"You want to see the jewels of Jasper National Park! I suggest you take two tours: one to the Columbia Icefields and the other to Maligne Lake. They are two gems set in one of the most beautiful spots on earth," a resident of the town of Jasper advised when I asked him what were the most important sites to see during our four day stay in one of Canada's most charming parks. I thought of these renowned attractions as we settled down in our luxury abode, the Fairmount Jasper Park Lodge. I was thrilled with its picturesque panoramic setting. It was conducive to dreaming of traveling to the Columbia Icefields with their glaciers virtually as old as time itself and Maligne Lake, the charming jewel of Jasper National Park.
We began our vacation by exploring the mountain resort town of Jasper nestled in the bosom of the Rockies. It is an overgrown village of 4,500 people in the winter and 10,000 people in the summer. The well-kept buildings, cuddled by towering mountains, have made it an idyllic vacation spot. Its first-class tourist facilities make it easy for visitors to be comfortable and at the same time enjoy the many attributes of Jasper National Park. Restaurants, art galleries and a selection of shops cater to thousands of tourists who crowd the town, especially in the summer. Whatever the season, travelers can partake in mountain adventure and make contact with the wild animals. Laid back and peaceful, some call it “an alpine paradise.” It’s an authentic urban center that has a small town aura. The inhabitants are friendly and welcome visitors; in the words of a Scottish tourist who went on a tour with us, "It's only a small trading post with a polished 21st century veneer."
From this cosy resort travelers begin their Icefields’ tour by driving through the heart of Jasper National Park to the Icefields, 103 km (64 mi) away. Soon they are surrounded by a vast world of unspoiled grandeur—pine tundra, emerald lakes, deep canyons, snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, wildlife and the Athabasca River—one of the most historic and beautiful rivers in Canada. On Highway 93, known as the “Icefields Parkway” and considered to be the most scenic route in the world, travelers usually stop at Athabasca Falls to gaze in wonder at its roaring waters then further on at the Sunwapta Falls to watch the Sunwapta River tumble into a limestone gorge; a panorama of plummeting waters in a setting of white-tipped mountains and the tree-filled valleys.
By mid-afternoon the tour reaches the Columbia Icefields, a wonder of nature formed by six glaciers: the largest accumulation of ice south of the Arctic Circle. Edged by eleven of the twenty two highest mountain peaks in the Rockies and covering an area of 325 sq km (126 sq mi) and averaging 3,000 m (9,840 ft) in height, the six glaciers form a true “Continental Divide.” Their waters pouring from the Athabasca and South Saskatchewan Rivers into three different oceans: north to the Arctic, east to the Atlantic and west to the Pacific.
The first stop is the Icefields Center, a huge chalet like stone building. Opened in 1996, the Center houses interpretive exhibits located on the spot where the Athabasca (one of the six glaciers) is visible. From the Icefields Center parking lot visitors can walk to the glacier's edge and gaze at the enormous expanse of crevassed ice.Thousands of tourists take the Snocoach Tour onto the icy slopes of the glacier; a three ton vehicle especially designed and built by a Calgary based company for the Columbia Icefields. The Snocoach takes visitors to the middle of the Athabasca Glacier.