Ever wondered what it’s like walking on a glacier? The Columbia Icefield is just the place to find out!
To stand on solid ice a million years old and 1,000 feet thick is – well an awesome experience. To do this safely while savoring the special pleasure that comes from doing so, one must visit Canada’s spectacular Columbia Icefield! This field of ice standing at an elevation of around 10,000 feet is the Athabasca Glacier. The icefield includes several glaciers covering an area of over 200 square miles of densely packed ice. Ice so thick it is in places as tall as the Eiffel Tower! The icefield was discovered over 100 years ago in 1898 and according to estimates over 10 million people have visited the glacier since. The Icefield lies on the boundary of two of Canada’s great parks – Banff and Jasper. The glacial melt from the Columbia Icefield flows in 3 directions – east to the Atlantic, west to the Pacific and north to the Arctic.
The Icefields Parkway connects the Icefield to Banff and Jasper. The highway is perhaps Canada’s most beautiful and scenic mountain road. It brushes past the Columbia Icefield. From the parkway 3 of the glaciers – Athabasca, Dome and Stutfield are visible – the intervening mountain range obscures view of the other glaciers that together make up the Columbia Icefield.
The Icefields Parkway is a major attraction itself. For over 130 miles the highway runs through spectacular scenery – glaciers, waterfalls and lakes. Also known as Highway 93, the parkway also connects Lake Louise to Jasper. The Icefield Welcome Center, the access point for the glacier walk, is about 60 miles from Jasper. While it is possible to make it to the glacier from the parkway on your own, this is not advised. The terrain is both rough and dangerous. The danger of hidden crevices in the ice is always present – it is never safe to walk on uncharted ice.
Icefields Visitors Center
The Icefields Visitor Center is located opposite the glacier on the other side of the highway. Transport to the ice is by specially designed vehicles – Brewster’s Ice Explorers. The service takes tourists from the Visitors Center to a specially marked area of the glacier. Cones in bright blues and reds mark the perimeter of the safe area on the ice for visitors to walk on. People with special needs can also enjoy and experience the glacier as Brewster’s Explorers are equipped to serve tourists in wheel-chairs. The trip to the glacier and back takes about an hour. The Columbia Icefield is served by its Visitor’s Center which is open 6 months from mid May to Mid September. The center includes the Glacier Gallery, an exhibit maintained by the Canadian Park Service. The gallery is interactive and provides an introduction to glaciers, their formation and movement and the ecology that exists around them. The information provided by the gallery is a great way to get acquainted with glacier and the Columbia Icefield. Glaciers are in retreat worldwide and their greatest threat is global warming. This glacier is retreating about 16 feet every year.
Glacier View Inn
The center complex has the appearance of a chalet. It includes the Glacier View Inn which has over 30 rooms and is equipped with amenities required for a comfortable stay. The complex also includes a gift shop for Athabasca souvenirs and a restaurant to savor fine dining while looking out to the magnificent views of the glacier.
In addition to the Columbia Icefield which is the premier attraction, the highway passes by several other great scenic places to visit. The Crowfoot Glacier, Peyto Lake, Athabasca Falls and Sunwapta Falls are other places of interest on the parkway. Further south is Waterton, a beautiful lakeside resort and access point and gateway to the International Peace Park shared by Canada and the U.S.
Alberta has the finest scenic features the Rockies have to offer. Mountain peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, lakes with water of unbelievable color and rivers flowing from the melting glaciers all combine to provide a landscape of incredible beauty and color. Alberta does seem to have it all. It is only fitting that several of Alberta’s natural treasures have been designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. There is so much to see in Alberta and most of these wonderful places are within easy reach of the main cities Calgary and Edmonton.