Hiking the Canadian Rockies, Jasper, Columbia Icefield

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Written by Paul Peters posted on Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Hiking the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park, Canadian Rockies

The Columbia Icefield is one one of the most unique sights in the Canadian Rockies.

The Columbia Icefield is one one of the most unique sights in the Canadian Rockies.

One of the most singularly amazing sights available in Jasper National Park and the Canadian Rockies is the Columbia Icefield, one of the largest icefields in North America. While it is possible to walk up to the edge of the icefield and touch it, fly over it with a helicopter, or take a driving tour over it, one of the most gratifying and singular experiences is hiking over the ice. Below you’ll find the essential information for getting out onto the ice.

First, tips and advice

For these hikes, travel 90 to 120 km south from Jasper along Highway 93, the Icefields Parkway. There are no gas stations between Jasper and Saskatchewan Crossing (154 km south of Jasper), so be sure you have enough fuel. Highlights along the way: Athabasca Falls, 31 km from Jasper; Goats and Glaciers Viewpoint, 38 km; Sunwapta Falls, 55 km; Bubbling Springs Picnic Area, 60 km; Tangle Falls, 99 km. Rugged mountain terrain and alpine vegetation make the area around the Columbia Icefield exceptionally beautiful, but temperatures are cool and winds are often strong. Showers of cold rain are frequent, and wet snow is always a possibility, even in midsummer. Be sure to pack an extra sweater, gloves, and a jacket with a hood.

Ok then, the hikes

Beauty Creek and Stanley Falls

The trail follows a low dike across a wet area to the old, torn-up BanffJasper Highway, completed in 1940 and since realigned. Turn right and follow the old route until you reach a bridge abutment, where a rough trail branches to the left and continues along the narrow, deep limestone gorge of Beauty Creek. Caution: no guardrails! The trail passes by seven small waterfalls before reaching Stanley Falls, which is higher. If you see a little grey bird jumping in and out of the cold glacial water, it’s an American dipper.

Distance: 6.4 km return (2-3 hours)

Trailhead: 90 km south of Jasper, one-half kilometre past Beauty Creek Hostel, look for a small pulloff and hiker sign on the left (east) side of the highway.

Athabasca Glacier Forefield

The trail crosses the forefield of the glacier: the barren area exposed by glacial melt since the mid-1840s. It’s a strange landscape of bare rock, boulders and moraines. Conditions are extreme here, but hardy alpine plants have gained a foothold. Please help to protect them by staying on the trail. Wear sturdy shoes and bring a jacket for crossing this rocky, breezy terrain. Be prepared to turn back: meltwater streams flow across the trail, and on warmer days they can get large enough to cause problems.

Distance: 2 km to the toe of the glacier and back (30-60 minutes)

Trailhead: 105 km south of Jasper, directly across from the Icefield Centre building, turn right onto the Athabasca Glacier access road. Park soon after, where the road turns right again, in a small lot by a gate.

Kids enjoying some of the freshest water in the world on the Columbia Icefield.

Kids enjoying some of the freshest water in the world on the Columbia Icefield.

Toe of the Athabasca Glacier

The trail begins by the interpretive signs in the southwest corner of the lot.Once across the bridge over a meltwater stream from the glacier, you’re walking at times on glacially smoothed limestone surfaces that were under the ice in the 1950s. Scratches and gouges in the rock are aligned with the ice flow. The trail steepens and reaches the top of a rock bench, where you can see the edge of the glacier just ahead. By all means, approach the ice it’s wonderful to be able to actually touch a glacier but watch where you put your feet! Avoid any places that look wet. You can plunge past your ankles into water-saturated mud known locally as glacial goop. And if you go on the ice itself, stay in the safe area. Read the warning box beside the map.

Distance: 1 km return (20-30 minutes)

Trailhead: directly across from the Icefield Centre building, turn off Highway 93 onto the access road for the Athabasca Glacier. Turn right soon after, and follow the road down to the parking lot.

Wilcox Pass

To avoid an impassable canyon on the Sunwapta River north of the Athabasca Glacier, aboriginal families and later travellers on horseback used this bypass route, now named for early Rockies climber Walter Wilcox. The first kilometre of the trail is fairly steep, but it gets easier as you cross the treeline and reach the wide-open pass area. Watch for bighorn rams in the flowery meadows. A side trip of 200 m across the tundra to the left (west) will take you to a grand view of (left to right), Mt. Athabasca, Mt. Andromeda, the Athabasca Glacier, Snow Dome, the Dome Glacier and Mt. Kitchener. Note: the pass area can be snowy until late July. Most hikers go no farther than the summit marker, but good route-finders can follow the indistinct, boggy trail northward. Keep to the left, along the base of Wilcox Peak, until you descend steeply past two small ponds, after which the trail improves. It follows the valley of Tangle Creek down to Highway 93 at the Tangle Falls parking area, 96 km south of Jasper.

Distance: 8 km to the pass and back, 11.2 km one way to Tangle Falls (4-6 hours)

Trailhead: the parking area on the left-hand side of the Wilcox Creek Campground entrance road, 3.1 km south of the Icefield Centre.

Parker Ridge

This well-defined trail switchbacks 275 m up a moderate grade to the top of a tundra-clad ridge above the treeline. Keep going over the top and slightly down the other side for a remarkable eagle’s-eye view of the Saskatchewan Glacier. In good weather the source of the glacier is visible off to the right: the southern part of the Columbia Icefield and Castleguard Mountain (3077m). Across the glacier the highest summit is Mt. Saskatchewan (3342 m). From mid-July to mid-August you’ll see blue alpine forget-me-nots and cushions of pink moss campion on Parker Ridge. Mountain goats use the area. This trail is very popular, so it’s important to follow the established pathway. Short-cutting damages the delicate alpine vegetation and leads to erosion of the thin soil cover, especially in spring, when the trail may be closed.

Distance: 5.2 km return (2-3 hours)

Trailhead: 8.8 km south of the Icefield Centre on Highway 93, past Hilda Creek Hostel. Look for the hiker sign at the large parking lot on the right.

Nigel Pass

After a short walk downhill along the road, the trail branches to the right and crosses Nigel Creek. From there you pass through subalpine forest, cross several shrubby avalanche tracksno danger in summerand reach meadows that offer views of Mt. Athabasca, Parker Ridge, Nigel Peak and Mt. Saskatchewan. The final kilometre to the pass is fairly steep; total elevation gain for the day is 320 m. If you walk a half-kilometre beyond the pass, you are rewarded with a fine view eastward into the Brazeau River back-country. Warning! Unless you are with a professionally guided group, stay within the safe, fenced-in area of the Athabasca Glacier. Over the years several people have died from falling into crevasses. These deep, ice-cold cracks in the glacier lie hidden below a thin covering of snow that may collapse under a person’s weight. Millwellsplaces where meltwater plunges down deep vertical shafts in the iceare slippery around their entrances and extremely dangerous. Glacier travel outside the safe area should be attempted only by experienced and properly equipped mountaineers.

Distance: 14.4 km return (full-day hike)

Trailhead: 12 km south of the Icefield Centre, park at the start of a gated road on the left (east) side of Highway 93. Please do not block the gate.

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