Icefields Parkway: 10 Self-Drive Tips on Canada’s National Treasure Road Trip

In Summer

Photo: Paul Zizka, Banff Lake Louise Tourism

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Consistently ranked as one of the most stunning drives in the world, Alberta’s Icefields Parkway – winding through Banff and Jasper National Parks – is a bucket list road trip that simply must be seen to be believed.

It’s 232 km (144 mi) of dramatic, sweeping viewpoints and turquoise blue lakes straddling the crest of the Continental Divide. Giant glaciers, towering summits and raging waterfalls – and that’s just the roadside viewing fare. It’s a powerful place and we simply can’t think of enough adjectives to describe one of Canada’s wild, national treasures.

Yet, in this case, paradise comes with more than a little company as the scenic route experiences heavy traffic in the summer high season. We guarantee you will not be alone in your awe. While most of our guests opt for a relaxing luxury coach ride along the parkway, piloting a rental car or camper is an experience worth the effort for those who crave a good self-directed road trip.

For our self-drive visitors, we’ve put together a few suggested stops and a few travel tips for making the most of your exceptionally scenic drive to the CMH Cariboos helipad.

A river and mountains near the Icefields Parkway
Hiking Mistaya Canyon | Photo: Noel_Hendrickson, Banff Lake Louise Tourism

5 Travel Tips for Driving the Icefields Parkway

1/ Plan Enough Time
The Icefields Parkway links Lake Louise and Jasper and while traffic-free drive time is only about three hours, we suggest blocking out a good six to really take it all in. Stops, diversions, photos, traffic—and at least one short hike—make a long day of the drive. For those with a little more time, we recommend overnighting in Lake Louise and/or Jasper before driving to the Cariboos helipad.

2/ Start with the Dawn
It may seem ungodly early, but we suggest a good old alpine start both for the dramatic morning light and to beat the tour bus crowds on one of Western Canada’s most trafficked scenic thoroughfares. That feeling of waking up with the Canadian Rockies is something few experience but one you’ll remember for a lifetime.

3/ Pack a Lunch
The culinary options on the Parkway are sparse and crowded, but the picnicking is pretty all of the time. We suggest packing a lunch and breaking early for a scenic stopover at one of roadside picnic areas such as Coleman Creek as a great way to break up the drive.

4/ A Note on Wildlife
We all love charismatic megafauna and the Icefields Parkway is home to some very impressive beasts from bears to bighorn. Yet stopped vehicles have become a serious hazard on the highway and Parks Canada has started ticketing folks who stop in unsafe locations. Please pull over in a safe location, don’t exit your vehicle and give wildlife at least 30 meters of space and a wider 100-meter berth for the bears.

5/ It’s Not the City
There is no cell coverage on the Parkway. There is only one gas station in the 232-kilometre stretch—at The Crossing. Gas up, stock up and gear up before you leave Banff. A valid Parks pass is required for those on the self-drive program. The weather can shift at any time, so be prepared—as we know you are—for the mountains. Stay focused if you’re driving, because those dramatic postcard views are hypnotizing.

5 Stops on the Icefields Parkway to CMH Cariboos

A beautiful valley near the Icefields Parkway
En route to Helen Lake | Photo: Travel Alberta

1/ Wilcox Pass, Parker Ridge or Helen Lake
The best way to put distance on the masses is to head out on a hike. Even the frontcountry strolls in this region are so stunning that a few clicks from the trailhead feels like you are deep in the wilderness. Helen Lake across from the Crowfoot Glacier Viewpoint (450m gain), Parker Ridge near the Icefield Center (250m gain) or Wilcox Pass from the Wilcox Campground (410m gain) are all stunning 3-to-4 hour round-trip hikes with reasonable vertical gain.

A frozen lake with bubbles below a mountain near the Icefields Parkway
Abraham Lake as seen in winter | Photo: Paul Zizka, Travel Alberta

2/ Abraham Lake
Not many folks divert this far, but this 30-kilometre-long Saskatchewan-Glacier-fed lake is about a 40-minute drive down the David Thompson Highway. There are no facilities but the shoreline, which is Crown Land and just outside the National Park boundary, is a great spot for free, dispersed camping for those piloting a camper on their journey. There are eleven park campgrounds on the Parkway, but this one will be way less crowded than those found closer to the Icefields Parkway.

A large truck sits on a glacier on the Icefields Parkway
Columbia Icefield | Photo: Mike Seehagel, Banff Lake Louise Tourism

3/ Columbia Icefield
While it can be very busy, stopping at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre and its natural history museum is pretty much mandatory if it’s your first time down this route. It’s not a wilderness experience but ticking off a view of the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies—and the hydrological apex between headwaters for the Pacific, the Arctic and the Atlantic oceans—is worth the trip even if just to grasp the scale of this giant, retreating, roadside glacial attraction.

A roaring waterfall near the Icefields Parkway
Athabasca Falls | Photo: Travel Alberta

4/ Waterfall Waysides
Call us a sucker for a waterfall photo, but both Mistaya Falls and Athabasca Falls are worth the diversions from the Icefields Parkway. Even if it’s just for the Instagram shot. If you’ve started with the dawn—and made it this far—your odds of taking in the volume and force of Athabasca Falls without it being too busy are best at this time. Mistaya Canyon Falls is less visited and less famous, but its kilometre-from-the-road slot canyon feel is stunning, relaxing and reflective all at the same time.

Northern lights over Cascade mountain near the Icefields Parkway
Northern Lights | Photo: Paul Zizka, Travel Alberta

5/ Dark Sky Photography
Driving the Parkway in the dark may defeat the purpose, but for those spending a night in Jasper on a clear night, we highly recommend retracing a bit of your route to one of the pullouts for some of the best stargazing or astrophotography opportunities on earth. With no city light pollution and brilliant star-filled skies, it’s like a real-life planetarium experience—just without the Pink Floyd.

See all this and more on your journey on the Icefields Parkway to CMH Cariboos this summer.