The Icefields Parkway, glimmering with glaciers, etched with waterfalls and laced with lakes, is called the world’s most scenic highway. This is not hyperbole, we learn, as we travel the road’s 140 breathtaking miles from Jasper to Lake Louise.
We walk loop trails to view thundering waterfalls named Athabasca -- “place where the bulrushes grow” and Sunwapta -- “turbulent river” just half an hour into our drive. Don't miss the slideshow at the end of the story!
We stop at the Columbia Icefield, 68 miles from Jasper, to contemplate the beauty and impact of this showpiece of the Rockies as it stretches across the Continental Divide. Meltwaters from its six glaciers feed three major rivers and, incredibly, three different oceans: the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic.
Those who want to reach out and touch a glacier may sign on for Brewster’s hour and 20 minute Glacier Experience. All-terrain Ice Explorer vehicles journey onto the surface of the Athabasca Glacier, allowing passengers to step out and stand on the ancient ice that’s said to be as thick as the Eiffel Tower is tall!
Weaving through the mountains and valleys between Jasper and Banff National Parks, the Icefields Parkway began as a single lane gravel track in 1931, when hundreds of unemployed men were put to work by the Canadian government. With little more than picks, shovels and horses, plus some small tractors, they created what is this now majestic scenic corridor. Wide, safe and spectacular to drive, the highway is the destination and the journey. So leave ample time to hike its trails, picnic its rivers and lakes, and keep eyes peeled and cameras ready for wildlife viewing.
Past the Weeping Wall, meadows and river valleys, the Bow Summit is the highest point on the parkway, offering an ultimate vista point for Peyto Lake.
We grabbed a sandwich at Simpson's Num Ti Jah Lodge, a member of Charming Inns of Alberta, to soak up some of its rich history and dramatic setting beside the teal waters of Bow Lake. A grizzly bear ambled past the lodge, then disappeared into the woods. As we hiked the lake’s shoreline, awed by the scenery, we kept up a lively conversation to avoid surprising the bear.
Baker Creek Chalets, another member of Charming Inns of Alberta, was our lodging choice just east of Lake Louise on the Bow River Parkway. Flower boxes overflow with bright red geraniums outside honey-colored log chalets. Two-story Jacuzzi suites in a small mountain lodge have decks that open to the sound of Baker Creek’s flowing waters. All units feature distinctive hand-crafted furniture, fixtures and art with a Western flair.
The owners have been acknowledged for their environmental focus, and the lodge was honored for its commitment to heritage tourism in Banff National Park 2010.
That night we booked dinner at Moraine Lake Lodge, based on some powerful memories we’ve carried for over 15 years. At the time, we had bicycled up the mountain, only to be bowled over by the iridescent turquoise hues of the lake nestled into the Valley of the Ten Peaks. We had always planned to return, and were thrilled to now enjoy a meal where the quality of every dish matched the setting. In fact, the honey-glazed venison tenderloin with crushed juniper berry and peppercorn rub, mission fig and walnut wine reduction has become another haunting Moraine Lake memory.
Arthur Erickson, one of Canada’s foremost architects, designed the post-and-beam lodge with grand windows overlooking the glacier-fed lake, private balconies off each of the 33 guestrooms, wood-burning fireplaces and a rustic elegance. The gourmet dining room’s soaring glass atrium ceiling keeps the scenic splendor a part of the dining experience.
The owners of the Moraine Lake Lodge offer another mountain sanctuary, the Cathedral Mountain Lodge, where guests may choose to combine a stay.
Next morning our Baker Creek breakfast “sandwich” with egg, house-made ham, tomatoes and watercress, horseradish aioli on grilled Icelandic bread was creatively delectable. So was the ambiance: early morning sunlight pouring onto the honey-colored logs, sultry Brazilian music, framed black and white photographs of the lodge then and now, and a very friendly vibe. . . overall, an unexpected surprise at a log cabin lodge in the alluring Canadian Rockies.
Westjet serves Edmonton (YEG) and Calgary (YYC) from San Francisco (SFO) with seasonal non-stop service.
Watch for more on my travels in Alberta’s Canadian Rockies
Story © C. Canter, 2010
Photos © C. Canter, 2010