Canada: Alberta's Icefields Parkway

Text: Patrick Gibson • Photography: Patrick Gibson

Every year thousands of tourists travel west from Calgary into British Columbia's interior, and many miss the most scenic parts of the province. Alberta is considered one of Canada's three prairie provinces, but it's the one with the most varied terrain: desert in the southeast corner in an area called the Palliser Triangle; Boreal forest across the north; and the majestic Canadian Rockies in the west.

As I roll my 2009 Concours out of my Edmonton garage this July morning, my goal is a one-day ride that will take me southwest to Rocky Mountain House, where I will then travel west through the Kootenay Plains Ecological Reserve to Saskatchewan River Crossing, which is Jasper National Park's southern border and Banff National Park's northern border. Here I will pick up the Icefields Parkway and follow it to Jasper then back home to Edmonton.

Canada's forefathers had enough foresight to establish two national parks in the Alberta Rockies. Banff National Park, established in 1885, was Canada's first national park, and Jasper National Park, established in 1907, is Canada's largest national park in the Canadian Rockies. Both parks are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Make no mistake, I find the ride from Edmonton to Rocky Mountain House uninspiring at best. It's not uncommon to crest a small hill and see the road laid out arrow straight until it disappears over the next distant hill.

After fueling up in Rocky Mountain House and heading west, the fun part of the ride starts. It is 112 miles from Rocky Mountain House to Saskatchewan River Crossing, just inside the park boundary. As I go farther the smooth two-lane blacktop gradually starts to climb and turn, and the dark line across the horizon that could easily be mistaken for looming thunderstorms gradually materializes into the outline of the Rocky Mountains. Even though it's late July, there are peaks in this area that are still covered in snow.

The David Thompson Highway ends when it reaches the Icefields Parkway, and here there are only two choices, left and south to Lake Louise or right and north to Jasper. The Icefields Parkway runs north and south in the shadow of the great Continental Divide, where all rivers on the east side of the divide flow to the Arctic Ocean, Hudson's Bay or into the Mississippi drainage system. All rivers on the west side flow to the Pacific.
As I ride toward the Columbia Icefields the road really starts to climb, and the thought of ascending up the Big Bend pass to Parker Ridge is exciting. It's been years since I've traveled this road by motorcycle, and I'm looking forward to taking a break at the top of the pass and enjoying the view. Even though I'm stuck behind a motor home and bleeding off speed, the Concours pulls smoothly all the way to the top. As expected the pullout is packed with motor homes, trailers and people walking every which way, and parking is at a premium. I wait for a small car to vacate a spot along the guardrail then I gingerly roll the bike backwards into the hole. Even though there's a stout guardrail in place, the sheer drop on the other side is intimidating.

After a short chat with a southbound biker, I load up and continue toward another small pass and, eventually, the Columbia Icefields. The Icefields are abuzz with tourists and even though extra parking lots have been added since I was here last, finding a spot to park isn't easy. The Icefields Interpretive Center is packed but definitely worth the time it takes to stroll through the exhibits. Looking at the center's photos of the glacier and looking across the valley at the glacier today really shows how much it has receded, an unfortunate sign of the times.

More than two million tourists visit Jasper National Park every year, and the Icefields Interpretive Center is one of the few places in the park that gets crowded. As I continue my trek north I'm amazed at how free flowing the traffic is. The parkway gradually drops down from the Columbia Icefields to the river valley below and parallels the Sunwapta River north to Jasper.

Jasper is a quaint mountain town, and unlike Banff it hasn't seen the spate of development that Banff endured before the federal government tightened the rules regarding development in mountain parks. You can still see elk and deer wandering through the town's small residential areas.

Even though I've chosen to do this 584-mile trip in one day it would ideally make a leisurely two-day trip, with Jasper being the hub of your sightseeing. There is an abundance of accommodations in Jasper, though reserving a room in the summer months would be a wise choice. There are many sights within a one-hour drive.

As I start the four-hour journey back to the city, I'm glad to be on the four-lane Yellowhead Highway. It's late Friday afternoon, and the increasing flow of westbound traffic points to a busy weekend in the mountains. I'm thankful for the divider between myself and those rushing to experience the sights I've just enjoyed.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the May/June 2011 back issue.