Part of the vast Columbia Icefield that straddles the border between Alberta’s Banff and Jasper National Parks, the Athabasca Glacier—a huge swath of moving ice—is one of the most accessible and awe-inspiring glaciers in North America. Like most glaciers, Athabasca is shrinking, though the slowly moving ice mass is still impressively large: It covers an area of about 2.3 square miles (six square kilometers) and measures up to 980 feet (300 meters) at its thickest point.
Most visitors begin their Athabasca explorations at the Icefield Centre, where interpretive displays and a Parks Canada kiosk provide information on the glacier. Across from the center is the 2.2-mile (3.6-kilometer) Forefield Trail, which crosses over a boulder-scattered area once covered by the glacial ice, and the 1.1-mile (1.8-kilometer) Toe of the Athabasca Glacier Trail, which leads right to the glacier’s edge. To venture farther out on the 10,000-year-old glacier, join a tour on the Ice Explorer, a purpose-built all-terrain vehicle. Or opt for a hiking tour led by alpine guides. Organized day trips depart from Jasper and Banff, and most incorporate other Canadian Rockies highlights, such as Lake Louise, the Glacier Skywalk, and Crowfoot Glacier.
Things to Know Before You Go
- It can be cold and windy near the glacier, so wear warm layers.
- Pay heed to warning tape, which is designed to keep visitors away from dangerous crevasses.
- Bring an empty bottle or cup to fill up with fresh, glacial water.
- The Icefield Centre is accessible to wheelchair users, and the Ice Explorer fleet includes vehicles equipped to carry wheelchairs.
How to Get There
The Athabasca Glacier is located along Icefields Parkway, a scenic 143-mile (230-kilometer) highway connecting Jasper with Lake Louise. The Icefield Centre is about 64 miles (103 kilometers) from Jasper and 53 miles (185 kilometers) from Banff. If driving, be aware that only one gas station operates on the parkway, and is open only during the summer season.
When to Get There
Glacier tours are weather-dependent and usually run from around mid-April to mid-October. Avoid the winter months, when the Icefield Centre is closed and conditions can sometimes render the Icefields Parkway impassable. Go before lunchtime or after 3pm to avoid peak visiting hours.
The Columbia Icefield
The Athabasca Glacier is just one of eight major glaciers that make up the 125-square-mile (325-square-kilometer) Columbia Icefield, one of the biggest masses of snow and ice south of the Arctic Circle. The glacier lies on the Continental Divide, with all of its meltwater eventually ending up in one of three places: the Arctic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, or the Atlantic Ocean.