Highway To Heaven from Jasper to Banff.
by Stephen A. Nelson
„Instead of calling it Jasper National Park, they should call it Jasper National Ark.”
People who come to Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies call it „majestic” and „a taste of heaven”. Visitors to Banff National Park (Canada's first national park) call it „beautiful beyond words” and „an artist's paradise”. And those who drive along Alberta's Banff-Jasper Highway – officially known as the Icefields Parkway – say it's not only the one of the 10 Greatest Drives in the World; it's also the Highway to Heaven.
Worlds apart from the Autobahn, the emphasis here is on scenery and spectacle, not speed. It's a modern highway that follows the route of early explorers. A smooth road that traverses some of the most rugged country in North America. This year, people in Alberta are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the highway. So this is a great time for visitors to „Return To Paradise” and experience for themselves what National Geographic called „one of the jewels of Western Canada.”
Formed by continental drift and sculpted by glaciers, geologists say it took nature billions of years to form, cut and polish the jewels that form this UNESCO World Heritage Site. When looking at the glorious handiwork, it's easy to believe poets and others who say it took the Creator just six days.
John Heinemeier, a Lutheran pastor from North Carolina, was already convinced that Jasper was indeed a foretaste of heaven. But after touring the Icefields Parkway, he could hardly contain himself. „Just outstanding country!” he exclaimed. Every mile - or every kilometre - you see something different. „It’s probably the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen”, he said. Then he corrected himself: „No, not 'probably' — it is.”
But the journey along the backbone of the Canadian Rockies is more than a roller-coaster ride through spectacular scenery and dramatic landscapes. It is a magical history tour with some of North America’s greatest explorers, a geological journey into the prehistory of Creation, a fantastic voyage into the heart of Canada. There are more than 22 icefields and scores of glaciers high in the mountains of the Continental Divide.
You can see more than half of them from the parkway. These icefields are the heart of Canada and the melt waters from the glaciers are the lifeblood, pumped through rivers and creeks, turning the lakes into vibrant shades of turquoise, sapphire and emerald.
In addition, the icefields create their own micro-climate, where snow-capped peaks look like layers of icing on a cake overlooking meadows and valleys teeming with wildlife: deer and elk; black bears and grizzly bears; wolves and coyotes.
The fortunate may get to spot a lynx; the blessed may — at the right time of year — see a herd of caribou. But if you have the right guide, even the unlucky will get close-up views of the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and mountain goats.
„Instead of calling it Jasper National Park,” said one visitor, „they should call it Jasper National Ark.”
For visitors to Alberta there are essentially two ways to tour the Icefields Parkway.
The first is to do it yourself and take your car, bike or motorcycle on the incredible journey from the town of Jasper to the village of Lake Louise and then on to the town of Banff. The advantage of taking a coach tour – such as the Icefields Parkway Tour with Brewster Travel Canada – is that you can let someone else do the driving, while you concentrate on all the heavenly glory.
The Icefield Parkway starts in the town of Jasper and heads south towards Lake Louise. As soon as you get onto the highway, there is truly a sense that you are leaving behind the mundane. You feel like you have entered into the presence of the „wholly other.”
This is only the beginning.
Athabasca Falls -- just half an hour south of the town of Jasper -- is an extremely popular stop on any tour of the Icefields Parkway. On weekends, you’ll have to take a number to get your classic postcard photo of the picturesque falls. But it's worth the wait.
The Athabasca River is the largest river system in Jasper National Park — and the size of the river makes these falls one of the most powerful falls to be found in any of the mountain national parks.
Far from the hotels, observation towers and floral clocks of more famous falls, you can walk among ancient canyons and get close to the falls.
This is what the Niagara Falls must have been like when they were young, wild and free.
If fresh water were gold, then the Columbia Icefield would be the mother lode of North America. But it’s just one of many icefields along the highway. The icefields of Jasper and Banff can be understood as chain of ice lakes sitting on top of the Continental Divide; and the glaciers are the deep rivers of ice flowing down from those lakes.
The Columbia Icefield is the largest of those lakes, and the Athabasca Glacier is its largest estuary. In ancient days, the ice rivers flowed large and flooded the valleys below. The route we’re travelling was under hundreds of metres of ice. Even today, stepping out onto the glacier feels like stepping into the Land Before Time. It is both breath-taking and awe-inspiring. But time, it seems, is catching up. The glaciers have been shrinking steadily since the mid-1800s.
Global warming means that they are now receding rapidly. In the next generation, the Athabasca Glacier will be only an ice patch. Soon after that, what is now a glacier will be an alpine meadow.
There are many splendid and breath-taking rivers, lakes and glaciers along the parkway. Bow Lake, Bow Glacier and Crowfoot Glacier are among the most famous and are easily visible from the highway. But just off the highway – and just before you reach the village of Lake Louise – is the hidden jewel of Peyto Lake.
The lake and a nearby peak are named for Ebenezer William Peyto a.k.a. „Wild Bill Peyto.” In the late 1800s and early 1900s, this displaced Englishman was one of the best and best-known guides in the Canadian Rockies. To this day, he is a local icon in Banff. The area around what is now Peyto Lake was Wild Bill’s favourite spot to get away from all the „dudes” and „tenderfoots” that came this way in search of civilized adventure.
One can only wonder what he would think now, since his favourite refuge is now one of the most popular stops in the Canadian Rockies. In the summertime, hundreds of visitors go to an observation point to get their picture-perfect postcard photos of this glacial lake.
When the snow is still on the mountains, it looks like a sapphire set in ivory. Later in the season, when the snow has melted, the lake looks more like turquoise, surrounded by jade and set in pewter.
When you travel in the Rockies, you are bound to hear of explorer and adventurer Mary Schäffer Warren.
These days, Mary Schäffer (as she is usually called) is sometimes casually known as „Jasper’s First Tourist” But 100 years ago, her Stoney native guides gave her a much more impressive name: „Mountain Woman.”
It was not a name this pampered society lady from Pennsylvania would have earned on her first visit to Lake Louise. Quite the opposite. The story goes that Mary spent a very uncomfortable night camped on the shore of wind-blown Lake Louise. The cold weather left the Quaker lady quaking and shaking. Mary awoke with shivering body and chattering teeth. She vowed that she would never spend another night camping in the Rockies.
Fortunately for all involved, Mary later recanted and repented. She went on to explore much of Banff and Jasper, including the route that now comprises the Icefields Parkway.
And fortunately for us, accommodations around the lake have improved considerably, too. These included the world-renowned Chateau Lake Louise, which affords even casual visitors a magnificent view of the lake and the imposing Victoria Glacier.
Although the Icefields Parkway properly ends at Lake Louise, most sojourners on this highway to heaven will continue down Highway 93 till it merges with the Trans-Canada Highway taking you to the town of Banff. Along the highway, you pass by some of the most recognizable scenery in the Rockies – the fortress-like Castle Mountain; the clay-coloured Vermilion Lakes; the tunnel-free Tunnel Mountain; and (of course) the saw-toothed Mount Rundle. It is written that – „In the beginning” – God took his daily walks through Paradise in the evening, at the end of the day.
At the end of this day, at the end of this journey, you get a sense of having truly arrived. You feel that you have been to the mountaintop and have now entered the Promised Land: a world within a world that the world doesn’t know about.
If you go to Banff and Jasper:
When to go
The Icefields Parkway (a.k.a. Highway 93 a.k.a the Banff-Jasper Highway) is open year-round.
Summer activities in Banff and Jasper generally run from the beginning of May till the middle of October; depending on the weather, El Nino and Global Warming.
How to get there
● Brewster Travel Canada runs daily buses (in summer) to from the Calgary airport to Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper from the Calgary airport and from downtown Calgary.
Toll-free phone 1 866 606.6700
● Via Rail – Canada's national passenger rail service – runs trains to Jasper several times a week from points East and West, including:
Toronto, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Kamloops and Vancouver. Considerable discounts are available when you book online.
Toll-free phone: 1-888-VIA-RAIL (1-888-842-7245)
● SunDog Tours runs daily shuttle service to Jasper from Edmonton airport and West Edmonton Mall; SunDog also runs a shuttle service from the Calgary airport.
● Icefields Parkway Tours
The Brewster Icefields Parkway day tours – as well as the Rockies Adventure and Glacier tours – run daily from spring till autumn.
You can start your journey in either Banff or Jasper.
Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure tours take visitors onto the surface of the Athabasca Glacier by Ice Explorer.
Brewster Travel Canada
Toll-free phone: 1-866-606-6700,
Where to stay in Banff
Banff Centre Professional Development Centre
Location: Tunnel Mountain on the edges of the town of Banff; five minutes from downtown.
Superior accommodation. A real retreat nestled in the woods.
Toll-free phone: 1-800-884-7574
Mount Royal Hotel
Location: Downtown Banff, on Banff Avenue (main street) close to shops and restaurants.
Classy, comfortable and convenient historic heritage hotel.
Toll-free phone: 1-877-442-2623
Where to stay in Jasper
Glacier View Inn
Location: Columbia Icefield Centre, right across the road from the Athabasca Glacier.
About an hour from the town of Jasper.
Toll-free phone: 1-877-423-7433
Tel: (1) 780-852-6550
Sunwapta Falls Resort
Location: Highway 93 (Icefields Parkway) at Sunwapta Falls. About 45 minutes from the town of Jasper.
Comfort and luxury in the wilderness.
Conveniently close to Sunwapta Falls, Athabasca Falls, and the Columbia Icefield Centre.
Fantastic dining room.
Toll-free phone: 1-888 828-5777
Tel: (1) 780-852-4852
Redaktion/Editor: Frank Becker