From Banff to Jasper – A Complete Guide to Canada’s Most Spectacular Drive
The Banff to Jasper drive along the Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) is one of the most scenic journeys on the planet and is the ultimate Canadian Rockies road trip. You’ll drive past impossibly blue lakes, cascading waterfalls, towering mountain peaks and over a hundred glaciers. There’s a good chance you’ll spot wildlife on the drive from Banff to Jasper or the Jasper to Banff drive- it’s equally good in either direction. There aren’t many places in the world where you can see so much in just 288 kilometres (179 miles). If you rushed it, you could do this drive in three-and-a-half hours, but why would you? There is so much to see and do along the way that you should plan to take at least a full day and perhaps several to thoroughly explore this beautiful area.
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History of the Icefields Parkway
The fascinating landscape of mountains, lakes and waterfalls that surrounds the Icefields Parkway dates back millions of years, but the roadway itself was an economic project by the Government of Canada during the Great Depression Era. In 1931, construction began to turn what was known as “the Wonder Trail” into a roadway. Because of the rugged terrain and the simple tools available for the job, it took 600 men ten years to complete the project. The road made this incredibly beautiful and rugged wilderness accessible to all. In 1961, the road was paved and realigned. In a typical year, more than 1.2 million people travel the Icefields Parkway – most of them making the journey in summer.
Ways to Experience the Banff to Jasper Drive
There are several ways to get from Banff to Jasper and experience the drive along the Icefields Parkway. The Banff to Jasper drive is one of the prettiest road trips on planet earth. If you don’t want to drive the Icefields Parkway yourself, there are several tour companies that can take you there. You will need a national park pass to make this journey. These can be purchased in advance online or at the park gates in Banff or Jasper. If you are traveling with a tour group, park admission fees may be included in the cost of the tour. Click this link to check current park admission fees. Admission is free for children and youth under age 17 and for new Canadians.
Banff to Jasper by Car
Traveling by car from Banff to Jasper is the most convenient option, because it allows you to stop whenever and wherever you like along the way. There are many scenic pullouts, hiking trails, and even some attractions along the Icefields Parkway. Always check the weather before you set out – even in summer. The high elevation of the Icefields Parkway means that it can get snow in every season. Bring a picnic, snacks and water and make sure your vehicle’s gas tank is full. Saskatchewan Crossing is the only place to fuel up on the drive from Banff to Jasper and gas tends to be expensive there. This is a drive of a lifetime and you need to be prepared. If you traveled to Banff via the shuttle, there are three car rental agencies right in Banff – Enterprise, Avis and Budget. The town of Jasper has three car rental agencies – Budget, Avis and National.
Banff to Jasper by Bus
There are several options if you want to do the Banff to Jasper drive as a passenger on a bus. You can choose a simple bus transfer, a one-way in one-day bus tour or a multi-day traditional motor coach tour that includes the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper. For a direct bus trip from Banff to Jasper, check out the Brewster Express. Sundog Tours and Discover Banff Tours also offer shuttle bus service between Banff and Jasper as well as full-day tours. For a multi-day motor coach tour that includes accommodations, tours and some meals, Anderson Vacations 12-Day Ultimate Canadian Rockies tour is a good choice. Trafalgar offers a similar tour in nine days that includes a drive along the Icefields Parkway from Jasper to Banff.
Banff to Jasper Drive by Private or Group Tour
There are tour companies that can arrange a one-way private or group tour from Banff to Jasper or from Jasper to Banff. These tours include the services of an experienced driver who also serves as a tour guide telling you interesting facts about the sites along the way. Some tours include lunch and refreshments as well as attractions passes. Sundog Tours is a good option based in Jasper and Discover Banff Tours has trips based out of Banff. Hot Tip: If you are taking a bus tour, make sure to check the itinerary to see if the bus will be stopping at the sites you want to see along the Icefields Parkway.
Banff to Jasper by Train
There is no train service between Banff and Jasper. That said, the Rocky Mountaineer offers rail service from Vancouver to Jasper and then transfers passengers via luxury motor coach along the Icefields Parkway from Jasper to Banff and Lake Louise. If luxury train travel in the Rockies is on your bucket-list, Rocky Mountaineer is the way to go. Via Rail also offers rail service from Edmonton to Jasper. From Jasper, you can catch a shuttle or private tour to Lake Louise or Banff with Sundog Transportation and Tours.
Winter & the Icefields Parkway Drive from Banff to Jasper
We’ve driven the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper in every season and we’ve loved it every time, but special care should be taken in winter. The Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) is beautiful, but it can be treacherous in winter. There is virtually no cell service and the roads are not always maintained or patrolled. Fewer people do the Banff to Jasper drive along the parkway in winter, so there may not be help if you run into problems. Check the weather before you set out and make sure your vehicle is in good working order and that you have good winter tires. Winter tires are required by law on this roadway. Winter driving on the Icefields Parkway after dark is not recommended.
Related: Get some inspiration for a winter visit to Jasper by reading our post, Jasper in Winter, 12 Stunning Photos.
Top Scenic Sites on the Banff to Jasper Drive
- Vermillion Lakes: These three beautiful lakes are just 2.4 km (1.5 mi) outside the town of Banff. They are a great place to watch the sunrise or sunset or to go birdwatching. There are benches, docks and hiking trails around the lakes and nice views of Mount Rundle and Sulphur Mountain. It’s also a great place to go for a paddle if you have a canoe.
- Lake Louise: This beautiful turquoise blue lake surrounded by mountains and glaciers is one of the most beautiful scenes in the Canadian Rockies. It’s so pretty that it was named after a real princess, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta (1848–1939), the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria. Walk on the lakeshore trail, hike some of the other trails in the area and go for a paddle on the lake. Note: Between May and October, Parks Canada charges $11.70 CAD per vehicle to park in the lakeshore parking lot beside Lake Louise. You can save the fee by booking the free shuttle bus in advance. Visit the townsite of Lake Louise to get picnic provisions or gas for your drive along the Icefields Parkway.
- Bow Lake: About 30 minutes north of Lake Louise is one of the largest lakes in Banff National Park. Stop at one of the roadside pullouts next to the lake or stop at the picnic area alongside it. There are toilets near the picnic area. This spot sits at an elevation of 1,920 m (6,300 ft) and you can see the surrounding mountains and the Crowfoot Glacier reflecting in the lake. If you want a restaurant meal, stop at Num-ti-jah Lodge next to the lake.
- Bow Summit and Peyto Lake Lookout: Bow Summit sits at 2,070 m (6791 ft), the highest point along the Icefields Parkway. The Peyto Lake Lookout is wheelchair accessible, but unless you’re in a wheelchair, you’ll need to do a short walk on a paved pathway to get there. To reach Bow Summit Lookout, continue hiking on an old fire road to the viewpoint. The hike to see both lookouts is 2.9 km (1.8 miles) one-way. Note: Bow Summit and Peyto Lake Lookout are closed until August 2021 while Parks Canada makes improvements to the site.
- Saskatchewan River Crossing: Originally called “The Crossing” by early explorers and fur traders, this spot was used to cross the North Saskatchewan on journeys to British Columbia. Today, it sits at the junction of Hwy 93 (the Icefields Parkway) and Hwy 11. There’s a gas station, a restaurant, a convenience store and some accommodations at the site.
- Weeping Wall: The Weeping Wall is a series of waterfalls on Cirrus Mountain that cascade more than 100 m (330 ft) down the mountain. They say it’s the mountain that weeps. The main waterfall is called Teardrop Falls.
- Athabasca Glacier: The Athabasca Glacier sits across from the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre. It is part of the Columbia Icefield and it is the most-visited glacier on the North American continent. It has been receding for the last 125 years and you can see markers that show this recession. A short hike will take you to the glacier’s toe. Make sure you wear a jacket. It gets windy in this spot. Note: Do not cross the barriers and hike on the glacier on your own. There are hidden crevasses and people have died doing that.
- Tangle Falls: Tangle Falls is one of the most photographed waterfalls on the Icefields Parkway. There’s a pullout and parking lot right across from the falls. Watch for traffic as you cross the road to get a close up look at the falls. The impressive falls flow over a cliff in several different streams and in multiple tiers.
- Sunwapta Falls: Sunwapta Falls is short drive and a very short walk off the Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) If time is short, just visit the upper falls. It won’t take long and it’s absolutely worth stopping for. A footbridge provides beautiful views. If you have time, hike to the lower falls. This is also a good place to stop for a picnic.
- Athabasca Falls: This beautiful waterfall is one of the most powerful in the Canadian Rockies. The 23 m (75.5 ft) high falls are a quick stop off the Icefields Parkway. A short, paved pathway leads to a number of different viewing platforms.
Related: Read our post about hiking Johnston Canyon Hike and the Ink Pots in winter.
Best Hikes on the Icefields Parkway Drive from Banff to Jasper
- Johnston Canyon: Take the Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy-1A) to Johnston Canyon on your way to Lake Louise. The views from the road are beautiful and you’ll also pass the trailhead for Johnston Canyon, one of the most popular hikes in Banff National Park. It’s 1.1 km to the Lower Falls, 2.6 km to the Upper Falls and 5.6 km to the Ink Pots. Even if you only went as far as the Lower Falls the hike through the canyon would be worth it. Note: In 2021, parts of the Bow Valley Parkway are closed to vehicles, you can get to the trailhead by hiking or cycling 6 km in, taking the Roam transit bus or by going on a guided tour.
- Lake Agnes Teahouse Hike: A steep 7.4 km trail leads from Lake Louise to Lake Agnes and its famous teahouse, which was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1901. You can stop at the teahouse and enjoy a snack before returning to the trailhead or continuing on to Little Beehive or Big Beehive.
- Mistaya Canyon Hike: Just south of Saskatchewan River Crossing, a short ten-minute walk from a roadside pullout will lead you to beautiful Mistaya Canyon. The steep-walled canyon has been carved by the forces of erosion over thousands of years and you can see multiple waterfalls and rushing water in the gorge.
- Beauty Creek to Stanley Falls Hike: Before the relocation of the Icefields Parkway in the 1960’s, this canyon was a well-known roadside attraction. Now it’s a hidden gem. The 3.4 km (2.1 mi) return out and back trail follows along a creek with many small waterfalls and ends at Stanley Falls, the largest waterfall of the bunch. The trailhead is near Saskatchewan River Crossing.
- Parker Ridge Hike: South of the Icefield Centre on the Icefields Parkway, this 5.4 km (3.4 mi) return hike follows a series of switchbacks to a dramatic view of the Saskatchewan Glacier, the valley and surrounding mountain peaks. Be sure to look for fossils in the limestone rocks on the trail.
- Wilcox Pass Hike: This hike has amazing views of the Athabasca Glacier. The trailhead is 3.1 km (1.9 mi) south of the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre. It’s 2.4 km (1.5 km) return to the first viewpoint and 8 km return to the pass. Read our detailed review of this hike for more information. Note: The pass can be snowy until late July.
- Sunwapta Falls Lower Falls Hike: This short 2.6 km (1.6 mi) return hike is very rewarding. You get to view three major waterfalls without the crowds that are present at the upper waterfalls.
Related: Read our detailed post about the Wilcox Pass Hike on the Icefields Parkway.
Attractions on the Icefields Parkway
- Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre: Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre is located on the Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) about two and a half hours north of Banff and one hour south of Jasper. It is directly across from the Athabasca Glacier. Inside you’ll find interpretive exhibits, flush toilets, a restaurant and cafeteria, a gift shop and a boutique hotel. You can book Glacier Skywalk tours in the centre.
- Ice Explorer Tours: Ice Explorer snow coach tours on the glacier have been suspended indefinitely after an accident in 2020. These tours involved taking groups of people onto the Athabasca Glacier in a large vehicle known as an Ice Explorer Snow Coach.
- Guided Hiking on the Athabasca Glacier: It’s not safe to hike on the surface of the Athabasca Glacier on your own. People have died when they have fallen into hidden crevasses. There are companies that will take you on a guided tour hiking on the surface of the glacier. We did this tour with Rockaboo Mountain Adventures in Jasper and we loved it. You need to book the tour in advance and you may need to rent some special boots.
- Glacier Skywalk: This glass-floored observation platform sits 280 m (918 ft) above the Sunwapta Valley in Jasper National Park. The views of the valley, the mountains and the Columbia Icefields are excellent from the platform and you can often see mountain goats below it. There are interpretive panels along the path that leads to the observation platform. Tours depart from the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre. Note: It’s a good idea to book this tour in advance online rather than in-person. The wait can be long if you book in-person.
What to Bring on a Summer Icefields Parkway Road Trip
Weather is very changeable along the Icefields Parkway. Dress in layers, bring a windproof and rainproof jacket, hiking gloves, and a warm hat. On a sunny day, you may also need sunglasses and a wide brimmed hiking hat. You just never know what the weather will be like when you’re traveling in the Canadian Rockies. If you’re planning to hike, you’ll want some good hiking boots (I love my Columbia hikers), a water bottle, snacks and a light weight hydration backpack. You may also want to pack a picnic lunch – you’ll find a few suggestions for places to get picnic provisions below.
Where to Stay on the Icefields Parkway
There are many wonderful hotels and campgrounds in Banff, Lake Louise and in Jasper. There are also some lovely accommodations choices right on the Icefields Parkway. If you plan to camp, make your campground reservations in advance on the Parks Canada campground reservation site. If you’re looking for a hotel on the Icefields Parkway, the Glacier View Lodge, in the top floors of the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre is our top pick. The hotel has been completely renovated and the location can’t be beat. It’s nice to be at the Athabasca Glacier after dark when the tourist crowds are gone. Num-ti-jah Lodge is another rustic and historic accommodation on the Icefields Parkway beside Bow Lake. At Saskatchewan River Crossing is a motel-style accommodation called, The Crossing. The accommodations are basic and the onsite restaurant is quite expensive. Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Resort is located near Sunwapta Falls on the Icefields Parkway and has lodge rooms and cabin-style accommodations.
Pick up a Picnic or Stop for Lunch
We’d recommend bringing a picnic lunch along for the Banff to Jasper drive. Restaurants along the Icefields Parkway tend to be expensive. Laggan’s Mountain Bakery and Deli in Lake Louise is a great place to stop to pick up sandwiches and snacks for the Banff to Jasper drive on the Icefields Parkway. If you want a sit-sown meal, there’s a restaurant at Num-ti-jah Lodge near Bow Lake. You will also find a restaurant and convenience store at Saskatchewan Crossing. There’s a cafeteria, a convenience store and a fine dining restaurant in the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre. The Sunwapta Falls Rocky Mountain Resort also has a restaurant. If you’re doing the drive in the other direction from Jasper to Banff, Patricia Street Deli makes amazing sandwiches in Jasper. The raspberry white chocolate scones at Jasper’s Bear’s Paw Bakery are legendary (Oprah Magazine approved) and would also pack well for a picnic.
Related: There are some great restaurants in Jasper. Read our post, Jasper Brunch – Best Brunch and Coffee Restaurants.