Did you know that the Icefields Parkway is one of the most beautiful highways on earth? That’s a pretty grand claim to make for a little highway winding through some mountains in the wilderness of Canada. And yet, while I haven’t driven on every highway on earth, I’m pretty comfortable agreeing with this statement!
The Icefields Parkway brings you into the heart of the Canadian Rockies connecting the towns of Banff and Jasper. Along the Parkway you’ll find frigid turquoise waters, woolly mountain goats, never-ending jagged peaks, and of course, ice!
What makes this drive so spectacular are the views you get from right inside your vehicle. But, here’s a secret: if you park your car and take a walk, the views get exponentially better!
While there’s lots of amazing hikes along the Parkway, the one I’d like to recommend is near the Icefields Center and gives you a bird’s eye perspective of the Athabasca Glacier.
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Why you should hike Wilcox Pass
The Columbia Icefield spans some 215 square kilometers (that’s about 83 square miles)*. Visiting the toe of the Athabasca Glacier is definitely exciting, looking up to see that big mass of ice flowing down towards the valley bottom. But, looking up, you’re missing most of the picture. Like looking up onto the counter and seeing the edge of the cookie plate. It’s an exciting plate, but seeing those sprinkle-covered sugar cookies would be much more exciting!
This is why you need to hike up Wilcox Pass. You’ll appreciate the view, the expansiveness, and the geology that much more when you can see it in relation to the surrounding mountains, glaciers and valleys.
What to expect while hiking at Wilcox Pass
This is a very popular spot and you may have a hard time finding parking on a busy summer day. There’s an outhouse at the parking lot. Have all your little hikers use it. There are no outhouses on the trail.
Once you leave the parking lot the trail starts a steady climb, and is steep at times. Initially you’ll be hiking in the trees and the path is quite rooty in spots. This trail is not appropriate for any type of all-terrain stroller.
After about half a kilometer, the trails opens out onto the mountain side offering your first glimpse across the valley to the icefields.
Parks Canada has placed a pair of red Adirondack chairs up there and this is a lovely spot for a family selfie. Don’t be ashamed if you choose to head back down at this point. The climb up to these chairs can be a challenge for younger children and for adults too (especially if you were carrying a little on your back!).
However, if the family is feeling good, then keep going. It’s worth it! From the chairs you’ll continue walking through smaller scrub, bush, and boulders until another climb brings you up into the alpine.
Scan the grassy hillsides carefully. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot bighorn sheep grazing and soaking up the sun.
Be forewarned that once you leave the protection of the trees and bushes it can get windy. If it’s a really hot day, that breeze might be welcomed. But, because of the elevation, chances are that breeze will be cool on little ears and will whip around hair in a most annoying fashion! Also, if the weather has been dry, you might be assaulted with rock dust and sand.
On our last family hike at Wilcox Pass, this was exactly the case. It was a hot and dry month and the paths were very sandy. Heading up was fine, but in the afternoon the wind changed. Our decent was so bad at times that the kids walked with their eyes closed while adults lead them by the hands. We joked that we should have brought goggles along. And you know, that would have been a great idea! But, goggles are not something we tend to pack in our daypacks and so we made do.
You’ll know when you’re arrived into the alpine pass. The trail flattens out, and the landscape changes entirely. Sure, the view of the Icefields is why you’ve taken this path, but experiencing this alpine area is also a special treat. If your timing is right, the wildflowers will be in bloom.
You’ll rock-hop across the Wilcox Creek at about the 3 km mark. Continuing further along up to a large rock pile you’ll find a metal sign. This is usually as far as we go. We like to find shelter in amongst some large rocks and have our snacks, rest up, and enjoy the vistas before heading back down.
Remember that alpine plants are tender. Please try to stay on the trail and rocks and off those delicate flowers. And, keep an eye out for fossils.
You may notice there’s another trail branching off to the southwest. This leads to another viewpoint overlooking the Icefields. But, in all honesty, our kids have always been too tired by this point to go explore that trail.
Wilcox Pass Trail Specifics:
Distance to Wilcox Pass, the rock pile with a sign: about 3.5 kilometers one way
Elevation Gain up to Wilcox Pass: close to 400 meters
Distance to Great Views of the Athabasca Glacier: about 0.2 to 1.5 kilometers and maybe 300 meters elevation
Trail condition: Most of the trail is gravel, dirt, and packed sand. There are steep inclines at times with large rocks to step up and roots to step over. The trail is not appropriate for all-terrain strollers.
Our Family’s Experiences on Wilcox Pass:
We’ve hiked this trail a handful of times and each time the conditions are different. Given the elevation gain, I would consider this a moderately challenging hike for younger children. Our kids have hiked it as young as 4, but our kids are accustomed to hiking. On our last walk our little 2 year old did the first half all by herself (to our astonishment and pleasure – as we would have been carrying her otherwise).
The steady climb can feel unrelenting and having a few strategies to keep your kids motivated will be handy. Our daughters had a lot of fun pretending to be bighorn sheep, hoping from rock to rock and stopping to ‘nibble’ the plants. And so, when we actually spotted sheep off in the distance, this just excited and motivated them more to prance off like sheep; up and up the trail they went.
I would say our hikes up to the pass (with children under 8) are usually about 4 hours in length.
A few last notes:
Remember why I suggested you take this hike? So you could get a view of the Icefields, right? Well, that means it’s colder here. Prepare accordingly. Once, it was 25 degrees Celsius in the town of Jasper when we left the house for a hike. Luckily we remembered to throw our baby’s fleece bunting suit into the van. There was snow on the trail. It was August 22.
Along with the usual day-pack items I would also suggest bringing along head bands, hats, or bandannas to cover ears and keep the hair out of eyes and faces. Binoculars for spotting bighorn sheep might be nice too and something to motivate the kids with. If you or your kids enjoy identifying flowers, an alpine flower pamphlet might also be fun.
(sorry, the video is noisy because of the wind… and bumpy because of me!)
So, if ever you find yourself on the Icefields Parkway, I do hope you’ll remember about Wilcox Pass. Certainly you’ll stop at the Athabasca Glacier to explore some and maybe take a tour. But hopefully you’ll feel adventurous enough to head up the Wilcox Pass trail to really appreciate the alpine world and the grandness of that ancient ice.
P.S. If you’re planning a visit to Jasper National Park you might find some of these other articles helpful:
- 100 things to see and do in Jasper National Park
- Your complete guide to Jasper accommodations
- A fun-filled 2 day family itinerary for Jasper National Park
Also, you may want to sign up for the Jasper Edition Newsletter. You’ll get local’s tips, news, and activity ideas delivered right to your inbox on a monthly basis. Jasper really is an exciting place and I’m eager to share its nature with you and your family.
*This information was collected from Handbook of the Canadian Rockies by Ben Gadd (2nd, edition, 2009). This is a comprehensive guide that I recommend for anyone looking for an in-depth and detailed book on the Rockie’s geology, natural history, and its flora and fauna.