My Alberta Summer Getaway – Exploring The Columbia Icefield

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Can you believe that I’ve moved to Calgary for a year already but hadn’t had a chance to visit Banff until few weeks ago? Summer is finally here (thank god! I can’t stand any of that freezing cold weather anymore!!). To celebrate the end of the winter season, Kev and I planned a weekend getaway to Banff National Park, which is just an hour away from Calgary (Woo~hoo~).

My last visit to Banff was in 2005 when my mom joined a tour group and came to Canada to visit me in Vancouver. That was back in first year university. As soon as I finished all my classes, I joined them on their road trip to Banff. Gosh, that was soooo long ago. I had only hazy memories of what Banff was like. All I could recall were the lengthy, laborious bus ride, white snow, and townhouses. 

This time, I did plenty of research and bought a travel package to 3 attraction sites- Glacier Adventure at Columbia Icefield, Glacier Skywalk and Banff Lake Cruise. Glacier Adventure and Glacier Skywalk are located nearby Jasper National Park, which is about 2.5 hours away from Banff. To ensure we had enough time to cover all 3 attractions, we woke up super early on the first day and headed straight towards Columbia Icefield.

From Calgary, we took Trans-Canada Hwy #1 to Lake Louise, then drove on The Icefields Parkway Hwy 93 to Columbia Icefield.

alberta map

Unlike Hwy #1, Hwy 93 is a much narrower road, traversing the rugged landscape of the Canadian Rockies. It is one of the world’s most scenic highways. In fact, it is identified by National Geographic as one of the “drives of a lifetime”. The scenic drive takes you through pristine mountains, sweeping valleys, lakes and ancient glaciers. If you are lucky, you might encounter wildlife on the side of the road!

The Icefield Parkway Hwy 93

The Icefield Parkway Hwy 93

Did you see the snowy mountain tops? Yeah, we were getting closer to the destination!

2014-06-26 13.04.09_1

Ta-da! Here we were at the Columbia Icefield 🙂

Columbia Icefield

Columbia Icefield

Columbia Icefield

Columbia Icefield

I know what you are thinking… “This is it???”

Hold on, not so fast. What we just saw is the zoom-out view. First of all, we needed to go to the second floor of the Visitor’s Center and register for the next available tour. For those of you who didn’t purchase your ticket online, you could buy it at the counter here. The ticket price for adult is CDN$49.95 plus tax. If you’re planning to see more than one attraction (which I highly recommend), you can consider the combo packages to save money. We bought the Valley Explorer package (glacier adventure+glacier skywalk+lake cruise) at CND$94.95 per person plus tax. What a steal!

Although it is summer, temperature at the glacier is much lower than in Banff. Remember to bring long-sleeved shirt, long trousers, closed toes shoes and sunglasses.


All set! We were ready to go! First, we hopped onto the shuttle bus, which took us to the edge of the Athabasca Glacier. Then, we transferred to a snow coach bus, which is designed to operate on snow and ice.

Snow Coach

Snow Coach

On our way to the glacier, the driver/tour guide provided fascinating commentary of the Alberta glacier region, including its history, geology and ecology.

Columbia Icefield, one of the largest ice masses south of the Arctic Circle, is composed of eight major glaciers. It is about 325 sq. km in area (which is larger than the area covered by the city of Vancouver) and 100-365 m in depth. It is an important source of the northern hemisphere’s water supply as it feeds all 3 oceans- the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic.

Today, we visited the Athabasca Glacier, the most accessible glacier in the world. It encompasses an area of 6 sq km (only 2.8% of the Columbia Icefield) and reaches as deep as 300 m. After 125 years of melting, it has already lost half of its volume and has receded more than 1.5 km.

Looking out from the window, the vast, boundless frozen surfaces came into view. As well as piles of glacier debris.




As we were getting close to the edge of the glacier, the bus suddenly crawled down a steep 35 degree incline. It felt like riding on a roller coaster!! My heart almost stopped beating. Luckily, the snow coach was relatively stable.

On the further side, there were a group of people walking on the glacier. The tour guide told us that they were on a ice walk tour, led by experienced guide. It is a great way to get close, superb views of the glacial features, ice carved landscapes and other alpine glaciers. The tour duration ranges from 3-6 hours and costs at least CDN$80 per person. We were on a tight schedule this time. Our tour only took about 1.5 hours in total.



The snow coach slowly pulled up at the look-out area. We were given about 10 mins to walk around and take photos.


Look at the awe-inspiring views!! I felt so small and insignificant in the face of such a display of nature.


I couldn’t believe I stepped on a glacier. It felt like a dream~




I was so excited that I almost forgot the coldness.


I touched the ice and the iciness cut to my bone. It was then I realized I was not dreaming!


Haha, Kev was freezing. He forgot to bring his thick jacket. He relied on my scarf to keep him warm.


We found a few small streams of glacier water flowing through the ice.



Upon my request, Kev helped fill up my water bottle with the freshest water.



If you look closely at the cross-section of the ice mass, you will realize that the color gets more turquoise at the bottom. That is because the bottom layer gets so dense and compressed that air bubbles and other impurities have been pushed out. When the light passes through, it absorbs all the colors in the spectrum except blue.


Happy moment passed by so quickly. It was time to say goodbye to Athabasca Glacier :'(


Lastly, I would like to share a discovery with you guys. Near the parking lot at the Visitor’s Center, we found a marker showing where the toe of the glacier rested in 1843! We were stepping on where the glacier used to be!


I must say this is one of the most stunning views I have ever seen. Such a memorable experience. Truly a one-in-a-lifetime experience you can’t afford to miss! If you are planning to pay it a visit, keep in mind that glacier adventure is only open in the summer from mid-April to mid-October 🙂

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17 Comments Leave a Comment »

  1. It is a brilliant experience to stand and walk around on something that is always moving and changing. And of course the water is so very pure…

  2. How awesome! The landscape there is so stunning, and it must have been such a thrill to be walking on a glacier. That water must have been delicious!

  3. What a fun experience. I visited the icefields a few years ago but I did not take the tour out onto the glacier… totally missed out!

  4. I feel ashamed as a Canadian to have never seen these fantastic landscapes with my own eyes! Other than driving from Calgary to Vancouver, I’ve never been anywhere else in Alberta and have really been seeing lately that it’s a huge mistake. How wonderful are these icefields though? Wow. Simply stunning!

    • Canada has so many beautiful landscapes and wildlife! I never realized that while living in Vancouver for 4 years. It was until a year ago when I moved to Calgary, I came to appreciate the mountains and nature. Next time, stop by Golden on your way to Vancouver. It is a cute little town that offers some fun outdoor activities. My favorites are whitewater rafting and horseback riding 🙂

  5. What an amazing experience. I haven’t had the chance to get out to Alberta yet, but it makes me so proud of how beautiful Canada is, and how I’m proud to be Canadian! 🙂 I want to drink from a glacier! Thanks so much for joining up with #WeekendWanderlust!

  6. Wow, what a neat experience to be able to walk on top of a glacier or two. We got pretty close to a few in Alaska and it was freezing. We were suppose to go on a helicopter ride to the top of a glacier and walk around. Unfortunately, the flight was cancelled due to the weather. We were bummed out and very disappointed. Thanks for linking up again to #WeekendWanderlust.

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  11. We would love to visit an icefield. It makes me think of going to see polar bears riding on those ice trucks. You and Kevin were so cute back then.

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