At the end of September I took the shortest but sweetest road trip through the Canadian Rockies along the Icefields Parkway. I’m not really one for driving much but this road has easily made its way to the top of my ‘Favourite Roads to Drive’ list. The route is surrounded by soaring snowy peaks, terrific glaciers and brilliant blue lakes – what more could you ask for from a Canadian road trip? All of this amazing scenery was enhanced by the colourful, autumn leaves getting ready to fall.
My friend Jess and I started roughly planning our road trip back in July but until September it felt more like a daydream than a reality. We hired a rental car and set off after work late on Sunday night with the plan of driving to Kamloops (four hours east of Whistler). We only had the first night’s accommodation booked and packed sleeping bags and blankets with the intention of sleeping in the car at least one night to keep spending down.
Driving my first automatic was great. We were given a Ford Escape as a free upgrade which meant we would have more than enough space for sleeping and the heated seats were a dream.
Day one: Jasper, Medicine and Maligne Lakes
Our trip along the Icefields Parkway started in Jasper. The town itself is rustic and traditional-looking with the train line running beside the main streets. We had a quick, healthy lunch in the Patricia Street Deli before heading out to Maligne Canyon. (By this time it was already early afternoon as we had lost an hour due to the time zone changing as we crossed into Alberta.)
Our first stop as we drove through the canyon was Medicine Lake. Even with the dark clouds looming overhead, it was still a spectacular sight. It was extremely shallow with parts of the riverbed poking through creating a strange, marbled grey-blue colouring. On one side of the lake huge grey stone slabs burst out of the ground; on the other, a sad troop of dead trees stood burnt and bare from a past forest fire. This immense view was an unexpected highlight of the trip for me and is often over looked in favour of it’s sister Maligne Lake.
While Maligne Lake is beautiful, it wasn’t the best weather or time of day to view it in all its glory. The distance snow-capped Rockies at the far side of the lake draw your eye immediately. The shimmering, dark water is enchanting and on a good day you sit for pondering life for hours.
By this point in the day, we sadly realised we wouldn’t have time to visit the popular Miette Hot Springs so drove back to town for warm supper before looking for a place to park and sleep for the night. Opting to reduce the hours of driving the next day, we parked by the trailhead of Wilcox Park and settled down for our first night in the car.
Day two: Wilcox Pass, Peyto Lake and Banff town (briefly)
We awoke to frozen condensation on the inside of the car windows. Despite all my preparations, I spent most of the night shivering in my sleeping bag, trying to keep my nose from falling off my face from lack of blood. At 7am the sun was still hiding behind the mountains so we went back to sleep for another hour.
By 8am we were greeted by a cold, cloudless, blue sky and decided to get going while the weather was on our side. Parking next the trailhead had turned out to be a great plan as the parking spaces were quickly starting to fill. I had researched hikes that take you to a viewpoint for the Athabasca Glacier, a free way to see it and hopefully a less crowded option. The Wilcox Pass seemed to be the best choice (I got my information from 10hikes.com). It’s a scenic route taking you up through an bank of trees opposite the glacier and then up a ridge to the pass.
There was a lot more snow than we had expected but it was still passable in good hiking boots. Starting early also meant we had the 360° views almost entirely to ourselves and the snowy pillows and clouds which had formed during the morning seemed to go on forever.
Getting back to the car around midday, we had our packed lunches and headed off down the Icefields Parkway to Peyto Lake. This lake was one of my ‘must-see’ destinations. Having seen all my friends stop off there on longer road trips, I knew from their pictures it would be unmissable.
When we pulled into the car park it was bustling; naively I hadn’t realised the lake would be such a tourist hot spot. At the main platform it was awful with people battling to the get the perfect shot of themselves in front of the iconic aqua lake. This is just the kind of situation I hate being in – it feels like such an unnatural way of appreciating nature. Thankfully I had done my research so we detoured to the ‘Upper Viewpoint’ (thanks again 10hikes.com). Here we had a peaceful and uninterrupted view of the awesome lake, mountains with a dusting of snow and endless evergreen forest. It was hard to believe a few hundred metres away crowds were squabbling for space while we had our own private area. It’s the kind of view you dream of seeing and even now it’s hard to believe I was really standing on that rock with the wind whipping around my head.
After deciding against another night in the cold car, we drove on the Banff town centre in search of cheap, last minute accommodation. We soon realised this isn’t something Banff offers. After checking a couple of hotels and ringing around the local hostels, the only place we could find that had a half-reasonable price was back the way we had just come, in Lake Louise. So we grabbed a quick bite in the surprisingly commercial town centre (a bit disappointing in my mind – who needs multiple shopping malls in a mountain town?) before heading there to enjoy a well-deserved shower and good sleep in a warm bed.
Day three: Lake Louise, the Plain of Six Glaciers and Johnston Canyon
We were raring and ready to go on the final day of our road trip. Being in Lake Louise had its benefits as it was the next stop on our list. We got a good spot at the car park even though we didn’t arrive until after 9:30am. Thankfully the lake itself wasn’t too busy with tourists evenly spread around the bank. There were plenty of spots to pose for photos and even with clouds covering every inch of the sky, the lake still had its characteristic turquoise colouring.
10hikes.com came in handy one more time with its suggestion of the Plain of Six Glaciers hike. This was undoubtedly the pinnacle of the trip for me. I’ve never seen so many snowy glaciers in such a rugged setting, even in Patagonia.
I hiked hard and fast up the narrow snow-covered ridge to the furthest point of the trail and quickly put my coat back on for the exhilarating bum-slide adventure on the way down (no one else seemed mad enough to attempt this technique).
The wind was wild up there and it was nearly impossible to a good shot to prove you’d made it all the way to the top.
Annoyingly the nearby Moraine Lake car park was still full after we had finished visiting Lake Louise so we has to pass on this popular attraction. It will certainly be somewhere to go back for from what I’ve heard and seen online. This meant we had time for one last stop before leaving the Icefields Parkway.
We drove to Johnston Canyon and ventured up to the smaller of the two main waterfalls. It was just a short walk from the car park along a narrow, man-made platform system. Thankfully is wasn’t crowded so we didn’t have to overtake too many times. Although it was a short stop-off, it was still an amazing canyon to see and worth a full tour next time around.
Before we knew it, we were on our way back to Whistler, which is saying a lot as it was 10 hours of driving. In three days we covered hundreds of miles (I forgot to check for the final count…) and saw some of the world’s most amazing and breathtaking landscapes. As always, more time would have been great, but I see this adventure as more of an introduction to the Canadian Rockies than the final chapter.
If you have any questions about the road trip, feel free to drop me a message in the comments below.