Photo by Keir Lamar
On our trip to Jasper National Park, we wanted to make a stop at the Columbia Icefield Skywalk along the Icefields Parkway. I remember when this thing was built, and it was an exciting time for Banff and Jasper alike with this new attraction between the two municipalities. And there we were, ready for our chance to finally experience this for ourselves with a tour from Pursuit!
There is no public parking at the Skywalk itself. To begin the tour, visitors meet at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, located across from the famous Athabasca Glacier, about halfway between Lake Louise and Jasper. From here, friendly guides will bus you to the Skywalk itself. These buses run frequently, and you can catch a return bus at your convenience.
The quick, 7-minute-or-so bus ride was filled with information from our driver and guide. She talked about the formation of glaciers and their importance to the ecosystem. She also discussed curiosities along the drive, including the Shooting Gallery, which is a wide, flat area littered with huge boulders that fell from the mountains above. She pointed out Snow Dome Mountain, which has a unique, triple-continental divide at the Hydrological Apex. This area sheds water in three separate directions: west towards the Pacific Ocean, north to the Arctic and east to Hudson’s Bay. Our guide also told us about the braided river alongside the highway that makes its way through a bed of stone and carves its own path. She also pointed out the Kitchener Rock Slide, which was an exciting discovery for geologists who discovered many new fossils and different features of the now-exposed rocks.
And then we arrived! Pulling into the parking lot, or driving past on the road, you don’t really appreciate how impressive the Columbia Icefield Skywalk structure actually is.
It's a feat of engineering that hangs off a sheer cliff face and allows visitors to experience standing on air, 280 m / 918 ft above the impressive valley below. Almost every piece used in the construction of the Skywalk was designed specifically for this project. The materials were chosen to blend in with the surrounding environment and the whole structure is cantilevered over the Sunwapta Valley to give the best views – literally from the sky!
Stepping onto the glass was fun. I was able to look down – WAY down – to the valley floor below. Leaning over the edge gave uninterrupted views of the Sunwapta Valley – the kind you usually only get from rock climbing. The structure has some movement from people walking on it, but it’s minimal and you quickly get used to it. Being that person, I had to jump on the glass, just to get a feel! It was a very safe structure and I didn’t even scare anyone with my jumping.
It wasn’t very busy when we visited, probably because the rolling cloud cover and rain made for a damp, chilly outdoor experience. Bundled for the weather as we were, we didn’t even notice the less-than-ideal conditions. We actually enjoyed watching the clouds roll in and out during our time exploring the Skywalk. One minute you could see forever, and the next you were shrouded in clouds. It gave the mountains a moody feel that you just don’t see on a bluebird day.
The walk to the Skywalk from the bus is filled with interpretive signs that demonstrate the geology and ecology of the area, as well as the construction of the structure itself. There is an audio tour available, but given the wet conditions, they didn’t recommend electronics that day. It was still a very informative and fun stroll to the Skywalk.
After wandering, exploring and jumping on the glass suspended over the valley, we decided we’d had our fill and it was time to head back. The bus was easy to catch on the return trip and our driver and guide was just as fun. We returned to the Discovery Centre where we had a quick lunch before returning to our vehicle and the road to Jasper, excited about the awesome activities and wild adventures that awaited us in the beautiful mountain town. Driving past the Columbia Icefield Skywalk, I have a newfound respect for how impressive the structure really is, and how much fun it was to walk with our feet in the clouds.