Columbia Icefield Athabasca Glacier Length

Athabasca Glacier weaves its way down the Rockies

Icefield Columbia Icefield Athabasca Glacier Panorama

Athabasca Glacier is a six kilometre river of ice

The journey along the Icefield Parkway starts here.

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).

Columbia Icefield Historic Photo 1919

100 years ago, the glacier travelled a further 1.5 kilometres down the slope

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.

Columbia Icefield Athabasca Glacier

The power of the glacier is mind-boggling

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.

Columbia Icefield Ice Explorer

Specially designed sno-coaches comfortably handle the icy path.

Columbia Icefield Ice Hole

Watch where you put your feet…

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.

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3 Responses to Driving the Icefield Parkway: Columbia Icefield (Jasper, Canada)

  • I took this tour a few years ago. Was wearing my sneakers and stepped off the bus and would have promptly fallen right on my butt if I hadn’t been holding onto the door rail. I hobbled around like a huge penguin for about 30 minutes, afraid to go too far – I could not believe how slippery it was! I’d love to go back with ice climbing attachments on my shoes someday.

    • Mark H says:

      Barbara, I remember walking a bit carefully to start but seem to manage after a while and went for quite an explore. Loved the tranquility and the “personality” of the glacier once I escaped the other folks on the sno-coach and walked a bit further away (despite making the guides a little nervous).

  • Pingback: Driving the Icefield Parkway: Part 3 (Jasper, Canada) | Travel Wonders of the World

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Welcome to Travel Wonders
My name is Mark and I’m a keen traveller. In fact, over the last 25 years, I’ve travelled to every continent and over 80 countries. This blog is about the most memorable destinations – the places I regard as the travel wonders of the world. I’m also a keen photographer, and have taken nearly all the photos you’ll see. During my travels, I’ve met some incredible people, seen inspiring places, viewed extraordinary wildlife and scenery and had some amazing experiences, and I’m writing these stories not only to entertain but primarily to inspire others to discover their own travel wonders.
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