Monday, April 7, 2014

Icefields Parkway Motorcycle Trip

icefields parkway
Icefields Parkway, with Sunwapta River
With a name like "Icefields Parkway", you'd expect it to be pretty cold there. So when I rode it in July 2010, it was still pretty damn cold, rainy, and downright miserable. But still quite beautiful.

Icefields Parkway connects two of Alberta's great national parks, Jasper National Park and Banff National Park. Likewise, it connects the two tourist towns of Jasper and Banff. It's called "Icefields" because the route takes you right up to the Athabasca Glacier, where you can ride a bus-sized Sno-Cat right on to the ice.

Most motorcycle riders talk about starting from the south at Banff and riding north to Jasper. But I was on my way back from Alaska, and took the opposite direction.

While Banff is the most talked-about of the two national park, I found Jasper to be equally as beautiful, if not more, with its mountain peaks and serene lakes. Banff is far more touristy, more crowded, and commercialized. Jasper feels like Canada, while Banff feels like USA.

I rolled into Jasper along the Yellowhead Highway sometime in the evening. At this latitude, during the Summer months, it still manages to stay light out until late. I was with two other guys, Paul and Mike, each riding Goldwings. I was on my Honda ST1300.

We pulled into a park campground, and there were two French-Canadian employees at the gate taking camping fees. Each space cost $27.00 Canadian per night, which at the time was equal to US Dollars. Everything in Canada is way expensive.

"You will have to purchase two camp spots", the French-Canadian girl said to us as the three of us pulled up to the window.

"Two camp spots?" I said.

"Yes", she answered.

"But we're just on motorcycles, we don't take up much room", I explained.

"It doesn't matter. Each camp spot is limited to one four-wheeled vehicle. You have six wheels together, you have to buy two camp spots."

No way were we going to fork over a total of $54.00 so that the three of us could camp.

"What if one of us parks our bike outside of the campground?" Mike said.

The French-Canadian girl turned to her co-worker, and the two talked it over in French. Then she turned to us and said, "There is a limit of two tents per camp spot. You still have to buy two camp spots."

"What if I park my motorcycle outside the campground, and sleep on the ground without a tent?" I asked.

The French-Canadian girl turned back to her co-worker and they discussed for awhile in French. Then she turned back to us and said, "How can you sleep on the ground without a tent?"

"You just do it." I said.

She turned back to her co-worker and discussed it some more in French. Then she said, "OK, but one of you must park your motorcycle outside the campground, and you are limited to only two tents. We will be checking on you to make sure!"

And then they let us in.

whistlers campground jasper
I think this may have been Whistler's Campground, I can't recall.
It seems like of all the times I pulled into a campground at a state or national park in the United States, they always let us slide, often because we're on motorcycles and we're just staying the night.

Paul and Mike pitched their tents and decided to hit the sack early after a long day's ride. I wanted to go into the town of Jasper and hit up a few bars. I got a burger and beer at one place, and then chatted with some others.

One guy who was a local told me I had to go to Athabasca Lounge around 9:30pm. Apparently, 9:00pm is when all the tourist places close up for the night, and all the employees hit the Athabasca Lounge thirty minutes later and party like mad dogs.

So I went there.

Jasper is full of college kids who work there during the Summer months. The town is far enough away from other cities that it's like an island. The college kids all have sex with each other as a result.  One guy told me that Jasper has the highest STD rate in the country. While I was at the Athabasca, a girl wearing a banana costume stuffed my hand with a few condoms. Girls were asking me to buy them drinks and go dancing. I bought them drinks and danced, but that was it.

Around 1:00am or so, I parked my motorcycle right in our camp spot where I was told not to by the French-Canadians. I didn't pitch my tent because it was already pitch black. But I managed to find a soft spot on the ground and laid my sleeping bag on it for the night.

The next morning, the rains came down.

As soon as I felt it tapping the material on my sleeping bag, I hauled myself out of the bag and rolled it up before it took on too much water. The last thing you want after a long day of riding is to slip yourself into a cold, soggy sleeping bag.

We hit up a coffee shop before heading out.  I pulled out the three unused condoms I had and put them into basket of sweetener packets.  They blended right in.

By the time the three of us got on the road, the rain was falling quite hard.

I stopped to look at Athabasca Falls, and took a few photos. From there it was a 180 mile ride south down the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93).

athabasca glacier
Athabasca Glacier with vistor center.
The coldest section of the road came at Athabasca Glacier, about the halfway point of the Parkway. There's a visitor center that sells tickets to ride the Sno-Cat. Otherwise, it's a warm, dry area to get some food and hot coffee.

Once you get further south to about Lake Louise, the highway becomes congested. It's a mecca for tour buses and RVs. There are fast-food restaurants and gas stations everywhere. It doesn't really look like a national park anymore. It was around this time the rain let up.

I opted to stop at Johnston Canyon, which is a hike up a rocky stream, where there's enough water and rapids for kayaks to brave.

I pulled into the town of Banff, cold, wet, and miserable. I decided to get a room for the night. Banff is just like Jasper, really touristy, but about 10-times bigger. Lots of pubs, shops, boutiques. It's a great place to take the wife for an romantic vacation.

TIP: Between Lake Louise and Banff, take the Bow Valley Parkway (1A), which parallels the Icefields Parkway, it's much less congested and more twisty.

athabasca falls
Athabasca Falls
athabasca lounge jasper
Athabasca Lounge, Jasper, AB, where all the night life happens
big rock brewing calgary alberta
Big Rock Brewing, based out of Calgary, AB. I had a glass at a restaurant near Lake Louise.  Canadian microbrews tend to be more malty, less hoppy, than their American counterparts.
maligne lake jasper
Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park
lake louise
Lake Louise, Banff National Park, it's difficult to get a good panorama photo due to all the tourists that get in the way
johnston canyon kayaking banff
Kayaks navigating down Johnston Canyon, you can hike the canyon and watch them go by.
banff, alberta
Downtown Banff, AB is heavily touristed, but still very picturesque


  1. Too bad it's become so touristy. When I rode it back in the 70s (when dinosaurs ruled the world) both Banff and Jasper were beautiful small towns in the mountains. And the Athabaska was there back then as well, and the "after 9" bit was equally true. We ended up staying a couple of extra days in Jasper because we liked it so much, and to recover from a monster hangover from our first night at the Athabaska. Good memories.

  2. Oh, and one other thing. We were there in mid-July and we rode through a snow storm on the Icefields Parkway. That was a cold, cold ride.

  3. Thanks for taking me back.

    I've driven those roads so many times but never ridden them on two wheels, sigh.

    I had to laugh at the condoms in the sugar packet bowl, now that was genius.

  4. Steve, thanks for nothing pal...after reading about the nightlife and girls passing out condoms, my wife will never let me go. :-) Seriously though, it was a great write-up...does it always rain? Sounds like a great trip but it would be an even better ride without the liquid sunshine.


    Live Free. Ride Hard. Be Happy

  5. Great post and really good photos. We rode to Banff this past July. We didn't know about all that was up Jasper way until we got to Golden. We didn't make it up that way due to time limits but now we have a good reason to ride back... Not that we need a reason... We loved riding in Canada and want to do more. As you can see from this post we missed a lot.

    Have Goldwing Will Travel

  6. Brings back memories. I agree, the campgrounds are expensive for a motorcycle. I had a similar problem which I will write about it soon, on the campground near Lake Louise.

  7. I‘m planning an Icefields Parkway tour in late August or mid September with the gang from work. I thought I could go in May but my plans got screwed up pretty big and had to reschedule. I’m guessing my butt will freeze big time but there’s nothing holding us down this time. Jasper seems like a perfect town for my single friends!


About Steve

A vagabond who hauls a motorcycle around the country in a toy hauler, earning a living as a website developer. Can often be found where there's free Wi-Fi, craft beer, and/or public nudity. (Read more...)