I usually end up taking the lead planning our adventures. I always ask Brian’s opinion and show him early and often what I’m thinking so he can chime in (usually to tell me I’m planning too much), but primarily I come up with the destination, figure out when and how we’re going, and what we’re going to do once we get there.
When we met my parents for a few days together in Banff National Park, Brian had a little more to say than usual because he had been to Calgary, Banff, and Lake Louise before. His biggest request was something he had not been able to do on prior trips and wanted to prioritize this time around—riding one of the Columbia Icefield Ice Explorers out onto a glacier.
The rest of our party was completely on board so as I sketched an idea of how our days might flow, I quickly landed on when we could explore the icefields and we booked our tickets. You have to reserve an actual time slot on the day you want to go, and although it was several months in advance, some of the early time slots were already unavailable. If you have any interest in this activity, book ahead!
We spent the night in the nearby Crossing Resort and got up early to make our way north along the Icefields Parkway to the Columbia Icefield Visitor Center. Our reservation was for 10:30 a.m. and it recommended an early arrival to get parked, explore the visitor center, and queue for your Ice Explorer.
The parking lot was already filling up when we arrived, and I was excited about how clearly we could see the glaciers and our destination across the street! The weather had not cooperated for several days—the employees said they had to stop running the Ice Explorers at one point due to inclement weather—but we had somehow arrived on a perfect day for our adventure!
I was even more happy about our early arrival when we learned that it was possible for us to bump up our reservations to an earlier time slot where there were still a few openings—yes, please! We were there and ready and the weather was great so why delay?!
We quickly hit the restroom, got in line, and boarded a bus that took us across the street to a second parking area. Before I knew it, we were climbing off our bus and onto an Ice Explorer that was ready to head to the Athabasca glacier!
Our bus and Ice Explorer drivers were hysterical and full of fun facts about the vehicles as well as the area. There are 23 Ice Explorers in the world and 22 of them are used in the Columbia Icefield–the other is used in Antarctica. Traveling at 18 km/hr, these vehicles can hold 56 people and have huge glass windows on their sides and ceiling, allowing passengers to have incredible views on the slow journey to the glacier.
The beginning of that journey included crawling down the 2nd steepest unpaved grade incline in all of North America (32% grade)! We were all pushing against the seat in front of us as we headed–what appeared to be–straight down to the icy trail leading out to the part of the glacier where we could disembark.
Once we arrived at the glacier, we were able to get off and walk around within a clearly marked area. Our driver congratulated us on coming early as there were fewer Ice Explorers and people to contend with, allowing us to snap some photos of the surrounding glaciers as well as the one under our feet without tons of people in the background.
Our driver was very nice, answered all of our questions, and took some incredible pictures of all four of us. I touched some of the glacier runoff (yes, it was absurdly cold), and Dad filled his water bottle with the clear glacial water. While it was cold standing out on the miles of ice, the sun was out and we couldn’t have asked for a better weather day.
When I purchased this excursion, I opted for the ‘Adventure Tour’ combo ticket, which also included a shuttle ride from the glacier down the street to the Glacier Skywalk. This was a fun and interesting side trip and if you have the time, it’s worth doing. However, for me, it didn’t really hold a candle to the icefields experience.
Once you arrive at the skywalk you’re given an audio-guide and can follow along with the numbered stops as you walk along the cliff to the skywalk itself. There are plaques of information along the way and some interactive stations near the skywalk, but the highlight is actually walking out on the glass and looking down into the canyon below.
There were some people who couldn’t do it—one woman was crying—but I’ve never had trouble with vertigo on these things and we enjoyed it!
This stop only took us a few hours and was absolutely worth the time and effort. If you’re visiting Banff National Park, make sure a glacier adventure in the Columbia Icefield is on your list!