Columbia Icefield Tour: Athabasca Glacier Hike

Columbia Icefield Tour: Athabasca Glacier Hike

Columbia Icefield Tour: Athabasca Glacier Hike | Words and Photos by Julie Boyd

The first time I stood at the base of Athabasca Glacier was an unforgettable experience. To be in the presence of an ancient piece of ice is humbling, and to know that in my lifetime it will disappear is heartbreaking.

As I looked upon the massive expanse of ice, and felt the cool wind rippling across my skin, I had a desire to walk to its base. But I could go no further.

For safety reasons, Parks Canada has understandably cut off unguided access to the glacier. Unless you are willing to cram into a crowded, diesel-burning tour bus and take one of their large group tours up to a small section of the glacier where you can wander around with the herd for a bit, you are out of luck. Or so I thought.

On our last trip to the Columbia Icefield, I noticed a small group coming off the glacier, carrying micro-spikes. In the parking lot, I saw a trailer with an “Ice Walk” logo, and after doing a bit more research, I discovered there was a way to access the glacier that was much more appealing to my disdain for crowds.

As soon as Brian and I booked our trip to Canada this past summer, I knew I had to schedule this experience as well. I was even more excited to take my parents along on this adventure because I knew they would love it.

How to book a Columbia Icefield Tour: Athabasca Glacier Hike

The Ice Walk website is user-friendly and has all of the information you need to plan your trip. They have several tours to choose from, which you can book online.

I decided that since we were staying in Canmore (which is about two hours away), and since we would want to have some time to explore the Icefields Parkway that day as well, it would be best to book one of the afternoon tours that was just three hours, and went about three miles. This ended up being perfect for our trip, however, if you have more time in the area I would encourage you to do the longer tour and spend more time traversing the glacier.

Note: This post is not sponsored in any way. We just had such a great experience with this tour, that I wanted to share it with others who are planing to visit the area.

An Unforgettable Adventure: The Athabasca Glacier Hike

Athabasca Glacier Hike

After a leisurely morning driving up the Icefield’s Parkway and taking photos, we met our group at the Toe of Athabasca Glacier Trailhead. We checked-in with the friendly staff, who made sure we had all of the proper gear: warm clothes, hiking boots, and micro-spikes. Keep in mind that even if it is a warm, summer day the climate on the glacier will be cold. Additionally, the sharp ice which you will be traversing can cut skin if you fall, so long sleeves and pants are a must. Ice Walks also provides gear free of charge, which is a really great benefit if you are traveling light, don’t have hiking gear, or have a father who stubbornly refuses to wear anything but shorts since retiring.

Once we were all geared up, we hit the trail with gusto. It felt wonderful to be able to finally step over that rope and make our way toward the glacier. Despite signs and ropes, we saw several other groups on the glacier without a guide. The terrain changes daily, and it is more dangerous than it looks. Our guide mentioned having to stop tours and rescue people in the past who did not respect the rules.

Athabasca Glacier Hike

After a short walk to the toe of the glacier, we put on our micro spikes, and crossed the melt-water, finally stepping foot on Athabasca.

As we made our way up the glacier, our knowledgeable and friendly guide stopped frequently to talk about the life of the glacier and how it shaped the geology of the area. It was fascinating to learn about the history of the Columbia Icefield, as he pointed out features both on and off the glacier.

All of the cuts in this rock are from the glacier moving pieces of dirt across its surface as it melts. Pretty cool!
Athabasca Glacier Hike
Looking back down toward the foot of the glacier.
This pole was placed in the ice by researches at the beginning of the season. At that time the ice extended to the top of the pole. Heartbreaking to see how much has melted in just a few months.

Athabasca Glacier Hike

Our “summit” was about halfway up the glacier. Here we admired the power of the water as it ripped through the ice and formed a river which plunged down a large crevasse.

Athabasca Glacier Hike
Brian drinking the melt-water right from its source.

Athabasca Glacier HikeOn the way back down, we made our way to the side of Athabasca. Here the terrain completely changed as this area more recently melted away from the landscape. Sections that looked like dirt and rock were actually still a part of the glacier; the ice was just below the surface.

Final Thoughts

Athabasca is alive. It moves and transforms each day under the bright light of the sun and the warming temperatures of the Earth. As the ice melts, sediment from below is thawed. Frozen pockets of air that are millions of years old are released. Rivers flow under its sharp surface. A pole emerges from the crust of the ice that marks how much it has shrunk this year. The marker on the pole is taller than us. The air is cool as it whips down the mountain, but not cool enough. Soon it will be gone. I look at where it once covered. Miles and miles away. It is frustrating to listen to the rhetoric of those who deny this is happening. I am lucky to have experienced this place, but it is devastating to know that it will be lost to future generations.

Glacial blue. It’s like a crystal illuminated by the the sky. Pale and brilliant. A camera can’t capture this beauty. You must see it with your own eyes.

Check out these other awesome Canadian Rockies hikes:

Hiking to Moraine & Consolation Lakes

Hiking to Lake Agnes & the Big Beehive

Peyto Lake Hike to the Bottom

Lake Louise & Hiking Plain of the Six Glaciers

Shop Our Favorite Gear For This Adventure


2 thoughts on “Columbia Icefield Tour: Athabasca Glacier Hike”

  • This makes me so sad. I was there in 2011, and even just from looking at your photos I can see how much it has retreated. What a cool experience, though, to be able to walk on it and see it up close like that!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *