Alberta and Icefields Parkway

Alberta and Icefields Parkway and how they boast some of the most dramatic landscapes on earth.


Canada offers uniquely difficult features for the development of a national transportation system.  The topography provides difficult conditions for long-haul transport, therefore, in order to provide the services shippers want and the national economy demands, transport facilities of the varied sort must reach some four thousand miles from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to the west coast of the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia.  Since World War II, Canada has seen a transformation in transportation services.  Trade between Canadian provinces and the United States is a dominant factor contributing to economic developments in transportation.  Water, rail, road, air or pipe travel has enabled individuals easy access throughout the universe.  The importance of the Columbia Icefields Parkway, Alberta, is that it overcomes the province’s physical geography, influences historical settlement patterns and impacts both social and economic development in the region.


Alberta boasts some of the most dramatic landscapes on earth.  Nothing in this province was made in moderation.  It is a world of towering cliffs, giant rivers, and infinite prairie.  Alberta also embodies the Columbia Ice fields Parkway, a major highway establishment on the western border.  Some sources quote the Ice fields Parkway as running between Banff and Jasper.  However, strictly speaking, the name Ice fields Parkway refers only to Highway 93 between the town of Lake Louise and Jasper, Alberta (picture 1).  The Ice fields Parkway is virtually unparalleled for beauty as it runs alongside a chain of massive ice fields straddling the Continental Divide.   At every turn of the road, there are breathtaking views of towering snow-covered mountains, alpine lakes, and of course the spectacular ice fields and glaciers.  The largest of the chain of ice fields along the Great Divide is the Columbia Ice field. People traveling the Icefields Parkway usually allow themselves one of two days to experience everything it has to offer.

In protecting the land, Alberta has also preserved a wealth of history.  The settling of Western Canada marks one of the worlds great migrations and the transformation of the region into an agricultural resource frontier (Bone 2002).  Albertans enjoy a rich and varied heritage.  From the early 1800s, when native people and fur traders used parts of this route to cross the mountain barrier, to immigrants from Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the United States Later.  They have all made their own unique contributions to the province’s economic and cultural growth while retaining much of their own ethnicity, language, and history.

In 1885, Canada achieved the impossible, completing its coast-to-coast railway. The arrival of the train brought tourists, resorts, and a lifeline to the newly-established Rocky Mountains Park (now Banff National Park), this young country’s first national park. The creation of Glacier and Jasper National Parks soon followed, as more and more visitors discovered the beauty of this mountain landscape.  For a brief period, lumber and mining industries flourished here. Banff’s Bankhead and Jasper’s Pocahontas coal mines boomed in the early 1900s.  The ruins of self-guiding trails can still be visible today. By 1930, a new National Parks Act set resource protection as the parks’ priority, ending such industrial activities.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, abandoned farmhouses were a sadly common sight in the province.  Much has changed since then.  Government support programs, advanced agricultural techniques, and a constantly improving transportation system have helped make Alberta’s farmers among the most productive in the world.  The first Banff-Jasper road was built as a relief-work project during the depression years of the 1930s, however, the present Icefields Parkway was completed in the early 1960s.  Place names along the parkway recall the different groups of people that have visited the area. Some names, such as Sunwapta which means ‘turbulent water’, are taken from native languages. Some commemorate fur traders (Hardisty), mountaineers (Stutfield), explorers (Hector) or packers (Peyto). Others, such as Tangle Ridge, Cirque Lake, and the Weeping Wall, are simply descriptive.

Alberta has seen significant growth in its economy over the past decade.  The increasing rate of immigration, the expansion of the petroleum industry, the liberalization of world trade, and the emergence of tourist attractions have accelerated this growth.  The process of diversification has included strong growth in the manufacturing sector, agricultural transition, and the greater processing of natural resources like mineral, forest and agricultural.

Not only has Alberta been an immigrant society with a high degree of mobility in physical terms, but its development has taken place in a comparatively short time.  As it was the last of the provinces in Canada to feel the full impact of European settlement, it’s expansion into the world of power has somewhat increased.  Although Western Canada covers twenty percent of the country, the region’s economic and population strength are more modest (Bone 2002).  The region has fewer French Canadians than other parts of the country, but a significant number of Aboriginal Canadians (Bone 2002) (picture 2).

Intense scenery and physical geography remain the central reasons for tourism in Alberta. Considerable amounts of tourists have contributed to the expanding economy in Alberta.  As the Ice fields, Parkway is mainly traveled as a tourist attraction highway, it has influenced the increase in Alberta’s economy.  This road is usually taken at a leisurely pace, passing through numerous lakes such as Lake Louise and nearby Moraine Lake, Peyto Lake, the Columbia Icefield, and Athabasca Falls.  The road also passes through the main range of the Canadian Rockies, in Banff National Park and Jasper National Park, two of the first National Parks built in Canada.  Lake Louise is one of Banff National Park’s most stunning features.  The lake’s famous turquoise color is caused by fine rock particles, called ‘glacial flour’, that are carried down by meltwater from glaciers.

Progress in highway design and construction network has flourished in all regions of Canada.  Roads were built and highways to accommodate the growing numbers of cars and trucks.  As incomes rose, the demand for cars and highways to drive them on increased (Better highways are now capable of accommodating larger and heavier equipment, and more vehicles traveling at higher speed rates (Purdy 1972).    However, in different areas of the country, depending on road conditions and the character of traffic, the highway plays different roles in the reasons it was made and used.

The Icefields Parkway lies in the slim portion of the Cordillera between southern Alberta and British Columbia.  The tiny section of the Cordillera, along the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, provides logging and mining opportunities for Western Canada (Bone 2002).  The spectacular mountain landscape produces the internationally acclaimed parks, Banff National Park and Jasper National Park.

The Cordillera is a complex region of mountains, plateaux, and valleys.  It is classified as a young geological structure, formed about 40-80 million years ago when the North American tectonic plate slowly moved westward, eventually colliding with the Pacific Plate (Bone 2002).  The collision slowly but steadily compressed sedimentary rocks into a series of mountains and plateaux now known as the Cordillera.  These ancient sedimentary rock strata can be seen on exposed mountainsides in the Rockies.  In more recent geological times, the Cordillera ice sheet altered the landforms of the region.  Over the last 20,000 years, alpine glaciation has sharpened the features of the mountain ranges in the Cordillera broadened its many river valleys which are visible on the Parkway road.  The Rocky Mountains are the best known of these mountain ranges.  Most have elevations between 3,000 and 4,000 m.  Their sharp, jagged peaks create some of the most striking landscape in North America.

As the Icefield glaciers hold large amounts of snow and ice on their peaks, travelers are warned about falling snow and ice at any time during park visits or simply driving.  Weather in this area of Canada is unpredictable, resulting in hot summer days turning to cold winters!

Canada manages its tourism industry well. From the western border of British Columbia, through the Western Provinces reaching the industrial cores of Canada, Ontario, and Quebec,  to the provinces of the East Coasts, tourist attractions seem countless. “Tourism is the fourth largest industry in the province (Alberta), employing approximately 100,000 Albertans” (Reid 1981). The Icefields Parkway incorporates many tourist attractions as it travels through breathtaking scenery. It is also the epicenter of ice climbing in the Rockies featuring ease of access, reliability of formation, and ultra-classic routes.

The Columbia Icefield is one of the many mountains along the Parkway, located on the boundary of Banff and Jasper National Parks. As one of the largest accumulations of ice and snow south of the Arctic Circle, it covers an area of nearly 325 square kilometers. The continuous accumulation of snow feeds eight major glaciers including the Athabasca, Dome, and Stutfield Glaciers, all visible from the Icefields Parkway. The Columbia Icefield is a true Continental Divide, for its meltwater feeds streams and rivers that pour into the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans.

Facing the Columbia Icefield Visitors’ Centre lies the Athabasca Glacier, a tongue of ice 6 kilometers long and one kilometer wide descending almost to road level. Brewster’s Ice Age Adventure, a tour onto the icy slopes of the Athabasca Glacier is commonly admired by tourists. This adventure involves traveling in a specially designed Brewster Snocoach to the middle of the glacier, on a 5-kilometer round trip journey. The driver/guide explains how glaciers are formed and points out interesting geological features traveling in safety and comfort. At the icefall below the glacier headwall, there is an option of stepping out onto ice formed from snow falling as long as 400 years ago.

After this unique adventure, the Columbia Icefield Centre attracts individuals to relax over lunch or dinner and watch the light change over the ancient rock and ice. There are also cycling routes from Jasper to Banff, hiking opportunities up the ancient ice, canoeing, and rafting in the legendary rivers and lakes, and rock climbing on the dramatic steeps account for an unforgettable wild west experience.  The many available tourist attractions continue to occupy a major economic contribution to the regions in Alberta.

Every province in Canada has distinct and unique differences.  These differences build various regions and societies around the world.  Alberta’s rapid growth, particularly since the early 1970s, has triggered an unprecedented shift in fiscal, political and even cultural power, from traditional eastern Canadian centers to the West (Reid 1981).  This phenomenon continues to create exciting new opportunities for the province, as well as new responsibilities.


The parks brought people of all kinds. By 1920 tourists came by automobile, along Canada’s first central trans-mountain motor route. Between 1886 and 1903, almost 40 of Glacier National Park’s mountains were climbed for the first time.  The Icefields Parkway is a route of historical mountain exploration that permeates the area, and the evidence of overcoming intense physical geography that the Western provinces possess.


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