The Icefields Parkway is the legendary 232 kilometre highway that runs through both Jasper and Banff national parks in Alberta Canada. This is smack in the middle of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, the North American equivalent of the Himalayas. Though not as high they are nevertheless spectacularly beautiful, jagged, rocky peaks streaked with bright white snow against Canada’s big blue sky.
I drove the Icefields Parkway both directions, from where I got off the train in Jasper to Banff, and back again, over the course of five sunny, warm days in June.
Mirror reflection on the Icefields Parkway. The Rockies
During the course of my drive, I saw several golden-fleece grizzly bears nibbling grasses by the side of the road, herds of big horn sheep, a lone elk silhouetted against the dusky sky and graceful deer crossing the road like ladies of leisure. I also saw majestic mountains serenely reflected in mirror-like lakes, forests of dark evergreen trees, waving golden grasses by the roadside.
A Grizzly bear by the side of the Icefields Parkway
The entire drive is a pristine, picture-perfect postcard of scenic beauty, very carefully maintained by the national parks service. It is indeed a Canadian treasure, one of the most special and beautiful tourism experiences you can have in this vast nation.
This is more that just traveling a mountain road; it’s a journey of the self and a celebration of protected wilderness grandeur. Icefields Parkway.
There is so much to see and do along the Icefields Parkway, I could write a book — and in fact many books have been written about this region. However, in this blog post I am going to just highlight two of the amazing experiences you can have.
Walking on air on the Glacier Skywalk
Walking on air: The Glacier Skywalk
Opened on May 1, 2014, the Glacier Skywalk is a brand new way to truly appreciate the Rocky Mountains. The attraction is right on the Icefields Parkway, very easy to find, about halfway between Banff and Jasper.
Head straight for the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, where you park your car, buy tickets and take a very short bus ride to the Skywalk. Once there, a walkway with interpretive displays and an audio tour leads to a glass-floored observation platform 280 metres (918 feet) over the Sunwapta Valley.
The Glacier Skywalk was designed to blend into the environment
When I arrived at the soaring viewing platform, I stepped gingerly on the glass floor — and saw just about everyone else doing the same thing. It is eerie and disorienting at first, but when you get used to it and relax, you have all the time in the world to take in the sweeping views and feel you are almost soaring in air.
The Glacier Skywalk is an engineering marvel, and cleverly designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. It was also built offsite, to minimize the environmental impact as much as possible.
Stopping at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre is also a good idea to take a rest and have lunch. There’s a restaurant and cafe, and a large outdoor terrace ideal for a picnic. When I was there, I got really lucky! I met a group of 34 travellers from India who brought their own lunch, and invited me to join. We sat on the terrace in the sun, and ate spicy dal, rice, curd, pickle, sweets and talked about Canada and how much they loved the “natural, pure, untouched beauty,” as one young woman, Shreya, said.
NOTHING. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. No sound at all. No hum or buzz of electricity, no car engines, no bird songs or even wind. That’s the thing I was most aware of when I was up on top of a Rocky Mountain somewhere off the Icefields Parkway to try heli-yoga for the first time.
What the heck is heli-yoga, you might ask? A helicopter whisks you, a yoga teacher and another student or two up to the top of a remote, untouched mountain and leaves you there. You watch as the helicopter flies away, and while the realization dawns that you are (almost) completely alone in nature. There’s no quick way to get back to civilization, no roads, no stores, no toilets, no telephones …
You are essentially alone with yourself and in connection with the divine forces of nature and the universe, beautifully visibly manifest in the spectacle of the jagged mountains lined up against the big clear-blue Canadian sky. In fact, though it took a marvel of modern technology to get us up here, the heli-yoga experience does in fact capture the essence of yoga — the pristine and undistracted oneness of connection.
We rolled out our yoga mats one fine June day on the scrubby mountain-top grass and took in the grand vista of the unending mountains as we settled into our practice. The uncanny silence made it easy for me to reach a deep meditative state, and before any time at all seemed to pass, yoga was over. It was time for lunch, a hike in the mountains and before we were ready to leave this silent sanctuary, we could hear the sounds of an approaching helicopter.
The Icefields Parkway, Alberta