Touring the Icefields Parkway with Kids

by - Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Countless natural wonders and wildlife make the Icefields Parkway a must-see. Spanning 232 km (144 mi) from Lake Louise to Jasper, there are glaciers, turquoise lakes, waterfalls, and jagged peaks around every corner. It's easy to see why the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93N) is one of the world's most scenic drives! For this epic driving tour, slow travel rules; embrace the journey and make lots of stops. There are amazing sights just minutes from the highway!


The best family-friendly stops along the Icefields Parkway from south to north are...

1. Peyto Lake (45 km from Lake Louise): Named for explorer, Bill Peyto, this lake is known for its impossible shade of blue (due to glacial rock flour). Save your sanity and skip the lower viewpoint crawling with tourists. Hike instead to a viewpoint near the southern end of the lake. You will likely have this splendid spot all to yourself, save for a few ground squirrels!
  • Directions: Take the Bow Summit turnoff. Walk up to the upper parking lot (about 600 m). Take the paved self-guided nature trail away from the lookout, PASS the turnoff to Peyto Glacier (it goes downhill, you want to go up for a view), then take the next signed turnoff on the right. Take the dirt path to a rock outcropping with panoramic views! Peyto Glacier looms to your left and Peyto Lake is to your right. Return to the interpretive trail and continue on the loop back to the lower parking lot. 
  • 2.2 km return, 50 m elevation gain. From turnoff to lookout is not stroller friendly. Outhouses at trailhead.
  • For a longer hike, hike to Bow Summit. 5.8 km return, 245 m elevation gain.
Peyto Lake, Banff National Park
Peyto Lake, Banff National Park
2. Mistaya Canyon (75 km from Lake Louise): This easy walk takes you to a unique, sculpted, slot canyon. Observe how the Mistaya River has carved the stone over thousands of years. 
  • Park at the Mistaya Canyon pullout on the west side of the highway.
  • 400 m one way, minimal elevation loss. Stroller friendly.
Mistaya Canyon in March
3. Saskatchewan River Crossing (80 km from Lake Louise): The Crossing Resort is your stop for ice cream, souvenirs, camping supplies, dining, and gas (no fuel for 153 km!).

Saskatchewan River Crossing, Icefields Parkway
4. Columbia Icefield (130 km from Lake Louise): You must not pass! This expansive icefield, mother to 8 glaciers, is the largest in the North American Rocky Mountains! You can hike to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, take the Glacier Adventure tour to get a feet-on-the-glacier experience, or view the scenery from a glass walkway.
  • Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre: Parks Canada Information Centre and home to Brewster Tours. Also in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the building with the most women's bathrooms for its size (no joke!). Open mid-April to mid-October.
  • Toe of the Glacier Hike: Hike to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier and see a huge blue ice cave! 4 km return, short and steep climb to the top of the moraine. 
    • STAY OFF THE GLACIER! People have fallen into crevasses (deep cracks in the ice) and died of hypothermia. 
    • Ice cave is only accessible from late fall to spring as there is a river flowing from the toe of the glacier in warmer months. Enter the cave at your own risk. 
  • Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure Tour: Ride a huge Icefield Explorer (all terrain vehicle designed specifically for glacier travel) right onto the Athabasca Glacier where you will have the chance to get out and walk on the glacier for about 15 minutes. It was amazing, but sad, to see how far the glacier has retreated since I was a kid. Allow 4-5 hours if you are planning on doing the Glacier Adventure and Skywalk. For more information, please visit Brewster Travel CanadaOpen mid-April to mid-October.
  • Skywalk: Grab a headset and enjoy the interpretive walk to a glass walkway 280 m (918 feet) above the Sunwapta Valley. It was pretty cool to see waterfalls and rapids rushing below our feet. For more information, please visit Brewster Travel CanadaOpen mid-April to mid-October. 
Athabasca Glacier Ice Cave
Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure Tour
Skywalk
5. Sunwapta Falls (178 km from Lake Louise): These beautiful falls may be viewed from the viewing bridge or the trail. The upper falls are less than 100 m from the parking lot and the lower falls are a 4 km return hike (80 m elevation loss to 2nd falls). I recommend skipping the lower falls and continuing down the road to Athabasca Falls.

Sunwapta Falls in March - viewing bridge near top of photo
Lower Sunwapta Falls in July
6. Athabasca Falls (202 km from Lake Louise, 32 km south of Jasper): You will hear these powerful falls crashing before you see them. Observe them from the viewing bridges and then check out the blue lagoon on the other side of the upper viewing platform. The water is really that blue! 1 km interpretive trail; no elevation gain.

Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park in March
Downstream of Athabasca Falls

Bonus:
  • Bow Lake is gorgeous.  Kids will enjoy throwing rocks in the lake while you take photos of the lake and Crowfoot Glacier. I've heard there's good fishing here too! Note that a National Parks Fishing Permit must be obtained in order to fish in the National Parks!
    • Bow Glacier Falls is a nice half-day hike. 9 km return, 155 m elevation gain.
  • For stunning views with not too much effort, hike to Parker Ridge. 2.7 km one way, 250 m elevation gain.

Know Before You Go

  • A National Discovery Pass is required to drive the Icefield Parkway or stop anywhere in a National Park. If you buy a pass this year (2016), it will be good until 2018! AMA members get a discount if they buy directly from an AMA office.
  • Be prepared for sudden weather changes. 
    • From November to May, snow tires are recommended. 
    • Carry extra layers of clothing when hiking & don't forget a windproof, waterproof layer.
  • Ice cleats or microspikes are recommended for hiking from November until May.
  • Fill up in Jasper or Lake Louise as there is only one gas station on the Icefields Parkway: Saskatchewan Crossing.
  • Do not stop in the middle of the road to view wildlife! If you must pull over, stay in your vehicle and do not feed the animals. There is a maximum $25,000 fine for feeding wildlife.
  • Reservations recommended for accommodation as this is a popular destination for travellers from all over the world.

Fun Fact

Did you know the Icefields Parkway is 76 years old?

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