The Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper remains one of the world’s great road experiences. The Scenic Drives Guide I picked up in Canmore’s excellent Visitor’s Centre indicated it would take 3 hours to drive. We took 7 and still didn’t see all of The Parkway’s attractions. According to SDG, this highway with almost no signs of civilization (you’ll never spot a McDonald’s), also known as highway 93, has been voted “The World’s Most Spectacular Mountain Drive” but SDG didn’t say by whom. It also called The Ice Explorer tour of the Columbia Icefield “the Canadian Rockies most popular attraction.” Again, I have no clue who decided this, but it might be true considering the waiting lines at the Icefield Centre.
If you’re lucky enough to drive Icefields Parkway, try to get even luckier by wheedling the window seat right behind the driver because glaciers large and small can best be seen on the Parkway’s western side. If you’re stuck on the right, though, you’ll still have some fine views with the real possibility of wild animals like big horn sheep.
The Icefields Parkway ensures sparking lakes like Bow and Peyto and waterfalls with names like Athabasca and Sunwapta. However, we were advised that there was no place to buy food along the way, so we went to the Safeway in Banff and bought sandwiches that got so soggy from melting ice that we had to throw them away.
The last time Ruth & I drove Icefields, we were in such a hurry to ride the Jasper Tramway that we skipped Icefield Centre. I now know this was a mistake. The popular Tramway’s long lines, stuffed cars, and hauntingly gorgeous view was a worthwhile-one-time experience, but the Centre was an unexpected delight.
IC’s top floor is a modern, spacious, reasonably priced Mount Royal Hotel. During 2012 high season, June 15 to September 15, a Glacier View room for 2 costs $229 plus tax, well worth it. Low season from the beginning of accessibility until June 14 and after September 15 is only $130 plus tax per night. The Centre’s only opened from May to October. However, we were told that, perhaps due to continental warming, it might open by mid-April in 1213, weather permitting.
On the Centre’s bottom floor we found a fine museum about the Columbia Glacier which can’t be seen from the road, even from an on-Glacier tour. The museum’s diorama made it come alive visually. The 30-stories-deep Columbia Icefield, justifiably called the summit of the Rockies, currently disgorges 6 major glaciers that eventually become rivers flowing to 3 oceans, Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic via Hudson Bay. 9 major peaks surround it including Mount Columbia, the highest point in Alberta at 12,294 feet.
I supposed I kind of knew what a glacier was but the museum made it even clearer. Ice becomes a glacier when its mass is larger than 4 football fields, older than 1 year, forms on land, and moves slowly downhill.
If you read on-line comments about the food and facilities at Icefield Centre, you’ll see plenty of criticism. But we found its food & drink varied and pleasant, far better for sure than water-logged sandwiches.