National Geographic has called it one of the most scenic drives in the world. We were happy to agree as we drove from Banff to begin our short journey on Highway 93. The road winds its way north to Jasper, through thick stands of evergreens, around turquoise lakes, dwarfed by the Rocky Mountains. Our destination was the Columbia Icefield and we were looking forward to a new experience. After a comfortable night at the Mount Royal Hotel in Banff the night before, coffee, and lots of snacks, we were ready to explore!
The Columbia Icefield Adventure Tour is a popular and convenient way to get up-close to the Athabasca Glacier. It includes the Ice Explorer Tour on the Athabasca Glacier and admission to the Skywalk, which offers a unique, mountain-climber perspective over the gorgeous Sunwapta Valley. Transportation to and from the Glacier Discovery Center is included, making it easy and convenient.
“I’m so excited!”
“This is so cool!”
“We’re on the glacier!”
The kids expressed a level of excitement I didn’t expect from my pre-teens and teenager. It began when we loaded into the Ice Explorer and learned that the Columbia Icefield feeds five glaciers and is twice as big as the city of Paris (or 43 times the size of Banff!). Our guide spoke of an icefield as a frozen “lake” and a glacier as the frozen “river” that springs from the icefield. It takes five years for one snowflake to become ice and the distinct icy blue of glacier ice occurs because it is denser and has far less oxygen than, for example, the ice you make in your freezer.
Before actually arriving on the ice road we had to head down the side of a lateral moraine (the pile of dirt left behind when the Athabasca glacier receded). Our large ice explorer inched its way down the steepest unpaved road in North America, with an 18° slope and a 32% grade, and through a tire wash, to ensure bits of dirt and rock did not attract the sun to the glacier, melting it more quickly.
We spent 20 minutes wandering in the designated visitor section of the glacier, or as my son said with typical drama, “romping around on moving ice.” The kids’ highlight of the glacier – and mine, too! – was drinking the glacier water. Clean, pure, and icy cold, my youngest declared it SWEET in ringing tones. She’ll be talking about it for years to come, I’m sure. We took pictures and refilled our water bottles, and then it was time to head to the Columbia Icefield Skywalk.
On the short bus ride to the Skywalk, we got a glimpse of Mount Snow Dome and the Sunwapta River, the only Triple Continental Divide in the world. Water from the Dome Glacier melts into the Sunwapta River and this water flows to the Arctic, the Atlantic, and the Pacific. Once we arrived at the Skywalk, even the most frightened of our kids walked out on the glass floor 30 metres from the edge and 280 metres above the valley floor. She wasn’t necessarily happy about it, but she did it!
Before long, we were taking our glacier-filled water bottles and heading back down Highway 93 to Banff. We learned a lot on our mini-adventure!
What to Know Before You Go
Who Should Go?
The Columbia Icefield Adventure Tour is not physically onerous and is suitable for families of all ages, although we didn’t see many toddlers and preschoolers. School-aged kids would probably get the most out of it, if our experience is any indication. The tour is wheelchair-accessible, with advance notice. If you’re not committed to the whole thing, you can purchase tickets for just the Columbia Icefield Skywalk.
There are no bathrooms on the tour, which is about two and a half hours long, so plan accordingly. Maybe that’s why we didn’t see any toddlers.
You may have some minor wait times for buses as you travel through your tour. We didn’t find them long, but we didn’t have small children, either.
The importance of boundaries was impressed upon us as we arrived at the glacier. (I feel like a life lesson could be drawn from this.) There are moulins and crevasses in the ice that could be as deep as 200 metres; the glacier is between 90 and 300 metres deep. There are tours that take you hiking across the glacier, but they’re with professionals, so stay within the boundaries.
The glacier was not as slippery as I had expected, but quite slushy instead. Sturdy footwear that is somewhat waterproof is ideal. The glacier, being in a harsh alpine environment at over 9800 feet above sea level, can be quite cold, especially if the winds pick up. And especially if you’ve dipped your hands in the icy stream and your shoes get wet! We visited on a beautiful day in August. It was sunny and 14° Celsius, but we were told that the temperature on the glacier can to 5° to 10° cooler.
Slivers of waterfalls, sun-touched mountain peaks and wisps of clouds made the mountains an exquisite spectacle this summer day. How fortunate we are to live next door to such beauty.
The author would like to thank Pursuit for hosting the visit to the Mount Royal Hotel and the Columbia Icefield Adventure Tour. All opinions expressed are her own.