28 Sep Athabasca Glacier hiking tour a highlight of Canada’s Icefields Parkway
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Skip the bus and walk the Athabasca Glacier on Columbia Icefield
During our visit to several Canadian Rockies National Parks, Thorny and I enjoyed daily hikes with beautiful views, changing elevations, and with even “different feels.” But we almost cancelled “THE ONE HIKE” – a guided Icefields Parkway Athabasca Glacier hiking tour – fearing it might be too “touristy” and not live up to the advertised hype.
Disclaimer: Cloudy skies and rain kept the glacier from appearing as magnificent in photos as it was to our eyes. It was absolutely beautiful in a different kind of way.
Luckily while exploring with a guide in Jasper National Park, we asked if the Athabasca Glacier hike was worth the time and money or if we should simply cancel our reservation. Her quick reply was “Don’t cancel. It is truly an incredible hike. The guides are excellent. It’s very unique and something not to miss!” With that positive response, I asked if she thought I was physically capable since she had seen me hike up a grade. Due to asthma, my “up gear” is challenged and I had concerns given the combination of grade, elevation and cold glacier air temperature. She replied that while the walk is “up,” I should do fine since the guides keep the pace slow and make frequent stops.
Located between Canada’s Banff and Jasper National Parks on one of the world’s most scenic drives, the Icefields Parkway is the home to the Columbia Icefield, one of the largest non-polar icefields in the world. Of the six glaciers that make up the Columbia Icefield, Athabasca Glacier is the largest and easiest to access so a tour is a must when driving this route.
Guided hike with Athabasca Glacier Icewalks
Thousands of tourists depart Columbia Icefields Glacier Discovery Centre each day in large buses, giving visitors a few special moments to walk on the ice. We prefer the road less traveled. In doing trip research, we discovered Athabasca Glacier Icewalks, a Parks Canada-approved vendor who leads fewer than 100 visitors daily on guided Athabasca Glacier hikes.
We booked the Ice Cubed Glacier adventure, a three-hour interpretive tour exploring the lower Athabasca Glacier. The Icewalks website has good information on what to wear (layers!), what to bring and where to meet prior to departure so guides can get everyone properly equipped. Athabasca Glacier Icewalks provides basic boots, gloves, hats, rain gear and crampons (spikes that attach to your boots providing grip on glacier ice). Rain was forecast on our tour day. We brought raincoats, but needed to use their rain pants and crampons. Thorny and I were the oldest in the group of 12, but no problem with that!
Our guide, Emelie, was superb. This was her fourth year leading Athabasca Glacier hikes, and Emelie’s passion for the glacier, the science and education was remarkable. She answered all our questions with the same passion. We felt like we were on an “expedition,” not just a tour or hike. Every aspect was fascinating. Learning about the icefields, fascinating. Learning about the rocks, fascinating!
Consider a Athabasca Glacier hike when visiting Icefields Parkway
As our Athabasca Glacier hike began we walked over rocks – lots of rocks – left behind by the receding glacier. Learning about long deep scratches on the large half-buried boulders was a lesson to hear. Then stopping to put the crampons on our boots, we were off on our Athabasca Glacier tour.
We were told to follow in the footsteps of the one in front of you – advice we heeded because the guides know the correct passage and you don’t want to fall through a crevice. We meandered on the ice; stopped to hear educational facts; peered down into ice crevices; filled our water bottles and drank clean, clear water from the glacier. (All running water on the glacier is not safe to drink. Rely on the guides to show you the right areas.) The views of the Rockies were stunning from every direction. Distance on the glacier is very deceiving. We could see specks that were actually groups on other parts of the glacier.
We did have sprinkles of rain, but it was not as windy as forecast. Icewalks’ advice of wearing layers was great. When I warmed up too much, the raincoat stayed on but a layer (or two) went into my backpack. The hike was indeed up, and with the altitude could have been a problem but for me it wasn’t.
There were several areas that you truly had to leap over! Their literature says no small children under 7 and if you have bad knees or joint or heart problems they don’t recommend this. We mentioned the bus tours earlier. If traveling with small children or have health issues of concern, this would be the next best thing. But if you can do the walk, it is amazing!
Book your Athabasca Glacier guided tour in advance. They sell out.
We booked many weeks in advance. Our trip took place at peak season and all tours that day were sold out. If you’re planning on a Athabasca Glacier tour, book well in advance! Athabasca Glacier Icewalks had three groups on the ice while we were out. They do a good job of spreading the groups out. We were never were in a big herd of folks. It truly felt like an educational expedition! The Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre is across the parkway with a theater, photos, gift shops, restaurants and other facilities. We went in, found the information we needed and quickly left. This is one of the most popular destinations on the Icefields Parkway. We wanted out before the Centre got too crazy busy.
As mentioned, our day on the glacier was overcast. The photos do not come close to conveying the beauty of the area, the rocks or the glacier. Our ice walk was one of the most memorable hikes in my life I would put on the list of Top 5 Hikes for sure and Thorny would agree!
How to sum it up in a few words? Incredible, fascinating, educational, scary (can you say “global warming”) and beautiful.
This is an absolutely amazing hike; truly one of the most fascinating of all my active travel. This was an educational expedition for sure and it will be very hard to top! I didn’t know before I went that it would be a Bucket List Hike, but it was!
Updated March 2020.
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