Driving the Icefields Parkway in Winter


When you visit the Canadian Rockies, you’d like for the skies to be clear and blue every day.  But there’s only one day when you really need weather perfection — the day you drive up the Icefields Parkway.  The spectacular road from Lake Louise to Jasper provides one of the most stunningly beautiful drives in the world.  In 2009, I was blessed.  After several days of rain, the skies cleared on the day I headed up the Icefields Parkway.  I was convinced it would happen again.  But it didn’t.

On that previous trip, I constantly wondered what the road would look like in winter.  I resolved to return someday to experience the challenge of driving the Icefields Parkway during its least hospitable season.  And now, here I was, hoping for perfect weather.  It would have been wrong, on some level, if I had lucked out again.  If you visit in Winter, you’re there to see peaks enshrouded in fog and occasional downpours of snow — and everything short of an icy fender-bender.

So, my day began.  I drove up from Canmore, through Banff, and on to Lake Louise, on Trans-Canada Highway 1.  The only stop I made along the way was to admire Castle Mountain — a slightly out-of-place peak that’s very noticeable on the east side of the highway.

Highway 1 turns west at Lake Louise, and heads over the Continental Divide into Yoho National Park.  Highway 93 (which joined Highway 1 near Castle Mountain) continues north.  This is where the Icefields Parkway begins.

One of the first places worth noticing is Herbert Lake.  When I passed by here during warmer weather…

… things looked a lot different.  The lake was so perfectly still, that it provided a mirror-like reflection of the mountains behind it.

I was already noticing that the road was snowier than I expected.  I also realized another big problem for any photographer who’s driving the road in winter: with the shoulders of the road so snowy, it’s difficult to find places to pull off, that won’t leave you stuck in the snow.

Above, Mount Andromache rises on the right, and Dolomite Peak is in the distance.

I kept telling myself that the clouds would break soon, and the sky would clear.  But it looked like the opposite was happening.  At this stop near Bow Lake, the mountains to the west were almost invisible.

Bow Pass marks the highest point on the Icefields Parkway, at 2,067 meters (6,781 feet), and with that elevation, the road conditions were getting worse.  I turned off the Icefields Parkway, onto a side-road that hadn’t been plowed.  I was looking for the trail to the Peyto Lake Viewpoint, but all I could find were cross-country ski trails.  I’m sure Peyto Lake looked nothing like it did when I saw it the last time, anyhow.

After Bow Pass, the road loses some elevation, and road conditions improved — though I still had another hill to climb later on, to get to Athabasca Glacier near Sunwapta Pass.

At Waterfowl Lakes, you can usually see the distinctive pyramid peak of Mount Chephren — but not today.

The road continued north, in pretty good condition at this point.  It wouldn’t look nearly as nice, on my return trip in a few days.

You’re getting close to the Saskatchewan River, when you see this row of peaks on the east side of the road.  Among them is Mount Murchison…

… which, moments later, towers directly over the Icefields Parkway, even on a day when most of the peaks are hidden in the clouds.

At the Saskatchewan River, you’re about one-third the way to Jasper.  When I reached the river’s broad valley, I was once again hopeful that the weather would clear.

The clouds appeared to be lifting, as I stood on the bridge that crosses the Saskatchewan River.  Among those peaks up ahead is Mount Wilson.

Looking to the east, the weather appeared even more promising.

Click to view a larger version.

You should stop for a moment at the bridge to admire the wide-open Saskatchewan River Valley.  Just beyond the river crossing you’ll come across the junction with Highway 11, the David Thompson Highway.  Think of it as an Icefields Parkway “escape route” of sorts, that can take you east, eventually into the plains, and the city of Rocky Mountain House.

I decided to devote a couple of hours to driving out Highway 11, and then back, before continuing to Jasper.  That part of the trip will be covered on the next page.

During the warmer months, you’ll be able to buy food, gas, and even spend the night at Saskatchewan River Crossing. During winter, all of those services are closed.

Continuing up the Icefields Parkway, I made a stop at the Weeping Wall, where the tears that usually trickle down the side of the cliff had turned to ice.  There’s a good chance you’ll see some ice climbers here.

After the Weeping Wall, it won’t be long until you start to gain altitude again, headed for Sunwapta Pass and the Icefields Centre.  The road runs alongside the Saskatchewan River for a few minutes.  I was hoping to capture a picture…

… similar to this one, which I took in 2009, but thanks to the clouds, I couldn’t find the same spot.

The road goes around a big curve, then climbs towards Sunwapta Pass.  About halfway up, there’s a good viewpoint, where you can look back to the south, and see where you just came from.  Okay, it’s not really a good viewpoint in the winter, considering it’s not plowed, and there’s no place to park, and you’d have to trudge through some deep snow to get to a good view.

In the warmer months, it’s much easier to get to the edge, for this fantastic view looking south.

And here’s something else you can do in the summer, but not in the winter: visit the Icefields Centre — an impressive facility that serves as a transportation center, for trips out onto the Athabasca Glacier.

A ride out onto the Athabasca Glacier, aboard a giant “Ice Explorer” vehicle, was one of the highlights of my 2009 trip to the Canadian Rockies.  You can read about that experience, here.
By the time I reached the Icefields Centre, the snow was pouring.  It wasn’t the kind that was going to pile up on the roads, so I wasn’t terribly concerned.  I pulled into the huge parking lot, and thought about what it looked like the last time I was here.  Then, it was packed with cars.  Now, I was the only person here.

The Athabasca Glacier is on the other side of the Icefields Parkway.  There’s a trail that allows you to hike out to the end of the glacier (but not close enough to let you walk on it).  That trail, and the glacier itself, was all hidden by the blinding snow.

Looking back from the parking lot at the trailhead, I could just barely see the Icefields Centre.

Beyond Sunwapta Pass, the road quickly loses elevation again, then meets up with the Sunwapta River.  This long, straight, wide-open stretch comes as quite a shock to your senses, after spending so much time crammed between mountains.

One of my favorite features of the Icefields Parkway is up ahead.  The “Endless Chain” ridge forms a steep wall on the east side of the highway.

The Endless Chain stretches for about 25 kilometers, and tops out at 2,867 meters (9,407 feet).  Maligne Lake, a popular day-trip from Jasper, is on the other side.

For the final push into Jasper, I didn’t make many stops.  And when I did, I didn’t even bother taking pictures of the tops of the mountains — because I couldn’t see them.  The drive up the Icefields Parkway had exhausted me, and the gloomy weather was dulling my attitude.  But that’s all okay, because on the following night, I re-visited the northern end of the road, during much better conditions.  And of course, I drove it all again, in the opposite direction, just three days later.

My drive on the Icefields Parkway wasn’t technically in Winter, it was about one week after the arrival of Spring. Traveling this road in January would likely be much worse.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s the time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive up the Icefields Parkway, starting at Lake Louise to Saskatchewan River…

… Saskatchewan River to the Endless Chain…

… and the Endless Chain into Jasper, Alberta:

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