If you want to see a remnant of the last ice age, head to the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park. This mountain valley boasts six interconnected glaciers, one of which visitors can easily access. The Athabasca Glacier sits closest to the Icefields Parkway, and due to its location, has the distinction of being most visited glacier in North America.
|The Athabasca Glacier spills between two mountains|
Driving the Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise, Roger and I wanted to leave enough time to reach this glacier. I'd read it was a must-see for Banff visitors. Heading towards the parking area, we were greeted with this amazing overview. Sandwiched between two massive mountains, the Athabasca Glacier spilled into the valley below.
|Walking a barren plain to the glacier|
Visitors can walk to the foot of this massive icefield. Roger parked our car in the nearby lot, and we followed the other tourists down a wide, rubble-strewn path. The surrounding area was barren, made up of dull gray sediments left behind by the retreating glacier.
|Signs showed how much the glacier has retreated|
The once-mighty Athabasca Glacier has been shrinking at an alarming rate of 5 meters (16 feet) per year. It's retreated nearly a mile in the past century. Markers placed along the main path, each with a different year, showed the extent of the icefield in the past. A very sober visual as to how quickly we're losing this valuable resource. The photo above shows Roger posing by the 1992 marker. As you can see, it retreated quite a ways in 16 years.
|Lots of dangers on the glacier|
Another common sight along our trail - lots and lots of warning signs. Many dangers lurk on these icefields. The Athabasca Glacier ranges between 300 and nearly 1000 feet in thickness. Melting ice creates many deep crevasses. Hiking on the glacier is not allowed, unless you're with an organized tour.
|This was as close as you could get|
This row of cones and rope was as close as we could get.
|Unless you booked a special tour|
From our vantage point behind, the rope, we watched a couple of guided tour groups ascend the icefield. I was wishing we'd signed up for one of those.
|It was cold at the glacier's edge|
Instead, I had to be content with just viewing from afar. But that was okay too. The massive size of this icefield was mind-blowing! And it was very, very cold near the glacier's base. I was bundled up with warm coat and hat, and still got chilly.
Roger and I zoomed our cameras in as far as they would go, and got some really cool shots of the rumpled, wrinkled ice.
|Meltwater pools at the glacier's edge|
A steady stream of silty meltwater flowed from the Athabasca Glacier's base. The ice at it's toe didn't look too stable.
|These snow coaches took visitors on the ice|
After spending time getting up close and personal with the Athabasca, Roger and I headed to the visitor center across the road. Walking through the parking lot, we spied a very unusual vehicle. It was a snow coach - a specially designed bus with thick lugged tires to enable driving onto the glacier. Another option for folks who didn't want to go hiking up the icefield.
|Another glacier in an adjacent valley|
Sadly, we had neither the time nor the money for such a tour. So Roger and I had to be content with touring the visitor center. It was quite well done, though. And the place offered many great vantage points to view the nearby mountains, and of course, their glaciers.
The neighboring mountains had really cool glaciers. And their very tops were rimmed with a thick coating of ice. Looked like a snowy white hat.
|Close up of the glacier's fractured edge|
It was amazing to me how the ice perched on the side of steep mountainsides. Although it looked ready to slide off at any moment, it stuck fast. Zooming in on the ice, one could see a maze of cracks and crevices. A mound of white ice particles at it's base gave evidence of frequent icefalls. Yet another reason not to venture too close to a glacier's edge.
|Another look at these majestic high peaks|
Roger and I took in more of the stunning mountain scenery for a little bit longer, before realizing time was getting late, and we still needed to drive all the way back down the Icefields Parkway to reach our campsite. So we reluctantly tore ourselves away from this very interesting visitor center, and headed back down the road.
|Bidding the Icefields Parkway goodbye|
It was fascinating to get so close to a huge, active glacier. The entire length of the Icefields Parkway was full of gorgeous sights. Another highlight of our Banff, trip I was glad we'd explored this area. But next time I hope to make it all the way to the town of Jasper!
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