Banff To The Athabasca Glacier

Canada has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world and in my opinion, some of this is found as you travel along the Icefields Parkway between Banff & Jasper in the Canadian Rockies.

We had an extended FAM trip with Rocky Mountaineer (not just the train journey, though this was the highlight) to include additional time in Banff and a night in Calgary before flying home. As part of the extension was a tour from Banff along the Icefields Parkway to the Athabasca Glacier, via Lake Louise.
We didn’t go as far as Jasper, which was probably just as well as the weather was really setting in by that point and our drive back towards Banff was mainly in the snow.
As we were there in April, it was very much early season so there was a still snow on the ground in places and plenty at the roadside. Lake Louise & Bow Lake were still frozen over, as they are until June usually.

Upon leaving Banff by coach our first stop was the village of Lake Louise. When most people think of Lake Louise, they do think of the lake itself but the village is a few miles from the Fairmont Chateau & the lake. There’s not a huge amount there if I’m being honest – a few small shops, general store etc. Our stop at the Fairmont Chateau and the lake would come later.

With our FAM trip, there were 4 different groups – UK, Canadian, American & Australian. We had all been on the Rocky Mountaineer together, albeit not all in the same carriages. We (‘Team UK’) had shared ours with ‘Team Aussie’ though on this tour day we were paired up on the bus with ‘Team USA’ who honestly wanted nothing to do with us! No chat, no interaction…nothing! It was very strange considering what an amazing experience we had just had on the train the previous 2 days and the fact that we had would all be likely to be bumping into each other over the course of the next few days, though each group was staying at a different hotel.

Once everyone had bought their bits and pieces from the various gift shops, it was back on the bus again. This time we stopped at Bow Lake, about 23.5 miles from Lake Louise. As with the vast majority of bodies of water in the Rockies at this time of year, the Lake was frozen solid and completely covered in snow. The surrounding mountains were also covered and the fog that was just starting to lift gave everything a really pale yellow tint which was quite unusual.

Once we reached Bow Lake we had some free time for photos etc and we (Teams UK & Aussie) had a snowball fight…on a frozen lake! Only in Canada! That in itself was a great experience because we just don’t have the winters for that in the UK and they certainly don’t in Australia.
Some of the snow was so deep that it came over my knee-length boots which made running away from oncoming snowballs much more difficult!
What I couldn’t believe though was that even though our whole group were travel agents, so many didn’t bother to check what the weather would be like in Canada in April and what might be recommended to pack – because of this we had a few with ankle-height Converse, trainers and denim jackets! That was fine for Vancouver and for in Banff at night but not when you’re traipsing through snowdrifts! Even ‘Team Aussie’ were better prepared!

I had one of the girls in our group take a video of me making a snow angel on the lake so that there was evidence that I’d actually done it.
During our time in Canada, Rocky Mountaineer were aiming to not only promote themselves but also a Canadian experience and so had given us various categories for which to submit videos and photos – whoever’s was chosen by the Rocky Mountaineer team would win themselves a gift card. I loaded a lot to Instagram over the course of our trip and it paid off since I won a $50 visa gift card for the Best Video – my snow angel on Bow Lake!

Snow on Bow Lake, Alberta
Gift card-winning Snow Angel video!

As we made our way along the scenic Icefields Parkway, the sun was out, there was snow still lying and it was beautiful.
There are plenty of places along the way for photo opportunities and so our first stop was at the Crowfoot Glacier.
The Glacier is located to the northeast side of Crowfoot Mountain and the runoff supplies water to the Bow River.

Next up on our drive was the ‘Saskatchewan River Crossing’, so named as it was the area where fur traders and travellers would cross the North Saskatchewan River on their way from Alberta into British Columbia during the 1800s.
Mount Wilson towers above the crossing and is prominent in many photos of the area.
The North Saskatchewan River originates from the Saskatchewan Glacier and through connecting with the South Saskatchewan River outside Prince Alberta & flowing through Manitoba, it eventually reaches Hudson’s Bay.

Mount Wilson & The Saskatchewan River Crossing, Alberta

Part of the highlight of our tour was to be the Athabasca Glacier which is usually visible from the Icefields Parkway. At the Discovery Centre, there’s the option to go out onto the glacier itself in one of the ‘Ice Explorer’ 6-wheel buses and stand out on the Glacier Skywalk. Due to the time of year that we travelled, it was still slightly too early in the season for this but from the car park we were able to walk part way towards the glacier. As the weather was turning, the view of it was completely obstructed by fog so it was a shame to not have been able to see it.

All we were able to see of the Athabasca Glacier

The Discovery Centre itself was open for food and has a nice gift shop on-site. It had already been arranged that we would have lunch at the Discovery Centre (buffet style) and had a bit of free time to have a look round the gift shop before heading back to the bus.

We drove through snow all the way back to Lake Louise. This time though, we were taken down past the village itself to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise where the bus parked and let us out to explore. Some of the group headed straight for the Lake which was still frozen over in April meaning that it’s safe to walk on.
During the deep winter months, the Fairmont set up an ice rink on the lake and have a ice carvings at the entrance which are quite spectacular, however these were away when we were there.
Lake Louise is certainly a tourist attraction and I can only imagine how busy it is with people and buses during the summer months. It was busy enough in April!
Others, like myself we went into the Fairmont first. It’s such an iconic hotel and being a Fairmont, you expect that 5* standard…which is exactly what you get. With high ceilings, marble everywhere and chandeliers throughout, it’s difficult to not feel slightly out of place when it isn’t quite your usual accommodation standard. The retails shops throughout the hotel are high class too and for us, were certainly for window shopping only.

After our slightly intimidating indoor experience, a couple of us headed out to the famous Lake Louise to see it for ourselves. It’s difficult to imagine the colour of it in the summer when it’s completely covered in snow but even during the winter it’s certainly something.

Looking out over Lake Louise

If you have a free day in Banff, I would highly recommend driving (or taking a pre-arranged tour) to the Athabasca Glacier. It’s definitely a highlight of the Icefields Parkway and beautiful regardless of what season you travel in.
Visiting in April means early season so less crowds but check the start-up date for the Ice Explorer & Glacier Skywalk (usually towards the end of April) if this is something you want to do.
Visiting in the spring/summer months means you do get to see the colours, though the lakes are likely to still be frozen and it will be busier, which unfortunately also means higher prices everywhere.

Shop around, decide when suits you best and then make this scenic highway part of your itinerary!

Published by Carina Storey

Aspiring travel photographer & blogger, bookworm & film lover.

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