Less than five kilometres into Jasper National Park along the Icefield Parkway is the highlight of the entire scenic stretch. As a remnant of the last ice age covering 325 square kilometres and depths of up to 350 metres, Columbia Icefield is preserved by cold temperatures, higher elevation and lots of snow. Sandwiched among some of the Rockies tallest and most majestic peaks, the network of glaciers grind and crawl down the valleys and include the highly accessible Athabasca Glacier. As a kind of geographical apex, meltwater from the area ends up in three different oceans (Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic).
One hundred years ago this glacier ran past the main road but has been in significant retreat for the past century, terminating a mile further up the slope (and losing around two metres per year).
The Icefield Discovery Centre overlooks Athabasca Glacier and includes some excellent timelapse photography, graphics and models describing the anatomy and formation of this icy world and the history of the area.
Apart from a walk to the toe of the sweeping six kilometre glacier (and notice the temperature change) or guided trek onto the glacier, the best way to visit the glacier is via a highly publicised Ice Explorer tour. The tours are popular in high season with departure gates and screens with information, giving it an unwanted airport feel but all working with clockwork efficiency.
Large specially developed sno-coaches with 1.7 metre tyres trundle onto the glacier along an ice roadway to a point high up on Athabasca Glacier where there is a chance to wander the glaciated area for half an hour, always minding where you step to avoid wet shoes, an ice-hole or melted rivulet. Even knowing the water is little above freezing, I can’t help but taste the frigid refreshing water which fell as snow an estimated 175 years earlier.
The scale is striking. Appearing diminutive from the Icefield Centre, multi-storey building-sized clumps of ice squelch and squawk their way squeezing through the narrower valley openings gouging rock and dirt into the river of ice. Walk a few minutes from the sno-coach and you are able quickly feel alone with the icy giant and hear the glacier’s inexorable journey down the valley. To think that many of the Icefield Parkway’s highlights are likely fed by the Columbia Icefield.
While very touristy, the Columbia Icefield is a highly accessible glacier with an excellent tour onto the glacier itself and a chance to ponder its major retreat with markers showing the end of the glacier at various times over the past 100+ years.