The Icefields Parkway is one of the best road trips in Canada, as this beautiful stretch of highway takes you through the outstanding scenery of the Canadian Rockies. Heck, it’s one of the top road trips in the entire world.
Part of the extensive Highway 93, which runs through the province of Alberta, the Icefields Parkway is 143 miles (230 kilometers) long and gives you the opportunity to explore both Banff National Park and Jasper National Park.
Along the route, you can marvel at alpine lakes, stare in awe at thundering waterfalls, visit the extensive Columbia Icefield and have the chance to spot bears, moose, bighorn sheep and other wildlife from the window of your car.
It’s a spectacular road trip and to inspire your journey along the Icefields Parkway, here is our guide to planning your own road trip and making sure you experience our favorite stops from Banff to Jasper.
Best Time of Year to Drive the Icefields Parkway
The high altitude of the Canadian Rockies ensures that the region experiences particularly long winters, and relatively short, yet sunny, warm summers.
Winter can last as long as October through to May, and the mountains receive heavy snowfall. While this is great for skiers, it can make driving from Banff to Jasper outside of the summer season more of a challenge, with icy roads to contend with.
Seasonal businesses might close down in winter, while some popular attractions such as the Columbia Icefield Discovery Center shut down for many months at a time too. The scenery in winter can be spectacular though, and if you’re into winter sports, there are plenty of places to ski or snowboard.
The busiest time of year in the national parks is summer and the Icefields Parkway becomes an incredibly popular stretch of highway. This is because it’s the primary route between Banff and Jasper.
The summer season roughly runs from April through to October and in summer you will need to book accommodation and campsites ahead of time and plan your trip thoroughly in advance to avoid disappointment.
Renting a Car to Drive the Icefields Parkway
Seeing as the best time to take this road trip is the peak summer months, you do not need to worry about renting anything special to make this drive. Despite being smack dab in the middle of the Canadian Rockies.
We saw the whole lineup of vehicle options, from RVs to campers, motorcycles, small cars, trucks and SUV’s. The roads during the summer are regularly paved highways, so you don’t need to worry about 4×4 capabilities either.
You will want to rent your desired vehicle at the airport that you fly into, either Calgary if you are driving Banff to Jasper or Edmonton if you are driving Jasper to Banff.
This means you need a one-way rental unless you plan to turn around and drive the Icefields Parkway back to your starting point or take the main highway through the Alberta plains between Calgary and Edmonton.
This is definitely an option, but keep in mind that it takes 3 solid hours to drive between Calgary and Edmonton. It also takes 3.5 hours to drive from Jasper to Edmonton. Be sure to plan accordingly.
Both airports offer car rental services from the well-known car rental companies and prices vary wildly based on time of year and demand. It’s best to book as far in advance as possible to ensure both availability and a good price.
We use Discover Car for comparing car rental prices to find the best deal. They search both local & international rental companies and we’ve had good success with this site.
Planning Your Drive on the Icefields Parkway From Banff to Jasper
The drive from Banff to Jasper can be completed in as little as 3 hours if you aren’t stopping en route. But with so many sights and attractions, it’s unlikely that you’ll be doing this.
A full day of driving and sightseeing will allow you to see the highlights along the Icefields Parkway, but you will want to consider extra nights on the road if you want to tackle some of the longer hikes and treks.
Jasper and Banff are the real hubs in the region and you can easily spend a few days in each exploring the wider area too.
You are likely to encounter wildlife along the way and it’s not uncommon to run into bears and moose crossing the highway, even when it’s busy in summer. For this reason, you will want to drive carefully along the Icefields Parkway, to avoid any collisions.
You can fuel up your vehicle and load up on supplies in both Banff and Jasper, and other stops in between, so this isn’t too much of a worry when you are on the road.
To enter both national parks, you will need to purchase a parks pass. You pay for each day that you are in the national park and charges are per person. It is also possible to purchase a family pass or an annual pass for some savings.
Drive times are helpful to note and will make your planning easier. Of course, be sure to take weather and traffic into consideration when you are actually there. These are the standard drive times that are good to know:
- Calgary to Banff: 1.5 hours
- Banff to Lake Louise: 40 minutes on Highway 1
- Banff to Lake Louise: 1 hour on the Bow Valley Parkway
- Lake Louise to Columbia Icefield Discovery Center: 2 hours
- Columbia Icefield Discovery Center to Jasper: 1.5 hours
- Jasper to Maligne Lake: 50 minutes
- Jasper to Edmonton: 3.5 hours
- Edmonton to Calgary: 3 hours
How Many Days to Spend on the Icefields Parkway?
As we already mentioned, it is possible to drive the entire length of the official Icefields Parkway in 3 hours. If you did this, however, you wouldn’t really see anything besides the views from your car windows.
With this in mind, I think the absolute shortest time you should spend on this road trip is 5 days, not including your arrival and departure days. Plan your trip to fly into Calgary and out of Edmonton to maximize your time and then break up your days like this:
- Day 1: Fly into Edmonton and pick up a rental car. Overnight in Edmonton.
- Day 2: Drive into Jasper and visit Maligne Canyon, Maligne Lake and take a cruise to Spirit Island. Overnight in Jasper town.
- Day 3: Get up for sunrise at Patricia or Pyramid Lake. Grab breakfast at the Bear Paw Bakery and set off on the parkway through Jasper National Park. Overnight at Sunwapta Falls Inn or Glacier View Lodge.
- Day 4: Drive the section of the Icefields Parkway through Banff National Park to Lake Louise. Overnight in Lake Louise.
- Day 5: Get up for sunrise at Moraine Lake. Visit Lake Louise after. Optional drive into Yoho National Park. Overnight in Lake Louise.
- Day 6: Drive the Bow Valley Parkway into Banff Town. Afternoon sightseeing around and in town. Overnight in Banff Town.
- Day 7: Drive to Calgary, drop off rental car and depart.
Where to Stay Along the Icefields Parkway
Accommodation is plentiful in the major hubs of Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff. Along the parkway though, you will have fewer options. Due to the last minute planning of our trip and the time of year we visited, we opted for lodge/hotel based touring.
There are price points for every budget and you should be prepared to spend in the $200CAD/night range and up during the high summer season for a room.
Hotels/Lodges We Recommend Along the Icefields Parkway:
- Tonquin Inn (Jasper): Located in the heart of Jasper town. Comfortable rooms within walking distance of the main street.
- Fairmont Jasper Lodge (Jasper): Luxury surrounded by pristine nature. All the amenities you could wish for, set on a secluded part of the park just outside of town.
- Sunwapta Falls Inn (IPW): One of few options around the halfway point on the Icefields Parkway. This is a small, yet comfortable lodge located right on the parkway. It is a moderately priced option for a hotel around the halfway point of the drive.
- Glacier View Lodge (IPW): Newly opened and located right across from the Athabasca Glacier. This hotel is ultra-comfortable with stunning views of the mountains and glacier. The Columbia Icefields Discovery Center also operates from the same building, so it’s a great place to be for exploring the icefield.
- Lake Louise Inn (Lake Louise): A comfortable lodge located in the tourist town of Lake Louise. This property has a nice pool, hot tub and several restaurant and bar options right on sight. Plenty of parking too.
- Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (Lake Louise): This is an absolute dream property, located directly on the shores of the most famous lake in Canada, Lake Louise. This hotel holds nothing back and is a mountain oasis with incredible views. If you can swing the cost, it will be a stay you remember for the rest of your life.
- Fox Hotel & Suites (Banff): This hotel has the best hot tub in town, hands down. Modeled after the natural hot springs, the hot tub is modeled after a cave that has an open-air hold above it. The hotel has a classic Canada lodge feel with comfortable rooms.
- Fairmont Banff Springs (Banff): If you want to stay in a castle that offers amazing views of the Bow River and surrounding mountains, then this is the place for you. This hotel is absolutely stunning and has a very interesting history. The rooms are also very beautiful.
It is also possible to do this route with camping. There are many campgrounds along the route from Banff to Jasper, both private and with Parks Canada. Something that is important to know about camping along this route, is that private campgrounds operate on a first-come, first-served basis.
Checkout at these campgrounds is 11am, which means you should plan to be at the campground you want to stay at around this time to ensure you will get a spot. During high season, it is not uncommon for all of the campgrounds to be full before noon.
At the official Parks Canada campgrounds, reservations are required and necessary several months in advance to ensure you can get a spot. They offer hookups for RV’s and campers, as well as dry tent lots.
Campgrounds We Recommend Along the Icefields Parkway:
- Tunnel Mountain (Banff): Reserve with Parks Canada
- Johnston Canyon (Banff): Reserve with Parks Canada
- Lake Louise Campground (Lake Louise): Reserve with Parks Canada
- Mosquito Creek Campground (IPW): First come, first served
- Waterfowl Lakes Campground (IPW): First come, first served
- Rampart Creek Campground (IPW): First come, first served
- Wilcox Creek Campground (IPW): First come first served
- Wabasso Campground (Jasper): Reserve with Parks Canada
- Wapiti Campground (Jasper): Reserve with Parks Canada
Safety and Ethics on the Icefields Parkway
Of all the things we are sharing with you in this guide, this section is the most important to remember for your visit. You must be mindful of your actions to ensure not only your safety but the safety of the wildlife and nature you are there to visit.
Taking a trip on the Icefields Parkway is exposing yourself to raw nature. It is important to remember this and abide by the rules and regulations that have been put forth by the Canadian parks service. People, these rules are not optional either.
Everything that you will be told and learn about here is so important to remember for your trip. Don’t be the person that chooses to obliviously ignore them in the name of getting a photo.
Rules to follow if you come across wildlife during your Icefields Parkway adventure:
- Be respectful of all wildlife species, at all times.
- Do not, under any circumstances, give food to any wildlife you see. Do not leave food leftovers or trash anywhere during your stops or hikes. This is dangerous for animals and teaches them to associate humans with food.
- If you come across wildlife while driving, reduce your speed and pull over safely to a stop and view them.
- Do not crowd wildlife with your vehicle. Respect them with space until they safely move on.
- No matter what, stay in your vehicle. I repeat, STAY IN YOUR VEHICLE. It is never okay, nor safe, to exit your vehicle in the presence of wildlife. You can take photos and observe them from your car just fine.
- Only lower your windows a short way, this is for your safety.
- Do not holler, clap or throw things at the wildlife to get their attention. Observe in silence and awe instead.
- If you are out hiking beyond the viewpoints and parking lots, take bear spray with you and know how to properly use it.
- Never go out hiking alone.
- If a sign says a trail or area is closed due to wildlife activity, TURN AROUND. Do not hike there.
- If a sign says you need a minimum number of people together to hike on the trail at that time. Listen to it. This is for your safety.
- If you happen across a bear on the trail, remember to stay calm and not act threatening. Slowly gather together, speak softly to each other and the bear and slowly back away. Do not try to get closer. Do not try to take photos. Do not try to pass the bear. Do not run.
- If you happen across a Mountain Lion on the trail, remember to turn and face directly at it. Keep eye contact. Hold your ground and do not run. Speak directly to it and loudly.
Rules to follow while exploring Banff and Jasper National Parks:
- Stay on the trail. I repeat, STAY ON THE TRAIL. There is no exception to this rule and it should be the easiest to follow. However, we were appalled by the number of people that think they can tromp around wherever they feel like going. When you do this, others follow and it is extremely degrading for the terrain and environment in these parks.
- Do not climb over barriers or fences.
- Do not wander over to cliff edges and rocks for photos and risky views. This area is barricaded for a reason, usually due to unstable ground. This means that it can give away at any time. You are literally risking your safety, and even your life, by ignoring signs and going to these areas.
- There will be many opportunities to pull out on the drive, in both designated and non-designated areas. When you are pulling over in non-designated areas do not slam on your brakes. Be sure to put on your flashers, use your signal and pull completely off the highway in a safe manner before stopping. Make sure you are clear of the driving lane.
- Look both ways before you cross the Icefields Parkway. It sounds simple but I cannot even tell you the number of people that crossed the highway in front of us without looking. People, cars are driving 55mph on this highway. If you walk out in front of them, they cannot stop in time to save you.
- Just plain be respectful to your fellow travelers. Take turns taking photos. Smile, be friendly. Don’t push or shove at viewpoints. Again, sounds simple but you’d be surprised.
- Do not throw trash out of your car windows, on the trail or onto the ground in parking lots. Take it with you and dispose of it properly. Practice Leave No Trace at all times.
It is important that we all remember to travel safely, ethically and responsibly. Our actions determine the future of these natural wonderlands, so do your part and follow the rules.
Set an example for those around you and traveling with you. We thank you personally from the bottom of our hearts.
The Best Stops From Banff to Jasper
Your journey along the Icefields Parkway begins in Banff, the hub of its namesake, Banff National Park. From Banff, you travel along Highway 93 north through Banff National Park, which then connects to Jasper National Park.
In Banff and the surrounding area though, there’s much to enjoy before you start the drive. Banff is a lively holiday resort in summer, and in winter, it’s just as lively, with skiers and snowboarders flocking here.
Surrounded by tall mountain peaks, there’s excellent hiking around Banff when the snow has melted.
You can take the gondola up to Sulphur Mountain for incredible views and you can uncover prehistoric finds at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. You can also enjoy the warm waters of the Upper Hot Springs when you need to unwind and relax.
As well as this, there are fascinating museums in the town, including the Buffalo Nations Museum, which delves into the indigenous history of the Canadian Rockies.
Our Top Recommended Tours:
- Mountain Lakes and Waterfalls Day Trip from Banff
- Covered Wagon or Horseback Ride in Banff with Western Cookout
- Johnston Canyon Icewalk Tour
- Banff National Park Guided Hike with Lunch
From Banff, it’s a short 40-minute drive north to your first stop on the Icefields Highway, which you’ll find at Lake Louise. This small town is one of the most popular destinations in Banff National Park because the community is found close to the banks of a beautiful alpine lake.
Lake Louise is a natural sight that will quite literally leave you breathless when you first arrive on its shores. Tall, snow-capped mountains provide a spectacular backdrop to the blue-green waters that radiate in the sunlight.
There are short hikes to other lakes too, including Lake Agnes. Other trails lead to a variety of lookouts over the lake and it is also possible to access the backcountry from these trails. You can also climb the peaks that surround the lake.
Our Top Recommended Tours:
- Banff National Park Tour with Lake Louise and Moraine Lake
- Lake Louise and the Icefield Parkway – Full-Day Tour
- Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola
This lake is known to be just as beautiful as Lake Louise, if not more so in my personal opinion. The color of the water is unreal and it is not uncommon for people to assume every photo that is online of it has been photoshopped.
Not to blow the surprise, but the color of the lake really is that blue! Definitely plan to arrive early in the morning, like way before sunrise early, if you want a chance to see it with few people.
The parking lot is very small and the park service closes off the entrance road as early as 6am. This leaves your only option to visit by taking the park bus. While not expensive, it is time-consuming.
Be sure to go for your visit early, no matter if you drive or take the bus. It is not uncommon for the bus tickets to be completely sold for the day by 11am. If you are unable to get there early enough to park at Moraine Lake, try to find a spot at Lake Louise.
Then walk to the main parking lot and buy a bus ticket from the Park Service. If you cannot find parking at Lake Louise, you’ll have to drive back up Highway 1 to the share lot and be bused back up to Lake Louise before you can catch the bus to Moraine.
As I said, it’s time-consuming. So I highly recommend you get up early and head right up to Moraine before the road closes. It is worth the lack of sleep you’ll sacrifice. Trust me.
Detour into Yoho National Park
If you have some extra time and want to step into another Canada National Park on your road trip, you can head over into British Columbia and explore a bit of Yoho National Park.
Make your goal to get to the stunning Emerald Lake, where you can find a nice lodge that offers a comfy cafe with insane views. There is a beautiful loop walk that takes you around the entire perimeter of the lake, just along the shoreline.
After you finish your visit at the lake, head back towards the Icefields Parkway and make a stop at the Kicking Horse River Pass. Similar to some of the other canyons along the route, you’ll see narrow gullies with water rushing through.
What makes this place special is the history. Be sure to chat with the on-duty ranger to learn more about this iconic stop. Also worth noting, the water that runs through this canyon is of a completely different shade of blue from any of the other canyons along the route. It’s worth the detour.
It takes 30 minutes to reach Emerald Lake from Lake Louise town. So a detour here will be around 1 hour of drive time, out and back, plus however long you stay at the sights. To best enjoy it, plan this detour as a half-day or at least 4 hours.
This lake is not only a stunning pull off, but a great place to stop for some relaxation. We got out here to stretch our legs and explore the shoreline. We loved the nice trails and bridges around the lakeshore.
There is a small lodge on the lake that offers a small cafe where you can grab a coffee, hot chocolate or snack. It’s a great place to take in some fresh mountain air and just enjoy being in the outdoors.
Something worth noting, though, is that on a windy day it is a tough place to be. The surrounding mountains create a wind tunnel, so the lake experiences some strong wind gusts.
From Lake Louise, it’s a half-hour journey north to Peyto Lake, where you’ll find yet another glorious alpine lake to admire. Peyto Lake is an iconic sight in Banff National Park because the water here is startlingly turquoise in color, a hue it gains from the glacial water that feeds it.
The best view of Peyto Lake is from Bow Summit Lookout, which rises to just over 2000 meters in altitude. You’ll need a good 2 to 3 hours to complete the relatively tough hike to the top of the trail though.
Most people opt to pull off into the parking lot and hike a short trail that leads to a well designed and safe overlook of the lake. This stop offers a variety of vantage points and is worth a stop, even if you don’t have time for a good hike.
Our Top Recommended Tours:
- Lake Louise & Columbia Icefield Parkway Tour
- Jasper to Lake Louise One-Way Tour
- Jasper to Banff One-Way Tour
To be totally honest with you, we almost skipped this stop. We saw it on the map and noticed that it had a small callout in the Lonely Planet book, but had never heard of this canyon. We even drove by it before deciding to turn around and visit.
The parking lot is right off the Icefields Parkway but you do have to hike a bit to reach the canyon. The hike is around 1.5km one way, so 3km in total and does have some grade. So I wouldn’t consider it easy.
You cannot take a wheelchair, walker or stroller in there. If you’re able to do it though, it is actually really spectacular. I even enjoyed the views of this canyon more than Maligne Canyon, if you can believe that. In my opinion, totally worth the stop.
The Weeping Wall is a marvelous stop off further north, where you can find an exceptionally tall cliff face that’s covered in a remarkable array of waterfalls.
The high cliff is an imposing enough sight on its own, but add in the falling water and you have an excellent spot on the Icefields Parkway. In winter, the waterfalls freeze over, and the Weeping Wall becomes a popular ice climbing destination.
One of the best things to do along the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper is to visit the Columbia Icefield. This vast icefield is the largest of its kind in the Canadian Rockies and there’s much to explore here.
Start by calling into the excellent Columbia Icefield Discovery Center, where you can learn more about the region’s geological history and find out where to head to next. Close by, you can visit the Athabasca Glacier, for a taste of what the Icefields are really all about.
The Athabasca Glacier extends for up to 6 kilometers, and while you can drive right to the edge of the ice sheet, the best way to experience it is to join an off-road tour in a heavy-duty Snow Coach.
Columbia Icefield Skywalk
Just up the road from the Athabasca Glacier, you can then find the Columbia Icefield Skywalk. This is a real highlight of Jasper National Park, as the skywalk leads high you above the Icefields along a high walkway that’s built into the cliffs.
At the end of the walkway, you have a daunting glass-bottomed viewing area that allows you to stare in awe 280 meters below. But it’s not all about adrenaline here. There is also an interpretive walk on the way to the viewing platform.
The signage teaches you about the various flora, fauna and topography of the region. It’s a great place to learn more about the area and enjoy some incredible views.
Follow the Sunwapta Valley 40 minutes north of the Columbia Icefield, and you’ll arrive at Sunwapta Falls. This multi-level waterfall is fed by pure, glacial water flowing from the Icefields, and the water is unnervingly clear and fresh.
You can watch the thundering falls from the top level, before making a short but steep hike down to the bottom level, for an alternative view of Sunwapta Falls from below.
Our Top Recommended Tours:
For much of your drive along the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park, you will follow beside the mighty Athabasca River. Don’t just gawk out your car windows.
Plan some time on your Banff to Jasper road trip to pull over and just take in the views of this river. The water flows a stunning turquoise blue against a contrast of bright green trees, neutral mountains and rocky, sand shorelines.
You can even pack a picnic lunch and plan a stop along the river. Just be sure to practice Leave No Trace (LNT) and pack out everything you pack in. Otherwise, sit back, relax and take in the incredible mountain views.
Drive a further 20 minutes north along the Icefields Parkway and you’ll soon be gazing upon the thundering, crashing water of the Athabasca Falls.
This is another of the valley’s best waterfalls, and you’ll quickly be impressed by the sheer force and volume of water that hurtles over the rocky precipice and into the plunge pool below.
Our Top Recommended Tours:
- Lake Louise & Columbia Icefield Parkway Tour
- Icefields Parkway Discovery to Jasper from Calgary
- Columbia Icefield Tour including the Glacier Skywalk from Jasper
The endpoint of your drive along the Icefields Parkway is in the town of Jasper, the main hub for the extensive Jasper National Park. The town is a great base for exploring more of the national park.
There are excellent sights within easy reach that you wouldn’t have seen while traveling north from Banff to Jasper along the highway. Close to Jasper, you can admire the beauty of Pyramid Lake and the adjacent Patricia Lake.
You can also drive out to Maligne Lake, which is one of the most iconic places in the national park. For a special experience, take a cruise on the lake to visit Spirit Island.
On your way back to town, pay a visit to Maligne Canyon. This canyon is up to 50 meters deep and there is excellent hiking around the canyon’s edge. You can also plan a classic Canadian dinner at the Wilderness Kitchen to complete your day.
In the town of Jasper itself, you can visit the local museums and enjoy the burgeoning craft brewery and foodie scene that’s growing year on year. It’s worth taking a Jasper City sightseeing tour when you are there too.
A ride on the Jasper Sky Tram is one of the highlights of a trip to Jasper National Park and you can ascend high into the mountains, for excellent views over the Canadian Rockies. It’s a great place to end your road trip along the Icefields Parkway.
Driving from Jasper to Banff
Much like the drive north from Banff to Jasper, it is possible to fly into Edmonton and make your way over to Jasper to head south. By doing this, you will complete this route in reverse, going from Jasper to Banff instead.
Truth be told, this is what we did. We booked roundtrip tickets into Calgary. When we landed, we picked up our rental car and drove straight up to Edmonton. A lot of people skip Edmonton all together but it is a really cool city. I recommend staying a couple of days if you have the time.
After our stay in Edmonton, we drove due West into Jasper National Park and started our Icefields Parkway adventure there. We headed south from Jasper to Banff and enjoyed all of these incredible stops along the way.
It worked out well because at the end of our road trip we were in Banff and only 1.5 hours from the Calgary airport. This made getting back to the airport for our flight super easy and convenient.
There is no right or wrong way to make this drive and it is spectacular no matter which direction you choose. I guarantee you’ll have an epic time no matter how you plan to do it.
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