On the Icefields Parkway: Stunning aerial views of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains
IT’S ON JUST about every list of scenic drives in the world. The Icefields Parkway is the legendary 232 kilometre highway that runs through both Jasper and Banff national parks in Alberta. 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 (read about my epic train journey here) to Banff, and back again, over the course of five sunny, warm days in June.
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.
Note: I took the Grizzly bear photo below, from the car, with the help of a telephoto lens. It is dangerous and illegal to get out of your car in the presence of elk and bears! You may see people doing it, but they are in the wrong. Do not join them. If an animal attacks a human, the animal is “put down” — which makes the humans involved in the incident implicit in their death.
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: 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.
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.
Though I am wary of tourist attractions in general, the Glacier Skywalk is one that I can honestly recommend because it enhances appreciation of the environment. In fact, it was built to get people out of their cars and engaging with the natural world. It is extremely well designed, and well worth the stop.
Finding stillness: Heli-Yoga on a mountain top
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.
I was experiencing all this mountain-top oneness thanks to a cooperative effort between Martha McCallum of Martha’s Heli-Hikes and Ralph Sliger of Rockies Heli-Tours.
We met at the Rockies Heli-Tours Icefield location, about 40 kilometres off the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper. Martha organized the experience, put together a gourmet picnic lunch for us, taught us helicopter safety and led us through one of the most unique and special yoga experiences of my life. Ralph, helicopter pilot and founder of Rockies Heli-Tours, flew us up to the top of the mountain.
A warm, high-energy guy who loves to fly, heli-yoga was actually Ralph’s idea. He wanted to give visitors to the Rockies a really special experience, and he found Martha to help manifest his vision.
So, thanks to the combined efforts of the two of them, 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.
For planning your trip
- Canada Keep Exploring
- Travel Alberta
- Glacier Skywalk
- Icefields Parkway
- Jasper National Park
- Tourism Jasper
- Banff National Park
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