Located off the Trans-Canada Highway at the edge of town, on the road to the Mount Norquay Ski Area, The Juniper is a low-rise 1950s lodge revamped into a boutique property decorated with First Nations art and other works by area craftspeople. Many of the guest rooms, furnished with mid-century-modern cherry woods and earth-toned upholstery, look out to the peaks nearby. Rates include parking, Wi-Fi, and use of the small hot tub.
Start your day on the sunny mountain-view terrace at the Juniper Bistro with salmon eggs Benedict on a citrus biscuit or a “Brekky Salad” of greens and herbs topped with poached eggs and goat cheese; breakfast is served daily in the warmer months and weekends in winter. In the evening, have a drink in front of the fireplace, or dig into hearty plates like duck breast paired with beluga lentils and pickled cherries, or a meal-sized salad of multi-hued beets, Brussels sprouts, roasted squash, and quinoa.
Stay in an Iconic Canadian Railway Hotel
The imposing Fairmont Banff Springs opened in 1888 as one of Canada’s grand “railway hotels,” built to encourage tourists to travel the country on the newly constructed transcontinental railroad. Often called “the Castle in the Rockies,” the hotel’s current stone building dates to the 1920s, with more than 750 guest rooms, from compact 19-square-meter (200-square-foot) units to grand suites. There’s plenty to do on this resort property, with an indoor saltwater pool, an outdoor pool overlooking the mountains, a spacious fitness centre, a 27-hole golf course, tennis courts, even a bowling alley. In the winter, skiers and snowboarders can ride the free shuttle to the Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village, or Lake Louise ski resorts. After all this activity, you might head for the spa for a soak in the grotto-like indoor mineral pools. Among the hotel’s numerous places to eat are the 1888 Chop House, the Alpine-style Waldhaus specializing in schnitzel and fondue, and the Vermillion Room brasserie, which serves a bountiful weekend brunch.
Take in the Stunning Vistas of Lake Louise
Located within Banff National Park, 57 kilometers (35 miles) north of the town of Banff, Lake Louise is both a small village and a legendary body of water. Mountains surround this glacier-fed lake, which almost glows with turquoise colors on a sunny day.
Stroll along the flat lakeshore trail to escape the crowds who cluster near the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel, jockeying for position to take their lakeside photos. Or hike to one of two historic teahouses above the lake, where you can stop for lunch or a snack. The popular Lake Agnes Trail climbs to the rustic, log-framed Lake Agnes Teahouse. For a longer hike, follow the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail, which leads to several glacier-topped peaks and to a 1926 teahouse, where the dark chocolate cake will refresh you for your return hike.
The Lake Louise area has a second scenic body of water that’s also worth a visit. At glacier-fed Moraine Lake, you can rent a canoe or go for a hike. In the fall, one of the most popular hiking routes is the Larch Valley/Minnestimma Lakes Trail, which takes you above the lake to a forest of larch trees that turn a shimmering autumn gold. Moraine Lake Road is open to visitors between the middle of May and the middle of October.
From Lake Louise, it’s less than a half-hour’s drive west on Highway 1 to another national park, with more natural attractions. At Yoho National Park, highlights include blue-green Emerald Lake, a lovely setting for a canoe excursion, short hike, or lunch by the shore; the Natural Bridge, an unusual rock formation along the Kicking Horse River; and Takakkaw Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in Canada.
The Lake Louise area gets extremely crowded, particularly in the summer and early fall, when Parks Canada restricts car access to both Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. If you’re not staying in town, park your car in the Lake Louise overflow lots on Highway 1 outside the village, and ride to Lake Louise on the free Parks Canada shuttles, which operate mid-May through mid-October. Separate privately-run shuttles can take you to Moraine Lake. Check the Parks Canada website for current shuttle schedules.
Stay in a Budget-Friendly Lake Louise Hotel
For an inexpensive bed in Lake Louise, consider the HI Hostel Lake Louise Alpine Centre. Surrounded by woods, this post-and-beam lodge has simply furnished private rooms, as well as four- and six-bed dorms, all with Wi-Fi. The hostel’s Bill Peyto’s Café serves chili, burgers, and other hearty dishes, and you can prep your own meals in the common kitchen.
Splurge on a Romantic Night in the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the elegant Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise sits directly on the lakeshore. You can’t sleep any closer to Lake Louise than in one of the 550 traditionally furnished guest rooms (equipped with Wi-Fi, coffeemakers, and tea kettles) at this grand lodge, which extends across several wings constructed between 1912 and 2004. Guests can book a variety of activities, from canoeing on the lake to guided hiking excursions. Winter visitors can join a hockey game or curling match, skate on the frozen lake, or rent a toboggan to slide down a nearby hill. Indoors, there’s a fitness room, heated pool, and spa, as well as several lounges and restaurants, including a 24-hour deli, an Italian trattoria, and a wine bar specializing in Swiss fondue.
Drive the Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway, also signposted as Highway 93, begins off Highway 1, outside the village of Lake Louise.
Stop for a photo at Bow Lake, 37 kilometers (23 miles) north of Lake Louise, where you can see the Wapta Icefield on the mountains across the lake. Three kilometers (two miles) further north, Peyto Lake is another photogenic spot; a short paved trail climbs up to a viewpoint above this usually shaped glacier-fed lake.
The don’t-miss attraction along the Icefields Parkway is the Columbia Icefield, where several glaciers make up the largest area of glacial ice in the Canadian Rockies. You can see the Athabasca Glacier, the most accessible of these glaciers, right from the highway, directly opposite the Columbia Icefield Centre, which is the starting point for tours that take you onto the glacial ice.
On the Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure tour, which runs daily from mid-April through mid-October, you drive onto a section of the glacier in buses equipped with massive fat tires. You have about 15 minutes to walk directly onto the glacier and snap photos along the ice. Then buses take you to the nearby Glacier Skywalk, a curving steel bridge with a glass floor, where you can look way down into a canyon, 280 meters (918 feet) below.
A beautiful spot for a hike is the Wilcox Pass Trail, which climbs to a ridge with dramatic views across the glaciers. The trailhead is just south of the Columbia Icefield Centre, 127 kilometers (79 miles) north of Lake Louise; turn into the parking lot at the sign for the Wilcox Campground.
Continuing north along the parkway toward Jasper, pull off at Athabasca Falls, where the Athabasca River descends into a canyon, creating a rushing waterfall. Tip: for up-close falls views, cross the bridge to the lookout platforms on the opposite side of the river.
Completed in 1940, the Icefields Parkway is open year-round, weather permitting. Don’t travel this remote highway in winter, though, if you’ve never driven in snow or winter conditions. Check your fuel before you set out, too. Between Lake Louise and Jasper, gas is available at only one parkway location, Saskatchewan Crossing, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Lake Louise. Note that there is currently no cell phone service along most of the Icefields Parkway.
Where to Stay Along the Icefields Parkway
To stay along the Icefields Parkway, reserve in advance for the Glacier View Lodge, in the same building as the Columbia Icefields Centre, which is roughly halfway between Lake Louise and Jasper. An overnight at the lodge, which is scheduled to reopen in June 2019 after a major renovation, includes a private Glacier Skywalk experience, an evening tour on the Athabasca Glacier, and both breakfast and dinner.
Explore the Magnificent Jasper National Park
The north end of the Icefields Parkway leads to the town of Jasper, where you have many more options for outdoor adventures in Jasper National Park.
Take a hike through the Valley of the Five Lakes, where each of the five bodies of water exhibits changing shades of turquoise, green, and deeper blues. Explore the trails through Maligne Canyon, where a river has carved impressive rock formations into a deep limestone gorge. Rent a canoe or take a cruise on Maligne Lake, the largest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies, extending for 22 kilometers (13 miles) and ringed by mountains.
Back in town, a particularly tasty way to explore the community is on a Jasper Food Tour, where you graze your way through several local restaurants and pubs, as owner Estelle Blanchette or her guides share entertaining tales about the people, past and present, who’ve made Jasper their home.
Stay in a Cozy Bavarian-Style Motel in Jasper
A moderately-priced 80-room in-town motel, Mount Robson Inn covers the basics, with standard guest rooms equipped with coffeemakers, refrigerators, and microwaves. Ask about the suites or the larger deluxe rooms if you’re traveling with the kids. Rates include parking, Wi-Fi, and a buffet breakfast. Tip for road-tripping families: there’s a convenient guest laundry on the premises.
Stay in a Hotel on the Lake for Afternoons of Kayaking and Canoeing
There’s plenty to do at family-friendly Pyramid Lake Resort, across the road from Pyramid Lake, where you can rent kayaks, canoes, and rowboats to explore the peaceful waters. The 62 guest rooms, in a lodge or in stand-alone chalets, all have gas fireplaces, as well as coffee and tea-making equipment, mini fridges, and Wi-Fi.
Treat Yourself to a Hotel of Pure Luxury in Jasper
Jasper’s top-end lodging is the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, set on Lac Beauvert, a 10-minute drive from town. The hotel’s 442 units range from deluxe hotel rooms to heritage log cabins, all styled with plenty of warm woods. The property has a heated outdoor pool, fitness room, and 18-hole golf course. You can rent canoes, kayaks, and mountain bikes to go adventuring, or book a massage in the Reflections Spa overlooking the lake to wrap up your Canadian Rockies travels in comfortable style.