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The Best of the Canadian Rockies on the Icefields Parkway

Tom CulbertsonMarch 29, 2016
One can easily see why this is named the Valley of Ten Peaks; of course you need a clear day to find all of them.

One can easily see why this is named the Valley of Ten Peaks; of course you need a clear day to find all of them.

You’ve heard of the legendary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Well, the Icefields Parkway, aka Highway 93 north in Alberta, Canada, is it. The scenery is so awesome between Lake Louise and Jasper you will do a double take at every turn.

Riding my Moto Guzzi Breva with my friend, Andy, on his Yamaha Super Ténéré, our Canadian Rockies ride starts at Radium Junction in British Columbia on a fine asphalt road up through Kootenay National Park. Banking over wide sweeping curves passing through a thick evergreen forest, we motor up a wide valley bounded by huge mountains shaped by ancient glaciers.

Map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton, compartmaps.com.

Map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton, compartmaps.com.

Our plan of pushing nonstop to Jasper quickly disintegrates on the Icefields Parkway just past Lake Louise, when we spot our first glacier, some mountain goats and a bear and her cub eating dandelion flowers alongside the road. Since the Parkway is a great two-lane asphalt strip with occasional wide curves, we have no problem pulling over to take pictures. Our night is spent at Pyramid Lake Lodge just outside of Jasper, a pleasant ride up a narrow winding asphalt road through more lovely pine forest terrain.

Come morning we’re cruising south, back down the Parkway from Jasper in a misty shower surrounded by a dense evergreen world. Following the fairly straight road at a placid posted 80 and 90 km/h, we pull into the Athabasca Falls parking area. At the falls, the Athabasca River rips over a narrow spillway in a raging torrent crashing down about 80 feet. The information board says that the amount of glacial melt feeding the falls fluctuates with the time of day due to solar heating. If morning is low intensity, I can’t imagine the power displayed in the afternoon. Heading on, we have forest on our left and the Athabasca River on the right, and stopping along the road I find watching the flowing river almost hypnotic.

Back on the Parkway, we are served more sedate riding to the next natural site, Sunwapta Falls. Buried in an evergreen forest, we walk a short trail to view a narrow chute in a picturesque setting where the Sunwapta River plunges over the cascade’s edge, tumbling 60 feet after being divided by a small island. It’s like watching water being blasted into a great funnel.

Ice Explorer buses on Athabasca Glacier provide a way to walk on and explore a glacier.

Ice Explorer buses on Athabasca Glacier provide a way to walk on and explore a glacier.

Out on the road, we follow the Sunwapta River to the Columbia Icefield, a huge expanse of ice composed of several glaciers. Here the Athabasca Glacier reaches down toward the Parkway. Our descent down curvy Sunwapta Pass cranks up the ride excitement level several notches.

A quarter mile hike takes you to Mistaya Canyon, a jagged rip in the canyon floor's rock formation with the Mistaya River blasting through.

A quarter mile hike takes you to Mistaya Canyon, a jagged rip in the canyon floor’s rock formation with the Mistaya River blasting through.

Down on the flat lands, we parallel the North Saskatchewan River on our right, and the huge monolithic Weeping Wall on the left with numerous little waterfalls cascading down its face. Locals tell me the Wall turns to an ice sheet in winter and ice climbers like scaling it. After gassing the Goose at The Crossing, we reach a parking area for Mistaya Canyon, a ¼-mile hike down a gravel logging road. Mistaya  Canyon is a rock formation that has a jagged tear ripped into it that the Mistaya River charges through. The tear is so deep that the river partially disappears. Back on the Parkway, we follow the Mistaya River, feeling insignificant compared to the towering peaks on either side of us. Eventually we arrive at a viewpoint with a glimpse of Peyto Lake buried in a sea of evergreen trees.

After a refreshing stop we are back on Icefields Parkway with a chance to exercise our tilt meters on curvy Bow Pass, one of the two parkway stretches with noteworthy curves. Leaving the Pass we arrive at Bow Lake, which is embraced by Crowfoot Glacier and Bow Glacier. Looking closely we can see that a lengthy waterfall cascades into the lake from Bow Glacier. This area is so stunning we have a hard time mounting up and leaving, but the day is passing so it is on to Lake Louise Village for the night.

The Natural Bridge on the Kicking Horse River was a waterfall but the water flowing through cracks eroded the stone to create a large opening. Bridge size can be gauged by noting the crazy tourist standing at the edge of the opening.

The Natural Bridge on the Kicking Horse River was a waterfall but the water flowing through cracks eroded the stone to create a large opening. Bridge size can be gauged by noting the crazy tourist standing at the edge of the opening.

Next morning, before exploring the Lake Louise area, we take a detour into Yoho National Park on Trans-Canada Highway hoping to catch a glimpse of a train at the noted Spiral Tunnels, and the Natural Bridge on the Kicking Horse River. The Spiral Tunnels, completed in 1909, reduce a 4.5-percent grade to 2.2 percent, and if you’re lucky you can see one train entering and exiting the tunnels at the same time. Farther down this major highway are Emerald Lake Road and the Natural Bridge. At one time the Natural Bridge site was a waterfall on the Kicking Horse River, but cracks in the rocks caused the water flow to erode a wide opening, creating the Natural Bridge. Back in the saddle, we climb up Emerald Lake Road to enjoy the beauty of Emerald Lake and to push the bikes around some curvy treats, then we weave down to Highway 1 and ride up to the Lake Louise area.

Bypassing the hustle and bustle of Lake Louise Village, we are quickly immersed in the beauty of nature along Moraine Lake Road, an excellent winding mountain byway. Partially up the grade, right in front of us is a line of 10 striking and pointy peaks—the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Reaching the road’s end, we find the awesome beauty of Moraine Lake staggering, from its turquoise color to the incredible reflections in the lake.

While enjoying the Lake Louise view, we saw this avalanche cascading off the glacier.

While enjoying the Lake Louise view, we saw this avalanche cascading off the glacier.

With saturated visual senses we again enjoy the pleasure of Moraine Lake Road, then head up to Lake Louise. The lake itself is considered the “Diamond in the Wilderness” and is the location of the world famous Chateau Lake Louise. The area surrounding the lake is nicely set up with improved walkways—no wilderness hikes here. This stop is a must if only for the spectacular lake views where, at the lake’s far end, a glacier is framed by two large mountain peaks. We actually saw an avalanche cascading off the glacier.

We could have spent several weeks exploring the awesome beauty and natural splendor of this area. The roads up here are not too demanding for motorcyclists, which makes it somewhat easier to see the Icefields Parkway from the saddle, something that should be on every rider’s bucket list.

Lake Louise is the location of the world famous Chateau Lake Louise - bring your gold reserves if you plan on staying here.

Lake Louise is the location of the world famous Chateau Lake Louise – bring your gold reserves if you plan on staying here.

Mountain goats feeding alongside Icefields Parkway. The goats were just starting to lose their winter coats.

Mountain goats feeding alongside Icefields Parkway. The goats were just starting to lose their winter coats.

A black bear scampers away from the roadside along the Icefields Parkway.

A black bear scampers away from the roadside along the Icefields Parkway.

Lovely Bow Lake has huge mountain peaks on one shoreline and a glacier at each end.

Lovely Bow Lake has huge mountain peaks on one shoreline and a glacier at each end.

2 comments

  1. As a local Calgarian and having done all the area roads I have a couple of suggestions.
    1. Bring all your gear regardless of the season, it can snow all summer on the Icefield Parkway.
    2. When going through Banff Park take the 1A in both directions unless you are in a real hurry. Better scenery, lots of corners, fewer police. If you have time double back when the road divides especially if you like corners.
    3. Go to Takakaw Falls via Little Yoho Valley road. 14 km paved road starting at bottom of the Big Hill just west of the Spiral Tunnels or East of Field. Good pavement, corners and scenery and short hike to see the 1000 foot falls at the end of the road. Only open early June to first snow in fall.
    4. Be prepared to travel slowly in the summer as the roads are very busy with tourists, unless you are willing to pass on double yellow. Many of the roads are rough and while scenic, much of this trip is not twisty or technical, except side roads. And then you must be willing to pass to get by the pylons.

    • 3. Seeing is believing. The lower portion of the Takakaw Falls Road has a couple very tight climbing switchback turns with a short steep climb between them. I was dumbfounded when I saw a large tour bus parked at the end of the road near the base of the 1000 foot falls. This was the 3rd time in 35 years that we had taken the ride to the falls and I was determined to follow the tour bus back down to see for myself how in hell they could negotiate the steep switchbacks. I was embarrassed when I saw how easy it was for them without using their steering wheel.
      Back on the main highway we saw a train enter the mountain Spiral Railroad Tunnel and the caboose finally entered the tunnel after the engine had emerged from the full circle inside the mountain.
      The Canadian Rockies are a must do experience.

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