Section 3: Saskatchewan Crossing to the Columbia Icefields
Total distance: 50 kilometres (31 miles)
Travel time: 1.5 hours
The area between Saskatchewan Crossing and the Columbia Icefields is full of incredible scenery and offers a very realistic chance of seeing wildlife beginning almost immediately as you depart north from The Crossing in the wake of the great North Saskatchewan River.
The mountain face towering above and ahead of you on the right as you leave The Crossing is Mount Wilson, named for Banff pioneer and guide Tom Wilson. Black bears frequent the roadside all along the first 15 kilometres of this stretch, particularly in springtime when the dandelions are in bloom.
Watch the stark jagged cliffs on the right side of the road from kilometre 82 to 86 for mountain goats. These shaggy white cousins of the Asian mountain antelopes are equipped with suction-like hooves on their feet enabling them to feel right at home a thousand metres up a steep cliff face. Grizzly bears are occasionally spotted in the area around the Rampart Creek hostel and campground at the kilometre-88 mark, and just beyond the hostel are the Rampart Ponds, frequented by moose in both summer and spring. In the midst of these ponds is a viewpoint looking out over the river at Mts. Amery (straight across) and Saskatchewan (on the right). The road then goes up over a hump and descends to the broad gravel flats of the braided North Saskatchewan past the Sunset Pass trailhead at kilometre 93.
The Parkway continues through the gravel flats under the watchful eyes of Mts. Coleman and Saskatchewan and Cirrus Mountain for the next ten kilometres before reaching the astounding Weeping Wall at kilometre 105. Literally a giant wall of rock with water seeping down off of it, the Weeping Wall is even more spectacular in winter and early spring when the water is frozen in great sparkling ice falls. Opposite the Weeping Wall on the left side of the highway are a series of avalanche paths where every year or two snow ploughs down into the valley bottom from the steep slopes above. The Parkway is closed occasionally in winter when these avalanches cover the road or the threat of them is considered to be too great. Immediately after these avalanche paths, the road begins a serious climb up towards Nigel Creek Canyon and a viewpoint of the canyon at kilometre 110. Just beyond that, the Parkway goes around the “Big Corner” and a sign announces that you are entering the Columbia Icefields area. Look up to the right, and that little sliver of road going way up there is exactly where you’re headed!
In the middle of your steep drive up to the Icefields, stop off at the viewpoint at kilometre 113 overlooking the North Saskatchewan River far below and enjoy one of the best views the Canadian Rockies has to offer. Soon after the viewpoint, you climb around a corner on the Parkway and get your first look at the ice-clad spiral that is the peak of Mt. Athabasca. Beneath the glaciers surrounding the peak and just off the road is the popular Hilda Creek hostel and the trail of one of the most rewarding short hikes in the world. Pull off at the parking lot at the 117-kilometre mark, and take an hour or two out of your schedule to take in the Parker Ridge hike, a three-kilometre round trip walk to a windswept ridge overlooking the vast Saskatchewan Glacier and the Columbia Icefield.
Immediately after the hostel the road climbs briefly into the alpine environment of Sunwapta Pass to the boundary between Banff and Jasper National Parks. On the other side of the pass are two semi-primitive car campgrounds that serve as excellent base camps for exploration of the Icefields area.
WARNING: Do not attempt to walk on the glacier by yourself.
Hidden cliffs and holes covered by a thin layer of snow are very common – take one of the commercial tours.
There have been several deaths from people falling thru one of these thin layers of snow and either dying from the fall or freezing to death.
BE SAFE – USE THE GUIDED TOURS
The Columbia Icefields Centre leaps into view at kilometre 127, and is a comprehensive information centre/restaurant/tour stop. The view from the Centre is absolutely magnificent, looking out across the jumbled moon-like landscape and Sunwapta Lake at the giant creeping toe of the Athabasca Glacier framed by Mt. Athabasca and Dome Peak. To the left on the slopes of Mt. Athabasca are three more glaciers, and to the right of Dome Peak lies the impressive, 30-metre thick Dome Glacier.
Spend an hour or two here at the Icefields, and walk out onto the Athabasca Glacier or take a Snobus tour. When you think you’ve had your fill of gazing back into the Ice Age, continue on your way towards Beauty Creek and the final stage of the Icefields Parkway.