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15 Things to KNOW Before Visiting the Athabasca Glacier & Columbia Icefield 

15 Things to KNOW Before Visiting the Athabasca Glacier & Columbia Icefield 

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Picture this – ice as far as you can see and the chance to walk on an ancient glacier surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. This postcard comes to life at the incredible Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier in Alberta.  

Situated between Jasper and Banff, this is a spot you don’t want to miss if you have the chance. It’s one of the best places to visit in Alberta! Between the towering peaks of mountains lies the immense and impressive Athabasca Glacier. What’s really cool is you can take a tour out on this glacier in a special all-terrain bus known as an Ice Explorer. The ice in the center of this glacier is as thick as the Eiffel Tower is tall!  

Because the Athabasca Glacier is so accessible, it’s the most popular glacier to visit in the world. With a million people coming every year between May to October, you won’t be alone in wanting to stop here. But with this popularity comes a few challenges when it comes to planning your visit.

To help you make the most of your visit to this incredible place, I’ve put together this complete guide to help. It should answer all the questions you have about where the glacier is, if you have to book a tour, parking options, and all about the nearby visitor center. It’s basically all the questions you thought you had and a few more!  

About the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier 

Daniel hangs out the door of an Ice Explorer all-terrain vehicle on the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield, Canada
Be prepared for the cold! Even on a summer day the glacier is freezing – no pun intended!

Visiting this unique spot is like stepping back in time – in fact, some of the ice at the end of the Athabasca Glacier was snow that fell on the icefield some 400 years ago! This is not only a geological wonder but a truly unique spot you won’t find anywhere else in the country.   

The Columbia Icefield formed around 240,000 years ago. Because it was in an isolated area, it wasn’t found until the late 1800s, making it one of the last major geological areas discovered by humans.  

This is the largest ice field in the Rockies at 325-kilometers squared, and it gets around 275 inches of snow every year. Water from the Columbia Icefield and its glaciers makes up underground rivers and caves and flows to three different oceans. 

The Athabasca Glacier is just one of the enormous glaciers that make up the Columbia Icefield. Because of its location, it’s the easiest glacier to get to and the one you can see – not only with a tour but also from the road!  

While we toured this amazing place, we found out that it won’t be long before this glacier ceases to exist due to global warming. It has already lost more than half of its total volume in the past 125 years and is shrinking by 16 feet every year. 

As you plan your own trip to this amazing place, I’ve put together a complete guide with tips and advice to make the most of your visit.  

Things to Know about the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier 

1. Where is the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier?  

An Ice Explorer all-terrain vehicle parked with the Athabasca Glacier in the background on a summers day in Canada
What a beautiful day to explore a glacier! Photo credit: TReinhard Depositphotos

The Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier are located along the Alberta-British Columbia border. Part of this expansive ice is located inside Jasper National Park, which is the best place to access it – either on a tour or hiking along a nearby trail.  

The ice goes between the summits of two mountains – Mount Columbia on the west and Mount Athabasca on the east. This is the largest ice field in the Rockies and one of the most accessible, thanks to its location.  

To get here, you’ll take the Icefields Parkway – a beautiful stretch of highway (arguably the most scenic in all of Canada!) between Lake Louise and Jasper.

The Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier are just over an hour (106 km/66 miles) south of Jasper, 1.5 hours (132 km/82 miles) north of Lake Louise, or about 2.5 hours (187 km/116 miles) north of Banff.  

2. Can you visit the Athabasca Glacier without a tour?  

Bailey stands at the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier
This is as close as you can get without a tour!

Yes, but you won’t be able to physically walk on the glacier as that’s too dangerous without a formal tour. Instead, there’s a short Athabasca Glacier hike that will give you some impressive views of the icefield for free.  

To start the 1.4 km (.8 mile) Athabasca Glacier Trail, start at the far end of the parking lot. Look for the trail markings that lead you across a bridge and up towards the glacier. You’ll hike uphill before the trail evens out. You can also see markers along here showing how the glacier has shrunk over the years due to global warming. 

The walk should only take 10-20 minutes and is easy enough for kids to tag along. Bring a jacket (even in the summer!) as the glacial winds here are strong and cold all year long! Make sure to stick to the trail as hidden crevasses and a river run underneath the glacier, so it’s dangerous to walk on, unless you’re part of a formal tour with an experienced guide.  

Once you reach the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier, you’ll have an incredible view of the glacier and icefield in front of you (pictured above.) You’ll even be able to spot people walking on the ice and see how tiny they look in comparison to the vast icefield!  

3. What are the best Athabasca Glacier tours? 

Planning ahead and booking one of the many Athabasca Glacier tours is the best way to see it up close. A tour is, after all, the only way you are allowed to actually step foot on the glacier. There are a few different options, whether you’re looking to visit the Columbia Icefield and walk on the glacier, see the incredible Skywalk on the edge of a cliff, or turn your time here into a full-day hiking experience. 

Here are the different tours you can choose from: 

Ice Explorer Tour

man standign on the Athabasca Glacier in the snow with ICe Explorer vehicles in the background
The Ice Explorer Tour is so fun!

On this tour, you’ll board a giant Ice Explorer vehicle to travel right onto Athabasca Glacier, where you can get out and walk around. You can even stop to fill your water bottle with fresh glacier water!

These tours don’t include transportation from nearby towns, so you’ll need to get yourself to the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre on the Icefields Parkway. At the Discovery Centre, there is a large parking lot and this is where you’ll board the Ice Explorer bus to take you right onto the glacier. Although only about 1.5 hours in length, it is a good experience and one you can easily work into your day driving the Icefields Parkway.

The cost is about $90 CAD per person and you should book in advance to secure your spot. These tours are VERY popular and often book out in advance. For a discount, book the Ice Explorer Tour and Skywalk Tour together in advance online.

Skywalk Tour

The Icefields Parkway Skywalk with views of the Athabasca Glacier and mountain
The Skywalk!

If you’re just interested in exploring the glass-bottomed walkway high above Jasper National Park, this tour gets you there!

The Skywalk (pictured above) is an impressive glass-bottomed structure that hangs out into the valley offering some very stunning views. You cannot simply Park and walk onto the Skywalk, the only way to visit is on a tour from the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre (located a couple of minutes down the road). The reason for this is that there is no parking at the Skywalk. So, your tickets to the Skywalk include roundtrip transport from the Discovery Centre as well as your admission to get on the Skywalk itself.

Once you arrive at the Skywalk, you’ll get to see a variety of interpretive displays about the history of this glacier region before venturing out onto the glass-bottomed walkway for breathtaking views. You’ll be given headphones to enjoy a self-guided audio tour on this walk. You can explore on your own time and then return via any bus whenever you’re ready to go.

Tickets for this experience are around $40 CAD.  For a discount, book the Ice Explorer and Skywalk tours together. Booking in advance is also strongly recommended since these experiences do have limited numbers and are very popular!

Guided Glacier Hikes

A tour group walk on the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield on a trekking tour
The typical Athabasca Glacier Walk is different from the trekking tours. The trekking tours explore much more of the glacier!

To see even more of this incredible area, hiking with an experienced guide is a great option. These hiking tours are different than the Ice Explorer tour because you’ll spend more time on the glacier and walk to parts of the glacier that most people don’t get to see. You’ll also get a pair of micro-spikes (crampons) included with these tours, which are necessary for extra grip while you’re walking on the glacier. 

You can book a half-day tour like this one where you’ll spend 3 hours hiking on Athabasca Glacier with an experienced guide. Your guide will point out ice formations, meltwater streams, icefalls, and waterfalls. This tour is family-friendly too since the hike is relatively easy and flat (5 km/3.1 miles in total.)

For a longer adventure on the glacier, this full-day tour lets you spend 6 hours exploring the glacier with a guide. Pack a lunch to eat at the head of the Athabasca Glacier, where shattered ice and rock make an incredible lunchtime view. Unlike the above hiking tour, this hike is a little more difficult and is best suited to those with a moderate level of fitness.  

Glacier Walk and Skywalk from Banff

Including transportation from Banff and lunch, this glacier tour is the most popular option as it gets you access to the incredible glacier walk as well as a pretty sweet add-on with the Skywalk. This 1km (.6 mile) walkway towers over the Sunwapta Valley. The highlight is a glass-floor platform where you can see directly down almost 1,000 feet below!  

4. Do you need to book your tour in advance? 

A photo showing the road from the Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure to the glacier
The buses drive this gorgeous mountain road before you transfer into an all-terrain vehicle!

This is one of the biggest tips I have for you – if your heart is set on getting to explore the icefield and glacier up close, book in advance!! All the bookings are done by timeslot and fill up quickly in the summer months.  

Dan and I did this specific tour and made the mistake of not booking it ahead of time. We were stuck waiting around the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre for three hours before there was an opening on a tour for us. This was such a waste of time that’s easily avoided by booking one of the tours I linked above before you go.  

5. When is the best time to visit the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield?  

Bailey poses for a photo with an Ice Explorer all-terrain vehicle on the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield, Canada
I was so cold, even in the middle of summer!

If you want to walk on the glacier, the Athabasca Glacier tours only operate from May until October.  

If you can, try to book your visit in the morning (before 12 p.m.) or in the later afternoon (after 3 p.m.). You have a better chance of spotting wildlife like mountain goats and bighorn sheep and will avoid the peak crowds.  

For the best weather, come in the warmer summer months in July to August. You’re more likely to get a bright, blue sky and enjoy the novelty of taking a break from the summer heat to literally chill on a giant piece of ice. 

6. Can you visit the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield in winter?   

An Ice Explorer all-terrain vehicle parked on the Athabasca Glacier during a tour
The Ice Explorers are so cool!

During the winter months (November to May), the visitor center is closed, and there are no tours of the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield.  

However, you can still come in winter to hike the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier Trail I previously mentioned. Most people will bring snowshoes to do this trail in the winter as it isn’t cleared, and the road leading to the parking lot is closed from November until May. It will be quieter here in the winter, so you won’t be dealing with a crowd.  

If you are driving here in the winter, make sure you have winter tires on your car and always check road conditions, as snowstorms are common.  

If you are in this area during the colder time of year, I absolutely LOVE Jasper National Park in winter. There are so many epic things to do in Jasper when there’s snow on the ground.  

Related Read: Banff in winter is also super fun!

7. Is the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier busy? 

A groupd of Ice Explorer all-terrain vehicles on the Athabasca Glacier
The glacier does get busy!

Yes, it can be. The Athabasca Glacier is the most-visited glacier in all of North America. About 1 million people come to the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier every year.  

To avoid the crowds, visit outside of the peak summer months of July and August. The Athabasca Glacier tours are available from May until October and book up quickly during the summer.  

If you are planning a summer road trip to Jasper National Park, try to visit the icefield and glacier mid-week to avoid the very busy weekends. If you can, book your tour in the morning or late afternoon to avoid that peak of 12-3 p.m. when most people are out on tours. 

8. What is the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre?  

The Columbia Icefields Discover Center
The Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre!

Right across the street from the icefields and Athabasca Glacier is the Columbia Icefields Visitor Centre. This is where you can buy a spot on one of the glacier tours that go out onto the ice or Columbia Icefield Skywalk tickets if you haven’t purchased them ahead of time. There are also restaurants, washrooms, a gift shop, and interpretive displays inside.  

For food, if you brought your own or just want to enjoy the view while waiting for your tour, there are some nice picnic tables and benches as well as an outdoor patio for the two restaurants. There’s a fine dining restaurant here focused on Canadian cuisine called Altitude or a cafeteria-style restaurant with a grab-and-go menu called Chalet. If you’re just looking for a coffee, there’s also a Starbucks inside!  

To stretch your legs, take a stroll through the gift shop or the Parks Canada Glacier Gallery. The self-guided tour showcases how a glacier moves along with information on the local area. You can also watch the award-winning film “Through Ice and Time,” which was specifically created for this gallery.  

If you have time to look around, stop by the information desk inside the center for recommendations on what to do in the area.  

One thing that isn’t at the visitor center is a gas station. Make sure you’ve fueled up in Jasper, Lake Louise, or at Saskatchewan River Crossing before you get here.  

9. Is there parking at Athabasca Glacier?  

An all terrain vehicle drives along the road to the Athabasca Glacier
How small do you feel now?

The main parking lot here is at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. It’s quite large, and you should be able to find a spot here. You must park in this lot if you’ve booked a glacier or Skywalk tour. There will be a free shuttle that takes you on a short, five-minute drive to the Skywalk if you’ve bought tickets for that experience.  

If you’re hiking the free trail, there’s a small parking lot near the trailhead. You’ll need to follow the Icefields Parkway to the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre and then turn onto Snocoach Road for a couple of hundred feet before quickly turning right onto Glacier Road. That road will take you right to the small parking lot.  

10. How far is the Athabasca Glacier from Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper?  

A photo out the window of a moving Ice Explorer all-terrain vehicle
You can wind the windows down and see the spectacular views!

The Athabasca Glacier is an easy day trip from Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper. No matter which of these towns you’re coming from, the road trip takes you down the Icefields Parkway.  

This two-lane highway is so much more than just a way to get from Point A to Point B. The drive is one of the most beautiful in the entire world, and you should make time to divert off the road and check out our guide to some of the best stops with viewpoints showcasing the incredible views.   

The Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier are closest to Jasper, with only about an hour’s drive to travel the 106 kilometers (66 miles).  

If you’re coming from Lake Louise to Jasper National Park, it’s about a 1.5-hour drive or about 132 kilometers (82 miles) to get to the icefield and glacier.  

Traveling from Banff in the direction of Jasper, it will take you around 2.5 hours to get the 187 kilometers (116 miles) to the glacier.  

11. Where can you stay near the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield?  

View from the lounge in the Glacier View Lodge of the Athabasca Glacier
How cool is that view? Photo credit: Glacier View Lodge

There are plenty of places to stay if you want to spend more time in the area or not worry about a long drive back after your tour.  

You can stay right at the hotel that is part of the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre, but it is the priciest option. The Glacier View Lodge has rooms overlooking the glaciers and mountains and is close to all the activities here. The rooms here are around $329 CAD.

If you’re driving with an RV, there is overnight parking available in a large asphalt lot on the west side of the Discovery Centre. There are about 100 sites here. The RV parking tends to be busier in the middle of the day when people are here for day trips, but it does clear out, so there’s quite a bit of room for overnight stays. It costs $16.75 CAD to park your RV here overnight.  

For campers, there are two nearby campgrounds. You can go to either the Columbia Icefield Campground or the Wilcox Creek Campground. It’s $16.75 CAD per night for both campgrounds.  

  • Columbia Icefield Campground has 33 tent-only sites that are first-come, first-served. It’s a beautiful campground with some truly amazing views of the surrounding area.  
  • Wilcox Creek Campground has 46 campsites and can accommodate tents and SMALL trailers (big RVs should go to the RV parking lot). The Wilcox Pass trailhead is right nearby and will lead you to amazing views of Athabasca Glacier, Mount Athabasca, and Mount Andromeda. 

Another option is to stay somewhere along the Icefields Parkway. This gives you a chance to explore this area with a closer home base. 

  • HI Beauty Creek Wilderness Hostel – this hostel is on the edge of the Sunwapta River and has some of the best stargazing as it’s so dark here. This is a more rustic place to stay with no running water or electricity. You can book an individual bed in the shared dorm rooms for $35 CAD.  
  • The Crossing Resort – Near the base of Mount Wilson, there are some stunning views here, and it’s close to attractions in the area. Rooms range from $150-250 a night, depending on when you go.  
  • HI Rampart Creek Wilderness Hostel – Halfway between Banff and Jasper, this hostel is especially great for climbers as the Weeping Wall with bolted sport-climbing routes is nearby. There’s no running water or electricity here and a bed in the shared dorm is $34 CAD.  

12. Do you need a pass to visit Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Icefield?  

People walk along the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier Trail on a beautiful day
Walking to the glacier is still a fun activity!

Because the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier are inside Jasper National Park, you’ll need a Canada Parks Pass. The daily rate for these passes is $10.50 CAD per adult, $21 CAD per family, and free for all kids 17 and under.  

If you’re planning to stay longer or visit more than one national park in a year, the Discovery Pass is a great option. This gives you free admission to all national parks in Canada for a full year for $72.25 per adult or $145.25 for a family of up to 7 people. 

The Icefields Parkway, where the icefield and glacier are located, is maintained by Parks Canada, and you’ll need a Parks Canada Pass to drive along it, even if you don’t plan on stopping anywhere.  

Parks Canada Pass Quick Info

If you plan on spending time in Canada’s national parks then you’re going to have to pay for a Parks Pass.

Single Daily Admission:

This type of pass is valid for one person for one day. It is ONLY the best value if you are traveling alone and only plan to visit a national park for one day.

  • Adult (ages 18-64) is $10.50 CAD
  • Senior (65+) is $9.00 CAD
  • Youth/Child (17 or younger) is FREE

Group Daily Admission:

If you’re traveling in a group or with family, you can buy a single-day admission for your entire vehicle (up to 7 people in one vehicle.)

  • $21.00 CAD gets your entire vehicle entry for one full day

Parks Canada Discovery Pass

The “Discovery Pass” is what Parks Canada calls their year-long (365 days from the purchase date), multi-park entry pass. This pass will give 365 days of access to all participating national parks in Canada. This includes the most popular parks like Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay, Glacier, Mount Revelstoke and so much more.

  • Adult (age 18-64) – $72.25 CAD
  • Senior (64+) – $61.75 CAD
  • Group/Family (up to 7 people in one vehicle) – $145.25 CAD

Hot Tip: Although more expensive upfront, if you plan on spending more than 7 days in different parks in Canada within a 12-month period, then the Discovery Pass is actually the better deal!

Parks Canada Passes can be bought online here or at one of the Visitor Centers of booths at the entrance to many national parks.

13. What else can you do at the Athabasca Glacier? 

man staning on the skywalk overlooking the valley on the Icefields Prkway
Daniel on the Skywalk!

A great add-on to your trip here is buying a ticket to go on the Skywalk. If you buy ahead of time, you’ll be guaranteed a spot, so you won’t have a long wait or risk the day you want to go being sold out. The Skywalk is a short (5-minute) free shuttle ride away from the Discovery Center. You’ll have amazing views of the Sunwapta Valley, and the long glass-bottomed walkway that’s over 1,000 feet above is a thrill!  

To do a hike in this area, I recommend checking out the Wilcox Pass or Parker Ridge Trails. Wilcox Pass is a moderately challenging 4 km (2.5 miles) hike that starts at the Wilcox Creek campground. You’ll get excellent views of the Columbia Icefield, and in the summer, wildflowers are beautiful along this trail. The Parker Ridge Trail is a short 2.7 km (1.6 miles) trail just south of the Discovery Centre. It’s a bit steep to start but is still rated as an easy hike. You’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the Saskatchewan Glacier along with multiple waterfalls.  

Less than a minute’s drive (super close!!) from the Skywalk is Tangle Creek Falls. This waterfall is beautiful and easy to find right off the highway. You can see it right from the parking lot, so no big hike is required. You can walk up to the falls and climb up a bit to get a great photo.  

The Icefields Parkway itself is a fantastic drive with a ton of great places to stop. It’s full of viewpoints to admire the scenery, stunning waterfalls, and good hikes all along this scenic drive. There’s a reason so many people make this drive from Jasper to Banff or Banff to Jasper and stop along the way.

14. Can you visit Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Icefield without a car?  

A red Ice Explorer all-terrain vehicle travels down a steep hill on the way to the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield, Canada
The tours run all day long and are often fully booked!

What’s great about this place is that it’s a popular spot, and there are plenty of tour options that also include transportation. This means you can easily get to the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield and back to wherever you are staying without the need to have your own car or a rental.  

From Banff: This full-day tour leaves from Banff and heads down the Icefields Parkway. Because you’re not driving, you’ll be able to enjoy the scenic views! It also includes the Athabasca Glacier Tour, Skywalk, and a mountain picnic lunch at Bow Lake, one of the largest lakes in Banff National Park.  

Jasper to Banff – If you’re going to visit both Jasper and Banff, this one-way tour not only gets you to your destination but also has some incredible stops along the way. You’ll see the Crowfoot Glacier, Athabasca Falls, Bow Lake, the incredible glacier tour, and a visit to the Skywalk.  

3-day tour from Calgary Airport – If you’re flying into Calgary, this tour offers the chance to see some of the highlights of this area with all the details taken care of. You’ll spend a night in Calgary and a night in Jasper with days full of all the sights, including the glacier, Athabasca Falls and Maligne Lake.  

Lake Louise to Jasper – This one-way tour from Lake Louise includes transportation to Jasper and some incredible stops along the way. You’ll spend an entire day sightseeing, including an Athabasca Glacier tour, Skywalk adventure, a visit to the Weeping Wall, and Athabasca Falls. A picnic lunch is also included.  

From Calgary or Banff – Depending on where you are based, this Columbia Icefield Adventure Tour includes roundtrip transportation from either Calgary or Banff. You’ll see sights like Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, and Crowfoot Glacier. You’ll also have the option to upgrade your ticket to include a tour of the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield.  

15. Is the Athabasca Glacier worth visiting?  

Photo our the window of two Ice Explorer all-terrain vehicles
One of the coolest experiences I have had!

Yes! The Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier is a natural wonder that is incredible to see in person. Pictures can’t capture just how massive this glacier is and how little you will feel while standing on it!  

Save yourself the stress of worrying about getting on a tour or the long wait for an open spot by booking ahead of time. This makes the visit more enjoyable, and you can focus on the incredible experience in front of you.   

I love this area of the world, so make sure you stop in either Jasper, Banff, or Lake Louise. There is so much to do in this part of the Canadian Rockies. You could easily spend an entire summer here!  

Thanks for reading!

Bailey smiles at the camera on the Athabasca Glacier on a Columbia Icefield Adventure, Canada
Thanks for reading!

The Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier are scenic spots you shouldn’t miss stopping at if you’re nearby. This is a really special part of Canada, and touring a glacier is such a neat experience! I hope this guide has given you all the information you need for your own visit to the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier. You’re in for a treat!  

Be sure to check out some of related blogs including:

Things to do at Maligne Lake

Guide to Visiting Moraine Lake, Canada

How to plan a Romantic Banff Honeymoon

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