Visiting the Athabasca Glacier is a Canadian Rockies MUST DO.
The road to the Columbia Icefields, one of the largest accumulations of ice south of the Arctic Circle, is said to be one of the world’s greatest mountain drives, and one of the most scenic drives in Canada. Expect incredible scenic views around each bend, that even when shrouded in clouds, could not contain the power and grandeur of the snow-capped mountains and pristine blue lakes.
The drive through the Icefields Parkway runs between Jasper National Park and Banff National Park. Driving this road will also take you right to the Glacier Discovery Centre, where you can walk on the Athabasca Glacier. You cannot miss it.
Standing on a glacier is a once in a lifetime experience!
The Icefield Interpretive Centre
Upon arrival at the Athabasca Glacier, you will have to park at the Icefield Interpretive Center. They have a huge parking lot opposite the glacier.
At the Icefield Interpretive Centre you’ll be able to grab a bite to eat, visit the gift shop, and buy a ticket to walk on the glacier. The best way to see the Glacier is to get on one of the huge Brewster busses, that will drive right onto the glacier. The Brewster busses are massive 6-wheeled all-terrain vehicles.
Make sure you arrive early to the Glacier Discovery Centre, where you get set up with your tour tickets. You will want to arrive early to purchase or pickup your tickets as it was incredibly busy when we arrived. You do not need a reservation, but if you know you can be there by a certain time, making a reservation will guarantee your time slot so you can get more exploring done in your day.
From the center, you can also book your adventure to the Columbia Icefield Skywalk.
The Athabasca Glacier
The Columbia Icefield covers around 230 sq km, with depths up to 1,200ft. It is the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies.
The Athabasca Glacier is one of the six ‘toes’ that comes out of the Columbia Icefield. The glacier is losing depth at a rate of 16 feet per year (5 meters), and has receded over 1.5km, and has lost half of its volume, in the past 125 years. At 6km in length, it is the only glacier in the area. The glacier is in continual motion, and creeps forward several centimeters each day. As this happens, rocky giant piles of rocks and debris, otherwise known as rocky moraines, are left behind.
The Athabasca is the most-visited glacier on the North American continent. It is also arguably one of the most accessible glaciers in North America and the world.
Also, the Athabasca Glacier sits at the base of several remarkable peaks. You can see three from the parkway: Dome, Stutfield and Athabasca. From the Snow Dome, water flows to either the Pacific, Atlantic, or Arctic Ocean! How cool is that?! The Athabasca Glacier is one of only two places in the world that forms a triple continental divide.
What you can see from the road is only a small part of the Columbia Icefield.
The Ice Explorer
From the Icefield Interpretive Center, you will board a tour bus that takes you to the bottom of the Athabasca Glacier, where you switch at a bus stop like platform onto the Ice Explorers. The tour itself is well-timed. It did not feel like there were too many Ice Explorers arriving with more tourists. Everyone able to get the photos you wanted and even with two little kids, we had plenty of time to do as we pleased during our 90-minute tour. The weather was all over the place on our trip, but we were so fortunate that the sun came out and the sky started to clear before our adventure, allowing us to snap these gorgeous photos.
Traveling in a huge Ice Explorer to the glacier was a highlight for the kids. The ride is about 5 kilometers, round trip. During your ride, you’ll climb some massive hills. At times it even feels like you are almost completely vertical. Once you reach the glacier, you can get off the Ice Explorer and onto the ice. Take time for some fun photos and to taste some of the delicious and ice-COLD glacier water. That water was so refreshing and delicious. The Ice Explorers travel in all weather conditions.
Our driver was a business student in Alberta working for the summer and he was fabulous. It is always nice to see someone so passionate about what he is doing, and someone that speaks so highly of the company he is working for, Brewster Travel, and his summer experience learning all he can about the amazing glacier. He had much insight into the interesting geological features, with a few fun jokes thrown in for good measure.
Our driver mentioned that the Ice Explorers pass through a river before going onto the glacier. Doing this helps to remove dirt from the explorer so that dirt is not being brought onto the glacier. This helps to lessen the impact of the speed of the glacial melt.
Ice Explorer Tour – Cost
A ticket to take part in a 90-minute Ice Explorer tour is CA$87.00 (adult) and $43.50 (child). Of the 90-minute tour, you have roughly 20 minutes on the glacier.
Your ticket also includes entry to the Columbia Icefield Skywalk, where you walk along a cliff-edged walkway for stunning views of the Sunwapta Valley, while suspended 918 feet from the floor of the valley.
How Slippery Is The Glacier?
As long as you take it slowly and don’t make it a race, you will be completely fine. We had running shoes on and did not have any problems.
Respect The Boundaries
You are only allowed access to the area that is roped off. Do not cross over the boundaries as it is extremely dangerous. The area that you are permitted to be in is inspected and safe. Since the glacier is always shifting and moving, it creates a lot of danger when you do not know what you are doing. It makes you vulnerable to find a hidden crevasse that could swallow you up.
Know Before You Go:
- Tours depart every 15-30 minutes from the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre on the Icefields Parkway.
- If you do not make a reservation, and buy a walk-up ticket, you can have better control over picking a day that has optimal visibility. However, the tour company does recommend that guests book in advance. If you are needing to visit on a specific day, you would not want to arrive and find tickets are sold out.
- It will be a lot colder on the glacier than at the Discover Centre. Dress warm and wear a good pair closed toed shoes. It can also be slippery.
- Bring a water bottle to fill up with glacier water. We did not bring one, so we used our hands to take a sip. It was cold, cold, cold. Do not do it our way.
- Pack a lunch. You can get a bite to eat at the Icefields Center Café. However, it is quite pricy.
- Bring a camera.
- Bring sunglasses because the reflection off the glacier may hurt your eyes.
Athabasca Glacier Hike – Another Perspective
If you are looking for a different perspective of the Athabasca Glacier, you can take the short hike from the Interpretive Center for some outstanding views. The walk only takes around 15 minutes and is an easy trail. Do not attempt to get onto the Glacier without a guide. Several deaths have happened as a result of people attempting to do so.
You will be absolutely speechless by your surroundings and the power of mother nature. We had never walked on a glacier, so we could definitely not pass this experience up.
We also took in the beautiful views at the Glacier Skywalk. You can pair the two experiences together and you are transported on a tour bus between the two experiences. The transportation was seamless.
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Have you ever been able to step foot on a Glacier? Share your experiences below!
There was a tragic accident, closing the tours for the 2020 – 2021 season. The tours are resuming in May 2021.
Our experience was sponsored by Brewster Travel, but as always, our opinions are our own.
Last updated March 2021.