It’s one of the most beautiful drives in the world, and also one of the most treacherous.
Today, however, the skies above are cloudless and brilliant blue, and the road condition, displayed on a sign we pass, is “Fair”.
“Fair?” says our driver and guide, Steve. “That’s great. Sometimes I feel like when winter starts they should just put up the ‘Poor’ sign and leave it there.”
I’m on the Icefields Parkway, a spectacular road that winds its way through the Canadian Rockies from Jasper National Park south to Banff National Park.
We’re travelling the road in late winter, with snow still on the ground and covering the peaks that surround us.
In the colder months, the parkway can be difficult to navigate, mainly due to tourists in rental cars who don’t know what they’re doing. Steve tells us that the two-to-three-hour drive recently took him a whopping 14 hours, partly thanks to bad weather, but mostly due to tourists with no chains on their tyres, who would find themselves sliding off the road, or stopping and not having enough traction to get moving again.
“Maybe that’s why they call it a ‘park’ way and not a ‘drive’ way?” I joke.
Fortunately today there’s nothing to fear other than the glare of the bright sun. But the skies belie the cold temperatures. When we started out in the early morning it was an incredible minus 30 degrees (unseasonably cold even for the Rockies). My beard turned white with frost.
Despite the cold temperatures, the roads remain clear of ice and snow and we make good time, allowing us to to stop off regularly at some scenic spots along the route.
One of the best is the Athabasca Glacier. In the warmer months, you can take a tour out onto the glacier itself and walk around on its surface. At the moment though, it’s covered in a deep layer of snow.
Nevertheless, the valley here offers spectacular views of the Rockies and at this time of year there are no other visitors to be seen. We’re alone apart from a couple of large crows sitting on the side of the road (unlike most other birds here, crows don’t fly south in winter).
Our final destination today is the famous Lake Louise in Banff National Park. In summer, this place is overrun with tourists, all wanting to get a snap of the lake’s vivid blue waters fed by the Victoria Glacier at the end of the lake.
It’s said that the average time spent here by tourists is just 20 minutes – they get out, snap a photo and leave again. That’s a shame as there’s plenty to do at the lake, in any season. Right now, the lake remains frozen solid and the staff of the lakeside Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel have cleared some of the snow to create rinks for ice skating and hockey. A collection of large ice sculptures sit between the hotel and the lake, still intact from the annual Ice Magic festival in January.
I’m not much of an ice skater, so instead I opt for a walk across the lake to get a closer look at the glacier. This is my third visit to Lake Louise and it’s an odd experience to be strolling along a space I’ve only previously seen as deep, blue water.
I’m staying at the chateau tonight. Built in 1911, it’s one of three grand Fairmont hotels in the region, the other two in Banff and Jasper. My room, one of 552, sits in the western wing of the hotel, overlooking the skating rink and out to the mountains beyond.
I head to the Lakeview Lounge, one of several dining options on site, to have afternoon tea. Unfortunately those 20-minute tourists are here in droves and there are no tables available.
Instead it’s a quick sandwich at the Chateau Deli before taking a short trip via one of the hotel’s courtesy cars to Kingmik Dog Sled Tours, where I clamber into the back of a sled for a half-hour jaunt around the countryside, being pulled by a team of energetic Alaskan huskies.
Much like the dogs, the thrill-ride sees me work up an appetite, so it’s back to the chateau for dinner at Alpine Social, a relaxed pub-cum-bistro serving cold-weather comfort food like pork belly, seafood chowder and a range of cuts of Alberta beef.
After a satisfying meal I turn in for the night to prepare for the next day’s morning activity – hiking into the wilderness with Jeff, one of the chateau’s nature guides. I have large feet already, but once Jeff has kitted me out with a couple of tennis-racket sized snowshoes, I feel like a sasquatch.
We follow a trail up into the hills by the lake, making good progress on the relatively compacted snow. But then it’s time to go offroad and head into the snow. The snowshoes are surprisingly effective, keeping me close to the surface despite being on a metre or so of fresh powder.
At one point I tip over, falling into a deep snow drift. With my unwieldy snow shoes on, I find it almost impossible to get up again. Jeff helps me to my feet.
Suddenly I feel like one of those tourists on the Icefields Parkway, woefully incompetent in the face of winter in the Canadian Rockies. But the locals are always happy to help you out, sometimes literally.
Air Canada has non-stop flights from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to Vancouver. See aircanada.com From Vancouver, Via Rail runs overnight trains to Jasper. See https://www.viarail.ca
Rooms at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise start from $C349. See https://www.fairmont.com/lake-louise
Sun Dog Tours provides bus transfers and private charters along the Icefields Parkway between Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff. See https://www.sundogtours.com
Kingmik Dog Sled Tours runs a variety of trips with its Alaskan husky teams. A half-hour dog sled tour costs $C125 per person. See https://kingmikdogsledtours.com/
Craig Platt travelled as a guest of Banff and Lake Louise Tourism.