Section 4: The Columbia Icefields to Jasper
Total distance: 103 kilometres (64 miles)
Travel time: 1.5 hours
Mountain caribou - © John Marriott
As you depart from the Icefields Centre, the Parkway dips down slightly and travels along the gravel bed of the upper Sunwapta River for a few kilometres, then climbs abruptly to a viewpoint of Sunwapta Canyon and Mt. Kitchener at kilometre 130. Off in the distance to the left is Mt. Athabasca and the Athabasca Glacier that you just came from.
The hill that you’re on is called Tangle Ridge, and the cliffs along the right side of the road are favourite hangouts of both mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Be careful driving in this area, the sheep love to come down and lick the salt off the road!
On the other side of Tangle Ridge lies Tangle Falls, a beautiful series of cascades that is best photographed on cloudy days or early in the morning. Just beyond the falls is the viewpoint for the Stutfield Glacier and the north face of Mt. Kitchener at the 135-kilometre mark. The road continues to descend from the viewpoint down to the gravel flats of the Sunwapta River. The flats extend for kilometre upon kilometre, and are an excellent place to see the elusive mountain caribou that are an endangered species in Alberta. The caribou use the flats as spring and winter feeding grounds, and are often easy to spot in May just before you reach the Beauty Creek hostel at kilometre 144. The next ten kilometres pass through spruce forest above the Sunwapta River, offering views up to Mushroom and Diadem Peaks on the other side of the river. Watch for caribou in the winter along this stretch, and for grizzly bears during spring, summer and fall. After the Sunwapta Warden Station at kilometre 158 the Parkway meanders alongside the Sunwapta River periodically, passing through more subalpine spruce forest before reaching the Bubbling Springs picnic area twelve kilometres later.
Stop off at Sunwapta Falls at the 175-kilometre mark and enjoy the views from the boardwalk high above the plunging waters. The road continues through the forest beyond Sunwapta Falls, following the Athabasca River past the Honeymoon Lake Campground and viewpoints of Mt. Christie, Mt. Fryatt and the Athabasca Valley. As you wind through this section, the road gradually takes you from the subalpine forest environment down into the lower elevation montane zone. You’ll notice the forest on either side of you slowly transforming — spruce trees are replaced by Douglas firs and lodgepole pines, and aspen stands become more and more frequent. A viewpoint at kilometre 192 at the Kerkeslin Goat Lick provides an outstanding vista across the Athabasca River to Mts. Christie, Brussels and Fryatt (left to right, respectively). The white exposed soil on either side of the road and at the viewpoint is a mineral lick frequented by mountain goats that descend from their safe homes on the cliffs of Mt. Kerkeslin (the red cliff faces far above the road to the right) to the get a piece of the salty action.
Seven kilometres beyond the goat lick, at kilometre 199, is the turn-off for Highway 93A and Athabasca Falls. The falls are spectacular, with water surging down into a narrow gorge right beside the parking lot and spilling out into a great emerald pool below. Take fifteen minutes for a look and quick walk around, then return to the Parkway or continue on down the 93A to Jasper. Back on the Icefields Parkway, the remainder of the journey in to Jasper is relatively uneventful in terms of scenery as you pass through the forested valley bottom of the Athabasca River. However, keep your eyes open for the many black bears and elk that frequent this area, particularly near the Valley of the Five Lakes trailhead at kilometre 220.
The final few kilometres of the Icefields Parkway roll through beautiful aspen stands past the Whistlers Campground and a number of resorts before reaching the end of the line, the town of Jasper.