Yes, a picture can say a thousand words. But really, the only one needed to describe the peaks, glaciers and waterfalls along the Icefields Parkway in Banff and Jasper National Parks is “wow”. This 298-kilometre two-lane road from the castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel to its sister luxury cabin property, the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, will leave you awestruck and, more likely, at a loss for words.
That I took the trek in a decked-out 2017 BMW X6 xDrive35i only served to add “whoa” to my vocabulary.
BMW first brought the X6 to market in 2008 and avoids the SUV nomenclature by calling it a “sports activity vehicle.” Its popular, peppy design has been followed by many premium auto makers.
Right from the get-go, the car’s heads-up display (HUD) proved its worth. The Trans-Canada Highway is closely monitored by RCMP, so you’ll stay at or near 90 km/h for the entire route. But with this scenery, why go fast?
The last stop for Internet, phone service, fuel and flush toilets for many hours is located at Lake Louise. The winding road up to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is a must-drive – and here, you’ll encounter the first of many turquoise lakes along the journey. Spring thaw doesn’t happen until well into June, so a stroll onto the ice is in order.
From here, it isn’t long before I turn north onto Highway 93 – the Icefields Parkway – towards Jasper. As part of the Canada 150 celebration, Parks Canada has waived park pass fees, so there’s no need to stop at the gates.
The Icefields Parkway opened to the public in 1940, ushering in an era of driving for the sake of the drive. Before that, it was a treacherous journey on foot and horse through the mountains to trade pelts or ammunition.
As the highway heads for the first of two watershed summits, the view of snow-draped peaks and glaciers is mesmerizing. Thankfully, BMW’s driver assistance package counters the overwhelming temptation to gawk, as the steering wheel vibrates whenever I absentmindedly start to drift across a lane. A flashing light on the HUD and side mirror warns of speeders in my blindspots.
Take advantage of the roadside parking lots to view the hanging glaciers, with their crazy deep blue colours. They stick to steep walls and crowd into crevasses high on the walls of glacial valleys. There are still close to 100 to see, though some are in retreat. Pull over to see Crowfoot Glacier to start the count. You’ll pass a few lakes, including Bow Lake – the headwaters of the Bow River that flows through Calgary.
Reaching Bow Pass, your ears might feel the elevation gain, but the turbocharged 3.0-litre inline-six isn’t even sweating. Peyto Lake – named for Bill Peyto, an early trail guide, trapper and Banff park warden – is only a short hike from a nearby lot. Its creamy turquoise colour comes from the pulverized glacial rock, called rock flour, that stays suspended in the water, changing colour with the light and season.
We make a pit-stop at the Saskatchewan River Crossing. The restaurant and gift shop here is open during summer and has washrooms. English explorer and fur trader David Thompson trekked from the forts at Rocky Mountain House along the North Saskatchewan River and west through Howes Pass in the early 1800s, but the First Nations led the way for thousand of years before the European arrival.
The Icefields Parkway continues north along the North Saskatchewan River, and we pass the Weeping Wall at Cirrus Mountain. More than 100 metres high, water cascades from it in a series of waterfalls, like a river of tears. In winter, ice climbers drape like bright prayer flags, linked by multi-coloured ropes.
Unemployment in Canada was around 30 per cent in the 1930s, so the government purposely made the road work go slowly. There were 2,000 men employed during the construction, in camps set up about five kilometres apart. A surveyor from each camp would work ahead of the crews, who basically build the road by hand. The road at the Big Bend – a famous hairpin turn that wraps in a circle below soaring peaks – was tough on the old cars that often backed up the hill. Pop the BMW X6 transmission into sport mode and tempt that 445-horsepower motor to rip.
Trees are sparse and snow is plentiful as the road rises over Sunwapta Pass, signifying the entrance into Jasper National Park and another watershed. Parker Ridge, to the south side of the highway, is a haven for back-country enthusiasts who ski there much of the year. When the snow is gone, hiking is a great way to see the icefield in the next valley over.
The Columbia Icefield is the largest in the Rockies and sits astride the Continental Divide. At its apex, the water can flow north to the Arctic Ocean, east to Hudson Bay and onto the North Atlantic Ocean, and west to the Pacific. The massive icefield is about 325 square kilometres and up to 365 metres thick. More than seven metres of snow falls annually, making it difficult to keep the Icefields Parkway open year-round. Motorists are advised to be prepared to stop due to avalanches in almost any month.
In 1939, the Brewster brothers of Banff – Jim and Bill – saw an opportunity for a tourism feature and built the first chalet at the toe of the Columbia Icefield. The shack is now a huge centre with a few hotel rooms, but more importantly, it’s a chance to park the car and hop on an Ice Explorer vehicle, with its six balloon-like tires, to travel softly at a top speed of 40 km/h onto the Athabasca Glacier. Bring sunglasses and a water bottle. The ice is quite reflective and can cause discomfort for your eyes, but the melt water is the freshest you’ll every enjoy. Combine this trek with a visit to the Glacier Skywalk, a walkway and glass platform observation deck mounted out from the cliff-edge, high above Sunwapta Valley. It opened in 2014 and offers a spectacular view.
Another must-stop is at Athabasca Falls, 40 kilometres south of Jasper. In winter, the ice builds into massive blocks clinging to the rock, but in summer, the water rushes through the narrow gorge.
Last stop is the sprawling Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, where a set of golf clubs will come in handy. For non-golfers, canoes and kayaks are available at the boat launch.
The tour up the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper only takes a few hours, but this is one road you don’t want to rush. Driving the X6 (base-priced at $68,000 with features bumping it into the mid-$80,000 range) makes it even more enjoyable, what with the HUD, surround view when parked, the incredible sound system and the settings for lumbar support. Under the hood, that engine doesn’t fail to impress. Accelerating in the passing zones makes me wish I wasn’t in a national park.