The Canadian Rockies never fail to amaze, and Jasper National Park is no exception. Together with Banff and other surrounding national and provincial parks, Jasper is part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’m so glad this whole area is protected, because it’s utterly beautiful!
Jasper is the largest of the Canadian Rockies parks, and also the one that contains the most glaciers. This can be mostly attributed to the presence of the Columbia Icefield, which holds the distinction of the being the largest icefield in North America. An icefield is a large area of interconnected glaciers – in this case, 125 square miles (200 km sq) of ice that feeds 8 glaciers and ranges from 330-1200 feet (100-365 m) deep!
The Columbia Icefield is also unique in that it’s on top of a triple divide – it spans both the Continental Divide and the Arctic Divide, meaning that water from the Icefield can travel to the Pacific Ocean, the Hudson Bay, or the Arctic Ocean. Interestingly, the exact high point of this triple divide changes from year to year based on snow accumulation.
Just a few miles after crossing the border between Banff and Jasper and decending off of Sunwapta Pass, we arrived at the Icefield Interpretive Center. This is a visitor center, camping facility for RVs, and home base for hikes and tours to the famous Athabasca Glacier. One of the 8 glaciers on the Columbia Icefield, this is the most accessible – in fact, it’s the most visited glacier not just in the park, but in North America! To get to the front edge (called the “toe”) of the glacier, it’s a 1 mile (1.6 km) round-trip hike from the Icefield Interpretive Center. From here, we could see the majority of the glacier. Besides being able to stand right next to a glacier, my favorite part was the way the thick layers of ice reflect the blue of the sky.
Athabasca Glacier currently covers about 2 square miles (5.2 sq km) and is 300-900 feet thick (100-300 m), but sadly it is receding rapidly. Signs denote the location of the edge of the glacier in the past 100 years, and it’s very sad to see how much ice has been lost. Even since the first time I visited Jasper in 2000, I could tell how much the glacier has receded.
Back on the Icefields Parkway, we passed 2 beautiful waterfalls. Tangle Falls tumbles beautifully, but very haphazardly, over multiple tiers of rock, falling a total of 141 feet (43 m). Funny story – my mom has had a photograph of the top portion of Tangle Falls hanging in her house for years, but it took me until about a year ago to realize that I recognized it.
We stopped briefly at the overlook for Stutfield Glacier before arriving at Sunwapta Falls. Getting to the falls requires taking a short drive off the Icefields Parkway, but no hiking is necessary.
At last, we arrived at our campsite for the night at the primitive Honeymoon Lake campground. It’s a small, quiet campground on the shores of an equally small and peaceful lake.
This was also the first time since Banff that there was a full day without a high chance of rain, so we took the opportunity to dry out our thoroughly soggy camp gear. We pitched our tent and tipped it onto its side so the bottom would dry, spread the rainfly over a bush, and hung our sleeping bags, rain coats, and other damp clothing over anything we could find/rig up.
Though we had an amazing trip, the weather was less than ideal for much of it. In exchange for beautiful scenery, the mountains provided us with ever-changing and unpredictable weather.
Up next – a continuation of our northward journey through Jasper!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Jasper National Park is located west of Edmonton, Alberta and directly north of Banff National Park along Highway 93/Icefields Parkway
- Fees & passes: $9.80 CAD/person/day or $19.60 CAD/car – this is good for Jasper and all the surrounding Canadian Rockies parks; Parks Canada Annual Pass accepted
- Camping: We stayed at Honeymoon Lake campground, located halfway between the Banff/Jasper border and the Jasper townsite. 35 sites, primitive (no showers or flush toilets), $15.70 CAD per night; reservations not accepted
- Hiking: There are many trails in the southern portion of Jasper. To get to Athabasca Glacier, it’s an easy 1 mile (1.6 km) round-trip hike.
- Other: It’s not recommended/very dangerous to step onto the glacier – there are hidden cracks and crevasses, and there’s water running underneath the glacier so the snow and ice may not be stable.