Columbia Icefields: An Experience Never To Be Forgotten

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The 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.  It feeds into eight glaciers. It covers 325 square kilometres and reaching depths of up to 365m.  That’s higher than the Eiffel Tower and about the same height as the Empire State Building.

Clolumbia Glaciers seen from afar

Why Are The Columbia Icefields So Interesting?

It’s not only the Columbia 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. It 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.

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Taking A Tour Of The Columbia Icefields

I’ve been to the Columbia Icefields several times before. But I always just stopped at the toe of the glacier for a view of the looming Athabasca Glacier. Athabasca Glacier 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.

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Columbia Icefields seen from afar

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, rather than 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.  This is where the real excitement began as we started working our way onto Athabasca Glacier.

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Athabasca Glacier

We were soon let off the bus, onto Athabasca Glacier itself.  This is a perfect time to snap pictures, of the Athabasca Glacier and the Ice Explorer. I 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.

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A snowmobile or vehicle that is designed to navigate the glacier

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The Most Interesting Thing About The Columbia Icefields

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:

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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.

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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. The driver entertained us with glacier and grizzly bear jokes as we’re 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. I thought this was a nice touch.

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

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

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What To Know Before You Go To The Columbia Icefields

  • The Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure costs $114 for adults and is free for children (prices may vary).
  • It runs from April to October each year (check their website for exact dates).
  • It’s touristy but 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.
  • They provide a safe opportunity to walk across a glacier. (glacier travel can be extremely dangerous without appropriate training and equipment.)
  • The guides are exceptional. They are informative, entertaining and joke with visitors.

Other Great Tours At The Columbia Icefields

You can take a full-day tour to the Columbia Icefields and not only enjoy the Athabasca Glacier but also take a walk on the iconic glass-bottomed glacier skywalk. The tour includes a drive on the infamous Icefields parkways and a stopover at Bow Lake. The tour includes packed lunches and pick up’s in Banff.

If that is not adventurous enough and your craving something more epic then try a helicopter ride over the Rocky Mountains. The tour includes an exploration hike. You may not be exploring the glaciers on foot but you will get wonderful birds-eye views of the glaciers.

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.

a highlight of the Canadian Rocky Mountains is the Columbia Icefields

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 experience.