advertisement

The 278km (173-mile) stretch of road that winds its way along the Rockies' spine from Lake Louise to Jasper is easily one of the most awe-inspiring drives you'll ever encounter. In good traffic, you could do the drive in 3 hours, but why would you? Along Highway 93 here, it's as much about the journey as the destination.

As you wind your way through mountain bowls cradling ancient glaciers high above, you can't help but be taken by a sense of the infinite; this thin ribbon of tarmac seems so insignificant next to these looming giants that you may feel like a visitor on another planet.

Above your sightline, midway between Banff and Jasper, glaciers spill down into bowls that are fragments from the Columbia Icefields, which cover these peaks for kilometers in a massive dome of prehistoric ice. This is one of the biggest non-polar ice fields in the world, and the ice fields are the source of some of the most significant rivers in the west, including the Columbia, the Athabasca, and the North Saskatchewan.

There are dozens of turn-outs along the way -- picnic areas and viewpoints alongside fascinating rock formations and aquamarine lakes -- to allow you a slightly deeper drink into the abundant planetary history to be found here. This is also the domain of wildlife such as the usually elusive mountain goat (often found traversing the valley from one set of peaks to the other; you'll see them frequently on the road, so watch out); bighorn sheep are common as squirrels, and you might even catch sight of a bear.

A popular and breathtaking experience is an excursion up onto the Athabasca Glacier at the Columbia Icefields in a giant purpose-built bus with wheels 6m (20 ft.) in diameter. This is as close as you can get to the ice fields themselves. The Columbia Icefields Centre (tel. 780/852-7032), a giant complex with a museum, cafeteria, gift shop, restaurant, and lodge, sits across Highway 93 from the Athabasca Glacier; an excursion up onto the ice (operated by Brewster Snocoach Tours; tel. 403/762-6735; www.columbiaicefield.com) costs C$49 adults and C$24 kids. It takes about 90 minutes. You'll be warned on-site, but it's worth understanding that walking on a glacier can be very dangerous, as fissures and breakaway chunks of ice can happen any time. Implicit with buying a ticket is that you do so at your own risk.

The Icefields Centre also has a Parks Canada office (tel. 780/852-7030) that answers questions about the area. It stands beside the lodge and is open May to June 14 daily from 9am to 5pm; June 15 to September 7 daily from 9am to 6pm; and September 8 to October 15 daily from 9am to 5pm. It is closed October 16 to April.

The Icefields Parkway starts just northwest of Lake Louise, where Highway 1 continues west toward Golden, British Columbia; and Highway 93 (the Icefields Pkwy.) curls north along the Bow River towards Jasper. Bow Lake, the river's source, pools at the base of Crowfoot Glacier, a worthy stop-off point. Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, on the shores of Bow Lake, is a good place to stop for lunch (and one of the only ones). This venerable lodge sits in a spectacular spot in the valley and also offers simple accommodations.

From Bow Summit, the parkway descends into the North Saskatchewan River drainage, where you'll find the Peyto Lake Viewpoint. You can get to it only on foot, but the brief (if steep) path pays off nicely when you reach the aquamarine lake's stunning shores.

The North Saskatchewan River turns west at the junction of highways 93 and 11. Here, there's a complex with a gas station, a basic motel, a gift shop, and cafeteria called "the Crossing" (tel. 403/761-7000; www.thecrossingresort.com), with a sub-par cafeteria and a tacky gift shop. Standard rooms are C$159 a night. This is the only gas station between Lake Louise and Jasper, so be sure to fuel up.

Out of the North Saskatchewan drainage, you'll climb up into Sunwapta Pass. You'll feel like the ascent will never end, and the surrounding terrain is awesome and a little bit frightening. But the scenery is the perfect balm for anxiety.

Here, in the shadows of 3,490m (11,450-ft.) Mount Athabasca, the icy tendrils of the Columbia Icefields come into view. You've been surveying the glaciers from below; if you took the Icefields tour, you saw the lip of the fields themselves at the top of the Athabasca Glacier. But up here, you'll see that they're tiny fragments of a colossal surface. The Columbia Icefields cover nearly 518 sq. km (200 sq. miles) and are more than 760m (2,493 ft.) thick.

From the Columbia Icefields, the parkway descends steeply into the Athabasca River drainage. From the parking area for Sunwapta Falls, travelers can choose to crowd around the chain-link fence and peer at the turbulent falls or take the half-hour hike to equally impressive but less crowded Lower Sunwapta Falls. Athabasca Falls, farther north along the parkway, is another must-see. Here, the wide and powerful Athabasca River constricts into a roaring torrent before dropping 25m (82 ft.) into a narrow canyon. The parkway continues along the Athabasca River, through a landscape of meadows and lakes, before entering the Jasper townsite.