The Columbia Icefield is located roughly midway down the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies, roughly at the border of Jasper and Banff National Parks. The Columbia Icefields has several named glaciers, but the Athabasca Glacier is the main one that is accessible and most visible from the highway and visitor centre.
The Columbia Icefield is about 325 square kilometres in area and is the largest region of ice and snow south of the Arctic Circle. Melting snow and ice feed rivers that drain into the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic Oceans. This makes that point, the summit of Snow Dome, one of only 2 hydrologic apexes in North America. There are 8 glaciers making up the Icefield but only three can be seen from the Icefield Parkway.
The area can get as much as much as 10 meters (33 ft) of snow each year. A warming climate and less snow each winter has seen all of the Icefield's glaciers retreat over the past century.
The average elevation of the Icefield is about 3,000 meters with Mt Columbia being the highest point (and the highest point in Alberta) at 3,747 meters (about 12,300 ft). Unfortunately, this peak can't be seen from the highway although you can get a glimpse of it from Mt Wilcox, a moderate hike and scramble in the area.
Explorers Wilcox and Barrett were the first to see the Columbia Icefields in 1896. Collie and Woolley were the first to climb Mt Athabasca and the first to see the actual Icefield itself in 1898.
Much of the landscape here is pretty bleak. You're either looking at snow and ice or rocky rubble uncovered by the receding glacier. Impressive mountains rise up almost from the highway.
The only possible access for the travelling public is by the Icefield Parkway from Lake Louise and Saskatchewan River Crossing from the south or from Jasper to the north. It is possible to get onto the actual Icefield on foot or on skies from other directions, but these are remote wilderness routes suitable for experienced back-country travellers only.
The Columbia Icefield lies partly within the boundaries of Jasper and Banff National Parks on the Icefields Parkway. Both Parks charge entrance fees for all travel on this highway. The fees charged in parks are numerous and have been increasing regularly in recent years. Current information is best obtained from the Parks Canada website
The main attraction, other than the displays in the Icefield Centre, is the walk to the toe of the glacier. It's just across the road from the Centre and you can walk or drive to that parking lot. The campgrounds are a short distance south from the Centre but far enough to ride or drive. If you are taking the glacier bus tour, you will park at the Centre and join the crowds on the buses provided.
- Icefield Centre. Parks Canada has a Glacier Gallery Exhibit which is a self-guided tour of how glaciers move, the importance of glaciers and information about the natural history of the area.
- Glacier Experience. Tours operate from early April to mid-October.. Brewster Bus Company has a number of huge buses (Ice Explorers or Snocoaches), which will take you out onto the Athabasca Glacier where you can walk around The cost is about $49.95 for adults and $24.95 for children (2011 rates)..
- Glacier Skywalk. also operated by Brewster. You are bused from the centre a kilometre or so north along the Parkway to be herded onto a see-through catwalk over the edge of the valley face. Apart from the the opportunity to look down view is similar to other side of the road pull-offs.
- Walk to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, about a kilometre past the lower parking lot. It's a gravel path but presents no real difficulties even though warning for at start of walk for those with weak hearts or lungs. Due to crevasse you are strongly advised not to leave the trail. Take note of signs showing where the toe was only a few decades ago. The glacier in 1920 was almost at what is now the main road.
- Hike one of the trails in the area, like the Wilcox Pass Trail.
- Ice Walk. Guided hike on the glacier.
There is a gift shop in the Icefield Centre.
Gas (petrol) is available in Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff. There is a gas station at Saskatchewan River Crossing, about half an hour south, but it is seasonal and prices tend to reflect its isolation and lack of competition.
Nothing in the way of supplies is available at the Icefields Centre. If you plan to hang around in the area for a few days, it's best to stock up before you leave Banff or Jasper.
There is one restaurant and one cafeteria in the Icefield Centre. There are no other eating or drinking establishments in the area. The closest options would be in the town-site of Jasper, about 1 hour north, the town of Lake Louise, where there is limited food facilities available and the town of Banff, where there are many more options. Lake Louise and Banff are about 1 hr 45 minutes and about 2.5 hours south, respectively.
Other than what's available in the restaurant or the cafeteria, there are no watering holes anywhere in the area. Facilities in this area are pretty basic and geared more towards viewing and interacting with the natural world. There's nothing here that would pass for night life. Such options can only be found in Jasper, Lake Louise or Banff.
There are few choices in this part of the Park. Either you camp or you stay at the Glacier View Inn. There is also a hostel not too far away (see below).
- The Glacier View Inn, ☎ +1 780-852-6550. is in the Icefield Centre and has 32 rooms available. There are low season and high season rates, with the summer months falling into the high season category when all rooms are priced in the range of $250/night.
- Hostelling International's Hilda Creek Hostel (is 8 km south of the Columbia Icefields), ☎ +1 403 762-4122. It has 21 beds. Reservations recommended. from $14/night.
There are three campgrounds in the immediate vicinity of the Icefields, one of those being an RV campground. There are a number of other campgrounds available both north and south of the Icefields.
- Columbia Icefields campground (located about 2 km south of the Visitor Centre.). with 33 sites
- Wilcox Creek campground (located about 3.5 km south of the Visitor Centre.). with 46 sites
- Icefield Centre RV campground (located about 2 km south of the Visitor Centre.). with 100 sites
Some nearby hiking trails have back-country campgrounds but there is nothing official in the immediate vicinity of the Icefields. Mountaineers will make use of informal bivi's on or near the glaciers. Such arrangements are for experienced mountaineers only.
It is possible to hike up to the toe of the glacier from a parking lot off the main road. Unless you have proper equipment and experience with glacier travel, it is NOT safe to venture out onto the glacier itself, whether the glacier is snow-covered or even when it is bare ice. This cannot be stressed enough. It may look safe, but it's not. Parks Canada may have a small area of the glacier roped off where you can get onto the ice where it is safe. Be cautious. Snow-covered crevasses are invisible until you fall into them and bare ice can be slippery without notice. Many people have died of hypothermia and injuries sustained because of falls into crevasses. Don't add to the statistics.
There are numerous hiking options in the area. Hiking trails require only a general level of fitness and no special equipment. ALL glacier travel requires special equipment and special training. Some hiking options include:
- Wilcox Pass - starting behind one of the campgrounds, this hiking trail climbs up to an alpine meadow with access to Mt Wilcox, a moderate scramble with great views.
- Parker Ridge - the trail-head is about 10 km south of the Icefield Centre close to the Hilda Creek Hostel. Quite popular in winter as a back-country ski location (with attention needed for potential avalanches), it's also a moderate hike in summer to the top of the ridge with excellent views of the Saskatchewan Glacier and Castlegard Meadows.
- Numa Pass - the trail-head is a short distance south of Parker Ridge and leads to a very popular back-country hiking route called the Brazeau Loop. Parts of the trail are quite high elevation and there is a possibility of seeing caribou and other wildlife like grizzly bears, hopefully at a safe distance.
- Saskatchewan Glacier - at the bottom of the big hill and the big bend in the highway south of the Centre, it is possible to find a hiking trail that crosses the North Saskatchewan River and makes its way to the valley that contains the Saskatchewan Glacier. A moderate day hike will take you to the toe of that glacier and back to the road.