Trekking the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park

The Columbia Icefield, is one of the most famous sightseeing areas  in Jasper National Park and the Canadian Rockies, and is also one of North America’s largest icefields.

There are many ways to experience the Columbia Icefield. You can fly right over it in a helicopter, walk up and touch the edge of it, or drive over the ice in specially equipped vehicles.

One must-see on your trip to Jasper National Park and the Columbia Icefields though is to hike over the ice. Below you’ll find the essential information for experiencing a ice hike.

Getting out onto the ice

The Columbia Icefield is one one of the most unique sights in the   Canadian Rockies.
The Columbia Icefield is one one of the most famous sights in Jasper National Park.

To get to the Columbia Icefield, travel 90 to 120 km south from Jasper on Highway 93, famously known as the Icefields Parkway. Be aware that there aren’t any gas stations between Jasper and Saskatchewan Crossing (154 km south of Jasper), so check the gas gauge before you get out of town.

Along the way, you’ll see plenty of great sightseeing spots: 31 km from Jasper there’s Athabasca Falls; 38 km Goats and Glaciers Viewpoint; 55 km Sunwapta Falls; 60 km Bubbling Springs Picnic Area; 99 km Tangle Falls.The dramatic  mountain terrain and high alpine flora give the land along the Columbia Icefield a heavenly beauty. Remember though, this is a high altitude area, where temperatures are cool and winds are often strong. Cold rain and sleet are not uncommon, and even wet snow is always a possibility in midsummer. Make sure you bring some extra clothes and dress in layers, so you’re ready for anything.

Stanley Falls and Beauty Creek

This Columbia Icefields trail follows a low dike across a wet area to the now out of use Banff to Jasper Highway. When you get to the old highway, make a right and follow the it until you reach a bridge abutment. There, a rough trail branches to the left and continues along Beauty Creek’s deep and narrow limestone gorge. You’ll see no less than seven small waterfalls as you walk along this trail, before finally reaching Stanley Falls.

Trailhead: 90 km south of Jasper, one-half kilometre past Beauty Creek Hostel, look for a small pulloff and hiker sign on the left (east) side of the highway.

Distance: 6.4 km return (2-3 hours)

Forefield of the Athabasca Glacier

The trail to Athatbasca Glacier’s forefield crosses a barren area continually exposed by glacial melt since the mid-1840s. It’s a lunar-like rocky landscape forbidding to all but a few hardy alpine plants that have held on. You can help make the plant’s struggle a little easier by staying on the trail. Make sure to wear a good pair of hiking boots and bring a jacket for crossing this rough, often windy area. Also, keep in mind that you may have to turn back or retrace your route flow across the trail, and on warmer days can pick up enough power to make crossing them difficult.

Trailhead: 105 km south of Jasper, directly across from the Icefield Centre building, turn right onto the Athabasca Glacier access road. Park soon after, where the road turns right again, in a small lot by a gate.

Distance: 2 km to the toe of the glacier and back (30-60 minutes)

Kids enjoying some of the freshest water in the world on the  Columbia Icefield.
A family explores the Columbia Icefield.

Toe of the Athabasca Glacier

Start this trek at interpretive signs in the southwest corner of the Columbia Icefields parking lot. Once you’ve crossed the bridge over a pretty glacier-fed stream, you’ll  be walking on limestone surfaces that have been getting uncovered by the ice since the 1950s. The trail will get steeper as you go, until it reaches the crest of a rock bench, where you can see the Columbia Icefield glacier’s toe. Make sure you go and check out the ice. You’ll definitely want to reach out and touch a glacier, but be sure to watch your step. It is possible to step into small holes in the glaciers that will soak your feet past your ankles with icy water.

Trailhead: directly across from the Icefield Centre building, turn off Highway 93 onto the access road for the Athabasca Glacier. Turn right soon after, and follow the road down to the parking lot.

Distance: 1 km return (20-30 minutes)

On to the Wilcox Pass

The first kilometer of this trail is pretty steep, but as you cross the treeline it’ll get easier and eventually reach the open pass area. Here you’ll have a chance to see bighorn rams in amazing flower meadows. Take a short walk west across the tundra  to see Mt. Athabasca, Snow Dome, the Dome Glacier, Mt. Andromeda, the Athabasca Glacier and Mt. Kitchener. Most hikers shouldn’t go past the summit marker, but route-finders can follow an water logged trail northward. Stay left, along the base of Wilcox Peak, and eventually you’ll make a steep decent past two small ponds, after which the trail improves. It follows the valley of Tangle Creek down to Highway 93 at the Tangle Falls parking area, 96 km south of Jasper.

Trailhead: the parking area on the left-hand side of the Wilcox Creek Campground entrance road, 3.1 km south of the Icefield Centre.

Distance: 8 km to the pass and back, 11.2 km one way to Tangle Falls (4-6 hours)

Parker Ridge

This easy to navigate trail zigzags up a medium grade to the top of an alpine ridge. Over the top and a little further down, you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of the Saskatchewan Glacier. If the weather is good, you’ll be able to see the southern section of the Columbia Icefield and Castleguard Mountain (3077m) and Mt. Saskatchewan (3342 m). Warmer temperatures from mid-July to mid-August bring blue alpine forget-me-nots and cushions of pink moss campion. This is also a great place to see mountain goats.

Distance: 5.2 km return (2-3 hours)

Trailhead: 8.8 km south of the Icefield Centre on Highway 93, past Hilda Creek Hostel. Look for the hiker sign at the large parking lot on the right.

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