Jasper National Park
So you have seen Banff already, and may be thinking twice on making the long drive along icefields parkway? Do not even flinch. The two parks next to each other actually are vastly different. While Banff offers more accessible yet spectacular views, Jasper National Parks is actually much more rugged, wild and unforgiving, albeit dramatic.
Suggested Time Spent: 1-2 Days | Best Time to Visit: May – Oct | Entry Fee: CAD 9.80 per adult (incl. w/ Banff NP)
As you drive north from Banff National Park, as you pass the Saskatchewan river crossing, you will enter the famous Icefields Parkway and Jasper National Park. You will not need additional passes if you already have bought the pass for Banff National Park.
As you embark on this 140 mile stretch of the Icefields Parkway, it is imperative that you gain some insights from a geological standpoint, to make viewing mega-glaciers and rugged terrains more fulfilling. Geology is a topic very close to us and a simplified version of the geologic history is fairly frowned upon. But in order for brevity, here is a simplified version – Tectonic movements of plates caused seabed to rise up 500 million years ago. From then, years of weathering by glaciers, rain and wind has caused some cliffs to be steep and some blunted. These are some of the oldest land on earth, whereas the land in British Columbia is much younger as they were formed by lava coming out of the subduction zones between the two plates. Get all your answers on our short coverage of the Geology of this area.
Things to see
There are plenty of marked attractions along the road, which we will list below, but remember, the real fun happens while you are on your way from one point to the next. Look out for flora and fauna, landscape changes, and the glaciers above. Many attractive features in this park are actually not marked, and can only be seen from the trails or side of the highway. We begin from the south make our way up north.
- Columbia Icefields and Athabasca Glacier: The Athabasca glacier is one of the biggest attractions, rightfully so, in this area. What you see now is only remnants of the ice cover on this part of the country millions of years ago. It is situated at a slightly elevated plateau, and is surrounded by a number of peaks making it a sweet-spot for photographers. The glacier is like a frozen river where the ice is constantly on the move. The movement of the glacier has and is still shaping the topography of the area. Due to climate warming, the glacier’s recession is actually overwhelming the progress; you can spot the area where the glacier’s receded from.
- There is a ticket booth where you can buy the tickets. We did not buy them online, therefore wasting a bit of time. But if your tour itinerary is finalized, buy the tickets here. Please note that you cannot go on top of the glacier on your own. Only vehicles designed to move in the terrain can take you up there. We bought the combo of glacier walk and the skywalk (which was merely a tourist trap in our opinion).
- When your group is called upon, you will be transported via a shuttle to the ‘Mars Rover’ like vehicle that will take you to the glacier. It goes through an extremely steep decline that normal tires will not be able to endure. The treading in these massive tires are about 6 inches deep. Not surprisingly, not a comfy ride, but the destination, the Athabasca glacier is incredible. It is below freezing here with the windchill coming down the glacier, so not advisable to stay more than 20-25 minutes.
- When standing on the glacier, you cannot feel the movement of the 10,000 year old ice sheet. But look around the cliffs and you can visualize the thickness it used to have in the pre-historic times. Look up the cliffs and you will see thick (200-250 meters deep in different areas) ice sheets of the Columbia Icefield which is 215 sq. km. in area.
- Sunwapta Falls: While you will spot many waterfalls along the way, most of them unnamed, this one needs a quick hike to the hanging valleys. Massive amounts of water cascades down a U-shaped broad valley. It was created when a large glacier receded 10,000 years ago, creating a deep limestone gorge below. The mist created by the plunging water makes the ambiance surreal, especially with some cloud cover.
- Athabasca Falls: Along the Icefield Parkway, you will spot the 23 foot high Athabasca falls on your right. It is one of the most powerful falls due to the large amount of water that the Athabasca glacier fed river of the same name cuts into the softer limestone creating a deep gorge.
- Mt. Edith Cavell: It was closed when we got there, but if open, a trail lets you look at the peak and traces of the icefield along its sides. There are lookouts though on the Icefields Parkway that you can spot the peak from.
- Maligne Lake: Through a by road on the right, a trail takes you to one of the most picturesque lakes surrounded by snow-clad peaks. It is an incredible experience to kayak in the lake. As you paddle on the turquoise waters and get to the middle of the lake, you will be tired of clicking pictures of one peak to the other around it.
- Town of Jasper: We recommend ending the day here in one of the little restaurants or cafes having a bite. If it is a clear day, you can spot the peaks of the Colin range and the jagged peaks of the Athabasca valley. There are lodging options available, but due to high demand, tends to fill out fast.
We came back to Banff the same day, spotting animals and the sunset glow on the ice peaks. The drive was tiring but was worth it to be able to spot so much wildlife as it was the time when they all come out.
While driving the magnificent Icefields Parkway, slow down. Not only to admire the scenery but also to look out for wildlife roaming around. Due to their camouflage, it is anyway hard to spot them in the sides of the road. But if you look carefully, and know what to look for, spotting a bear or two, porcupines, deer and even an occasional moose can be spotted. We even got lucky and got to see a huge Grizzly bear pretty close to the highway, and a baby black bear crossing the road along with a few more at a distance. Close to sunset and right around sunrise are the best times to spot wildlife.
Mountain Goats are another interesting topic here. They were not originally from here, and were introduced to the area by the explorers. They do not have enough nutrients from the vegetation here, so they lick glacial debris for essential minerals. It will not be difficult to spot Mountain Goats in the cliffs of the Jasper National Park. Make sure to have a high speed camera with a longer tele-lens ready for action. See below on what we could admire and capture in our lenses.