Of the many exceptional roads in the mountain parks, the Icefields Parkway is preeminent for scenic grandeur and a variety of interesting features, stretching 230 km (143 miles) from the Trans-Canada Highway in the south to the town of Jasper on the north. The route followed is unusual as well, tracking along in the shadow of the Continental Divide in a general north-south direction rather than just cutting across the range east to west in the manner of other main park highways. With an average elevation of 1,550 metres (5,100 ft), it is the highest road in Canada, and Bow Summit is the second highest point reached by a public highway in the country.
All the terrain traversed by the Icefields Parkway has been heavily glaciated, and the features left in the wake of these many ice ages are a highlight of the tour. Not all the glaciers have disappeared either, and well over 100 are within sight of the highway between Jasper and Lake Louise.
The Icefields Parkway is also one of the best roads in the Canadian Rockies for viewing wildlife. Travellers should be on the lookout for elk, moose, mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, black bear, and coyote—all animals which are frequently seen along the route throughout the summer. Other animals observed from the road—though less frequently—include grizzly bear, wolf, caribou, and lynx.
Of course, the focal point of the Icefields Parkway for most travellers is the Athabasca Glacier—a six km (3.7-mile) long tongue of ice extending from the Columbia Icefield. Not only is this the only glacier in the parks accessible by road, it is part of the largest body of ice in the Rocky Mountains. The features surrounding the Icefield are of grander proportion than anywhere else, with huge rock and gravel moraines rimming the valleys, glacially-carved amphitheatres gouged into the sides of mountain peaks, swollen silt-laden rivers, and mountains that rise to over 3,600 metres (11,810 feet) above sea level.
Some people make only half the trip along the Icefields Parkway, venturing south to the Athabasca Glacier from Jasper or north from Lake Louise, then returning the way they came. Yet, the fullest and most rewarding trip is to travel the route in its entirety, moving at a leisurely pace and taking time to explore some of the scenic hiking trails wandering through subalpine forest and flowered alpine meadows. Or better yet, spending a week travelling the Parkway by bicycle, staying at the conveniently spaced hostels along the way.