Columbia Icefields

Athabasca Glacier and Columbia IcefieldsThe Columbia Icefields are at the top of the list for many visitors to the Canadian Rockies and for good reason.  The Columbia Icefields form the largest icefields in North America south of the Arctic Circle, feeding into eight glaciers, covering 325 square kilometers and reaching depths of up to 365m – that’s higher than the Eiffel Tower and about the same height as the Empire State Building.

It’s not only the Columbic Icefields that are impressive, but also the Icefield Parkway, where they are located.  This 230km stretch of highway from Lake Louise to Jasper National Park is frequently called one of the most scenic highways in the world with its waterfalls, glacier fed lakes, and home to some of the highest peaks in the Canadian Rockies.  It’s also an excellent place to spot wildlife.  We were fortunate enough to spot two different black bears en-route.

Columbia Icefields
The private road taking us for a bird’s eye view of the Columbia Icefields.

I’ve been to the Columbia Icefields several times before, but always just stopped at the toe of the glacier for a view of looming Athabasca Glacier, which is an impressive 6km long and 1km wide.  I had never done the Columbia Icefield tour, as I thought it was too touristy, but with three German guests with me, and feeling nostalgic now that I am no longer living in Canada, I decided now was the right time for the Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure.  The 80 minute tour starts at the Icefield Centre, located directly on the Icefield  Parkway.  Reservations are not accepted, but tours leave regularly so we didn’t have to wait long.  We boarded a regular bus, much to new German father-in-law’s disappointment.  He had his heart set on one of the big buses designed for glacier travel.  As we traveled up the road heading towards the glacier, our cheery guide provided entertaining commentary on the Columbia Icefields.

We soon stopped and headed to our next bus, an Ice Explorer, a large vehicle designed for glacier travel with tires measuring over 5′ high.  My father-in-law’s eyes lit up.  This is where the real excitement began as we started working our way onto Athabasca Glacier.

columbia icefields close up
Close up view of Athabasca Glacier on the Columbia Icefields.

We were soon let off the bus, onto Athabasca Glacier itself.  This was the perfect opportunity for my new-father-in-law to snap pictures, not of Athabasca Glacier, but of the Ice Explorer!  As a retired mechanical engineer, we was utterly fascinated with how the Ice Explorer was made.  I, on the other hand admired the glacier.  It’s one thing to see the 6km glacier from its toe, it’s quite another to be standing on it, surrounded by 360° of glacier!  Not surprisingly, we didn’t have the glacier to ourselves.  In addition to our Ice Explorer, there were several others lined up as well, but everyone’s excitement and enthusiasm was contagious.

Ice Explorer on the Columbia Icefields
Ice Explorers are specially designed vehichles for glacier travel, as seen on the Columbia Icefields on Athabasca Glacier.

On the way up to Athabasca Glacier we learned that part of the Columbia Icefields is on a rare triple continental divide, one of only several in the world, in which the meltwater goes into three different oceans – Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  We had also been told that the meltwater from the glacier had magical restoring properties that would make you young again.  Well who could resist trying that and of course capturing the moment:

Drinking water at Athabasca Glacier on the Columbia Icefields
Trying out the “magical” properties of Athabasca Glacier. Unfortunately I don’t think they worked on me.

I’m not sure that the glacier water’s magical properties worked on me, but it was very refreshing.  After spending 30 minutes on the glacier, we boarded back onto our bus which we were told was the “happy bus” by another cheery driver, who entertained us with glacier and grizzly bear jokes as were transported back to the Columbia Icefield Centre.  At the end of the tour our bus driver shook everyone’s hand and thanked each of us as we left the bus which I thought was a nice touch.

Once back at the Columbia Icefield Centre we stopped in a the Glacier Gallery, a free interpretive display about glaciers and stopped in at the cafeteria style restaurant for lunch.

Columbia Icefields
A view of Athabasca Glacier from the Icefields Centre shows how much the glacier has already receded.

The Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure costs $49.95 for adults and $24.95 for children and runs from April to October each year (check the Columbia Icefields Glacier Adventure website for exact dates).  While it is touristy, I really enjoyed the Glacier Adventure and would recommend it over just stopping at the toe of the glacier, which is free.  The tour takes you much higher up Athabasca Glacier, and provides you with a unique perspective that you don’t see at the toe of the glacier, while providing a safe opportunity to walk across a glacier, (glacier travel can be extremely dangerous without appropriate training and equipment).  The guides were also exceptional.   They were informative, entertaining and joked with visitors.

Growing up near the Canadian Rockies I always tell visitors that the Columbia Icefields are a “must-see”, especially with our world’s glaciers melting so rapidly.  This was my fifth visit to the Columbia Icefields and I still remain in awe.

Disclaimer:  I received two complimentary tickets for the Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure, but all opinions expressed are my own.  Our group also purchased two tickets and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the experienced.

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About Author

Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains Adventure Travel. She's passionate about getting outdoors as often as possible and helping travellers do the same on their vacation in a sustainable way. She's Canadian and grew up in the Canadian Rockies but now lives in Munich, Germany. You can find her skiing or hiking in the mountains most weekends, hanging out with her cat or with her nose in a good book.


August 22, 2011
Wonderful photos! I am looking forward to my first glacier experience in Patagonia.
August 22, 2011
I've never seen a glacier that big up close. Must be awsome.
David @ MalaysiaAsia
August 22, 2011
Never been there but I'm loving the 4x4 bus. Also, why are there 2 Blue Cones on the ice/snow?
August 23, 2011
I was wondering the same thing.
August 22, 2011
Are you wearing sandals in the snow? Tsk-tsk... Canadian! :lol: I looks cold. What was the temperature? Lovely scenery otherwise!
August 22, 2011
i have been reading about this place since i was a kid, i am still drooling every time i look at it even just in pictures. I felt the excitement that you had and the drive to see the place because Canada is somewhat a foreign country to you know! i kind of feeling the same thing towards Philippines too!
August 22, 2011
o wow, this brings back memories. I was there long time a go when I went to Canada for summer school. I remember once the tour guide told us the water has magical properties, all of us took out the water bottles and cups from our backpacks and tried to fill it to the top. XDD
August 22, 2011
This is on my list! I'm with your father-in-law, I want the bus suitable for the ice field not an ordinary bus! Glad he got his wish fulfilled. I noticed the sandals too and had a laugh :) Never knew that the melt flowed into 3 different oceans! Interesting fact.
August 22, 2011
This sounds like a must-do trip to me. What an awesome place to visit and not just because of the magical properties Athabasca Glacier which I will be sure to try out. Gorgeous scenery!
August 23, 2011
Love the Columbia Icefields! On our visit, we stayed across the highway at the icefields lodge – great experience all around!
August 23, 2011
Wow. Glaciers sure look different when they're up close! Did the meltwater taste any different than normal water?
August 24, 2011
Absolutely beautiful and not at all like the south of Spain!
August 24, 2011
Looks amazing. If anyone is interested in seeing a glacier up close, sadly they should do so quickly!
August 25, 2011
An experience of a lifetime. Interesting photos especially with the Ice Explorer vehicles.
Christy @ Technosyncratic
August 26, 2011
So cool! Not many people can say they've actually been on a glacier. :)
December 7, 2011
[...] pasta with meat and a pudding. Then I had a rest and we walked to Lake Louise. Bed at about 9.30.Tuesday 8th August 2000 Grace's Journal Up reasonably early to pack and have breakfast. We left afte...our journey to Lake Louise where we are spending the next two nights. An interesting journey broken [...]
August 8, 2013
Loved your post! One awesome glacier field is about 20 minutes outside Seward, Alaska. It's really eye-opening. As you drive into the park, you pass through where the ice used to be, and they have year-markers like mile markers. You drive and drive and progress as you see where the glacier used to be. You get a sense of how impactful the warming trend really is, regardless of what you think causes it. And the glacier field is gorgeous just the same. Also not to be missed is to see glaciers from boats as you see the calving (ice falling into the water). Just amazing!
August 19, 2013
@Life Leaps - Thank you. And the glacier you're talking about sounds amazing, would love to see it by boat.

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