Planning on visiting Columbia Icefield in Alberta? OMG! You will LOVE it! Driving along the scenic Icefields Parkway from Jasper to Lake Louise in Banff National Park, you will be mesmerized by the gorgeous landscape of snow-capped peaks, glacial valleys, and breathtaking waterfalls. In this post, we will share detailed travel tips including the Ice Explorer Glacier tour and guided hike experiences that you must add to your Canadian Rockies itinerary!
Visiting Columbia Icefield: Complete Guide + Ice Explorer Glacier Tour
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Icefields Parkway is one of the most scenic routes in the world, and when visiting in the warmer months we highly recommend stopping at the Columbia Icefields for an adventure of a lifetime!
The icefields are made up of over 325 square kilometers of snow-covered mountains and glaciers, including the iconic Athabasca Glacier – one of Canada’s most visited tourist destinations.
This ancient glacier has been slowly retreating for more than 125 years, making it an incredible site to witness the power of nature.
You can visit the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre, learn about the glaciers, dine and stay.
Once at the Icefields Centre, you can also join a guided glacier adventure or hiking tour to explore the glacial landscape up close!
Keep in mind, that you can only get to a certain part of the icefields without a formal guide/excursion, so a tour is required. More on the tour options below….
Where is the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier located?
The Columbia Icefield is located on the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 N)—1 hour south of Jasper and 2.5 hours north of Banff, in the province of Alberta.
The Columbia Icefield is easily accessible from many popular nearby destinations, including Banff, Jasper, and Lake Louise. Whether you’re looking for a day trip or a more immersive experience, Icefield Columbia Alberta is sure to provide an unforgettable adventure.
So, essentially you can visit the Columbia Icefield/Athabasca Glacier from either of the national parks. This also means you will need to pay for a Parks Canada Pass to enter the national park boundaries.
The nearest airports are Calgary and Edmonton International Airports.
|Columbia Icefields via Banff
|Columbia Icefields via Jasper
How to get to the Columbia Icefield with or without a car
The best way to get to the Columbia Icefields is by car. You can park your vehicle at the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre and then hop on the shuttle to get to the glacier or the Skywalk.
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You can easily pick up a rental car from Calgary or Edmonton International Airport and then drive to the Icefields in anywhere from 3.50 to 5+ hours.
Discover Cars partners with 380 car rental companies worldwide and gives you very competitive prices. You will surely find a vehicle that meets your needs.
Getting to the Icefields without a car (shuttle ride transportation only)
Note: To connect from Edmonton International Airport to Jasper, you can take a ride on the Sundog Connector (shuttle bus), and then book a transfer on the Brewster Sightseeing Tours to the Icefields.
Day tour to the Columbia Icefields from Calgary (transportation + sightseeing)
You can also take a day tour from Calgary to explore the Icefields Parkway such as this one. The tour includes highlights such as the Waputik Range, Peyto Lake, Bow Lake, and the Crowfoot Glacier.
You can also set off via Columbia Icefield Ice Explorer vehicle to see the glacier at an extra price/upgrade.
Day tour to the Columbia Icefields from Banff (transportation + sightseeing)
This well-rounded Canadian Rockies day tour is perfect for the active traveler. The tour is all of 11 hours (with 3 + hours at the icefields) and it includes round-trip transportation. It takes you along the world-famous Icefields Parkway, one of the world’s most stunning scenic drives.
You will have the experience of a lifetime exploring the Athabasca Glacier, and the take in gorgeous views from Skywalk.
Further stops include the Crowfoot Glacier, Bow Lake, and the headwaters of the mighty Bow River.
Sightseeing at the Columbia Icefield – Athabasca Glacier Tours
Once you arrive at the Columbia Icefield area (by car), you can either explore independently or join a guided tour. You can only hike or walk up to a certain ‘marked area’ of the icefields – beyond that, the presence of a guide is required.
So, you will need to book a tour to explore the Athabasca Glacier intimately, and other nearby attractions, as well as other activities such as hiking, ice walking, etc.
Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure – Ice Explorer Glacier Tour
One of the TOP RATED and widely popular tours is the Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure. This is where you will ride the red Ice Explorer to get to the glaciers to enjoy the majestic Canadian landscape!
The Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure includes an experience on the glacier as well as a visit to the glass-floored Skywalk!
Columbia Icefield Adventure departs from the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre. At the centre, you will find free parking, restaurants, washrooms, and a stunningly beautiful Glacier View Lodge – where you can spend the night!
Shuttle buses leave the center on the dot every hour. After 15 to 20 minutes of travel, you will arrive at a second stop where you will be riding one of the massive Ice Explorers. These explorers will take you closer to the base of the Athabasca Glacier.
The operator shares insights and information on the glaciers and the areas nearby as you enjoy the ride.
Riding these Ice Explorers was AMAZING! Highly recommend it!
After you arrive, you will get about 30 minutes to walk on the 10,000-year-old ice sheet, take photos/videos, and/or drink the cool glacial water.
From here, you will follow the route back (Ice Explorer vehicle and then a shuttle) to get to the Glacier Skywalk. And you have TONS of time here – walk the floor, take the views, and more!
Whenever you are ready, you can take a shuttle back to the Columbia Icefield Discovery Center!
Note: This experience is seasonal and weather-dependent.
- Tours do not operate in the winter, or outside of the listed months/dates. However, the Icefields Parkway drive is open for travel
- This experience is standalone (and can be added to any tour or road trip by booking here)
- The presence of a local guide is essential to access the glacier
- Tours depart every hour from the Columbia Icefield Centre (where you can park your car)
- Tours are operation from May 20 to October 09, annually
Other Columbia Icefield tours – Guided Glacier Hikes with Icewalks
Prefer to hike and walk on the Athabasca glacier for a bit longer? Then join this incredible full-day interpretive adventure led by a team of professional ACMG-certified guides, you’ll be captivated by the stunning icefalls and breathtaking scenery at the head of the valley.
Picture yourself enjoying a delightful lunch amidst the towering peaks and mesmerizing seracs (impressive pillars of ice).
With the longer tour, you’ll have ample opportunities to explore the glacier and discover the fascinating features of this frozen wonderland.
The hike covers approximately 8.5 km (5 miles) roundtrip, with an elevation gain of 330 m (1000 feet). It is rated as moderate to challenging, featuring sections with steep inclines and undulating terrain that may present varied footing.
On this tour, you will be provided micro-spikes, but ensure you are wearing proper (warm) clothing.
Other tours – Columbia Icefield Skywalk Ticket (valid all day)
Tight on schedule? We recommend at least stopping by the Columbia Icefield Skywalk and enjoying an awe-inspiring cliff-edge glass walkway. This glass floor is suspended 918 feet (279 meters) above the valley floor.
You will get to immerse yourself in the presence of majestic glaciers towering above while gazing upon the mesmerizing Sunwapta Valley below.
Delight in the sight of crystal-clear waterfalls, marvel at the grandeur of the mountains and glaciers and keep your eyes peeled for the incredible wildlife that calls the Canadian Rockies home.
What to do at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre?
Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre is a fun stop on the scenic Icefields Parkway. It is the visitor centre – a green building you see, located opposite the Athabasca Glacier/Columbia Icefields.
To explore the centre is completely free. There are free public parking areas available where you can park and then hop on a guided tour.
At the centre itself, there are a plethora of things to see, do, stay, and eat. The center consists of three floors.
The ground floor has a Glacier Gallery and a theatre where you can learn about glaciers, their formation, and the profound effects of climate change.
Take the time to immerse yourself in captivating interpretive displays and engaging audio-visual presentations. This centre is run by Parks Canada.
At the main level, you will find an Information desk and ticketing areas for guided tours. You will see queues for shuttles that take you to the Glacier Skywalk and the Icefields.
There are washrooms, a souvenir store, and one of the high elevated Starbucks in Canada.
On the second floor, you will find two restaurants – Altitude and Chalet.
Altitude offers an exquisite dining experience with impeccable table service, serving delectable Canadian cuisine sourced from local ingredients.
You will be able to soak in the views of the ice fields from every corner of the restaurant. Altitude is open for breakfast dinner and drinks.
Chalet is a casual self-serve eateria. This is perfect for lunches, snacks, and those who wish to grab and go (for day trippers!)
There is a lovely terrace and patio (which is very popular with travelers) from where you can soak in the views of the Columbia Icefields and nearby areas!
Finally, if you’re looking for comfortable and convenient accommodation in the Columbia Icefield area, then Glacier View Lodge located on the third floor is all you need!
The lobby/Moraine Lounge offers stunning views of snow-capped mountains, and of course, the Columbia Icefields and it is a great base for your exploration of this majestic region.
At Glacier View Lodge, you can choose from a range of modern and comfortable accommodations, with options for both glacier and mountain view rooms.
All in all, there are 32 suites to choose from.
Every evening, the lodge offers complimentary Charcuterie at Moraine Lounge for its guests. You will also find a tea and coffee-making machine in the lobby.
With all these fantastic features and its unbeatable location at the heart of the Columbia Icefield, Glacier View Lodge is sure to provide a hassle-free holiday experience for all!
Glacier View Lodge is also seasonally open and closed in the winter.
Where to stay at the Columbia Icefield? Columbia Icefield Hotels
The Glacier View Lodge is the best place to stay in order to explore the Columbia Icefields, but here are a few more options.
Sunwapta Falls Resort (30 minutes)
Situated just a short 50-minute drive from the charming town of Jasper and a mere 30 minutes from the breathtaking Icefields, this lodge boasts an array of amenities including a restaurant, bar, and complimentary parking.
The rooms at Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge are tastefully furnished, providing both comfort and style.
Each room is equipped with a satellite TV and a cozy seating area, ensuring a pleasant stay. Additionally, tea and coffee-making facilities are conveniently provided.
Indulge your taste buds at the Rocky Mountain Lodge Sunwapta Falls restaurant, where a delectable menu featuring regionally inspired cuisine awaits.
For those seeking outdoor adventures, the resort’s tour desk is readily available to assist in organizing thrilling whitewater rafting and other exhilarating activities. And don’t forget to explore the on-site gift shop, which offers a range of unique souvenirs to commemorate your stay.
Experience the perfect blend of convenience, comfort, and natural beauty by staying at Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Lodge.
The Crossing (40 minutes)
This property is situated on the scenic Icefields Parkways, nestled between the charming towns of Banff and Jasper. It boasts an on-site restaurant and bar, where guests can indulge in delectable grilled meats, including succulent steaks and juicy hamburgers.
The cozy guest rooms feature satellite TV and en suite bathroom facilities with complimentary toiletries. For those seeking a breathtaking view, select rooms offer stunning mountain vistas.
At The Crossing, you can unwind and socialize by the inviting stone fireplace or on the outdoor terrace. To enhance convenience, a petrol station, launderette, and gift shop are all conveniently located on-site.
Num-Ti-Jah Lodge (1 hour)
Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, located in the picturesque Lake Louise, is a perfect choice for both business and leisure travelers. Its location allows you to explore Lake Louise as well as the Icefields in an hour’s drive.
At Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, you will find charming suites, that were designed with thoughtful amenities to ensure a truly unforgettable experience.
Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier Travel Tips
Visiting the Columbia Icefield is an incredible experience that should not be missed. Here are some helpful tips to ensure a safe and memorable trip:
- Dress appropriately: Make sure to wear layers of warm, waterproof clothing and sturdy footwear for optimal comfort.
- Be aware of the weather: Check local forecasts for current conditions and be prepared with appropriate supplies, such as rain gear or sun protection.
- Pack essential items: Carry a first aid kit, flashlight, extra layers of clothing, snacks and water, camera or phone, and a map in case of emergency.
- Cellphone coverage: You’ll also want to make sure you know where you’re going by studying maps beforehand, as cell phone coverage is often limited in this area.
- Be prepared for wildlife: Keep your distance from wild animals and be aware that they may startle easily.
- Know the area: Research trails and attractions beforehand so you can plan ahead and make the most of your visit.
- Stay on marked trails: Always stay on marked trails and be aware of any potential hazards such as loose rocks or icy patches.
- Be mindful of the environment: Respect the Columbia Icefield by disposing of waste properly and leaving no trace behind.
Frequently Asked Questions: Athabasca Glacier Columbia Icefields
How far is the Columbia Icefields from Banff?
It is a 2 hour drive to get to the Columbia Icefields from Banff National Park. The road distance is 185.2 km (115 miles).
Is there parking at Athabasca Glacier?
Yes, there is free public parking at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre.
Can you visit the Athabasca Glacier without a tour?
Unfortunately, it is not safe to venture onto the glacier without a formal tour. There are clear markings and beyond those, it is unsafe to walk to the glacier ice sheet.
However, there is a wonderful alternative – a short glacier hike. This hike spans 1.4 km (0.8 miles) and offers breathtaking views of the ice field, completely free of charge.
To embark on the Athabasca Glacier Trail, simply head to the far end of the parking lot.
Do you need to book your tour in advance?
Yes, it is highly recommended that you book tours in advance. Columbia Icefields Ice Explorer tours and Guided hikes are extremely popular, especially in the summer months, so we 100% recommend booking them prior to your visit.
Can you visit Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Icefield without a car?
You can get to the Icefields without a car. There are multiple-day tours departing from Calgary and Banff to the Columbia Discovery Centre. Shuttles are also available to take you there.
Once you arrive at the Discovery centre, you can book a guided Ice Explorer tour or a guided glacier hike to explore the Athabasca Glacier.
Do you need a pass to visit Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Icefield?
Yes, you will need a Parks Canada Pass to enter the national park (either Banff or Jasper, whichever you keep as a base to explore the Icefields Parkway).
When is the best time to visit the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield?
For optimal weather and road conditions, the best time to visit Athabasca Glacier is during the warmer summer months from June to August. However, it’s important to note that summer also attracts larger crowds.
So, while you can enjoy the best weather, be prepared for the increased number of visitors. We highly recommend booking tours and hotels ahead of time!
What to pack for the Columbia Icefield?
When embarking on an adventure into the vast wilderness, it is absolutely crucial to pack the necessary supplies and equipment. To ensure an extraordinary and unforgettable experience at the magnificent Columbia Icefield, here are some indispensable items that you won’t want to forget:
- Waterproof jacket: A reliable and durable waterproof jacket will shield you from the unpredictable elements, keeping you dry and comfortable throughout your expedition. Click to view my favorite one
- Sturdy hiking boots: A pair of high-quality hiking boots with excellent traction and ankle support is essential for navigating rugged terrain and providing stability and protection.
- Sunscreen: Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by applying a generous amount of sunscreen. Opt for a broad-spectrum formula with a high SPF to safeguard against sunburn and long-term damage.
- Sunglasses: Shield your eyes from the glaring sunlight and harmful UV rays with a pair of polarized sunglasses. Not only will they provide eye protection, but they will also enhance your visual clarity in bright, reflective surroundings.
- First aid kit: Be prepared for any minor injuries or medical emergencies by carrying a well-stocked first aid kit. Include essentials such as band-aids, antiseptic ointment, pain relievers, and any personal medications.
- Extra layers of clothing: The weather in the wilderness can be unpredictable, so it’s vital to bring extra layers of clothing to adapt to changing temperatures. Pack lightweight and moisture-wicking fabrics for optimal comfort.
- Snacks and water: Stay nourished and hydrated during your adventure by packing a variety of nutritious snacks and an ample supply of water. Choose lightweight and energy-dense snacks that will provide sustenance throughout your road trip.
- Camera or phone: Capture the awe-inspiring beauty of the Columbia Icefield by bringing a camera or using your phone’s camera. Preserve the memories of this remarkable experience and share them with others.
By carefully packing these essential items, you’ll be well-prepared to embark on an incredible journey at the Columbia Icefield, ensuring that you have a safe and memorable time amidst the breathtaking wilderness.
Note: When planning your visit, it’s important to keep in mind that temperatures in this region are often cold and unpredictable. The temperatures at the glacier are about 10 degrees colder than they will be in Banff. Be sure to pack layers of clothing and appropriate equipment for the activities you plan on doing.
Other things to do on the Icefields Parkway: Jasper to Lake Louise
The magnificent Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies offers a stunningly beautiful landscape and endless opportunities for exploration.
Whether you’re looking to take in breathtaking views, spot unique wildlife, or embark on an exciting adventure, the possibilities are endless during your journey!
Here are some of the best things to do on this incredible stretch of highway:
- Take a road trip from Jasper to Lake Louise: Enjoy the incredible views of the Canadian Rockies while driving along this spectacular highway. Must-add stops include Maligne Canyon, Athabasca Falls, and Maligne Lake.
- Go on a wildlife safari (from Jasper): Keep your eyes open and you may catch sight of some awe-inspiring wildlife such as bighorn sheep, elk, and bears.
- Maligne Lake Cruise: Take a cool Maligne Lake Cruise to see Spirit Island!
- See Sunwapta Falls: Witness nature’s beauty at Sunwapta Falls and take in the stunning view of this powerful two-tiered waterfall.
- Take in breathtaking views at Peyto Lake: Marvel at the vivid, turquoise blue waters of Peyto Lake, set against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks.
- Stop for a photo at Bow Lake: Soak in the stunning reflection of Crowfoot Glacier in the placid waters of Bow Lake, and snap an unforgettable photo.
- Lake Louise: Visit the shimmering, turquoise waters of Lake Louise and snap a photo in front of the iconic Fairmont Chateau.
- Banff: Explore this charming mountain town and take a leisurely stroll along the historic main street. Check off pretty lakes, and go on the Lake Minnewanka cruise nearby and beyond!
- Explore Johnston Canyon: Hike through a gorgeous canyon filled with breathtaking waterfalls and spectacular forests.
Is the Columbia Icefield Ice Explorer tour worth it?
Yes, the Columbia Icefield Ice Explorer tour is absolutely worth it! Embarking on a guided tour of this ancient glacier in a massive, all-terrain vehicle will provide an unforgettable experience.
As you traverse the undulating terrain and towering glacial walls, your expert guide will share fascinating facts about the area’s unique landscape and wildlife. You’ll also get a chance to get up close and personal with the glacier, witnessing the beauty of nature right from your seat.
Whether you’re looking for an exciting adventure or just want to take in incredible views, this tour will be sure to exceed your expectations.
The Columbia Icefield Ice Explorer tour is truly one of a kind and offers visitors a unique glimpse into this majestic landscape.
So, if you’re looking for something special to do during your visit to the Banff or Jasper National Parks, this tour is definitely worth it!