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 that 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. 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!