Location: Icefields Parkway, on the border between Jasper and Banff National Parks.
Time to explore: from an hour to a day.
Parking: Athabaska Glacier trail – good; Columbia Icefields Discovery Center – fairly good.
Check out trail conditions before you go.
Columbia Icefield – the biggest permanent ice sheet in North America, is located partly in Jasper and partly in Banff National Parks. It is not a leftover from the Ice Age like we told our kids, it’s much older – around 200,000 BC, Great Glaciation period.
Athabasca Glacier is one of the 6 main “tongues” of the Columbia Icefields and the most accessible and visited glacier in North America. Not so long ago it could cross the Icefields Parkway, but now it receding by 5 meters each year. When you turn into the parking lot, you’ll see the signs where the glacier was in 1948, 1982, 2000. The evidence of the climate change strikes the mind – when our kids will be our age there won’t be much of glaciers left to see for them.
- Hike to the toe of the glacier
- Snow-coach tour aka Brewster Glacier Adventure
- Guided interpretive hikes
- Best trails to view glaciers in the Canadian Rockies
If you are driving from Jasper, make sure to stop at Stutfield Glacier Viewpoint (52.2772306,-117.3121889), enjoy the rest of the way to the Discovery Center and be ready to get swept away with the views.
The ice cap on top of the mountains, which from the distance looks to be just a couple of inches thick, is in reality over 10 stories high!
How to Explore Athabasca Glacier
There are plenty of unique activities at the Athabaska Glacier and nearby. Choose wisely based on the time available and your abilities. Have warm clothes ready (jackets, hats, mittens) – the closer you get to the glacier, the chillier it feels, even on a hot summer day.
Hike to the toe of the glacier
Pros: Scenic, pretty easy hike with some elevation gain (the trail goes constantly uphill with couple steep areas), 2 km round trip, approximately 1-1.5 hours. If you are limited in time – this is the most convenient way to see the Athabasca Glacier. Don’t forget to display Canada National Parks Discovery Pass.
Cons: If you are expecting to see the glacier up close, touch it or walk on it, it would be quite a disappointment! This is, probably, the main reason why so many people decide to make the dangerous walk straight to the glacier despite multiple “Do not cross the barriers!” signs.
The trail surface is gravel with some stones, could be slippery after rain and very hard for the wheels (unless you have an “all-terrain stroller”).
Snow-coach tour aka Brewster Glacier Adventure
Pros: 90 min tour will give an opportunity to see the glacier up close and feel it without any effort: touch it, walk on it and even drink from it! (don’t forget empty bottle or a cup). Narration is great and very informative; tour can be booked directly at the Discovery Center or online. Wheelchair accessible, easy for little kids – they don’t need to walk the trail, just hop on a bus and enjoy the glacier. Price also includes the admission to the Glacier Skywalk.
Cons: Price is $100 CAD for adult, $50 CAD for kids. Time to spend directly on the glacier is limited – only 20 min. Space, where you are allowed to walk on the glacier, could be jammed during the busy summer months. The Glacier Skywalk is an impressive engineering project, but several kilometers from any glaciers and scenery is similar to those you can see on many hikes in Jasper or Banff National Parks. The walkway is glass-bottomed, if you are afraid of height, more likely you won’t enjoy it.
Guided interpretive hikes
Guided interpretive hikes on the Athabasca Glacier or icewalks are an excellent way to explore the glacier. A must do!
Pros: Small groups of 12 to 15 people, great guides, 3 or 6-hour hikes (5-10 km), reasonable price for such unique experience: from $105 CAD + tax for adult, $60 CAD + tax for kids. The shorter hike is rated from easy to moderate, is not strenuous, just remember that you are starting at a 2km elevation gain. You’ll go past crowds from the snow-coach tour and have the entire space just for your little hiking group. Millwells with a deep blue colored ice, crevasses, icefalls, wild glaciers waves and much more! Not so many people know about this way to explore the Athabasca Glacier although the tour operator has been around for a couple of decades. Equipment is free of charge and includes ice cleats, warm jackets, hats, gloves, even hiking boots.
Cons: Not suitable for children under 7.
Best trails to view the glaciers in the Canadian Rockies
Even if you are more walking then hiking type of person, like me, these trails are well worth the time and effort! Seeing the toes of the glaciers and discovering them from a decent height makes a huge difference.
Besides glaciers, you could see alpine meadows with blooming wildflowers, wildlife (mountain goats, bighorn sheep, bears, etc.), and much more. I made this post first of all for us: we didn’t make any of those hikes since two of our kids were very small, but one day we’ll to come back just for that.
Wilcox Pass hike is one of the best in the Canadian Rockies, jaw-dropping and overlooking beautiful mount Athabaska, mount Andromeda, Athabaska and Dome glaciers from a pretty close distance. The trailhead is located within several minutes from the Discovery Center. Not an easy hike and trail could be wet and muddy even in July.
Around 8km (2-3 hours) hike. A must do!
Parker Ridge trailhead is located 8 min drive south of the Discovery Center and gives an opportunity to overlook the Saskatchewan Glacier (at the end of the trail), another prominent toe of the Columbia Icefields.
Spectacular, busy 5km+ (2.5 hours hike), could be snowy and muddy even at the end of June. Definitely a hard one for little kids.
Mount Edith Cavell hike – a true highlight in Jasper National Park. Gives an exclusive opportunity to see glaciers very close range: Angel Glacier, Cavell Glacier as well as Mount Edith Cavell (read a story about brave British nurse Edith Cavell from wiki).
Duration: from 3 hours, easy to moderate hike.
Columbia Icefield Discovery Center is more like a rest stop and Athabasca Glacier tours booking spot then an education or discovery facility. There are a couple of displays and a short movie available on site.
The outdoor terrace at the cafe has beautiful views overlooking the glacier: If you plan to have a lunch, this is a nice place to go. Could be crowded in summer.
Stay safe and enjoy your time at the Athabasca Glacier 🙂