10 Things to Know Before You Drive The Icefields Parkway

I had recently driven through pretty much the entire Icefields Parkway while exploring the Canadian Rockies and if you are seeking to go through it too, especially for your first drive, read guide beforehand, because it will help answer 10 of the most common questions people have before they go.

The purpose of this Icefields Parkway driving guide is to help you:

  • See and get more out of this spectacular location.
  • See and get the most out of the Icefields Parkway drive itself.
  • See the most amazing spots.
  • And take in as many of the views as possible.

The 10 things you’ll learn about driving through the Icefields Parkway:

  1. What it is. 10 Things to Know Before You Drive The Icefields Parkway
  2. How long it is.
  3. When the best time to drive through the Icefields Parkway is.
  4. If it’s dangerous to drive through here.
  5. What the best spots to see on the Icefields Parkway are (I’ve got 7 recommendations).
  6. If you can see the Northern lights there. The answer is possibly depending on the season.
  7. Is there a lot of wildlife crossing the road there?
  8. Is it legal to camp off the Icefields Parkway?
  9. Where the best place to enter and start the Icefields Parkway drive is.
  10. Where the best places to stay near the Icefields Parkway are located.

Knowing the answer to every single one of these things will help you enjoy the drive through this region way more and the answers are below.

A preview of what you’ll see driving through the Icefields Parkway:

icefields parkway driving guide

This type of scenery is very common as you drive through this region which is in my opinion one of the most beautiful scenic drives in all of North America, and possibly the world.

In my case, prior to going here, I had done a bunch of research which pretty much came down to doing these 3 things:

1) Bookmarking what I thought were the most beautiful locations in this region via Instagram and then plotting them on my GPS and my friend and I were going through this area.

You can see my personal choices on my Instagram page here

2) I highly recommend that you use this Instagram strategy I did and in your case, you can select what you consider to be the most beautiful spots. That way, you can get the most out of the Icefields Parkway in your own subjective way.

3) Reading about the Icefields Parkway through blogs, Pinterest, and watching videos of it on YouTube. This didn’t help much as most sites don’t really show the best pictures or provide the best descriptions. Hence why I made this article.

By doing this research, it really helped make my road trip through western Canada much more satisfying and I share that info with you here.

So let’s get into each question:

1) What is the Icefields Parkway?

The Icefields Parkway is the main road within the Canadian Rockies . It takes you through the middle of this mountain region and through it you can see the best spots the Canadian Rockies have to offer. It is extremely scenic.

2) How long is the Icefields Parkway drive?

This road spans for about 300 kilometers and goes through Jasper and Banff, 2 very popular locations within this region. 

map of icefields parkway

Here is a map of the Icefields Parkway:

As you can see, the GPS say it takes people 3 and a half hours to drive through it, but you shouldn’t just go through it without stopping anywhere.

On the contrary, you should take your time and make it a several day trip through this region because this road has many stops to a lot of popular stops and my recommendation is to stop and see as many of these places as possible!

I found plenty of them using this obvious strategy, including finding awesome spots that weren’t even listed as being popular in the first place.

The Icefields Parkway road will have many stops, some unlisted to stop at and if you feel the need to stop and explore the area, I recommend you do it because you’ll find plenty of gems.

I list a bunch of them in an article I wrote on 10 places to explore in the Canadian Rockies here.

3) When is the best time to drive through the Icefields Parkway?

I had visited this place in late September, an off season period which I would recommend. Personally I don’t like large crowds and I will tell you that in spite of visiting this place when it’s not really crowded, it still was at certain places, so if you don’t like crowds, mid-late September is probably when you’d want to visit.

  • It’s not that cold there.
  • The crowds are low.
  • You are more likely to find accommodations in towns. 
  • You can also catch the autumn colors starting in the Canadian Rockies during this period and it is obviously beautiful.

That’s why I say the best time to visit in after mid and late September, but if you believe there’s a better time, let me know.

We did have the misfortune to experience a snowstorm in this region for nearly 2 days (yes in late September) which gave me a preview of what it’s like here in the winter and personally, I wouldn’t recommend it. Although the nature becomes very beautiful, driving through the snow is not simple in these areas because there aren’t really any towns between Jasper and Banff.

Here’s some great news about driving through the Icefields Parkway:

If you took my advice on bookmarking locations to visit on this road through IG, don’t worry about “missing out” on any amazing spots.

The beauty of the Icefields Parkway (and this is something I discovered when I was driving through it) is that this main road will literally take you through all the most popular spots in the Canadian Rockies, so you won’t really miss anything. Funny enough, no website or person told me this, but I’m telling you that now.

As you drive on this road, you will not only have the opportunities to make stops and see the crazy sights, but there will also be PLENTY of official parking areas, signs and entrances to the most popular spots.

In other words, it’s going to take a lot of effort for you to “miss these spots”, because the main road will literally take you through them. But I still recommend you bookmark and LABEL the names of the places you wish to see, so if you see the sign on the road to it, you’ll know it’s worth stopping for.

Because I only had 2-3 days to see all the spots I had bookmarked, the friend I was with and I were able to see nearly all of them (and more) thanks to this strategy. Let me know if it helps you as well, and again, I have my own pictures I took on my IG channel here, and just about every photo has a location marked so you can use it too.

4) Is it dangerous to drive through the Icefields Parkway?

If you go during seasons when there is no snow or ice, you should be fine, which is why I recommend visiting this area when it’s warm. The only other thing you should watch out for is wildlife in the region which may cross the road. I’ll address that in another question dedicated to that below.

5) What are the most popular spots to see along the Icefields Parkway?

That is pretty subjective, but I’ll give you a list of the 7 places which had the most people when I was visiting. I assumed they were the most popular and so they are the ones I’ll list:

  1. Athabasca Glacier.
  2. Columbia Icefields Skywalk.
  3. Jasper.
  4. Lake Louise.
  5. Lake Moraine.
  6. Banff.
  7. Natural Bridges and Emerald Lake (they are close to each other).

Now in my case, I recommend seeing at least these 10 places in the Canadian Rockies, and some of them are NOT in this article, and in a later article where I will be going into detail on the entire road trip I did (not just through the Canadian Rockies, but also through the West coast of the U.S and Canada), I will be marking down every spot I saw.

At least based on the crowds I saw (And my personal taste in views and beautiful places):

Athabasca glacier icefields parkway

1) Athabasca Glacier:

I think out of all the locations I saw in the Canadian Rockies, this was the most popular one.

It is a glacier which have tour buses you can take to walk on and get close to on foot. But you can elect to drive to a parking lot at the base of the glacier and hike to it, which is what my buddy and I did. 

It is incredibly cold there, so keep this in mind before you go here, but this glacier is massive! There are certain parts of it you can’t access, so walking up close to it is probably the best view you’ll get unless you choose to do one of those tour bus options.

Close by to this region is a very large rest stop where these tour buses go from and this place is packed almost all year long.

2) Columbia Icefields Skywalk.

This is a bridge that overlooks the Canadian Rockies. To reach this bridge, you actually have to take a bus at the Athabasca Glacier parking lot (requires a ticket). These buses are pretty crowded so keep this in mind, but the Columbia Icefields Skywalk is very popular, even though I thought it was overrated based on the fact that the views from it are views you can also see for yourself without having to take a bus to this spot and wait.

Here is information on the Columbia Skywalk if you are interested in going there.

town of jasper icefields parkway

3) Town of Jasper. 

It is one of the 2 main towns in the entire region (Banff being the next).

The town itself is very pretty, and medium in size, but there are cool accommodations such as hotels with Jacuzzi’s on the roof you can enjoy as well as pretty good food.

I stayed one night at Jasper with my buddy and we did enjoy our stay there. There are ski areas nearby and trains that run through Jasper daily, some of which are meant for tours people take through the Canadian Rockies, and some that just deliver supplies to this town.

Jasper is located at the northern end of the Icefields Parkway.

4) Lake Louise.

lake louise icefields parkway

The Icefields Parkway will take you through Lake Louise (one of the most popular lakes in the whole region and it is stunning).

You will have to exit the road to get to it though (it’s about a 5-10 minute drive).

People who visit the Canadian Rockies often assume Lake Louise is the most popular location in the entire region and they are probably right.

This place is also packed daily, and there are restaurants right near the lake you can check out.

There are some trails to walk around the lake, but most of it is man made so you can get scenic walks in addition to scenic drives in, when you visit this spot and I highly recommend you do.

5) Lake Moraine.

lake moraine icefields parkway

If you visit Lake Louise, you have to visit Lake Moraine as it’s only 5 minutes away from it and is also very stunning.

I’m of the opinion that this lake is equally as beautiful as Lake Louise, but you should judge that yourself if you.

Like Lake Louise, there is a large parking area here too and it too is very packed. From what I saw, amenities are available right by this lake, such as hotels and restaurants.

Kayaking by the way is also available here.

While Lake Moraine (and Lake Louise) aren’t right of the road from the Icefields Parkway, I strongly recommend making a stop to these areas if you have the chance.

6) Town of Banff.

Banff from what I saw was larger than Jasper but if you are on the southern side of the Canadian Rockies, I would recommend stopping in Banff. There are many accommodations, restaurants and entertaining/outdoors things to go.

I didn’t stay there long, so I didn’t have time to take a picture. Added to that, we also hit a snowstorm while there, so I wouldn’t be able to show you much anyway. But here is the location of Banff:

natural bridges near emerald lake icefields parkway

7) Emerald Lake and Natural Bridges.

The first photo is of Natural Bridges:

This will be the first place you cross when entering the exit into Emerald Lake and it’s worth stopping at.

After that, if you keep driving down the road (about 5 minutes), you will hit Emerald Lake’s parking lot, and the lake itself is a short walk from it.

I really enjoyed both of these locations when I went and Emerald Lake has very similar accommodations as Lake Louise and Lake Moraine.

emerald lake icefields parkway

These 2 locations are close by off the Icefields Parkway road and while Natural Bridges was nice to look at (and crowded), Emerald Lake is where it’s at in my opinion. It is a very crowded and a popular spot (for good reason) to see.

Now these 7 while being quite popular, it does NOT mean that this is all there is to see in the Canadian Rockies. Quite the contrary.

What I just gave you is a list of 7 places out of a plethora of other beautiful spots to see and you will be able to add to this list by using the Instagram strategy I mentioned, and/or just driving through the Icefields Parkway on your own and deciding on the spot where to stop and what to see.

Don’t just stop at the popular locations:

This is a mistake in my opinion. Like I said earlier, my friend and I found countless places to stop at off the road while on the Icefields Parkway. Here is one example:

icefields parkway photograph

There were no signs, no cars, and very often no people in these regions, yet the beauty of where this road passes through will make you want to stop and I recommend you listen to that instinct and do it, because you will find tons of undisclosed and stunning spots that were not indicated on the maps, on Instagram or any site for that matter, which you will be able to feel are your own discoveries.

Trust me when I say, that these spots will be plentiful along the road as you drive it. My 10 places to see in the Canadian Rockies explores even more of these kinds of places.

Sometimes just stopping along the Icefields Parkway, at random spots that catch your eye is what makes a trip through this region so satisfying.

6) Can you see the Northern Lights on the Icefields Parkway?

The answer is yes, but it depends on which season you are visiting this area during. When we visited during late September, we saw certain areas north of us were showing the Northern Lights, but sadly, we didn’t have the chance to catch any.

But they do start late September so the later you go, the more the chances are, you’ll see them.

7) Should I be worried about wildlife crossing the roads here?

There’s 2 types of animals to watch out for in the Canadian Rockies and while driving through the Icefields Parkway: Bears and elk. That’s pretty much it from my experiences and elk are probably the most common ones you’ll find.

The are often in the 2 major towns (Jasper and Banff) and literally walk on the streets. If you do see them cross the road, just let them pass.

8) Is it legal to camp near areas by Icefields Parkway?

I’m sure you can stay in your car in some designated areas, but if you want to camp out somewhere in the region, by the roads, you will probably not be able to do that. There are certain camping sites and locations people reserve and/or explore on their own when they visit.

9) Where is the best place to enter into the Icefields Parkway?

There are 4 primary access areas to the Icefields Parkway. You should choose to enter the one which will let you drive through the main road.

In my case, I was headed to Jasper from Vancouver, and I ended up entering the Icefields Parkway from the north western end, then making my way south east, and exiting it to head to Calgary, where I would eventually fly home from. Because I entered this region from this area, I was able to drive through the Icefields Parkway and enjoy most of the Canadian Rockies that way.

10) Where are the best spots to stay at near Icefields Parkway?

If you’re not too much into camping and want to explore some civilized regions, then Banff and Jasper will have the most to offer. They have the nice hotels and accommodations. You’ll rarely find good spots like this as you cross the Icefields Parkway.

So when you do drive through there, make sure you are close to either Jasper or Banff if you’re planning to stay somewhere.

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