One of the world’s top 5 drives
Often words like that conjure a degree of scepticism, but having driven Canada’s Icefield’s Parkway now four times, including once in winter I would agree that it is one of the most spectacular drives in the world. The Icefields Parkway stretches 230 kilometres from the delightful mountain town of Jasper descending into the Rocky Mountain trench paralleling the continental divide, flanked by towering peaks and ancient glaciers, to the stunning Lake Louise.
The first stop along the way is the Athabasca Falls. The Athabasca River carries more water than any other river in the Rockies National Park system and while not being very high at 23 metres, the falls are a magnificent spectacle by virtue of the shear volume and power of the water going over them, and well worth the short diversion. The paths are paved but a set of steps after the first viewing point limites wheelchair travellers to that viewing point only, which is unfortunate as the best viewing is from the far side of the river.
A major highlight of this drive is a stop at the Columbia Ice Fields and a trip onto the Athabasca Glacier aboard one of the ice explorers. The Athabasca Glacier is the most accessible glacier in North America. Despite the fact that it is retreating at the rate of five metres per year it is still a massive glacier at over six kilometres long, a kilometre wide and, at its centre over 300 metres deep. The excursion on one of the giant six wheeled purpose built Ice Explorers takes ninety minutes and takes you right onto the Athabasca Glacier and a chance to walk on this massive moving river of ice. The coaches run from mid April to mid October. Since 1991 the service has been catering for passengers with disabilities. One quarter of Brewster’s Ice Explorer fleet that tour the Athabasca Glacier are extra-long, with special wheelchair lifts and can comfortably carry up to 4 wheelchairs at a time in addition to the regular 56 passenger seats. Shuttle busses that take passengers to and from the Ice Explorer are not wheelchair-equipped, so private specialty vehicles carry wheelchair passengers to the Ice Explorer. Brewster also hosts an annual training course to key staff members, for advice and instruction on accommodating physically and mentally challenged visitors. The Icefields Centre is located on the Icefields Parkway opposite the glacier. There is ample disabled parking with bays wide enough to accommodate side loading vans. Both main entrances to the Icefield Centre are equipped with automatic doors with interior and exterior sensors. The Centre has an elevator that services all four floors; the Glacier Exhibit Gallery, main floor, food floor and hotel floor. The grand view deck on the second floor has picnic tables designed for ease of seating and are also wheelchair-accessible. There are plenty of barrier-free stalls in both the women’s and men’s washrooms. On the ground floor and on the food floor there are ‘family room’ washrooms for people who need the assistance of a caregiver. All corridors and public areas are kept clear and unobstructed, and have no steps or elevation changes. All public doors are equipped with lever-type handles. Two of the hotel rooms are specially equipped to accommodate wheelchairs. All hotel rooms have two-part fire alarms that include a strobe-light alarm for the hearing impaired plus the usual siren alarm. All public areas in the Icefield Centre are non-smoking for the comfort of all visitors, and the health of those with respiratory concerns. There are no air-conditioning systems to introduce molds or bacteria; our windows really open for fresh mountain air!
Video Clip Notes
The Canadian Paralympic Committee and gold medalist Paralympic athlete Joanne Kelly joined up
with a group of Canadian travel retailers to announce a new program that highlights Canada’s
accessible travel experiences. The “Go Canada” program. The announcement took place on the spectacular Columbia Icefield at the unveiling of a fully accessible GO CANADA branded Ice Explorer vehicle. The massive Ice Explorer vehicle is part of the Columbia Icefield Glacier Experience, which takes visitors on a remarkable 90-minute adventure onto the surface of Athabasca Glacier, and is but one example of the accessible travel experiences available in Canada. (Courtesy Canadian Tourism Commission)
After a day of stunning scenery and unique experiences the Icefields Parkway has one final surprise. The final must do stop on this magnificent drive is a short diversion into Peyto Lake. This lake is simply breathtaking and one of the highlights of any trip to the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The lake was named after one of the early pioneer outfitters, “Wild Bill” Peyto. The viewing area is a short walk from the car park just over the Bow Summit, which is a high point on the Icefields Parkway. The Lake is nestled in the deep glacial valley below and affords magnificent views back to the Rocky Mountain Trench across the Emerald green of the lake.
There is accessible parking in the upper level car park. The lower level one is too far away to be negotiated using a wheelchair. From the car park there is a level paved path leading down to the observation deck overlooking the lake. The path is wide but does slope down for its entire length of approximately 100 metres. The push back is long and arduous without some assistance made harder due to the altitude. The return trip is easy with the aid of a gentle push.
The Icefields Parkway is an easy day trip, but one that will reward you with some of the most awe inspiring scenery on earth.