The Icefields Parkway that winds through Alberta’s scenic Rocky Mountains is considered one of Canada’s most epic road trips for good reason. Linking Lake Louise and Jasper, the three hour drive hugs steep cliff faces, curves around shimmering blue lakes and twists through glaciers, rewarding travellers with epic views every step of the way.
But the payoff doesn’t come easy, especially for those navigating the highway during winter. In fact, many people avoid Highway 93 that time of year, preferring to take the long way around rather than tackle the unplowed highway which is frequently blanketed in fluffy white snow and rife with avalanche warnings.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t attempt the trip in snowy months—it simply comes down to being prepared. Here are seven tips for driving the Icefields Parkway during winter.
1) Expect the unexpected
The Icefields Parkway is pretty much the last place on earth you want to get stuck during the winter. Infrequently travelled, large snow drifts, freezing temperatures, no cell service…you get the picture. And despite the best intentions, sometimes the worst case scenario happens and you can spin off into a ditch, get a flat tire or have an unfortunate collision with a large animal (more on that later).
With all that in mind, it’s critical to pack an emergency kit. I’ll leave it to you to Google what that entails (or you can simply pick up a roadside kit like this one from Canadian Tire which also comes with a year of roadside assistance—score!), but at the very least you’ll want thick blankets, a shovel, candles, matches, a knife and flares. Oh, and food. So. Much. Food. Sure it’s only a few hours of driving, but if you end up unexpectedly spending 24 hours stranded in the Rocky Mountains, that leftover sandwich you brought along won’t last long.
It’s also important to bring along extra windshield washer fluid (the kind that doesn’t freeze in the winter—this is Canada, people!) and have lots of warm winter clothes on hand.
2) Check the road reports
Fun fact: the quick drive along the Icefields Parkway can quickly spiral into an hours-long ordeal if you’re unfortunate enough to head straight into a blizzard. That happened to a taxi driver I met in Jasper, who said he spun out right as a storm hit and spent the next 14 hours in a ditch before any emergency vehicles were able to get close enough to pull him out.
Or take my experience. I was enjoying my solo road trip, happily snapping selfies in front of pristine mountain backdrops before being stopped dead in my tracks about an hour from Jasper by this:
Yes, that truck was blocking the entire highway, because an avalanche had hit near Athabasca Falls. No one could get through, meaning a five hour detour in the opposite direction. That was still better than the alternative of waiting 26 hours, which is how long it ended up taking crews to clear the road.
Since there’s no cell service it’s pretty much impossible to monitor conditions up to the minute, so it’s worth checking road reports before heading out. Both the AMA and Alberta government have road conditions on their websites, and Parks Canada also updates hotels in Jasper and Lake Louise if there are any known issues.
3) Allow extra travel time
Remember my story about being diverted for five hours? Yeah, so you might want to add a few hours of padding onto your expected travel time, just in case you run into some trouble along the way. But it’s not only a cautionary measure—the Icefields Parkway is gorgeous!
It’s safe to assume you’ll want to pull over at every single roadside stop along the way, as each one presents another stunning vista of a sparkling lake, spectacular mountain range, or forest of trees dusted with snow like icing sugar. Giving yourself a couple of extra hours for the drive means an opportunity to snap some snowy selfies without worrying about the clock.
4) Use caution when pulling over
Speaking of pulling over, make sure you’re smart about it so you don’t up spending half your day digging yourself out of a deep ditch. There are so many rest stops and lookout points along the way that there’s rarely a reason you should have to stop on the shoulder.
If you do pull off in an unmarked area, be careful not to get too close to the edge of the road where the ditch begins, and when possible stop on a flat surface. You’ll also note there are many signs advising of avalanches (especially near the Columbia Icefield), so don’t stop until you’re through to get avoid getting caught in a slide.
5) Put on those winter tires
This is a biggie. Repeat after me: “I will not drive the Icefields Parkway without winter tires. I will not drive the Icefields Parkway without winter tires. I will not drive…” OK I think you’ve got it. But seriously, don’t attempt this road trip if your vehicle isn’t in tip top shape, and equipped with a set of winter tires (did I mention that yet?).
The Icefields Parkway is not regularly maintained during the winter, meaning you might face some serious snowdrifts or black ice as you navigate narrow, slick roadways while peering over the edge of a steep cliff. Driving a truck or SUV is preferable, so you’ve got some serious horsepower in the event you find yourself trying to get out of a ditch.
6) Fuel up
There are essentially no services around, so ensuring you’re fully gassed up before leaving Lake Louise or Jasper is crucial. Plus, who wants to spend time searching for a gas station when you could be enjoying the view? If for some reason you find yourself low on fuel on the parkway, there’s a gas station at Saskatchewan Crossing, which is located around the midway point.
7) Watch out for wildlife
Finally, the very reason you’re driving the parkway can be the biggest hazard: the amazing wildlife. The highway is frequented by the likes of caribou, elk, bighorn sheep and wolves, which are amazing to look at but a devastating problem if you end up hitting one.
Wildlife are typically more active around dawn or dusk, which makes it even more important to abide to the speed limit and use your headlights. If possible, slow down when you’re navigating a curve with little visibility, as Murphy’s Law states this is where a herd of elk will be licking the salty roads.
OK…so that all might have sounded a bit scary, but hopefully that doesn’t put you off from enjoying the Icefields Parkway in winter. Just keep those tips in mind along with some common sense, and there’s no question you’ll enjoy one of the most scenic road trips in the entire world!
Have you driven the Icefields Parkway in winter? What was your experience? Please share in the comments below!
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