If you have a chance to drive this highway, do it. If you don’t, make the chance. The road curves through the mountain valley between Banff and Jasper. Except for a restaurant/motel about halfway along the 143-mile roadway, the scenery is pristine and uninhabited.
The mountains are not as high as they are in the Colorado Rockies, but the valley is lower, giving the impression of immense height. While the lower slopes are covered with lodgepole pines, the peaks above the tree line (about 7000 feet) are as barren as the mountains around the Dead Sea. The road takes its name from the Columbia Icefield nestled in the high mountains. This is the largest ice field outside the Arctic regions and the origin of dozens of glaciers that sweep down the mountainsides to feed mountain lakes and rivers. Unfortunately, many of the glaciers are receding rapidly (well, rapidly for glaciers). For instance, the Crowfoot Glacier has changed so dramatically in the last century that you can no longer recognize the crowfoot shape it was named for.
There are dozens of roads that lead off the main highway and if you have the time, you should explore a few of them. Each one uncovers scenes of breathtaking beauty. Among the roads we took was the one to Bow Lake, a crystal blue, glacier fed lake. It is the headwaters for the river that meanders through Banff. (The Indians thought the river was shaped like a hunter’s bow – hence the name.) There’s a wonderful old log lodge at the edge of the lake that was built for trophy hunters in the 1920s. It’s called Num-Te-Jah and it is open during the summer season.
Bow summit is the highest point on the highway, just before the turn off to Peyto Lake. This is one turnoff you shouldn’t miss. A short walk through the pine scented forests opens onto a narrow valley with a turquoise lake spread along the valley floor. It was named for Bill Peyto, one of the guides who led packtrains from Lake Louise in the early part of the century. He was evidently quite a character (one guide book says he once took a wild lynx into a bar and sat back with a beer to watch the fun). It’s said he liked to camp down here by the lake. And who wouldn’t, it is spectacular. Although the lake is one of the more frequently photographed places around here, I’ve yet to see a picture that captures the exact shade of turquoise I saw the day I was there.
For miles, the road passes creeks rimed with ice and rocks slik with moss. In the early morning, fog rises from the rivers, often with an elk or two standing in the water posing.
As we got closer to Jasper, we started up what is called the “Big Hill.” The switchbacks take you up about 1400 feet in 11 kilometers. The sudden rise, however, gives you fabulous views back toward the road we just traveled. At the top of one of the switchbacks we were forced off the road by a most fascinating road hazard – a small herd of big horn sheep crossing the road. Fortunately, there was a turn off right there, so we pulled off to mingle among the sheep, mostly females and young. They were quite unimpressed by our presence and let us take pictures from just a few feet away. Minutes later, they scrambled up the steep, rocky slope on the far side of the road. What a treat.
I found a book called the Parkways of the Canadian Rockies by Brian Patton, and if you plan to spend any time here, I would highly recommend the book. It has a mile-by-mile map and description not only of the Icefield Parkway, but others in the area as well.