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I.C.Y.M.I.: Walking on Ancient Ice: Glacier Walking and Hiking in Alberta

COOL WINTER GUIDE: Stories and information for all things winter in Alberta. Glaciers are huge ice masses that have developed from snow packed and compressed over thousands of years. The glaciers in the Alberta Rockies are believed to be around 10,000 years old.
1-2 Glacier Walking
Image by Jörg Vieli from Pixabay

Tourists visit Alberta from all over the world in order to witness these awe-inspiring massive stretches of ice for themselves.

There are a few places in Banff and Jasper National Parks that are the incredible places to either walk on glaciers or to view them from incredible vantage points.

Athabasca Glacier at the Columbia Icefield

The Columbia Icefield is the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies and is located between Jasper and Banff along the Icefields Parkway. The Athabasca Glacier, which is a part of the Columbia Icefield, is the most popular glacier to visit in all of North America.

The easiest and safest way to walk on the Athabasca Glacier is to take a Snowcoach tour in a specialty bus made specifically for driving on the ice. Once the bus has arrived, visitors are able to walk around on the glacier itself in an area that has been surveyed for safety. Bring along gloves, toques, coats, and boots even if it is in the peak of summer – it is icy up there on the glacier! This tour is appropriate for visitors of all ages.

For visitors that prefer a hike, the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier is a moderate hike that is 1.8 kilometre return and takes approximately one hour. Please hike with caution: Parks Canada warns that walking on glaciers is extremely dangerous. Hikers should follow all signs and never cross any barriers. The toe of the glacier is hollow and collapses easily.

If hikers would like to venture further onto the glacier, they must use a professional tour guide. Athabasca Glacier Ice Walks offers half day, full day, Indigenous led, and private tours that explore the beauty and wonder of the icefields.

Parker Ridge Trail with Views of the Saskatchewan Glacier

Parker Ridge Trail is an easy-to-moderate 2.7 kilometre hike that takes approximately 2.5 hours round trip. It can be accessed just south of the Icefield Centre on Highway 93 north.

This trail brings hikers up to the top of the treeline and offers a dramatic view of the expansive Saskatchewan Glacier. On clear days, the southern section of the Columbia Icefield is also visible. Hikers cannot walk directly on the glaciers from Parker Ridge Trail, but the incredible views are definitely worth it.

Plain of Six Glaciers Hike and Tea House

The Plain of the Six Glaciers hike not only leads to unbelievable glacial views, but also has a stop at a mountain tea house along the way. It starts with views of the iconic Lake Louise, travels through forests and finally, beyond the trees, delivers panoramic views of six glaciers. Park near the famous Chateau Lake Louise hotel or take advantage of convenient public transit when the lot is full.

The Plain of the Six Glaciers trail is rated as easy-to-moderate. It is relatively flat for the first 3.3 kilometres and then has an elevation of 588 meters. The entire hike is 14.6 kilometres round trip and takes approximately four hours to complete. Between June and October, the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse is a welcome rest stop that is only accessible by foot or helicopter.

Whether you prefer walking directly on the ice or hiking up to take in dramatic views of the glaciers, it is important to always be prepared. The weather can change quickly in the Rocky Mountains, so it is important to be prepared for anything – including snow. Higher elevations on or near glaciers are always colder than most people expect, even in the height of summer.

Wendy Powell is a freelance writer and a contributor to Great West Media. This story was written for the Cool Winter Guide advertising feature. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff.

This article was originally published on November 8, 2021.

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