Visiting The Columbia Icefields & Athabasca Glacier Tour

If you are planning an Icefields Parkway road trip, or visiting Banff National Park, the Columbia Icefield is probably on your itinerary. The Columbia Icefield is the largest Icefield south of the Arctic. Seeing the Icefields in person is a bucket list item for any visitor to the Canadian Rockies. This guide to the Columbia Icefields & Athabasca Glacier Tour is here to help plan your visit. 

Covering an area of 125 square miles, the Columbia Icefield was formed during the Great Glaciation period. What you see today is the remainder of what was once a thick ice mass that covered most of Western Canada. Glaciers have been constantly shaping this landscape for millions of years.

The Icefields are spread between both Banff and Jasper National Parks with the majority being in Banff. There are approximately 30 glaciers that make up the Columbia Icefields, with the Athabasca Glacier being one of 6 major “tongues”. 

There are few places on earth that compare in beauty to the Icefields, they are a natural wonder that everyone needs to see in their lifetime. Visiting the glacier can take up to 3 hours total so it’s important to plan your visit ahead of time. 

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What Is A Glacier? How Are Glaciers Formed?

A glacier is an accumulation of snow that is present year-round. A glacier is formed when snow accumulates faster than it can melt. The weight of the snow compresses, turning into a thick mass of ice that has formed over many years. Glaciers are continuously in motion and flow just like a slow moving river. Glaciers are responsible for the beautiful blue lakes you see scattered throughout the Canadian Rockies.

The beautiful Athabasca Glacier on a clear day.

How To Get The The Icefields Centre

The Icefields Centre is where you’ll purchase or pick up tickets, and where you’ll join your Ice Explorer tour for the Athabasca Glacier. It is situated about halfway along the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper National Parks. 

From Banff the drive is 2 hours and 15 minutes one-way, and from Jasper the drive is slightly shorter at 1 hour and 15 minutes one-way. If you plan to stop along the way your drive will be longer depending on how long you want to spend at each place. 

Just before reaching the Icefields Centre you’ll start to notice the landscape change and begin to see the surrounding mountains have larger accumulations of snow. You can see the Athabasca from the road, and even drive up to the toe of the glacier for a closer look. 

With its close proximity to the Icefields Parkway, the Athabasca Glacier is the most visited and most accessible glacier in the world. 

The Icefields Centre is one of the only places along the Icefields Parkway that has Wifi, it’s free to use so take advantage of it while you can. They also have a Starbucks, gift shop, cafe and restaurant on site.

Tips For Visiting The Athabasca Glacier

  • Opening Times – The Icefields Centre is open seasonally from May to October and tours in the summer months run from 10am to 5pm.
  • Arrive Early – It’s really important that you arrive on time for your tour. Ensure you leave with plenty of time to spare. You can try to book a walk-up spot on the day but this is never guaranteed. If you do happen to miss your tour time,  staff will do their best to accommodate you, providing that there is space on one of the next tours. 
  • Bring a warm coat – Don’t take the blue sunny skies for granted. Things may be warm at the visitors centre and while on the bus, but the second you step off the Ice Explorer you will feel that cold glacial wind hit you. 
  • Wear grippy shoes – You’ll be walking on a huge chunk of ice, so bring shoes with good grip or micro spikes if you want. Walking on the glacier in regular tennis shoes can be done, it’s just much harder to do. I saw people slipping and sliding all over the place. 
  • Bring lunch or snacks – The icefields Centre is the only place to get food or snacks for miles (besides the limited Saskatchewan Crossing) so you can expect the prices to be high. I took a quick look through their sandwich selection and the average price was $16. We had snacks already so decided to continue onto Jasper. 
  • Make use of the Icefields Centre – Whether you are taking an Ice Explorer tour or hiking in the area, make use of the Icefields Centre. The centre doesn’t require a ticket entry and has public washrooms, free wifi and a Starbucks (I can only be outdoorsy for so long until I need my Starbucks…)

Visiting the rockies without a car? Take a one-day tour from Banff to the Columbia Icefields!

Athabasca Ice Explorer Tour

Your tour starts at the Icefields Centre. This is where you’ll sign in with your tour guide and board the bus that will take you across the highway to your Ice Explorer.

The Ice Explorers have gone through many transitions through the years. The older vehicle model was the “shake and bake” – looking at this old model makes me happy that they no longer use them, they do not look overly safe to me! 

During the drive to the glacier our guide asked the group if there was anyone who had walked on a glacier before. Matt and I have both been up close with glaciers. The Wedgemount Glacier in Whistler was the closest I had ever been to a glacier, but I wasn’t prepared for the vastness and beauty of the Athabasca Glacier. This giant block of ice is truly impressive. 

The famous Ice Explorer vehicles on the Columbia Icefields

During the drive onto the glacier your guides give an overview of the history of the area and the Athabasca Glacier itself. The Athabasca Glacier has lost over half its volume over the past 125 years and each year it recedes around 1.5km. Climate change continues to be a threat to the Athabasca Glacier, and it is predicted that it could disappear within one generation. 

Once you depart the Ice Explorer, you are free to roam around the designated area of the glacier and take photos with the Canadian flag. It is much colder on the glacier (its a block of ice after all) and you’ll also experience extreme winds, so bring layers.

Once you are standing on the glacier you can get a better look of the other glaciers in the area, including Andromeda Glacier. It’s hard not to marvel in awe at the sprawling glaciers that surround this area.

Just next to the Athabasca is Mount Snow Dome, one of the most important peaks in the area. Snow Dome is part of a triple continental divide. The meltwaters from Dome Glacier flow to three different oceans, the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic. 

There are many streams of meltwater all along the glacier, if you bring a water bottle you can fill up with fresh glacial water. On a sunny day the glacier sparkles like a diamond, with many shades of white and blue. 

Standing on the famous Athabasca Glacier in Banff
The Ice Explorers are big vehicles that transport you onto the Athabasca glacier

Is The Skywalk Worth It?

The Skywalk is the last part of your tour. After you have boarded your Ice Explorer to leave the glacier, you’ll then transfer back onto the coaches you came on and drive towards the Skywalk. 

The Skywalk was introduced in 2014 and is a walkway made out of glass that juts out from the side of a mountain. The Skywalk looks over the Sunwapta Valley and the views are really beautiful. 

On the way to the glass section of the walk, you’ll pass by info boards explaining the history of the area. Many fossils have been found in this area suggesting that the valley below was once an ancient seabed hundreds of millions of years ago. Audio guides are free to pick up on your way in and are really interesting to listen to. 

Is the Skywalk worth it? As a stand-alone ticket I would say no. Had the location been better maybe it would be worth it. As it is included in your ticket it’s a nice addition to do. Its location seems a bit odd, the original idea behind the Skywalk was to showcase some of the other glaciers along the Columbia Icefields, but its in a location that makes this kind of hard to do. While the valley is beautiful, the glaciers are tucked behind the bend in the road just before you arrive at the Skywalk.

The Skywalk is very much a tourist attraction, but if you want to see other glaciers in the area without buying a ticket, consider the Parker Ridge or Wilcox Pass hikes which offer better views and are completely free. 

There is no option to take the Skywalk off the Ice Explorer admission price and there are no direct buses from the glacier to the Icefields Centre. If you do not wish to to visit the Skywalk, you will need to get off at the Skywalk bus stop and wait for the next return bus. 

Views of the Sunwapta valley from the Sky Walk
The glass floor of the famous Sky Walk

Athabasca Glacier Ice Walk

If you are looking for a more sustainable option to visit and walk on the Athabasca Glacier, then a glacier ice walk might be the better choice. 

From the road the glacier looks smooth and potentially easy to walk on, but crevasses are hidden all over the glacier and venturing onto the glacier alone is not recommended/advised or permitted.

Crevasses are big holes and gaps hidden in the glacier, and falling in one can be life threatening. Matt knows all too well about crevasses, having fallen into one while out snowmobiling – I can say with confidence it doesn’t look fun! 

That’s where Ice Walks comes in. Not only will they provide you with the safety and knowledge of navigating the glacier, but it doesn’t require any heavy machinery being operated on the glacier either! A win-win. It’s also much more adventurous and fun.

Where To Stay When Visiting The Columbia Icefields

There aren’t many places to stay within close proximity to the Athabasca Glacier, but if you want the full blown experience, you can book the Glacier View Lodge. The hotel has unparalleled views of the glacier and the surround mountains and parkway. It is very much a premium experience but one that you won’t get anywhere else. 

One of the perks of staying here is that you can opt to add on a guided morning tour of the Athabasca Glacier, with a complimentary coffee in hand, as well as a guided evening tour at the Skywalk. The price is double what you’d pay for a regular tour, but you’ll get the best views and no other visitors. 

There is also the option to camp in the area. If you’re wanting to hike Wilcox Pass, the nearest campground is Wilcox Creek Campground which is located right at the trailhead. For hiking Parker Ridge, the HI Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel is fairly close. 

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Columbia Icefields Tour Banff National Park
Athabasca Glacier Ice Explorer Tour

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