The Columbia Ice field is what is left of a gigantic sheet of ice that covered and formed most of the landscape in the Rocky Mountains. At one time the Athabasca Glacier flowed as far north at Jasper and here as part of other glaciers traveled south past Calgary. This journey of many kilometers took centuries.
Of the 4 major ice ages the most recent ended approximately 10,000 years ago. All the glaciers associated with the Columbia Ice field are in retreat. While they grow each year they are melting faster than they grow. A loss of approximately 10 metres each year from the toe of the Athabasca glacier is just one example.
The Ice field covers an area today of 325 square kilometers or 130 square miles. It is the largest body of ice in the Canadian Rockies. The highest point is Mount Columbia at 3725 metres or 12,284 feet. The average elevation is 3,000 metres or 10,000 feet. At it’s thickest point it is estimated to be 365 metres or 1,200 feet. The area receives approximately 7 metres or 23 feet of snow each year. It is this snowfall compressing upon itself that forms the ice of the glacier.
The Athabasca glacier has a surface speed of 125 metres a year or 400 feet. It is constantly moving.
Massive amounts of debris are left behind when a glacier recedes. This is called moraine.
There are several types of moraines. Terminal moraine is the farthest most point the glacier reached before it started its retreat. Lateral moraine is what is pushed aside as the glacier makes its way down the valley.
One of the mountains in the area, Snow Dome is an interesting case. It’s claim to fame is that the water that drains from this peak feeds three watersheds. The Atlantic (though Hudson’s Bay), the Artic and Pacific Oceans all receive water that originate from its summit.
Getting there - Satellite map
From Banff, take Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway, to Lake Louise, then turn north on Highway 93, the Icefield Parkway, to reach the ice field, 189 kilometers north of Banff .
There is a large visitor centre with an interactive displays describing the history and geography of the area. Staff are on hand to answer your questions. Should you wish to hitch aride to walk on the Athaabaska glacier, sno-coaches are available (for a price) to shuttle you to a small area you can safely explore. The centre is also equiped with a small hotel, cafeteria, dinning room.
If you are in the area to climb Athabasca via the Silverhorn route, follow the Snocoach Road through a first set of metal gates, which are left open at night to allow access to climbers and backcountry users. During the day they are closed, stop in front of the gate to wait for the next passing Snocoach shuttle driver to open the gate for you. This happens every fifteen minutes or so. Do not attempt to open the gate yourself.
Continue on this road uphill to the second gate, located just past a small bridge, which is always locked. A small gravel parking lot is to the left. A registry box is located on a pedestal at the right side of the lot.
To access climbs on the Mt. Athabasca/Andromeda Col (AA Col) or Mt. Andromeda, you will have to continue up this paved road further for a couple of miles, to those trailhead locations.
Glacier in retreat
The Columbia Ice field is a gigantic frozen reservoir. Water from this source is an important part of the environment of North America. The use of fossil fuels and release of industrial gases such as chlorofluorocarbons contribute to an overall global warming trend called the Greenhouse Effect. Some sources estimate that the ice field could be gone in as little as 450 years. Hopefully they are wrong or mankind takes the necessary steps to minimize its part in this problem of global warming.
Camping and lodgingColumbia Icefield Campground
Columbia Icefield Campground
Located only 1 km north of the Icefield Centre.
Available are two wood cook huts, each with a wood-fired stove and two picnic tables with benches.
A pay telephone and bulletin board for messages is located at the campground entrance. Outhouses are clean. The Icefield Campground offers no showers.
A water tap when working may provide drinkable water. A creek runs near the campground.
2.7 km south of the Columbia Icefield Centre on Highway 93.
Opens in mid-June until October.
Cost $18 per night, self-registration is in effect.
Bivouacking on Mt. Athabasca itself will require a backcountry permit, available from Park Wardens at the Ranger Stations or the Icefield Centre for $6 a night.
Information is available at The Canadian Rockies.com.
There is a backpacking information page available, look for Backpacking Jasper National Park.
runs a chain of excellent, low-cost hostels, four open year-round, are located near the icefield. These hostels are clean, well-kept and managed by full-time custodians. Contact numbers too come.
Most offer kitchens, gas and wood stoves.
Located at Athabasca Falls, Beauty Creek, Hilda Creek and the town of Jasper. Reservations are recommended.
Hilda Creek Hostel
is open again via reservation through 1-866-762-4122. Six beds with a kitchen and common room, smaller than its past grandeur of 24 beds - but still the quickest access to the Icefields routes, or a great place for a day's ski touring followed by a pint of whiskey with friends.
Fees and red tape
Reserve a campsite up to three months in advance.
Contact Parks Canada
for more information.
If you wish to do some backcountry camping a permit for 8CDN$/night (maximum of 30CDN$) plus a 10CDN$ reservation fee will be required. Under 16 travel for free. All fees are to be paid in advance. Annual wilderness passes are 42CDN$, valid for 12 months from the date of purchase.
Contact the Jasper Parks Visitor Centre for more information: (780) 852-6176 or check out the Jasper National Park Home Page
for trail reports and avalanche reports.
A National Park Pass
is required if you will be stopping anywhere in Jasper National Park. 8CDN$ per person or 16CDN$ per vehicle.
Open campfires are not allowed anywhere in Jasper National Park, except at approved campsites.
Emergency numbersEmergency phone numbers for Jasper National Park
Royal Canadian Mountain Police
P.O. Box 1800 600 Pyramid Lake Road, Jasper, AB.
518 Robson St. Jasper, AB.
Fire & Ambulance
Jasper Firehall, Patricia St. Jasper, AB.
Park Warden Office
(780) 852-6155 / 56
Maligne Rd. Jasper, AB. (km 2)
Sunwapta Park Warden Station
Mile 45, Highway 93 (Icefield Parkway)
Pobotkan Creek Warden Station
Highway 93 (Icefield Parkway)
Search and Rescue
Jasper Park Warden (780) 852-3100
or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) at (780) 852-4848.
Ski and Sno-coach toursSnocoach glacier tours
onto the Athabasca Glacier can be arranged at the Icefield Centre. These are privately led hikes supervised by local licensed guides.
Glacier ski tours
by veteran climber and ACC member Marcus Kellerhals for trips on the Athabasca Glacier.