The Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) between the mountain towns of Banff and Jasper is one of the most scenic stretches of road in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Not only are the vistas breathtaking, but there are countless spots to stop along the way, take a short hike, feel the mist from a waterfall on your face, and stretch an otherwise short journey into a trip that lasts for hours.
Midway between Banff and Jasper is the Saskatchewan River Crossing, an excellent starting point for an early morning drive north to Jasper. Located where the North Saskatchewan, Howse, and Mistaya rivers converge, the Crossing was used by travellers and fur traders to traverse the North Saskatchewan River when the Canadian fur trade spread to the west during the 19th century.
The drive north winds past sights such as the Weeping Wall and Parker Ridge, but the raw beauty of the Canadian Rocky Mountains hits with full force when you reach the Columbia Icefields. Receiving up to seven metres of snow per year, the icefield straddles the border of the Banff and Jasper national parks and was discovered in 1898 when J. Norman Collie and Hermann Woolley ascended nearby Mount Athabasca. While the Athabasca glacier has receded more than 1.5 kilometres in the past 125 years, it is still a sight to behold. For an up close and personal experience you can catch a ride in an ‘Ice Explorer’ and spend some time on top of the glacier.
Continuing north, your leisurely drive will become even more so when you reach a long stretch of road designated as a caribou crossing. Speed slows to 70 kilometres per hour and serves as a reminder that all types of wildlife can be seen along the way: caribou, deer, elk, mountain goats, and if you’re very lucky, bears. It goes without saying that feeding the wildlife is not advised.
By this point, and with so many stops, you may be looking at your watch and wondering if you’ll ever arrive in Jasper. If you absolutely must, drive past the Sunwapta and Athabasca waterfalls, but don’t miss a stop at Horseshoe Lake, located on the east side of the Icefields Parkway approximately 25 kilometres south of Jasper. The turquoise and crystal clear water is luminescent, and the short hike through the forest to reach the lake gives you the feeling that you’ve stumbled upon a hidden gem. Seat yourself atop one of the low cliffs and drink in the beauty of the water and the mountains looming above. It’s the perfect spot for a mid-morning picnic and the lack of tourists makes it a great place for reflection.
If you reach Jasper in time for lunch then reward yourself with something truly Canadian: a thick and succulent wild game burger from Papa George’s (404 Connaught Drive). A hand-shaped and lightly spiced bison, elk, and venison patty is bundled between lightly toasted hamburger buns, expertly coated with roasted red pepper ketchup, honey Dijon mustard, and topped with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and crisp pickles. It’s so thick that you’ll need to press it down before attempting your first bite, and it pairs well with a fresh garden salad or Papa George’s delicately salted French fries.
Papa George’s has more on the menu than just the wild game burger. Their reasonable prices and emphasis on fresh fish, local produce, Alberta beef, and wild game ensures a wide and varied selection. When your worst problem is that everything sounds delicious and you don’t know what to choose, then you know you must be in the right place.
If, after a hearty lunch, you need to stretch your legs and breathe some fresh mountain air, you will not find any air fresher than at the top of the Jasper Tramway (three kilometres south of Jasper on the Icefields Parkway and four kilometres west on Whistlers Road). The panoramic cable car ride with a vertical gain of 948 metres will place you at the Upper Station, 2263 metres above sea level. The perspective from this vantage point is spectacular, but it gets better. Hiking the alpine trail to the summit provides a 360 degree view of six mountain ranges, glacial fed lakes, and a birds-eye view of Jasper.
The best part of being on the road to Jasper is having the freedom to create your itinerary, travel at your own pace, and enjoy your Canadian adventure on the open road.