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The Icefields Parkway in winter: Must-see stops, driving tips, and more

Are you planning on driving the famous Icefields Parkway in winter? Well, here we have a full guide to everything you need to know and do while driving the Icefields Parkway in winter.

Between the two enormously popular national parks of Banff and Jasper is the long stretch of road known as the Icefields Parkway, or Highway 93.

This is an attraction in and of itself, with amazing views, unique places to stop, and different activities available along the way.

Many people make this journey while visiting Banff and Jasper, and winter is an amazing time to do so.

Therefore, we have put together the ultimate guide to driving through the Icefields Parkway in winter.

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In a hurry?

Here is an overview of the most important things to know before driving the Icefields Parkway in winter.

Where to stay: Depending on where you are starting your trip we would advise you to stay in Jasper or the Banff area.

Renting a car? Check out Rentalscars.com and Discover cars Edmonton and Discover Cars Calgary.

Need insurance for your Banff and Jasper road trip? Be sure to check out quotes and coverage with our recommended partner WorldNomads.

What to pack for your Canadian Rockies winter trip: Ice cleats, fleece-lined hiking pants, or winter hiking leggings.

Read on to get more tips about driving the Icefields Parkway in winter.

Icefields Parkway winter stops

Here we share a list of must-see winter stops along the Icefields Parkway.

We drove from Jasper to Lake Louise but you can do this road in either direction. It will be just as spectacular.

To help you with your travel planning, we always mention the distance from Jasper as well as Lake Louise.

The frozen Athabasca Falls in Winter
The frozen Athabasca Falls in Winter

Athabasca falls

Athabasca Falls is one of the most famous views of the Icefields Parkway Drive.

At just 30km from the main town of Jasper (and 203km from Lake Louise in Banff), it is an easy first stop around 30 minutes into the journey when driving from Jasper to Banff.

The Athabasca River forms a waterfall speeding through canyons at this point of the river. In winter it turns into a beautiful natural ice sculpture as the icy weather completely freezes the swirling river.

Mount Kerkeslin stands in the background, making the view even more impressive.

There is a pedestrian bridge across the river offering various different viewpoints, which is ideal for photographers looking for the best shot.

The short hike to see the frozen waterfalls had some very icy and slippery patches when we visited. We therefore recommend you wear ice cleats.

Here we have a selection of ice cleats for shoes. You can find the best boot ice cleats here.

  • Distance from Lake Louise:  203 km
  • Distance from Jasper: 30 km

The frozen Upper Sunwapta Falls

Sunwapta falls

Another 20 minutes from Athabasca Falls is Sunwapta Falls.

This is around 54 km total from Jasper and 179 km from Lake Louise. Sunwapta Falls is often talked about in conjunction with Athabasca Falls, due to both their proximity and their equally amazing views.

Interestingly, Sunwapta Falls is actually separated into the upper falls and lower falls.

Over time the river created a gorge in the natural limestone of the area and created the first, or upper, waterfall. It then flows through narrow canyons to reach the 3-tiered lower falls.

From the main parking lot, it is a short and easy walk to reach the viewpoint of the upper falls.

The lower falls are about 2 km away. The upper falls are popular but most people make only a quick stop and do not continue to see the other half.

The trail to the lower falls starts from the viewing area on the right bench of the river.

The path is not cleared in winter and not heavily trafficked so you might need a pair of those goofy-looking snowshoes.

It’s hard to get lost though, the area is forested and you can see where the summer trail leads because that path is cleared of trees.

In winter you can view the amazing ice formation at both falls.

The hike to the lower falls is a good way to get away from the crowds.

Upper Sunwapta falls is usually not that crowded in winter but there’s a good chance you might not see a single living soul during your hike to the other half.

It is ideal to completely immerse in nature.

  • Distance from Lake Louise:  179 km
  • Distance from Jasper: 54 km

The frozen Tangle falls
The frozen Tangle falls

Tangle Falls

Tangle Creek Falls are located 96 km from Jasper and 137 km from Lake Louise and it is one of the most easily accessible views along the Icefields Parkway drive.

The impressive, multi-tiered waterfall can even be seen from the highway for those in a hurry.

However, stopping to explore is definitely the best way to enjoy the large waterfalls which slowly separate into a tangle of small streams.

The waterfall forms an icy cliff during winter while the lower falls have unique and delicate ice structures.

Tangle Creek Falls are a great spot for photographs as the variation between the different levels of the waterfalls provides a large range of potential photos.

  • Distance from Lake Louise:  137 km
  • Distance from Jasper: 96 km
View towards Athabasca Glacier on the Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway in the winter

Athabasca Glacier

Athabasca Glacier is one of six glaciers that make up the Columbia Icefield along the boundaries of Banff and Jasper national parks.

It is situated around the middle of the Icefields Parkway drive, at around 103 km from Jasper and 130 km from Lake Louise.

Athabasca Glacier is actually the most-visited glacier in North America, largely due to its easily accessible location.

During summer this area is buzzing with activity. You can then visit the Icefield Discovery Center and join a tour on a super truck on the glacier.

During winter the visitor center is closed and there are no tours.

It is however still possible to see the glacier by hiking towards it.

The trail won’t take you to the actual toe of the glacier but significantly closer than the parkway itself.

You should bring your binoculars if you want to get a good view of the details of the glacier including its crevices.

The summer trail starts from the Sunwapta Lake and is a 1.4-kilometer loop.

The road to the Sunwapta Lake parking lot is usually not cleared in winter which means that you will need to park close to the road and walk about 1.5 km extra (3 km out and back) from the parkway to the normal start of the trail.

The viewing area allows you to take in the sheer scale of the glacier and the magnitude of the nature surrounding you.

The sounds of the ice groaning and creaking as it moves adds to this atmosphere.

Looking out over Athabasca Glacier is a truly breathtaking view and a grounding experience.

  • Distance from Lake Louise:  130 km
  • Distance from Jasper: 103 km
The frozen waterfall of the weeping wall
The frozen waterfall of the Weeping Wall. Those two little dots are some really courageous ice climbers.

Weeping wall

The Weeping Wall is a set of cliffs at the base of Cirrus Mountain, located 124 km from Jasper and 109 km from Lake Louise.

It is over 300m tall and is famous for the slow, seeping waterfall which runs down the cliff face in summer and gives the appearance of the mountain crying.

However, in winter, the tears freeze and becoming towering pillars, or sometimes a straight wall, of deep blue ice.

This makes the area quite popular for ice-climbing. The unique appearance of the cliffs is interesting year-round but is especially striking during winter when it is frozen.

  • Distance from Lake Louise:  109 km
  • Distance from Jasper: 124 km

Hiking to the Peyto Lake Viewpoint
Hiking to the Peyto Lake Viewpoint

Peyto Lake and Bow Lake

Bow Lake is just 25 minutes drive from Lake Louise and is beautifully nestled among the Canadian Rockies. It is around 36 km from Lake Louise and 193 km from Jasper.

With the beautiful Bow Summit just behind the lake, the overall landscape is stunning.

The picturesque lake is also a great spot to stop and walk around, hike or even have a picnic.

Peyto Lake is just 5 mins from Bow Lake.

Surrounded by mountains and lush greenery, Peyto Lake is one of the most popular glacial lakes.

There are a number of nearby hiking routes, including simple family-friendly routes.

  • Distance from Lake Louise:  Peyto Lake 40 km and Bow lake: 36 km
  • Distance from Jasper: Peyto Lake 190 km and Bow lake: 193 km

Crowfoot glacier along the icefields parkway in winter
Crowfoot glacier

Crowfoot Glacier

Crowfoot Glacier is located on the northeastern side of Crowfoot Mountain, about 36 km from Lake Louise and 197 km from Jasper.

The glacier was originally named for its resemblance to a crow’s 3-toed foot. One toe has since melted away and the middle toe is slowly following.

However, it is still easy to see the shape and form of the full glacier.

There is a large roadside area to stop, walk around and take photos of the impressive mountain and glacier.

  • Distance from Lake Louise:  36 km
  • Distance from Jasper: 197 km

Walking with snow shoes
Walking with snow shoes

Icefields Parkway hikes in winter

If you prefer to be more active than simply stopping and taking photos, there are a number of hikes of varying difficulties available at different stops along the Icefields Parkway drive.

Some of the hikes are definitely family-friendly and great for beginners.

These are ideal if you just want to stretch your legs while on a long journey.

The hike to the Athabasca Falls hike and the Upper Sunwapta Falls are such short hikes. Great to stretch your legs but you can’t really call it a hike. That doesn’t mean they are not beautiful and enjoyable.

Some other hikes are better if you want to get your blood pumping. 2 of our favorites are the hike to the lower Sunwapta falls and the Wilcox Trail. These are also easy hikes but they’re longer than the first ones. They’re family-friendly hikes and here you can enjoy the destination and the beautiful trail leading towards it.

We have more detailed information about the hikes here.

When hiking in this area during winter it is necessary to have ice cleats and/or snowshoes for most trails. Hiking poles are also very useful for some trails.

Read Also:

Here you can read our reviews about different hiking poles:

In every post we also share tips on choosing the best pair.

Most importantly, it is necessary to check the trail report here before venturing onto the hike.

Tips for driving the Icefields Parkway in winter

Driving the Icefields Parkway in winter is completely safe but we do recommend following the below-mentioned safety tips.

Check the Icefields Parkway road conditions before starting your drive

Due to the potential for extreme weather conditions affecting the roads, especially during the winter months, it is necessary to check both weather conditions and road conditions before driving.

Sudden changes can occur so it is important to not just rely on the weather outside your window.

The AMA (Alberta Motor Association) posts regular road reports and the best reports are available from the Alberta government site here.

You can also check weather conditions via various weather websites.

You can check the avalanche conditions via the Parks Canada website if you plan to do any extensive hikes along the way.

Roads are sometimes closed so staying up to date on the road conditions is essential. Another way to do this is by checking the Jasper National Park Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Allow at least 1 day for the drive from Jasper to Banff. If the road is unexpectedly closed, you will have to make a long detour.

Fill up on gas

When driving the Icefields Parkway it is necessary to fill up with gas at Banff or Jasper shortly before leaving.

Make sure you have a full tank, as there are no gas stations open during the winter months along the full distance. (The gas station at the Crossing Resort is closed in winter)

Winter tires
Winter tires can be recognized by the symbol of the snowflake. It is not always shown in a 3-peak mountain.

You must have winter tires

Driving the Icefields Parkway journey during winter will require snow tires.

This is a legal requirement but it will also make your journey safer.

The roads can be snowy, weather conditions can change, so it is important to be prepared by having snow tires and possibly also chains. (Chains can serve as a substitute for the winter tires)

The legal requirement to have either snow tires or chains is in effect between November 1st and March 31st of each year.

Both tires marked with “M+S” (mud + snow) and the Alpine symbol of the snowflake in the 3-peak mountain are seen as snow tires.

M+S tires are good for traction on packed snow and mud but are not designed for cold/icy roads. Tires with the Alpine Symbol will perform better in wintry conditions.

Most rental cars will be fitted out with “M+S” tires. When a rental car has the “true” winter tires with the Alpine symbol it will be mentioned in the description (eg. compact car with winter tires).

Not all rental agencies offer the availability to reserve them though.

In many cases, you can only reserve a car and have to wait until your pick-up date to see if one with winter tires is available.

You can then pick one on a first come first serve basis.

We opted for a car with winter tires.  The road was a little icy but overall the road conditions were good when we were there. The winter tires may not have been really necessary, although of course we can’t compare.

However, we visited other places during our trip where the road conditions were worse and the winter tires really came in handy there. In that respect, the winter tires gave us more flexibility.

Renting a car? Check out Rentalscars.com and Discover cars in Edmonton and Discover Cars in Calgary.

Some companies offer All Wheel Drive cars as a substitute for winter tires but this does not meet the legal requirement so it is necessary to make sure you either have winter tires or chains.

A 4WD can make the journey easier, but we feel this is not really a requirement.

Start early and finish during daylight hours

It is best to leave early and complete your journey during full daylight hours for a number of reasons.

Firstly, snow-clearing and maintenance takes place between 7 am and 3:30 pm.

Therefore, this is when the roads are at their best condition among the winter snow.

It is also easiest to drive with full visibility of the road and potential dangers, including wildlife crossings.

Secondly, all the amazing views along the way are best viewed during daylight!

It would be disappointing to miss half of the best stops along the way due to a late start.

Therefore, it is necessary to plan your journey to take place during daytime and allow enough time for the stops you want to make and some exploration.

Bring supplies and expect the unexpected

With such unpredictable and easily changing conditions, along with the potential added difficulty of winter driving, it is necessary to be prepared for sudden changes or difficulties.

It is possible for there to be an issue with the car, a sudden blizzard, or an avalanche. It is important to be prepared for anything, including the rather exceptional fact that your journey may take a lot longer than expected.

This means having a roadside assistance kit with some basics like matches and blankets.

You should make sure to bring extra-thick blankets, thick clothing, and a good amount of additional food and water for all passengers.

Tools, such as a shovel, and additional non-freezing windshield wiper liquid may also be useful.

The road is less frequently traveled in winter compared to summer, still, during daylight hours it shouldn’t take too long for another car to pass. Yet, it is better to be self-sufficient than to rely on a friendly passer-by for help.

Cell service is available along certain parts of the parkway but not everywhere. You shouldn’t rely on your mobile phone to call for assistance.

Bighorn sheep on the road in Banff National Park
Bighorn sheep like the salty water on the roads

Watch out for wildlife

Wildlife is always present in this area and that includes the Icefields Parkway.

This wildlife can include mountain goats, coyotes, deer, bighorn sheep, and wolves. Lynx and mountain goats prefer to stay high in the mountains but all the other animals can be found at the valley bottom.

There is also an abundance of elk along the roads. Despite their size, they easily blend into the surroundings.

Bighorn sheep and elk are among the many animals who are attracted to the salt on the roads and so may be on the roads where you are driving.

In one area, south of Sunwapta falls, there is also a herd of Jasper Woodland Caribou, one of Canada’s species-at-risk. Sightings are rare but they can be spotted from early February till late May.

The wildlife is most active around dawn and dusk but may be on the roads at any time.

Therefore, it is necessary to keep to the speed limits and stay alert of your surroundings at all times. It is also important not to approach or feed wildlife.

More information on winter safety on the Icefields parkway on the website of Parks Canada.

FAQ questions about driving the Icefields Parkway in winter

Here we share a list of FAQ questions.

Do you need a park pass to drive the icefields parkway in winter?

It is necessary to have a National Park Pass when driving the Icefields Parkway.

This pass can be bought from the information centers at both Banff and Jasper National Park, so it is easy to pick up regardless of the direction of travel.

You can also buy a pass in advance online.

Is there cell service on the Icefields Parkway?

The majority of the Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper does not have cell service.

There is some spotty reception between Jasper and Athabasca Falls, as well as reception for a few kilometers out from Lake Louise in Banff, but the distance in between is completely without service.

This means you must be up to date on weather conditions, road conditions, and your plans ahead of time.

If there is an emergency, you will need to flag down another driver.

There are some public phones at various stops along the journey which can also be used in an emergency.

How far is the drive between Banff and Jasper?

The Icefields Parkway is around 233 km long and can be covered in approximately 3 – 4 hours.

However, it would be a disservice to drive straight through without stopping to enjoy any of the amazing sights and scenes along the way.

Ideally, a least a full day is recommended to truly enjoy all the stops and things to do.

Winter Travel Conditions on the Icefields Parkway
A sign at the start of the Parkway shows what conditions to expect

What is the weather like on the Icefields Parkway in winter?

The Icefields Parkway is in a cold and snowy part of Canada.

While it is a beautiful drive, it is also important to be prepared for winter driving.

This includes checking the conditions regularly and using winter tires. There is regular snow and often snowstorms occur during winter.

When necessary, snow-clearing is done on the road, and like many other roads, it is sanded and salted.

However, due to the location, there is not as much plowing done as on other roads and the salt content of the sand mix is a lot lower in order to avoid attracting wildlife onto the road.

Is the Columbia Icefield Skywalk open in winter?

The Columbia Icefield Skywalk closes during winter due to the potential dangers.

There is also a lower demand during this time. It opens in spring and stays open until fall.

However, the actual dates change depending on the conditions in each season and year.

It is also closed temporarily when there are adverse weather conditions.

Conclusion

The Icefields Parkway is a magnificent drive, full of beautiful sights and things to do along the journey.

Despite being situated between the amazing Banff and Jasper parks, the Icefields Parkway still holds its own as a standalone attraction.

That’s why we have created the full guide to driving and enjoying the Icefields Parkway in winter.

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