Trip Report: Biking the Icefields Parkway

Originally Published in the PacSafe Blog

There are few road biking routes in the world where you are happy to be slogging hard up a steep grade. It takes a long time, is hard on the body, and tests your will to continue on.

The Icefields Parkway is one of those routes where the slog induces a smile. Spanning 140 miles between the small towns of Lake Louise and Jasper, the route parallels the Continental Divide of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

The drive can be done in an afternoon, but we opted for the much slower and much more difficult biking option. As a Mountain Biker, I often get bored cycling road routes. This route, however, is much different – the scenery alone compels you to keep going, as you are anxious to view the next world-class vista around every bend.

If you wish to stay in a hotel, your options between Lake Louise and Jasper are limited to two. First is the rustic Num-Ti-Jah lodge, a nearly 100-year-old building, takes you back to the old days of fur-trappers and explorers. The food here is surprisingly delicious for being in the middle of nowhere. There is a traditional sauna outside, and if you are brave you can dip into the frigid Bow Lake after warming up. If you want to camp, there are plenty of options available, both with and without amenities. Just make sure you book ahead of time in the busy summer months.

After Num-Ti-Jah, the only remnants of civilization are at the Columbia Icefield. Here there is a pretty average-tasting cafeteria, an info center, and a motel. The most interesting part of the experience is to see the distance that the Athabasca glacier has receded in the past 80 years. There was a marker that extended to one side of the highway reading “Toe of Athabasca Glacier, 1923”. Surprising, given that the current edge of the glacier was over a mile away.

The Columbia Icefield is also the transition point between Banff and Jasper National Parks. The scenery changes as the narrow corridor and jagged peaks of Banff give way to broad, open expansive valleys toward Jasper. This point is also the apex of the climbing, giving way to a good hour or so of fast, fun downhill that makes up for the grueling slog before.

Riding into Jasper you see the power of ice as the valleys have a distinct shape as if a giant ice cream scoop dug them out of the surrounding valleys. A bit of optical illusion is in play here as well: the peaks seem so immense and close that you could just reach out and touch them, but in reality they are many miles away. You begin to realise how far away when the scenery stays the same no matter how long you ride.

Eventually we made it into Jasper, a small, quaint resort town of about 2,500 people. There are enough restaurants to satisfy any palette, as well as a host of accommodation options. We opted for the famous Jasper Park Lodge as a reward for our exhausting trip.

If you are seeking adventure, beautiful scenery, and a good challenge, You should definitely make a trip up the Icefields Parkway.