Last Updated on October 7, 2021 by Maggie McKneely
If you’re taking a drive along the Icefields Parkway, make sure to save time for the short but awesome Athabasca Glacier hike!
Easy Hike to Athabasca Glacier
One feature that separates the Canadian Rockies from their American peers is the presence of glaciers. Big glaciers. Giant rivers of ice several miles long. Frozen behemoths that are still eating away at the mountain faces they cling to.
So no Canadian Rockies itinerary would be complete without seeing one of these natural marvels up close and personal, especially when that’s so easy to do.
Located on the border of Banff and Jasper National Parks in the Canadian Rockies is the most-visited glacier in North America, Athabasca Glacier. It flows out of the Columbia Icefield, which is the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains and a Canadian landmark. Although tourists can’t visit the Columbia Icefield itself without a lot of special ice climbing and mountaineering gear and permission from the parks, the Athabasca Glacier is extremely accessible.
Part of the reason for that is that it is located right on the Icefields Parkway, that 144-mile scenic highway that cuts through the middle of the Canadian Rockies from Banff to Jasper. Another reason is that you can literally walk right up to the very toe of the glacier, for free!
Athabasca Glacier Hike
After doing several lengthier hikes (like the Plain of Six Glaciers) during our Canada trip, we took a day to recover and do some less strenuous activities. So naturally, instead of one big hike, we did 3 smaller ones! Because the McKneely family just doesn’t know how to take a rest day 😛
One of those hikes was the Toe of the Glacier hike, which takes hikers to the very foot of Athabasca Glacier. It’s one of the best hikes in Jasper National Park, and for good reason! It’s short but with a big payoff.
The hike begins from a gravel lot on the west side of Highway 93. From the parking lot, the trail crosses a metal bridge over one of several glacial-fed streams. From there it climbs what the rangers call “Suicide Hill.”
“Suicide Hill” is actually not that bad (though my mom fully agreed with the name). After all, the round trip for this entire hike is less than a mile. But the hill is steep, and the dusty trail is slick. Those few hundred feet will get the heart rate up quickly of anyone who’s been sitting in a car all day.
At the top of the hill, we got our first clear view of the mighty Athabasca Glacier. Although the glacier still appears (and certainly is) massive, it’s a mere shadow of what it was once upon a time. About 100 years ago, Athabasca Glacier was almost triple the size that it is now. As it retreated, it left behind a plant-less wasteland of crumbled boulders and dusty silt. Along the hike are signs that mark the glacier’s gradual retreat. The perspective is humbling – in the 1980s, the current parking lot would have been under several hundred feet of ice.
At the top, the trail levels out and makes its way to the toe of the glacier itself. Right before you reach it, there’s a metal fence to prevent anyone from actually walking on the glacier. Without a guide, it’s very dangerous because of the hidden crevasses. You can actually walk on the glacier, but you need to fork over almost $100 for a special glacier tour (more details below). For us, it was awesome enough just to stand at the toe of the glacier!
The glacial wind was frigid, even in August, so we stuck around long enough to take pictures and admire how the glacier dwarfed the people walking on it, and then high-tailed it back to our car.
The Toe of the Glacier is the highest car accessible point of the Icefields Parkway – elevation here is around 6,300ft, 1,000 feet higher than Lake Louise. Add on to that that the Columbia Icefield is so large that it actually creates its own weather, and you have the perfect recipe for much colder temperatures than the rest of the area! I was wearing shorts the day my family did this, but I would have been very happy to have pants. Learn from my mistake, friends. 😛
Other Ways to Visit Athabasca Glacier
The Toe of the Glacier hike is the only way to visit Athabasca Glacier for free. But there are a few other options if you have time to burn and very deep pockets.
Glacier Ice Adventure: For $99, you take a ride in one of the special Ice Explorer vehicles that take visitors onto the glacier itself. You’ll get special attachments for your shoes so that you can then get out and actually walk on the glacier. I can’t tell you if it’s worth it or not because we didn’t do this. We didn’t want to waste time waiting in line, and we didn’t want to pay that price tag. And personally, it seems a bit touristy for my tastes. But don’t let that stop you – it’s an option if you really want to check it out!
Guided Glacier Walk: There are guided tours that lead people on the Toe of the Glacier hike, and then continue on past the metal fence onto the glacier. I didn’t know about this ahead of time or else we might have considered doing it. The tour groups are smaller and more intimate than the ones that ride in the bus.
Skywalk: This looks to me like a colossal waste of time and money, but that’s just my opinion because I haven’t actually done it. For $32, you can walk out onto the skywalk over the glacial valley. You’ll get a spectacular view but, truth be told, you can get the same view from the highway because the skywalk is just right off of the parkway itself.
Columbia Icefield Discovery Center: The visitor’s center itself is worth visiting, if for no other reason than to make use of the public restroom. There’s a large gift shop, as well as a full-sized restaurant and cafe, and a balcony/patio that offers amazing views of the glacier.
How to get to Athabasca Glacier:
Take Highway 93 north from Lake Louise/ Banff, or south from Jasper. The Columbia Icefields Discovery Center is about 2.5 hours from Banff, and 1.5 hours from Jasper. If you are doing the Skywalk or the Ice Adventure, park at the center. But if you’re doing the Toe of the Glacier hike, the parking lot for that is located on the other side of the road, in a gravel lot.
When to visit Athabasca Glacier:
The area is generally open from April to October. July and August offer the best weather, but that’s also the most crowded time of year.
Visiting Athabasca Glacier is a great way to get out of the car and see something amazing in exchange for very little effort! It’s a can’t-miss stop on your trip to the Canadian Rockies.
For more to do near Athabasca Glacier, check out this Jasper travel guide!
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This is such a wonderfully detailed post! The skywalk sounds so ridiculously expensive. I love that there are small groups for the tours.
Wow! This looks truly amazing! Thank you for writing the post! I really hope we can get the time to head up there. This the $99 for the special Ice Explorer vehicle sounds like a great plan for us! Thanks again.
Wow! Your pictures are stunning! I love to wander around in nature, on trails, and through cities and so on. I´m not a huge fan of “professional” hiking, like have a backpack with me, or wearing proper hiking boots and all this stuff. But it seems that this hike is also good for people like me, who just want to “walk” a bit. I love those opportunities to have a walk!
So beautiful!! I’ve always wanted to visit the Canadian Rockies, having fallen in love with the American version, and this has given me a little extra push towards doing it!
Looks amazing! I’m dreaming of visiting Canada and the Canadian Rockies one day… Sad to hear about the glacier shrinking though!
Stupidly I only gave myself 2 days in Banff (as I was combining it with a big hiking holiday in Glacier) so I didn’t have the time to get up to Jasper. But, I can’t wait to go back and this time I’ll be taking a full week for the Iceland’s Parkway. Athabasca Glacier looks so incredible. And the fact that you can access it from a short trail is amazing! And, I loved your comment about taking it easy – lots of shorter hikes rather than one big trail. Sounds just like me! thanks for sharing!
The retreat of glaciers in the Rockies is astounding. I actually moved to Whitefish Montana because of the movie Inconvenient Truth that said Grinnell Glacier would be gone by 2020. Already I have seen pictures of it completely vanished. Glaciers ares such a special place and you shouldn’t miss the chance to visit the Athabasca Glaciers. (which BTW is the language of the Navajo language used for the Windtalker codes in WWII)
I love glaciers. Athabasca Glacier looks like a great place to go. Haven’t been to the Canadian Rockies but someday. Thanks for tips.
Such an amazing an humbling experience to be sure. I’ve not yet visited a glacier, but I do love trekking in the mountains, and hope to explore a glacier very soon!
This is amazing! Banff is on our bucket list so I’m saving this for when we make it there!
I love hiking and spending time outdoor, but I must admit I’m not good with cold weather. Having said that, I’d love to experience hiking on glacier. I should do it at least once.
How amazing that these landscapes are just a weekend trip away for you guys. Here, we have to take atleast a week’s leave to making it up on the mountains.
I wish I lived close by!! I actually live in Virginia, 3,000 miles away from the Canadian Rockies. We took 10 days off to explore this area.
Keeping all these suggestions about the Canadians Rockies for my next trip , we are planning to do a huge road trip in Canada in 2019, and here I got some real good tip!
My kids always like going to amazing places in exchange for very little effort 😛 LOL having said that the images are stunning and the Canadian Rockies look very interesting and intriguing. Thanks for the awesome tips 🙂
My daughter lives in Calgary so we have done both the Icefields and the Skywalk Tours. And we have also seen Exit Glacier in Alaska, which, like Athabasca is exiting this world some meters every year.
I love the detail in this post! The Canadian Rockies are most certainly on my bucket list as the landscape looks incredible in these photos! I really want to visit Banff, Lake Louise & Jasper National Park so the glacier fits in nicely with my itinerary!
Thanks for sharing,
I was there just in September and did this exact same hike! Like you we balked at the price of the bus tours (and I have to say, I am not sure that I approve of taking buses on to this beautiful work of nature). We did not know about the guided tour either when we set off, or we may have opted for this. Just such an amazing sight!
The hike looks amazing. Would love to do it in future. Nicely detailed post and beautifully captured pictures!
Brr, your poor legs, you must have been so chilly! It’d worth getting cold legs for those views though!
I think you need a hiking skirt, then when it’s chilly, you can just pull on some leggings (then when it’s too hot, you can easily taken them off again!) 😉
I love that you include the prices and such detail. This looks amazing. I will be sharing this post.
Interesting! I missed Suicide Hill when I visited the glacier, but we went across on the Ice Explorer (but back then it wasn’t $99…I went several years ago in August). We enjoyed it since we got to walk on the glacier, hold the flag for photos and fill our bottles with glacier water! It was a surreal experience and very easy for someone who doesn’t like to hike or can’t hike to access. I can’t believe the awful stories about the crevasses though, they told us those too! How completely scary!!
Very cool! As an American living in Boston I had no idea this even existed. You made the experience sound interesting and now I want to take a trip to the Canadian Rockies to see this glacier for myself!
We went to Banff National Park earlier this year and really wanted to visit this area as well, but just didn’t have enough time. I love that the hikes are fairly easy for people like us who don’t do a ton of hiking. I can’t wait to go here and see the glaciers!
This must be such a great walk! We passed it by car many many years ago and weren’t able to stop as it was getting dark. I would love to visit again.
A trip to the Canadian Rockies is on our short term list. Like you, I would enjoy a trip to Athabasca Glacier and be able to touch the toe of the glacier. We have some glacial remnants here is Colorado, but nothing like the Athabasca Glacier. It is so sad to see the signs of retreat. Let’s hope the glacier remains for future generations to see.
Years ago — as in decades — when I was a young lad and we spent summers in Banff — my mum, dad and I walked up to and on the Athabasca Glacier and it was a darn sight bigger than it is now. The rapid shrinking of glacial ice flows is alarming. The whole area between Banff and Jasper is just one ooo and ahh after another … one of my favorite in the world.
This looks so cool! When I lived in New Zealand a while back I was lucky to do some trekking and ice climbing at the Fran Josef glacier and it was such an incredible experience! That was a temperate glacier though, and I’ve never seen one in a truly cold and frozen area so I’d love to check out this spot. The Sky Walk doesn’t really seem worth it to me but the Glacier Ice Adventure sounds like it would be right up my alley!
Great post! We are heading through the icefields parkway next July. We have a week in Banff followed by 5 nights in Jasper. I am curious to know what sort of wait there is to go on the glacier bus? Is their an advantage to prepurchasing for these activities.
Enjoy your trip!! You will love it. If you want to do the Glacier Adventure tour or the Skywalk, I would definitely prepurchase tickets! Like I said, we didn’t actually do these activities, but the line was outrageous. We talked to people who had been in line for several hours.
Nice post. I really enjoyed your blog Thanks for sharing such an informative post.
We are planning to drive west from Toronto to Vancouver with stops around Banff for a few days. We will have to plan to add Athabasca Glacier to our plans. Especially as it is getting smaller over time. We would definitely want to do the hike to the Toe of the Glacier. I will make sure to be prepared for Suicide Hill.