Photo courtesy of Athabasca Glacier Icewalks

According to Brewster Tours, "the Columbia Icefield is located on the boundary of Banff and Jasper National Parks. One of the largest accumulations of ice and snow south of the Arctic Circle, it covers an area of nearly 325 square kilometers. The continuous accumulation of snow feeds eight major glaciers including the Athabasca, Dome, and Stutfield Glaciers, all visible from the Icefields Parkway. The Columbia Icefield is a true 'continental divide,' for its meltwater feeds streams and rivers that pour into the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans. Facing the Columbia Icefield Visitors' Centre lies the Athabasca Glacier -- a tongue of ice six kilometres long and one kilometre wide descending almost to road level." Allow time to study the exhibits at the Icefield Centre, then take either the Brewster Snocoach or a three- or six-hour IceWalk Coach tours operate April 15 - October 15; IceWalks from June through September; advance reservations highly recommended. We opted for the IceWalk, and found it a fascinating view of a glacier, and were only sorry that our schedule did not permit us to take the six-hour tour. You can even stay overnight at the Icefield Chalet on the top floor of the Icefield Centre. The Centre is located along the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) 185 kilometers north of Banff, 130 kilometers north of Lake Louise, and 106 kilometers south of Jasper. Dress warmly!

Canadian Rockies
Northern Lights; photo courtesy Big Springs Estate B&B, Calgary, AB
Getting Around

Calgary is the major gateway for those flying to the Canadian Rockies. For a beautiful itinerary starting in Calgary, drive 100 kilometers west to Canmore; 22 km. further to Banff; 55 km. north to Lake Louise via either the scenic Bow Valley Parkway or Hwy 1; 25 km. west on Hwy 1 to Yoho National Park, BC. From Yoho, return east on Hwy 1 to Lake Louise, then go north on Hwy 93 (Icefields Parkway) 233 km to Jasper. Be sure to buy annotated maps with the viewpoints and hiking trails shown - they are not well marked on the road, and you may miss some great sights and vistas. Allow lots of time for the Icefield Parkway, with wonderful trails of all degrees of difficulty, plus the Columbia Icefield. If you are unlucky with the weather, continue on to Jasper, and hope for better conditions on the return trip south. Don't let your gas tank fall below half-full; distances are significant, and gas stations sparse.

Dinosaur fans: If time permits, make a second loop, going 138 km northeast of Calgary to Drumheller, home of the famous Tyrell Dinosaur Museum, then 134 km. southwest to Dinosaur Provincial Park, in the heart of the Canadian Badlands.

When to Go

Winter brings great skiing, affordably priced, at eight downhill resorts, plus country-country skiing, dog-sledding, and more. Peak season runs from June through September, when hiking, biking, fishing, golf, canoeing, rafting and other warm weather sports are at their best; June or September probably offer the best balance of good weather and fewer people. We visited in August, at the height of the season, and encountered major crowds and congestion only at Chateau Lake Louise. Even there, once we left the hotel grounds and started walking, the crowds were soon behind us. Don't be discouraged by reports of summer wildfires; while unfortunate, they had virtually no effect on our trip. Long hours of daylight give you lots of time for activities.

Note: No matter how warm and sunny the day, always keep water, food, and extra clothing in your daypack; a sudden change in the weather can cause a 20-degree temperature drop in as many minutes.

Sights & Activities

Canada's well-maintained national parks offer hiking trails at all levels of length and difficulty, from level lake loops and roadside waterfalls to multi-day backpacking adventures. Here are a few highlights:

Banff National Park, AB: We started our vacation with a warm-up hike up Tunnel Mountain, and were first rewarded with the views of Banff village, and second with a soak in the Upper Hot Springs pool. From Lake Louise, we headed up towards the Plain of Six Glaciers, detouring for a snack at the Teahouse. A favorite hike took us from the parking lot of the Num-ti-jah Lodge around scenic Bow Lake to the impressive Bow Glacier Falls. The lodge is a perfect place for a meal and/or drinks after your hike. Just south of the Columbia Icefield, was another amazing hike up to Parker Ridge, with stunning glacier views. More info...

Yoho National Park, BC: The word Yoho is the Cree word that expresses awe, and when you stroll around Emerald Lake and visit spectacular Takakkaw Falls, you won't argue. The rushing Kicking Horse River is ideal for half-day rafting trips; we had fun on a Wildwater trip. More info...

Jasper National Park: We were delighted with dramatic Maligne Canyon, and impressed by the popular but worthwhile hike offering view of Mt. Edith Cavell and Angel Glacier. A soak at Miette Hot Springs is a just reward for all the energy expended. More info...

Calgary: A charming small city, Calgary is bisected by Bow River, threaded with walking/biking trails. Sights include the Olympic Park, the Science Centre, and various history museums. Its most famous event is the Calgary Stampede , held every July, and billed as "ten days of Western fun." If you miss the Stampede and still want to see a rodeo, check the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association schedule for alternative dates and locations throughout Alberta.

Canmore: Originally a railroad town, Canmore is a friendly alternative to Banff village with good lodging, restaurant, and entertainment options.

Drumheller: Founded by coal miners, Drumheller survived when oil was discovered. Today's visitors come to see the Canadian Badlands, with wind-shaped hoodoos and the excellent Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, an ideal way for all ages to learn about dinosaurs. For more about dinosaurs, travel east to Dinosaur Provincial Park.

Golden, BC Couch potatoes should probably stay home, but everyone else will love Golden's first-rate fishing, climbing, gliding, skiing, and golf.
More Canadian travel info...

B&Bs, Inns & Restaurants

Affordable, child-friendly accommodations plus lots of great activities, make the Canadian Rockies a first-rate family destination. For a variety of regulatory reasons, most B&Bs in Alberta tend to have two or three guest rooms, while area inns are more likely to have 10-20 rooms. Active train lines run parallel with the area's major roads (Hwys 1 & 93), and most towns developed alongside the tracks. If you are a light sleeper, bring along ear plugs, and ask your innkeeper about possible train noise.

Banff, AB: The best-known hotel in town is the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, with peak season rates around $650 daily; other well known and recommended resorts include the Rimrock and Buffalo Mountain Lodge. More affordable options include the town's many inviting B&Bs. More Banff B&Bs...

Calgary, AB: The Kensington Riverside Inn is a perfect choice for either business travelers or a romantic getaway. It's elegantly decorated throughout, with careful attention to detail in all aspects of furnishings, food, and service. We strolled along the river for an excellent meal at the River Café, with a peaceful island setting, yet in the heart of Calgary. For a farm and ranch setting just 20 minutes away consider Airdrie's Big Springs Estate B&B, with five lovely guest rooms and warm Alberta hospitality offered by long-time owners Earle and Carol Whittaker. More Calgary B&Bs

Canmore, AB: We loved the busy little town of Canmore, close to Banff village. We stayed at the Tudor-style Georgetown Inn , and enjoyed the friendly service, tasty breakfast, convenient location, and comfortable accommodations, which range from standard rooms to spacious suites. Next door is the Victorian-style Lady Macdonald Country Inn; it's lovely rooms are perfect for a romantic getaway, although two family rooms are perfect if you're traveling with kids. For an excellent dinner, head to Zona's, serving eclectic but delicious cuisine in a creative setting. More Canmore B&Bs...

Field, BC: Once a booming railroad town, the village of Field is an ideal base of operations for Yoho National Park visitors. It's worth turning off Hwy 1 and crossing the river just to enjoy a meal or pick up a snack at the Truffle Pigs Cafe & General Store, and its B&Bs make affordable bases for area explorations. We stayed at Kicking Horse Lodge, which was adequate, but could be a great place with more efficient management, upgraded décor, and a more friendly atmosphere. Although we didn't have time to visit, we heard good things about the Alpenglow (1-250-343-6356; a cozy B&B right in the village of Field, and Cathedral Mountain Lodge & Chalets on the Yoho Valley Road, beside the Kicking Horse River, with 30 log cabins, lodge, and restaurant.

Golden, BC: Just off Hwy 1, west of Golden is Moberly Mountain Lodge , a handsome log lodge with a wonderful outdoor hot tub. Its seven guest rooms and two adjacent cabins are furnished with hand-crafted log furniture, and some rooms have whirlpool tubs and fireplaces. The cabins are ideal for families, and comfortable for an extended stay. We had a wonderful meal at the Cedar House, set in the woods, with mountain views. More Golden B&Bs...

Jasper: Comprised of a log lodge and restaurant, with a variety of outbuildings and cabins, the Overlander Mountain Lodge makes a good base for exploring spread-out Jasper National Park. Our two-bedroom condo-style chalet was perfect for our family, and meals in the lodge restaurant are very good, with the bison filet among the best meat we've ever had. Jasper town has lots of homestay B&Bs at affordable prices; even if your budget is tight, be sure to stop for a drink or snack on the terrace of the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, offering exquisitely manicured grounds and beautiful vistas. More Jasper B&Bs

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