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, 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.