Winter Roadtrips Driving the Icefields Parkway
|Entering the Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise.|
I have driven from coast to coast in Canada. Grew up in Ontario, spent 4 years of my 20’s in BC (3 in Vancouver, 1 in Kamloops) where I drove all the major routes from Kamloops to Vancouver (the Coquihalla, TransCanada Highway, and Highway 99). One of the most beautiful road trips Canada has to offer is the Ice fields Parkway in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The 232 km ride between Lake Louise and Jasper, Alberta is beautiful no matter what time of year you’re driving it. I have been fortunate enough to do so twice now, both times being in the winter, both coming with it’s risks and dangers. I’m no expert by any means, but I have accumulated a few insights , reflections and tips along the way that I would like to share here for those who are considering such a trip and have not been to the west coast of Canada either within, or from another country.
In order to get to the Canadian Rockies, most people will come in either through the Calgary International Airport (on the “South” end of the Icefields Parkway) or the Edmonton International Airport (on the “North” side of the Icefields Parkway).
You can rent a car from either the Calgary or Edmonton International Airports. Ensuring your car has winter tires is a necessity. In neighboring mountainous regions of British Columbia where you may decide to wander into as part of your itinerary to see Yoho and/or Mount Robson National Parks, it’s the law from October 1 – March 31, to have winter tires of M+S Rating of with at least 3.5 mm threads. There is no such mandatory law in Alberta, but skipping winter tires should not be taken lightly . Also, dress and pack clothes accordingly. Prepare a winter emergency kit. Some things you may be able to bring with you on a flight (ex. extra clothes, boots, flashlights), other things you cannot bring with you on a flight and will need to pick up at a store after you land, and before you drive out to the Rockies. You want to prepare for the worst: being stuck on a highway in a major snowstorm for an indefinite period of time. Finally, Alberta 511 is a handy website to monitor road conditions. A lot of the side roads and access points along the Icefields Parkway are closed for the winter and barricaded at the intersection (such as alternative route Highway 93A), so knowing this beforehand will help. Also, note that there are stretches of road along the Icefields Parkway where you will have no cell phone service. You may consider a satellite phone if the thought of not being connected for a few hours may cause you stress either due to anxiety or other reasons.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
There are a few things to consider here: weather and road conditions, accomodations, timing and route planning.
Weather and Road Conditions
The weather and conditions of the road obviously go hand in hand. No matter which direction you are going, either South to North (Lake Louise to Jasper) or North to South (Jasper-Lake Louise), you’ll see a yellow sign specific to winter driving conditions: Good, Fair, Poor and Closed. You can probably deduce that when there is an avalanche or extreme weather conditions, the Parkway will be closed, otherwise, travel conditions will be either fair or poor. Yet, you cannot assume even if the forecast calls for a clear sunny day, the roads will be listed as good. In both of my winter driving experiences, the road conditions were listed as poor, meaning, there will be some stretches where you will hit ice (some of it will be black ice), and you have to exercise caution. Being oblivious to the weather and changing road conditions is foolish. With that in mind, trying to plan a roadtrip through the Icefields Parkway based around an ever-changing weather forecast is tricky.
In the first of my two experiences, a 5 day excursion from Calgary to Jasper and back around New Years in -30 degree weather, the forecast was sunny and a 0% chance of snow every day. I got lucky. So, I could book accomodations a few days in advance knowing that likely my route won’t change. My second trip, was not so lucky in this department. Originally, I wanted to do the exact same drive from Calgary to Jasper on my first day, spend two nights in Jasper, and then drive back down to Lake Louise. So I made accommodations accordingly first in Jasper, then in Banff/Lake Louise. The problem was about 3 to 4 days prior to my trip, the forecast was calling for ~15 cm of snow at some of the higher elevations in the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefields area, around the time I would be driving, which changed everything. If you’re a local, or have extensive experience driving in high mountain altitudes, then you may feel more comfortable. But for everyone else, the Icefields Parkway can be tricky at times on a sunny day, and the last place I want to be in a snowstorm is the Athabasca Glacier.
|Even when it's a clear day, the road conditions can be poor. This is a stretch after passing the Columbia Icefields (Travelling South-North) where the road is essentially ice. They don't call it the "Icefields Parkway" for no reason.|
So, accommodation adjustments had to be made. I was able to take advantage of 48 to 72 hour cancellations at the hotels I had reserved a room for so that on my first day instead of driving to Jasper, I would stick around and explore more of Banff and Lake Louise (and even Emerald Lake), and then drive up to Jasper on the second day. Sure enough, I woke up the next morning alarmed to find out that the ~15 cm of snow also was pushed back another 24 hours, which leads me to the next point: weather forecasts can change just like that. It worked out on the end though as the forecast upgraded so that only
<1cm fell on both days, which is way more comfortable. It is better to be safe than sorry. Reserving hotels that had flexible cancellation policies allowed me to cancel the hotel I was planning to stay at in Jasper 3 days before and book another hotel for one day later. So, this may also be an important point to consider when booking your trip in the winter.
|On a sunny day, you can see those peaks clearly. Not today. Can you imagine the visibility during a snowstorm?!|
Route Planning and Timing
There are many different options ways to plan a road trip through the Icefields Parkway. What also needs to be considered is what do you plan on doing when you get there? Do you just want to take drive, take photos, and do a little exploring by foot? Or, do you want to incorporate a few ski/snowboard days in your trip as well? I will speak more on that in a bit.
The Calgary Airport is about an hour and change from the first ridge of the Rockies just before Canmore, Alberta, while the Edmonton Airport is a good 4 hour drive before you hit the first ridge of Rockies just after passing Hinton, Alberta. So there are several potential itineraries from either airport:
- Incoming early flight from Calgary to Jasper– Same day
- Incoming early flight from Calgary to Jasper via Banff/Lake Louise – As early as the next Day
- Incoming early flight from Edmonton to Lake Louise/Banff/Canmore – Same day
- Incoming early flight from Edmonton to Lake Louise/Banff/Canmore via Jasper – The next day
What itinerary is best? It will depend on what you want to do. As both of my trips were for the purpose of driving and taking photographs only, I will speak upon that perspective.
Of the above options, the hardest or longest option would be to land in Edmonton, then expect to drive 4 hours just to get to the rockies, then skim through Jasper National Park and Banff National Park to get to Lake Louise or Banff by the end of the day. With dwindling day light hours in the winter, at least half of your driving distance would be done in the dark, and you ideally want to avoid driving the Icefields at night time as there are no street lights to guide you. You would be best in scratching option c off your list. Thus, if you are flying into Edmonton, I recommend staying either in Hinton or somewhere within Jasper, so at the very least, you have the same day to explore Jasper town, or just seeing the vistas driving within the Highway 16 portion of Jasper National Park, as it may be even better than the Icefields Parkway. So, you do not want to drive through this without stopping over at least 40 times and appreciating what you are seeing in front of you. Then, at a bare minimum, you can hit the Icefields Parkway the day after landing.
For options out of Calgary, I have done both. I’ve landed in Calgary and drove through the Icefields Parkway to make it in time for Jasper slightly after dusk on day 1 when it’s a sunny day, and I have also (due to weather) booked in Banff/Lake Louise on day 1, which gives you time to explore the area and even Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park, and then take off for the Icefields Parkway on Day 2. Alternatively, it could be advantageous to arrive in Calgary the night before knowing that you’re only an hour and change away when you wake up in the morning.
But how much time do you need to spend in the Rockies? My honest answer is that anything short of relocating here is unacceptable (kidding). If you have a limited period of time though, I feel that you will need at an extreme minimum five days to drive the Icefields Parkway in the winter: My two roadtrips were for five and six days respectively, and found this was enough time to solely drive the icefields parkway in both directions (one day each direction), do a little bit of walking/driving around Jasper/Highway 16 (one day), and do a little bit of driving/exploring Lake Louise (one day), and then one day to get back to the airport. You could skip the driving within Jasper and Banff/Lake Louise, but that would be a lot of driving for two days. If I would incorporate any skiiing, snowboarding and/or snowshoeing on top, I would probably tackle another 2 or 3 days at least easily. So if you plan on adding any outdoor activities to your itinerary, then you want to give yourself more time.
I hope you enjoyed my reflections and/or got some insight about what it is like to roadtrip the Icefields Parkway in the winter time. It’s beautiful, but you have to be safe and plan ahead.
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