Five stops along the Icefields Parkway in Jasper and Banff National Parks

If you’re visiting both Jasper and Banff national parks on your Canadian Rockies vacation (and you should be!), you will drive the Icefields Parkway connecting the two parks. This 3 hour stretch has been described as one of the most scenic highways in the world, and after our fall 2013 visit, I concur. The parkway takes approximately 3.5 hours to drive, but families will definitely want to stop along the way. Where to plan you pit stops:

Icefields parkway hiking

Sunwapta Falls:
About 30 km from Jasper, you’ll come to Sunwapta Falls. Signage clearly marks this point-of-interest, but you can also spot it by the resort and restaurant sitting roadside. Stop for a snack or trip to the restroom, but definitely drive beyond the resort to the falls, which can be viewed from above next to the parking lot or from a footbridge a few yards down. The falls are impressive (yes, even if you’ve been to Jasper’s Maligne Canyon), and even though this isn’t a hiking location, it’s a great place for photos and to let kids stretch their legs.

Icefield Centre:
Athabasca Glacier lies at the approximate halfway point of the Icefields Parkway, as visitors steadily climb up into the mountains from either direction. At the glacier you’ll find the Icefield Centre, a huge building run by Brewster’s Canada. On-site is a restaurant and cafe, plus hotel rooms and a large observation deck. On the ground level is Brewster’s Glacier Adventure.

brewsters glacier adventure

One look out onto the glacier from the deck, and your kids will see what Glacier Adventure is, and probably want to do it: visitors board bus-sized all-terrain vehicles and drive out onto the ice, where they can stand out on the glacier. Sounds cool, but is it worth the $49/adults and $25/kids ticket price? That depends on what you want out of it: if you want to be able to say you’ve walked on a glacier or simply love cool vehicles, the answer is yes. If you expect an adventurous experience or a hike, the answer is no.

glacier adventure

The vehicles, called Ice Explorers, take you along a short but steep road (the second steepest commercial road in North America, to be exact) leading onto the ice. Once there, they park in a snowplowed area the size of a small parking lot along with other Ice Explorers and let you out to walk on the snow. What we liked most about the experience: the interesting facts presented by our guide. Note: Expect to get your feet wet unless wearing waterproof boots, and bring gloves and a jacket.

Parker Ridge trailhead:
There are multiple trailheads along Icefields Parkway, all clearly marked (and most with parking areas and decent pit toilets). One of manageable length for a brief stop is Parker Ridge, which lies just beyond the Icefield Centre toward Banff. The 3 km round-trip hike offers views of the Saskatchewan Glacier and Mt. Castleguard on a clear day.

Peyto Lake and Bow Summit:
Peyto is a short road-side hike to the lake, with the option of hiking further toward Bow Summit for alpine wildflower viewing and meadows. This is the highest point on the Icefields Parkway. Picnic tables make this a great place to stop and picnic and photographers will be happy!

lake louise

Lake Louise:
Only 57 km from Banff, Lake Louise is a must-do stop, if not an overnight or all-day excursion. From the Lake Louise exit, the lakeshore is only a few kilometers away. Park in the large parking lot and walk to the lake to take in the views and snap some photos, gawk at beautiful Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, and, if time permits, take a hike. The lake loop is an easy walk for kids of all ages, but if you have time, we recommend the 7 km round trip ascent to Lake Agnes (trail departs directly from Lake Louise). For your efforts, you’re rewarded with tea, coffee, or a snack at the picturesque Lake Agnes Tea House at the top.

See our video review of more things to do in the Canadian Rockies:

Tip: Remember that you’ll pass the national park ticket booth on either end of the Icefields Parkway. At the time of this writing, admission to the parks was almost $10 per day for adults (almost $5 for kids) or a family fee of under $20 per day. You only need to pay once, and display a receipt on the dashboard of your car.

As I disclose whenever applicable, we were hosted for some activities along the Icefields Parkway, for the purpose of review.