Icefields Parkway

Rockies, a place in western north America full of rocks at the size of mountains. They form a range that stretches 5000km across the continent and it’s a popular destination for all short of outdoorsy activities. I happened to drive through these mountains a couple of times over the last few years and somehow I felt the need to return and spend more time there. I’ve got a big regret for not visiting the Highlands in Scotland after living in England for 7 years, so I didn’t want to miss such an opportunity again. Initially I was trying to find someone with a car to drive the 800km from Vancouver, but then I remembered that I have a bike all setup for touring. I wanted to do a small tour in British Columbia anyway to test all the gear and warm up for the big trip, so I came to the conclusion this should be the trip to do so. But no, I didn’t cycle all the way there. My last few weeks in Vancouver are very valuable planning other things. I took the train from Vancouver to Jasper, then cycled along the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) south to Lake Louise and took a bus back to Vancouver. I spend 4 nights on the road and 2 in the train and bus, covering 260km.


View Icefield Parkway in a larger map

Train ride

My train was at 8:30pm on Sunday. I got there a bit earlier to check in my bike at an extra cost of $25. It didn’t need to be boxed as they have some oversized ones, which I doubt they even used in the end. The train ride was an experience it self. Even though it’s twice as expensive than the coach and it took twice as long, it was worth the experience. Rather than driving on a highway, the train goes through a vast wilderness, next to rivers, lakes, mountains and forests. The economy car had the most comfortable, spacious and adjustable seats I’ve ever been in a vehicle. On board you can have food and beers, walk around and most importantly go to the bubble car, with an amazing 360 view. I slept really well and I spend most of the day looking the view through the window while listening to mindless podcasts.

The bubble car

The bubble car

Tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies

Tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies

The bubble car from within

The bubble car from within

Day 1

25km

The train arrived to Jasper at 4pm and for some unknown reason we had to wait a full hour to pick our stuff. On top of that I noticed that my bike’s rear derailleur hunger was bent and apart from skipping gears it would also hit the spokes of the back wheel. With a bit of brute force and tuning, I was back on the road in no time. I bought some vegetables and an icecream and headed off to the Wabasso campsite just 15km south. I really shouldn’t have reserved a spot and pay the convenience fees, as the camp site was rather empty on a weekday, but I guess I had the piece of mind. The facilities were very basic, with no showers or electricity. I have to say though, the location was amazing, right next to Athabasca river it was the only sound I could hear during the night. I setup my tent and cooked my self dinner. Glorious pasta, with tomato sauce, onions, garlic and tuna. Unfortunately they no longer have bear safe boxes, so I had to take all my food supplies and toiletries to the reception for storage. Apparently two nights ago, people left food outside, a bear went and ate it all, so now they have to locate and kill destroy it so it doesn’t come back again.

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My camp spot

My camp spot

Pasta with tuna red sauce made in wood fire.

Pasta with tuna red sauce made in wood fire.

The view from my camp spot

The view from my camp spot

Day 2

73km

I woke up at 8am and despite my effort, it took me 2 hours to leave the campground. On the plus side, a few people started talking to me asking me about my cycling trip and within 5 minutes, Gim and his family invited me to stay at their place in Victoria if I ever happen to be there. What a lucky start! I am planing to start the West Coast trip from Vancouver Island, so I will definitely be stopping in Victoria before catching the ferry to Seattle! I am so grateful!

The first 10km of that morning were rather slow. I remembered how long it takes for my legs to wake warm up, but it was all good, the view around me was a good reward. First stop Athabasca Falls just right by the road. It’s not its 23 meters height that makes this fall a spectacle, but the volume of water that rushes within the narrow rock passage, slowly carving massive potholes. I spend half an hour there walking around, reading the information labels, taking photos and eating snacks.

Athabasca Falls

Athabasca Falls

Athabasca Falls

Athabasca Falls

I spend most of the day cycling through the valley, next to Athabasca river, stopping frequently at any photo opportunity. 25km before my planned destination, I stopped to a campground for a quick lunch break. That was the point where I started been attacked by mosquitoes. They seemed to love me and kept me good company up until I left the Rockies. A day in the trip and my legs and arms were all swollen and that was not due to cycling. In the camp ground I met two women who were touring on the opposite direction. I asked their opinion about the next section to the pass and the campground I wanted to stay at night. They warned me it was a rather steep climb and at 2000 meters would be a little cold at night. After my quick lunch and nap I got back on the road, hoping to make it up there on time and find a spot for my tent.

Honeymoon lake

Honeymoon lake

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A few kilometers down the road I started having second thoughts about this decision, as the weather started changing rather fast. Surrounded by all these mountains, the weather can be very unpredictable. Fortunately just before the base of the final climb I noticed a hostel on the side of the road. I had completely forgotten about that option, so I thought I’d go check it out. I had to wait half an hour for the hostel manager to return to the hostel and open it as all the hostels in the area stay closed between 10am to 5pm. That was enough time for the rain to kick in and for me to decide to spend the night there. The hostel, like most in this area, had just the basics, with no electricity, or running water. Containers of clean water for drinking and cooking, buckets of river river water for washing up. The location was just the big advantage of this place. Right by the river with the white capped mountaintops as backdrop. If only the river water wasn’t as cold, or I had the balls to go in there…

Beauty Creek Hostel

Beauty Creek Hostel

Hostel's front yard

Hostel’s front yard

The view from the hostel

The view from the hostel

Sunset by the hostel

Sunset by the hostel

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This stop at the hostel was a lucky twist for my trip. While cooking and eating dinner, I met Mike and Kristen from California who were also cycling south. We ended up spending the next three days together cycling all the way to Lake Louise. I don’t mind being by my self, but these guys were a really good company, so I thought why not share the ride.

Day 3

57km

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Cold morning

Cold morning

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In the morning everything was covered by the fog to slowly reveal the amazing scenery an hour later. We left the hostel and mentally prepared for the big ascent. Luckily there were 10 flat kilometers to let my legs warm up. The climb was a little slow and exhausting at times, but the view was just getting better. A couple of hours later we got to the top of the pass and the Columbia Icefield which has an incredible vista of a series of glassiers. People and the specially designed vehicles looked like ants on the immense size of the glassier.

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Heading to the icefield

Heading to the icefield

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Notice these dots on the ice are people and vehicles

Notice these dots on the ice are people and vehicles

We stopped for brunch at the cafe of the information center and then we set off for a long decent. I have to say, the descent is always a good reward for going up mountains. I just rolled down for a whole hour (including photo-stops), going through more amazing scenery with glassiers, valleys, rivers and waterfalls all over the place. I took many photos, but it’s hard to capture the feeling of being surrounded by all these features.

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Maybe a dozen kilometers before out next hostel, we came across valley full of small lakes. We spend half an hour there just enjoying the sunny day. I was really tempted to jump in the water, as it had already been 3 days without a shower, but I had heard from the previous hostel manager that Rampart Creek Wilderness Hostel had some kind of sauna where you can wash, so I thought I’d try that out.

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We got to the hostel rather early so I prepared one of the freeze dried omelet with ham and peppers, while waiting for the hostel manager to turn up. This food doesn’t compare with anything made fresh, but it’s definitely very convenient, as it packs very light, it only needs hot water and it’s ready in 5-10 minutes. Some space technology there, serving the modern explorers!

Freeze dried food

Freeze dried food

Freeze dried food ready to eat

Freeze dried food ready to eat

The manager arrived, he got us all shorted out and then it was the time for the sauna. I am not sure if I’ve been in a sauna before, so I was a little hesitant about the whole experiment, but the desire to clean up was enough to make me try. A wooden little hat, with a big metal stove in one corner, stones on the top and a bucket of river water on the side which you pour on the hot rocks. A Spanish family was there and explained to me the procedure. I had to steam up and and let my body sweat for 10 minutes, then jump into the creek near by, go back in, put soap on me, steam up again and in the end wash off the soap in the creek. The first part was easy, but getting into the glassier fed stream was a challenge. I don’t know how much my balls grew since the previous day to make me go in the water, but my willy instantly contracted to nothing once I hit the water. 30 seconds each time were enough to wash off and make my feet numb. After that, I felt refreshed and recharged and made the whole experience worth while. I had dinner, spend some time with the fellow travelers by the fire and went to bed as it went dark.

Rampart Creek Hostel

Rampart Creek Hostel

The sauna

The sauna

The Stream

The Stream

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Day 4

70km

Woke up, washed my face in the cold stream and started preparing my breakfast. Bears need breakfast as well and there was one in the hostel’s common ground, eating berries from the bushes around. It was just a small black one and didn’t seem threatening at all.

Early morning bear visitor

Early morning bear visitor

After that little morning surprise, we got ready and back to the road. A couple of hours later we got to Saskatchewan River crossing, where I happened to be last September while driving through the area. In a way I had already seen the scenery from that point on, but it’s always different experiencing it on a bike. Again beautiful mountains, rivers and lakes all the way.

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We stopped for lunch in the Waterfowl Lakes Campground, which was closed due to damages from the recent floods in Alberta. It was kind of nice having a little break in a deserted campsite, right by the lake.

Waterfowl campground

Waterfowl campground

We set off again and started getting ready for the final ascent to the second pass at 2000m. This one felt longer and tougher than the first one. It was very hot, we were all low on water and energy. With enough stops we made it to the top and despite our fatigue we agreed to walk up to the viewpoint of Peyto Lake. Even though it is a very popular and busy spot, it’s really worth visiting as the view of the glassier fed lake with milky blue water is just breathtaking. The weather at the time was also very interesting. We did the whole climb under the hot sun and 30 degrees (86f), but a few kilometers behind us we could see a storm coming in, dumping plenty of rain.

Peyto Lake

Peyto Lake

Peyto Lake

Peyto Lake

After an uphill there is always a downhill and there we were again comfortably rolling down the mountains and within the valley. Our next stop was Bow lake and the famous Num-ti-jah lodge, which looks like it came out of a fairytale. The lodge is right in front of the lake, which is surrounded by mountains, waterfalls and a glassier. A scenic place and an old fashion wooden hunter’s lodge that many would love to spend a night there if they could afford it. We definitely couldn’t so we moved on to the next hostel by Mosquito Creek, which luckily didn’t have as many mosquitoes as it’s name advertises. We ate our last food supplies, chatted with many fellow travelers and hikers and went to bed relatively early.

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Bow Lake

Bow Lake

Num-te-jah Lodge

Num-te-jah Lodge

Mosquito Hostel

Mosquito Hostel

Day 5

37km

Last day of the trip. We got up and left rather early, as my friends needed to drive to Bellingham that day. The ride to Lake Louise was easy and short, with the first half riding within the morning fog making the whole scenery even more dramatic.

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It felt weird leaving the remoteness of the national park and getting back into the civilization. We had a quick stop at the entrance of the Village were we took a couple of photos and said goodbyes. Mike and Kristen invited me to stay at their place just outside San Fransisco when I get there next month. Once again, I am very grateful for these opportunities that are given to me. They got on their car and I had a full day to spend around the lake before I could catch my bus at 10pm.

Mike and Kristen

Mike and Kristen

I had a snack, took some information from the tourist office and headed off to the Lake Louise, which was 8km up the mountain. At least I was able to leave my bags in the tourist office so the climb was much easier. The lake has this monolithic and luxurious hotel complex right on the side opposite the mountains. It’s by far the most popular destination, with thousands of tourists flocking from around the world each day.

Lake Louise

Lake Louise

I locked my bike, put on my hiking shoes and went off to a small trek around the lake and up the Plain of Six Glassiers. The trail it self is very easy and just two hours later I was at the tea house at the top, where I stopped for photos and some water. I walked a further kilometer to the actual viewpoint, which was probable one of the highlights for me. I spend half an hour at the top eating my sandwich and admiring the view in front of me. A basin of ice surrounded by several mountaintops with several glassiers merging to one. I was looking at the thick layer of ice on top of the mountains, when a huge piece broke off and fell off the cliff. The duration of the fall before impact and the thunder like sound it made, gave a clue of the vast size of the scenery in front of me.

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Around the lake

Waking around the lake

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Six glassier tea house

Six glassier tea house

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The glassier it self

The glassier it self

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I made my way back to the hotel where I stayed for bit to have an ice cream and rest my legs. When I returned to the village, I had to figure out the logistics of putting my bike in a box and having dinner before getting into the bus for Vancouver. The box part was a bit annoying as the local shop charges $15 for something they would throw away, plus the extra $30 to actually put it in the bus. Taking the bike apart to fit it in the box is also a bit of a pain, but I didn’t have any other option.

Love in a box

Love is in the box

After a victorious burger and two pints of beer at the near by hostel restaurant, I went on the night bus hoping to get some sleep. Unfortunately this ride was the anticlimax of my week. Uncomfortable seats, bumpy road and several stops on the way with the driver turning the lights on to let the people know where we are. In Kamloops we had to stop for half an hour. It was 3-4am and there I was in a decayed depot, with a stinky fast food and some arcade games from the 80s, full of half sleeping passengers. I got back to Vancouver at 8am where I had a extensive shower and a hefty brunch with my friend Chris.

In the middle of nowhere in the early hours of the day

In the middle of nowhere in the early hours of the day

Epilogue

Overall it was an amazing experience that I am very glad I overtook. Initially I was a bit nervous and uncertain about various things. I was a bit worried about the remoteness of the place, with very sparse shops to get supplies and water from. The presence of bears and other wildlife was also an unfamiliar factor for a city boy like me. In the end, with a little bit of planning it proved to be a rather easy ride with many experiences to offer to anybody. It really put me in a good mindset and ready for my next big tour down the coast. A place highly recommended to visit, whether by bike, car or hitchhiking.

 

One thought on “Icefields Parkway

  1. Samantha

    Is it pretty bad if after seeing your pics I want to eat pasta with tuna soo very bad? I’m also considering going for the train route because I want to see unexplored areas, not miles and miles of highway. The Icefield Parkway is full of wild, extraordinarily beautiful landscapes but most of their services are more expensive than in US.

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