The Columbia Icefield is one of the most extensive ice sheets in the world. Found within both Banff National Park and Jasper National Park, in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, this is a dramatic and otherworldly place, that’s beautiful all through the year.
This is a place of sprawling glaciers, high mountain peaks, and stunning landscapes.
Few other places in Canada can match the Columbia Icefield in terms of sheer beauty, because this is one of the top destinations in the country.
You can marvel in awe at the scenery, learn about the geological history of the Columbia Icefield at the interpretation center, enjoy off-road rides across the glaciers and incredible vistas from the daunting Skywalk.
It’s an adventure not to be missed, so to inspire your next journey, here’s our guide to visiting the Columbia Icefield.
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Banff, Jasper and Glacier National Parks
How to Visit the Columbia Icefield
Quick Facts About the Columbia Icefield
The largest icefield in the Rocky MountainsThe Columbia Icefield has an area of 125 square milesThere are at least 30 distinct glaciersThe average height of the icefield is 3000 metersThe tallest mountain on the edge of the icefield is Mount Columbia, rising to 3747 metersThe Columbia Icefield sees an average of 7 meters of snowfall each year
Where is the Columbia Icefield?
The Columbia Icefield is found in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, at high altitude in the Province of Alberta.
The icefield is large enough to spread over two national parks, although most of it is found within Banff National Park and only a small portion within the adjacent Jasper National Park.
The tourist hub of Banff is located 120 miles, or two hours drive to the southeast, while the town of Jasper is located 60 miles, or one hour drive, to the northwest of the Columbia Icefield.
How to Get to the Columbia Icefield
You can visit the Columbia Icefield on a guided tour, independently, or a mixture of both.
This is one of the most popular destinations in Canada, and there is a whole range of multi-day, organized excursions that will take you on an unparalleled journey through the Canadian Rockies.
You can even take the iconic Rocky Mountaineer Train through the region, stopping off in Banff and exploring the icefield.
Most travelers will visit the Columbia Icefield from either Banff or Jasper or possibly from Lake Louise, although there is less accommodation at this smaller destination than the larger hubs.
You can visit on a day trip, either organized or, if you have your own transport, by car. The nearest international airports to Banff and Jasper, are either Calgary or Edmonton.
The route between Jasper and Banff is known as the Icefields Parkway, and this is often seen as one of the most epic road trips in Canada.
While the drive would only take as little as 3 hours if you travel non-stop, it’s easy to turn this into a multi-day adventure, stopping off along the way and incorporating the Columbia Icefield into your itinerary.
You can see the glaciers from the side of the road, but to get closer then you’ll have to join organized excursions that take you safely onto the icefields.
Best Time to Visit the Columbia Icefields
The Columbia Icefields can be visited for most of the year, but your experience will be completely different depending on the season when you choose to travel.
The Rocky Mountains are found at high altitudes, and the icefields sit around 3000 meters above sea level. This means that the weather is unpredictable and generally cold.
The short summer season runs from June through to the start of September, and this is the most popular time to visit the Columbia Icefield and the surrounding national parks.
This is when Banff and Jasper are at their busiest, and especially so during the school holidays.
This is also the best time for outdoor activities when the mountains are perfect for hiking and the glaciers are safe for walking and off-road adventures with tour companies.
In winter, things are a lot more unpredictable, and after heavy snowfall or if there is an avalanche warning, then the Icefields Parkway can be temporarily closed.
Winter can be just as busy as summer, at least in the towns, as Banff and Jasper are both popular ski resorts.
Hiking might have stopped, but the ski resorts will be packed out. The ski season can run from December all the way through to May.
The shoulder seasons, spring and autumn, are a good time for lower prices and smaller crowds, but the weather can again be unpredictable and there’s never any guarantee that hiking trails and roads will actually be open.
Best Things to Do During a Columbia Icefield Tour
1. Visit the Discovery Center
Start your journey to the Columbia Icefield at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. This excellent interpretation center is packed full of history and information about the glaciers.
You’ll be able to learn how the mountains and the glaciers formed over millennia, and see how they have been affected by Climate Change.
Explore the wilds of western Alberta on this full-day Banff to Jasper one-way tour. Travel with your guide through the rugged wilderness of Banff and Jasper national parks.
At the Columbia Icefield, hike to the Athabasca Glacier or take the Glacier Skywalk over Sunwapta Valley.
Learn about the region’s geology at the Columbia Icefield Centre or enjoy a guided walk to a scenic viewpoint. Then, finish your journey in Jasper.
Did you know you can stay at the Glacier View Lodge that’s connected to the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. We did and it was simply amazing!
2. Brave the Skywalk
For the best view of the Columbia Icefield, then head to the dramatic Skywalk. This impressive structure leads visitors high above the valley, to a viewing area that hangs 280 meters above the ground.
You can look straight down into the valley below, and see the icefields and mountains all around you. It’s completely safe of course, but the height is hair raising to say the least.
3. Take the Athabasca Glacier Truck Tour
The most famous glacier in the Columbia Icefield is the impressive Athabasca Glacier. This is the most accessible glacier, and it’s the one that you’ll see from the roadside if you take the highway.
You’ll want to get a lot closer to this iconic sheet of ice, however, and to do that you can join an Athabasca Glacier Truck Tour. Tours depart from the Discovery Centre and take visitors in four-wheel-drive trucks onto the ice itself.
It’s a bumpy, adventurous ride that will take you into the middle of the glacier, while you learn all about the geological history of the Columbia Icefield.
Take an outdoor lover’s odyssey along Icefields Parkway, stopping to enjoy incredible scenery and a ride on the Athabasca glacier, during this half-day excursion from Jasper.
Admire glacier-fed streams, iconic mountains, and local wildlife as you go. Then make a stop for a ride aboard the all-terrain Ice Explorer on the surface of the Athabasca glacier.
4. Go on a Guided Ice Walk
One of the best ways to experience the Columbia Icefield is to join an Ice Walk. Tours lead visitors across different sections of the Athabasca Glacier, lasting from 2 hours up to 6 hours.
The length of the tour determines how much of the glacier you’ll explore of course.
The Ice Walks are led by experienced, local guides who know the terrain, who know where all those hidden crevasses are and who know the geological history in detail.
You’ll be able to see the glacier and the ice formations up close as you learn all about them.
5. Do Some Hiking
In summer, there is a huge range of hiking trails that lead through the Rocky Mountains, as well as the Ice Walks that you can enjoy over the Columbia Icefield itself.
The surrounding mountains offer beautiful viewpoints over the icefields, but be aware that these can be tough hikes. You’ll need to be experienced and keep an eye on the unpredictable weather conditions.
Hiking trails are only open in summer, so check with the rangers before starting out on any walks.
6. Enjoy the Winter Skiing
The Rocky Mountains are a hugely popular skiing area, and in winter, the towns of Banff and Jasper are hubs for snowsports.
There are dedicated ski resorts in both destinations, but you can also join more adventurous backcountry skiing tours or expeditions which take you through the snowbound Rocky Mountains.
You’re the best traveling with a guide if you don’t know the area.
Explore the Banff National Park backcountry on skis or split-board with certified Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. With years of training and local knowledge, the guides will lead you to the best touring locations, with safety as a primary detail on any given day.
Where to stay to Visit the Columbia Icefields
Remember that this is one of the most popular destinations in Canada, so always book in advance where you can, especially in peak season.
You will find the best accommodation in either Banff or Jasper. Both are year-round destinations, although in winter they fill up quickly with skiers.
The newly built Glacier View Inn is located next to the Discovery Center and directly opposite of the Athabasca Glacier. This is where we stayed during our visit to the Columbia Icefield.
Other alternatives, if you’re looking for a quieter place to stay, include the hamlet of Lake Louise, found a few kilometers away from the beautiful alpine lake of the same name.
In summer, it’s also possible to camp out within Banff and Jasper national parks. Camping requires a valid permit, and you can only camp in the designated camping spots within the national parks.
Again, camping spots are limited, so book in advance.
Permits and Rules
As well as permits for camping, you also need to make sure that you have the correct permits for the national parks that you enter, including Banff National Park and potentially Jasper National Park too, if you’re traveling the length of the Icefield Parkway.
You have to pay per day that you’re within the national parks, and it can sometimes work out better value to purchase an annual membership. Failure to pay the fees will result in large fines.
You also need to follow the rules when you’re visiting the national parks and the Columbia Icefield.
This means following the speed limits, watching out for wildlife and not disturbing the nature that’s found here, amongst other things.
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Article by Lina Stock
Lina is an award-winning photographer and writer that has been exploring the world since 2001. She has traveled to 100 countries on all 7 continents. Member: SATW, NATJA, ATTA, ITWA