After checking out of the Fairmont with a heavy heart, for we really enjoyed our stay there, we made our way onto TransCanada Hwy 1. Our goal was to see Lake Louise first, then hit the Icefields Parkway all the way to Jasper.
The Ultimate Explorer Package for Banff included a visit to the Athabasca Glacier and the glass-floored Skywalk nearby. We had our time booked for 2:15 pm. I was hoping for an earlier or later time but when I called to reserve our timings, it was the earliest available.
From the Fairmont, the Columbia Icefields Discovery Center is about 120 miles or about 190 km. So even without a stop, we were looking at a drive time of about 2-2:30 hrs. Jasper is another 100 km from the glacier, another 1:30 hrs of drive time.
There are few facilities along the Icefields Parkway, considered one of the most beautiful mountain drives in the world. So, we made certain to fill up on offline maps, enough gas for the car and snacks to cover us until we reached Jasper. The Gypsy audio guides, by now, had become very familiar to us and we used its map to stop at different locations.
If you are planning to visit Lake Louise from Banff, you need to arrive either very early or very late. Between 8:30 am and 5:30 pm, there are shuttles arranged by Parks Canada from a parking lot along TransCanada Hwy 1, about 5 km from the Lake Louise area. We stopped there briefly with the intention of getting onto the shuttles. But one look at the long lines and we changed our minds. It was already close to 11 am, there would just not be enough time to make it to Lake Louise and head to the glacier on time.
Deciding to visit Lake Louise on our way back, we took Alberta 93 and drove past all the attractions we had visited on the second day of our trip, all the way up to Peyto Lake. Our first main stop that morning was at Waterfowl Lakes, with beautiful views from the roadside. We took a quick stop to enjoy Snowbird Glacier and then headed to Saskatchewan River Crossing. The history that envelops this area, once a major outpost for fur trade, is amazing. We soaked in the view, recreating in our own minds the way the native settlers would have camped and hunted for food here. And how explorers like David Thompson, who helped survey and make maps of this area for the first time, would have overcome difficult odds to survive and flourish.
Closeby is The Crossing Resort, which has a marketplace, the last of its kind until Jasper. We stopped there to gather some sustenance. It has a sit-in restaurant and a cafe. Given we had another hour’s drive and it was close to 12:45 pm, we skipped the restaurant. The cafe did not have any good vegetarian options, so we filled up on water, bought some large soft pretzels and headed out.
The road leading up to the Athabasca Glacier is very interesting. With its winding pathway and being built so close to the mountain base, it makes one feel small and insignificant. We saw several visitors biking the same roads. I just can’t imagine how well-trained and fit they must be, how driven, to spend a vacation biking these beautiful lands.
An hour later, we reached the Discovery Center and had to park in the RV area and walk to the main center. Since there are no restroom facilities on the glacier itself, we freshened up and joined the line for the glacier walk.
Soon, we were on a bus that would drive us a short distance to the glacier area, where we clambered onto a huge Ice Explorer. Our driver, Rusty, who hails from Toronto, was witty and kept us entertained with humor and knowledge. Each Ice Explorer is mounted on six massive tires, with a diameter of 1.5 meters each (about 4.5 feet), each one costing $ 4K with $1K just for shipping. There are apparently 24 such buses in the world, of which 22 are here in Alberta, Canada. The first one was constructed in 1981, and each costs a whopping 1.5 million. Although the buses were huge, the ride itself was quite smooth for the terrain.
The drive to the foot of the glacier involves going down a narrow lane with a 32% gradient. The number and width of the tires with deep treads, and keeping the transmission locked during the descent helped for a smooth journey. There is ongoing effort now to convert to a Mercedes diesel engine, making it more efficient and ecofriendly. Not a cheap process, by any means. In addition, at the base of the road, there is a small puddle of water, intentionally left there, to wash the tires clean so that dirt doesn’t get on the glacier and increase its melting time.
We spent a total of 30 minutes on the glacier. Since there are several crevasses where one could fall and get injured, even fatally, we were advised to stay within the marked boundaries. We carried warm outer coats, good shoes and an empty bottle, which we filled at the small stream of flowing water. It was clear and so refreshing to drink!
The Athabasca Glacier continues to recede, about 15 meters per year. Standing at the foot of the glacier makes one feel the inherent power of nature. There’s a sense of awe that pervades the soul. And even though we were surrounded by at least 100 people around us, the glacier is massive enough to make one feel alone, to enjoy snatches of solitude amongst a crowd!
As we made our way back to the Center, we saw several people in the distance walking with guides, trekking the glacier. Perhaps, if we return to this area in the future, that is an adventure I would definitely like to try.
Since we had purchased tickets to both the glacier adventure and the Skywalk, our next bus took us to the Skywalk, which is situated about 10 minutes drive from the glacier. Visitors have to be transported to the Skywalk and back as there is no public parking allowed at the Skywalk.
We made the one kilometer walk to the glass floor of the Skywalk, situated nearly 900 feet above the Sunwapta Valley. There are lovely waterfalls and the valley with views of the glacier in the distance to enjoy along the way. The glass floored platform lies completely unsupported below, making it unique. For one afraid of heights, it took a few minutes to adjust to the whole experience. We enjoyed the view from the top, adoring the view. We found some mountain goats far below. If you thought the glass floor at the CN tower was crazy, this Skywalk will prove a one-of-a-kind experience.
By the time we got back to the Columbia Center, we were famished, but the cafe was closing at 5 pm that evening for a private event. I stood in line to grab some fries but they were sold out before my turn. So we got some coffee instead and headed onto the Alberta 93 to Jasper. We stopped at a couple of places along the way, including Tangle Creek Falls and Stutfield glacier before reaching Sunwapta Falls.
This was a little longer stop to enjoy the falls although we didn’t walk all the way to the bottom. We saw many visitors with tripods and very advanced lens and filters on their cameras, patiently waiting their turn to click photos. We watched as a couple stood on the opposite side of the falls, close to the edge, the father carrying a baby in his harness. It made us nervous to watch them, what if the dad slipped and fell into the water?
I loved that these places were not crowded, there was enough space to relax and enjoy the surroundings, to people watch, to relish the sound of the flowing waters and inhale the crisp, clean air.
Missy JJ had the unfortunate experience of losing her phone to a water accident two days prior. But instead of letting it bother her, she actually enjoyed hanging out with us, her parents and sibling, chatting away about friends, college, gossip and life in general. For someone who was upset we were going to Banff instead of a fun place like Barbados, she was the one who enjoyed this trip the most. For that, we were grateful and it only served to enhance our pleasure in the trip even more.
En route to Athabasca Falls, we stopped at the Mt. Kerkeslin, where goats come to lick on salt deposits on the mountainside and enhance their diet. But that day, there were no goats to welcome us. Disappointed, we moved on, vowing to see them on our way back.
At the Athabasca Falls, we missed the signage to the parking lot and drove around for a bit before parking on the side of the road (along with several other cars) and jumping over a low fence to enter the trail to the falls. This is a must-see sight along the route and one we were wary of. The falls are deep, the water cold and people who fall die of hypothermia rather quickly. We spent some time here just admiring the force of these falls and the quickening evening.
We noticed as we got closer to Jasper, that many of the trees were already turning color. What was variations of green in Banff, was intermingled green, orange and yellow, lovely shades beautifying the landscapes. Although the valley widens out more in this area, the ruggedness of the mountains wasn’t any different. The peaks stood proud and jagged in profile, a testament to the violence of our Earth’s formation.
As we entered Jasper, we saw a herd of elk and stopped by to see them. We saw more wildlife here than in Banff, but this was as expected. Our hotel for the next two nights, Tonquin Inn, was set almost near the edge of town. We had an executive suite with a small balcony, a nice kitchen cum living room and one bedroom with a king. What I did not like was that the hotel had no lift and we had to manually haul our luggage up and down. Since we pack light, it wasn’t as big of a deal. Breakfast was not included with our stay.
Jasper is a very enjoyable town to visit. The crowds were much more limited, the restaurants and shops all contained within a few streets. And the whole town was just lively enough, both day and night. Parking was available on the streets and in some public parking lots. I also liked that the weather was not the biting cold we experienced in Banff township. And unlike Banff, the mountains are set at a distance from the town, making it feel more open.
The kids wanted to try the buffet at the Jasper Curry Place, which was crowded. We had to wait for about 20 minutes before we were seated. The food was good but the cooks could barely keep up with the demand for the breads (naan).
It had been a long day for us, but having covered some of the attractions on a different day made it easier on all of us. We looked forward to a relaxed day in Jasper.