Winter on the Icefields Parkway: An Intense Road Trip with Unique Views Every Second of the Way
Banff National Park’s Icefields Parkway is a scenic drive passing by some of the most beautiful sights in the park along the way. Route 93 starts at Lake Louise and continues through both Banff and Jasper National Parks to its northern terminus in Jasper. It’s extremely busy in the summer with tourists stopping to hike, camp, and take in the views. In the winter, the road becomes a quiet experience mostly due to it’s partially plowed, icy surface. Below are some tips to consider when driving the parkway, and some of my favorite sights along the way!
Tips for Winter Driving on the Parkway:
This drive is not safe for novice winter drivers, so do not attempt it unless you’re confident in your skills. I consider myself a pretty experienced winter driver having driven both SUVs and 2WD ambulances through snowy winter conditions for years. I’ll admit that these conditions were a challenge for me in some spots even though the road was in good shape according to the locals. It doesn’t matter what kind of car or tires you have if you don’t have the skills to handle a car through miles of unplowed, icy roads.
You must have an SUV with 4WD, true snow tires or both. It's hard to find rental cars with true snow tires. All of the companies I contacted told me that they have excellent all season M+S tires, which are not really sufficient for driving in these road conditions. If your vehicle does not have 4WD, M+S tires will NOT be sufficient. We rented a Jeep Wrangler, and although it was mostly fine, having M+S tires did pose a problem in some areas. I think that true snow tires and 4WD is necessary, but if the conditions are *perfect* you can get by with M+S tires, a high clearance 4WD vehicle, and lots of experience.
Check the weather and plan around snowstorms. I was checking the weather in Lake Louise, Saskatchewan Crossing, and Jasper all week, and I decided to do the drive after there had been a two day break in snowfall. I wouldn’t recommend trying to drive the Icefields Parkway unless all three locations have been free of snowfall for at least 36 hours. Remember that they don’t plow the parkway down to pavement, so there will be a layer of ice under whatever snow has fallen in the past day or two leading to an extremely slippery, dangerous drive.
Fill up on gas in Lake Louise before heading out on the parkway. There is no gas between Lake Louise and Jasper in the winter. I went to the Columbia Icefields and back and it took about 2/3 of a tank in the Wrangler. Keep tabs on how much you’re consuming and either turn around at a half tank or make sure you’re more than halfway to Jasper if you want to keep going.
Bring lots of snacks! There’s no place to get food on the way since everything is closed in the winter. You don’t want to be rushing back through the gorgeous landscape because you’re hungry!
Heed other people’s warnings about the road conditions! I read a few blogs beforehand and thought that their warnings were overly dramatic. I’ve been driving through snowy winters for years, so I assumed they were just warning people who aren’t used to driving in the winter. We’re not being overly dramatic I promise! Had the conditions been even a little bit worse, my M+S tires could have put me in an incredibly bad situation.
Sightseeing on the Parkway:
Because I did this drive in one day from Banff, I didn’t stop for longer hikes because I just didn’t have time. If I were to come to Banff in the winter again, I would book at least one night in Jasper so I could take my time and do many of the gorgeous hikes along the parkway. Also keep in mind that I only went to the Columbia Icefields and back so I missed anything north of that. But here are some of my favorite stops!
Bow Lake and Crowfoot Glacier:
Bow Summit and Peyto Lake: This was closed for construction, but I’ve heard it’s a short hike to an amazing view!
Saskatchewan River Crossing:
The Weeping Wall: I loved this stop because of the team of climbers making their way up the wall. This is a very famous climb in the Banff area, and it was really cool to see the team of climbers make their way up the fourth pitch. You can almost see them in the picture to the right, but they're so small that they look like little specks on the ice. Maybe one day I’ll be able to come back to climb it too! Bonus points for the functional bathroom at this stop (I didn’t find any others along the way).
Panther Falls: This was a tiny little hike to a gorgeous waterfall just north of Big Bend. The hike descended in a series of switchbacks before traversing across the slope and to the falls. It was less than a mile and the falls were beautifully frozen in time. This photo shows the steep slope you cross getting to the final descent down to the falls. Most of the hike is wooded and sheltered, but this spot is not. Snowshoes would have been great for this, but since I didn't rent them I chose to travel in the footsteps of others who had been there since the last snowfall just a few days before. Also the view from the parking lot (below) was one of my favorites from the whole drive. It was great stop to stretch my legs!
Columbia Icefield: This was probably my favorite spot on the drive. It was a huge, open, snow covered field with dramatic mountains spiking up out of the ground on both sides. I spent a lot of time here just taking in the sights.
Tangle Creek Falls: These frozen falls were right off of the road, so they required almost no effort to visit. I love looking at frozen waterfalls so this quick stop was great!
Abraham Lake (Detour): I had high expectations for Abraham lake after seeing lots of pictures on Instagram. It’s known for its unique methane bubbles trapped in the ice underneath the surface. The best spot to see this is Preachers Point on the southernmost side of the lake. Unfortunately the whole lake was covered in snow, and getting down the bank to the surface of the ice would have proven a treacherous task. Even though I didn’t witness the bubbles, it was still a really beautiful spot!
Although the Icefield Parkway has a lot of obstacles for entry in the winter, it was one of my favorite parts of my trip to Banff. This drive is incredibly busy in the summer packed with tourists from all over the world. I loved that because I went in the off season I only saw a few people all day. It was a truly serene winter experience that was so worth spending the extra money on a more durable rental car. Also, please don't be taking pictures while trying to navigate this tricky road! Pull over in spots where oncoming cars can see you and be aware of your surroundings!