Wednesday, July 27, 2005 -- Icefields Parkway Northbound

Today we drove northbound, from Lake Louise up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper.  One of the guidebooks says that "Although it is possible to drive the Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper in 3-1/2 to 4 hours, we recommend you set aside at least a full day, or better yet, two days."  Good advice.  We took a full day going up, and another one coming back. 

Amusing aside: Due to trouble getting space at the last moment, our first-cut itinerary & reservations had called for driving from Calgary all the way to Jasper on the same day we flew in.  I am really really glad that we took the time and trouble to rework that ill-considered plan!

Here's the day.  (Chronological order, click any image to make it full-sizeable.)

Crowfoot Glacier, about 25 miles north of Lake Louise.  A sign at the viewpoint points out that the ice is about  50 meters (165 feet) thick at the edge of the glacier -- so the 11-story Banff Springs Hotel would be smaller than the ice wall.

Flowers at Peyto Lake, another 15 miles north.

The Peyto Lake Viewpoint and Bow Summit is a well done tourist spot.  Quoting from our map,

"If you only have time for one short walk on your drive along the Icefields Parkway, make this the one.  A wide asphalt path leads gently uphill to a spectacular viewpoint of Peyto Lake, arguably the most gorgeous lake in Banff national Park.  Along the walkway, interpretive signs introduce you to some of the animals, wildflowers and trees that live in the harsh alpine environment of Bow Summit.  At 2,069 metres (6,788 feet), Bow Summit is not only the highest point on the Icefields Parkway, but the highest point crossed by a major highway in Canada.

Start at the large trail sign at the far (north) end of the parking lot.  From there, a wide asphalt path leads gently uphill to a wooden platform overlooking stunningly turquoise Peyto Lake.  The lake, which lies 250 metres (820 feet) below, is named after Bill Peyto (PEE-toe), a colorful character who guided hunting trips in this area and later became one of Banff's first park wardens."

(Despite the apparently official pronunciation to the contrary, the locals consistently said "Bill PAY-toe".  Go figure.)

Here's the mob on the platform.  (Yes, the boards of the platform are actually straight, not curved as they appear in this remapped fisheye view.)

With a bit of waiting and some careful positioning, I was able to get this.  (Stitched from 5 frames.  Click to see full size for detail.)
The lake is fed by Peyto Glacier (left background).  Peyto Glacier is a small foot of the Wapta Icefield, which also feeds Bow Glacier and thence Bow Lake [links to be provided later].

More flowers at the Peyto Lake area...

I never did get a really well focused shot of this little Syrphid fly. 
But I did get lucky this one time, when he decided to leave just as I snapped the picture.

We switch now to Waterfowl Lakes, another 15 miles north.  Says the map:

"A two-minute walk on a trail starting at the back of this small pull-out leads downhill to a viewpoint on the shore of lovely Upper Waterflowl Lake.  The two Waterfowl Lakes are also one of the best bets for seeing moose along the Icefields Parkway"

"Small pull-out" indeed!  I think we had to take three shots at finding this one -- drive past unseeing, turn around, drive past again ("You think that was it?"), finally get it on the third try.  Well worth the trouble.  No moose, no waterfowl.  But no people, and nice scenery, and nice flowers.  Even a few butterflies!

Here's the same flower, from a couple of different viewpoints.


Do not adjust your monitor -- this fungus growth on a little bush really was flaming orange!

Switch sites...  Mistaya Canyon Viewpoint.  Says the map, "...footbridge over a narrow potholed gorge [with the] Mistaya River swirling far below".  By "narrow", they mean a few feet.  But in some cases, like right next to the bridge, it is narrow at ground level and hollowed much wider below.  The heavily traveled path leads to a rocky point at the white water just before the river enters the gorge.  There are no guardrails or warning/disclaimer signs, though it would be certain death to slip into the water at this place, and the water is only a couple of feet away.  Fortunately the rock is very clean and "sticky", with a texture that grips shoe soles like sandpaper.  Still, it seems a miracle that they don't lose a few small children here.

I don't know what flower goes with these interesting seedheads.  They apparently form twisted, then untwist just before "poofing" out.

This is overlooking the North Saskatchewan River, just west of the Sasketchewan River Crossing.  This was a tiny unmarked pullout, with a grassy knoll that would have been ideal for lunch --- if only it had not been so hot in the sun!  A small space under the trees worked much better for that.

At the Weeping Wall viewpoint, just before the Big Bend viewpoint.  This one wasn't even dotted as a place of special interest on the map.  But I found it fascinating.  Says a web page: "As meltwater and seepage make their way down the slopes of Cirrus Mountain, they create a magical curtain of water. In the winter, it freezes into a solid wall of ice popular with ice climbers."  I can't confirm the part about ice climbers, but it was definitely popular with the busload of Japanese tourists stopped while we were there.  It took me a long time to figure out what was going on.  At first just one person got out of the bus -- some guy with a huge professional-size video camera and a windproof mike.  He panned up and down the cliff a couple of times, then turned the camera on the bus while everybody else got out.  Best I can figure, he's recording the group video scrapbook, like a tour ship photographer.

You really do want to click on this one, to blow it up to full detail.  A sample is shown on the right.

Big Bend Viewpoint.  I think the Weeping Wall is just right of dead center in this picture.  Bridal Veil Falls (how many of those are there?!) is visible at left on the hillside beyond the parking lot.  Coming across the bridge at center, I'm pretty sure that I got one good look at the south end of the Saskatchewan Glacier, which in theory "cannot be seen from the parkway".  But it doesn't matter -- there's no place nearby to stop for a picture.  Oh well, perhaps another time.  (See "Saskatchewan Glacier from Parker Ridge", linked from here.)

A few miles farther brought us to the top of the northern pass of the Icefields Parkway, about 85 miles north of Lake Louise and 65 miles south of Jasper.  I found myself repeatedly confused by the topography on this trip.  Going north out of Lake Louise:  1) the Bow River flows south, 2) the Mistaya River flows north, 3) the North Saskatchewan River flows south (then turns and flows north again, away from the Parkway), and 4) the Athasbasca River flows north.  Four rivers, three changes of direction.  OK, I guess I don't feel so bad about being confused while I was there.  Anyway...

The northern pass of the Icefields Parkway is at the Columbia Icefields, where we have the famous Athasbasca Glacier.  By this point of the trip, we were so used to tiny pullouts that we expected more of the same and accidentally drove into an "Authorized Vehicles Only" road thinking that it looked to be about the right size.  No problem, just turn around and drive back out -- just in time to see the next tourist doing the same thing!

Here's a nice overview shot.  (Click to read sign.)  The scale is impossible to get from this picrue, and in fact pretty much impossible to get when you're standing there.   At image center, you can see tiny cars in the parking lot near the toe of the glacier. 

If you want to take a bus tour onto the glacier, here is the sort of vehicle you will ride in.

Here are some of those vehicles on the glacier (click for full size).

At the glacier are some modest provisions for tourist safety -- primarily signs like this, trying to get through to you the idea that this glacier is dangerous not because you will be hurt by falling into a crevasse, but because you will be killed by the cold when you get stuck. 

I found the concept easy to grasp from the following few scenes.


The cautions were not perfectly obeyed.  However, conditions were probably not very treacherous when we were there, after a long period of clear warm weather that made the crevasses relatively obvious.  From some of the other signs, it seems that the big problem occurs when there has been just enough snow to bridge over the crevasses, followed by weather that makes it more attractive to walk on the snow than the ice.  Oops -- really bad idea!

Here's another shot for scale, from the parking lot at the toe of the glacier.  Those are people on the trail. The trail itself seems to run over bedrock that has a bit of rubble left on it from glacial retreat.  That hill appears to be rock, not terminal moraine.

Here are some nice scrape marks in the bedrock, near the top of the trail.  The marker notes the year when the glacier's toe was at this place.

On the terminal moraine, there were these fireweeds with huge blossoms -- very different from the ones I know from my usual hiking.

And at the visitors' center, these interesting thistles, being well worked by the local bumblebees..

This is at Tangle Creek Falls, only about 5 miles north of the Athabasca Glacier.  I have no idea who the fellow is, standing near the falls.  He was just there, posing for someone else.

We were getting pretty late and tired by that point, about 5 pm with still some driving to go, so we decided to pass most everything else and catch it on the way back. 

I did shoot one more set of pictures at this "Mountain Goat Viewpoint" site overlooking the Athasbasca River, about 25 miles south of Jasper.  One of the guidebooks said that there is a natural saltlick near the river, below the overlook, that attracts mountain goats.  We never did figure out what it was talking about.

But there were these interesting trees on the riverbank.  What's interesting is not just the leaning trees, but the fact that their support has obviously eroded away, while there is still another tree growing straight up right at the edge of the water just a hair upstream.  Must be something funny about the shape of the shoreline there, but we did not have time to figure it out.

The next two evenings were spent at the Amethyst Lodge in Jasper.  Despite its name, this place was really just a run-of-the-mill hotel with a restaurant that looked good on paper but was almost devoid of both customers and staff.  We walked a couple of blocks to some brightly lit place with smiling customers and a short wait.  No doubt the Visa receipts have the name of the place.  I surely don't remember.


This page last modified August 13, 2005.