May 28Hotel: Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
Out plan for today was to drive up the Icefields Parkway to the Colombia Icefield. We got an early start and woke up at 6:30 as we wanted to beat the tourbuses to the Icefield center; we've heard its best to get there before 10AM when the tourbuses start arriving. As it was there were 15 tourbuses at the hotel yesterday! Breakfast buffet at the hotel was pricey and we ended up buying croissants/sandwiches/etc at the little deli in the hotel. We were on the road by 7:40 after stopping for gas. The Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) runs for 235km from Lake Louise up to Jasper
through some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery you will ever see.
The road follows a huge glacial U-shaped valley between towering mountain peaks, most were still topped with snow and glaciers. The whole area is encompassed by the Banff
and Jasper national parks. We had gotten another route itinerary from the Fairmont in Banff for this section as well, it called out various sights along the way with their km marker. We were in a hurry to reach the Icefields center though so planned to drive up there really fast then take it more leisurely along the way back. It was still very early so we were the only ones on the road. We did make a stop at the Bow Pass/Peyto lake overlook. We pulled into the lower parking lot, where snow had been pushed up 6' or more by snowplows. The main trail up to the overlook was 'closed', but they said to use the spring trail; which apparently followed the route up to the upper parking lot but this had not been plowed.
The trail was a slippy, icy trough through the snow. We tried walking up a bit, but it was too icy. When I tried walking on the snow next to the trail; I fell through nearly up to my waist! We gave up after 5 minutes and decided to save this bit for later. We passed several campgrounds and picnic spots, most were still closed. Several lakes we passed by were also still frozen like Lake Louise.
Finally arrived at the Icefields Centre around 9:40. The Centre is just about halfway between Lake Louise and Jasper. Luckily no tourbuses yet in sight! We were just in time for the next snocoach departure at 10AM. The snocoaches are specially built 6WD buses that go out onto the Athabasca glacier. We lucked out again, it was gorgeously clear and sunny day. Apparently the weather had been really crappy the previous few days, it had even snowed the day before! There was one tourgroup that had arrived by then, a busload of young Aussies on a Contiki tour.
Saskatchewan Crossing, Alberta
The glacier has retreated quite abit since the 1800s, the terminal moraine from that period is right behind the parking lot. We all boarded a regular bus which drove us up halfway along the lateral moraine then to the staging area where we all boarded the snocoach. You could tell this place must get busy as there were 8 other snocoaches sitting there. There was an old snocoach here that had been used up until the 1980s.. basically it a 1950's bus that had been converted to have tank tracks underneath. The glacier does grow during the winter but then melts further during the summer so it is a losing battle. The glacier is spawned by the huge Colombia Icefield, which is 120 square miles and feeds other several glaciers. The whole area receives about 25 feet of snow a year. The snocoaches drive out onto the glacier to a graded area where you can get out and walk around for 30 minutes or so.
The Aussies all hopped out and started throwing snowballs at each other. I have been on glaciers before in New Zealand (Franz Josef) but this is the first time I had driven onto one.
After we arrived back at the Centre we headed off again to the north. We weren't planning on driving all the way to Jasper, just up to the next major sight, some waterfalls. After that we turned around and retraced our steps back towards Lake Louise. We stopped at Mistaya Canyon for lunch; this is a short walk off the highway where the river has carved a bunch of twisty passages and potholes through the shale rock; from the bridge above the river looking down it's hard to see the bottom. Several other people had the same idea and were sitting down on the rocks eating sandwiches. A great spot! We stopped at a few other places along the way back before arriving back at the Peyto lake overlook.
We decided to give the trail one more try.. it was quite hard going all the way to the top but the sun had melted some of the ice so at least we had better footing. Scrambling up to the overlook, only to find out the lake was still frozen as well. Normally this lake is the gorgeous turquoise blue only glacier meltwaters have. But the vista was still worthwhile, the valley drops out below you here. We headed back down the normal trail to the parking lot which actually ended up being easier!
We still had some energy after arriving back at the hotel and decided to drive over to Moraine Lake
, the road had just opened a few days before. The road is closed in the winter and used as a ski trail. The drive along was nice, and we arrive at the lake only to find it frozen and very low.
I guess August is the best time to come here if you want to see the lakes in their full glory! We walked out onto what is normally the lake bottom before heading back to the hotel for dinner.