7 tips for driving the Icefields Parkway during winter

Canada-Alberta-Jasper-Parkway-1-Resized 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.

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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).
jasper alberta icefields parkwayWith 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.

jasper alberta icefields parkway

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:
jasper alberta icefields parkwayYes, 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.

RELATED: Fun winter activities to enjoy in Jasper, Alberta

jasper alberta icefields parkway

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!
jasper alberta icefields parkwayIt’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.

RELATED: The best Instagram hashtags to use for Canadian travel photos
jasper alberta icefields parkway

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.
jasper alberta icefields parkway

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?).

jasper alberta icefields parkwayThe 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.
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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.
jasper alberta icefields parkway

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.
jasper alberta icefields parkwayOK…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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Tips for driving the Icefields Parkway

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20 Responses

  1. Carol says:

    Great tips- driving on icy roads can be nerve wracking. But the views!!!!!

  2. noel says:

    I really want to visit this region for 2017, but winter time sounds too unpredictable for me – I think summer would be amazing even though I’m sure the crowds also come in to visit during this peak time frame?

  3. Bob says:

    Great tips. There is big difference in driving in the snow and driving on theice. The snow isn’t too bad but when the sun goes down or early morning those black ice patches show up and those can be pretty bad.

  4. Dana says:

    Great tips and I would haven’t thought about watching where I was pulling over. Ending up in a ditch would be no fun! I does look like a beautiful drive if you plan enough time and are prepared.

  5. Indrani says:

    Being from tropical region driving in these snow covered tracks look scary. Yet we once drove a similar path near Delphi, Greece. We had hired the car from Athens and we didn’t have snow chains, the only alternative was to drive slowly. Your post is an eye opener to me.

  6. Mindi Hirsch says:

    Lots of great tips here for winter driving. I now remember why I moved from Colorado several years ago. I’m just not a winter person.

  7. Jen Joslin says:

    We live in a tropical climate and these are things we just don’t deal with often, so great to hear your tips! It sounds like there’s a lot to worry about when driving in snow, but it looks well worth it to see the beautiful scenery of the Icefields Parkway!

  8. Karen says:

    Hi Tamara,
    Love your posts… we are travelling to Canada again (from Australia) in a few weeks and are looking to hire a motorhome (RV) from Calgary, to Edmonton, to Jasper, to Lake Louise, to Banff and back to Calgary. We were in Banff / Lake Louise in February 15 with a hire car and did some of the Icefields Parkway (and have also been in summer too). My questions is…. do you think we will be okay to travel with the hire RV from Jasper to Lake Louise along the Parkway?

    • Hmm, I think it would depend on how big the RV is. When I did it in January there was a ton of snow on the highway, and I drove a truck with winter tires which made it manageable. You might get lucky and the roads will be totally clear, but if it happens to be really snowy it might be tough to get through with a big RV. If you have a smaller one with good tires on it you might be OK- hope that helps! Have a fantastic trip!

  9. mags says:

    Stunning views, but I would be terrified driving in the icy weather. I’m from Florida and that is not a skill set I have!

  10. Megan says:

    Some really great tips. Especially for a Californian like me. To be honest wouldn’t have thought about winter tires since I forgot they existed. Hope I get a chance to explore the Icefields one of these days.

  1. December 27, 2016

    […] RELATED: 7 tips for driving the Icefields Parkway during winter […]

  2. December 27, 2016

    […] 7 tips for driving the Icefields Parkway during winter […]

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