It’s a view that always inspires me. And one of the best things about the 4 km (2.5 mi) hiking trail to Wilcox Pass – just 1.9 km (1.2 mi) north of the sign marking the boundary between Banff and Jasper national parks on the Icefields Parkway – is reaping the reward of spectacular views with minimal effort.
Driving the Parkway right up the spine of the Canadian Rockies – ranked as one of the most scenic drives in the world – is an eye-popping delight all of its own, but hiking up the moderate trail really brings your Columbia Icefield experience to life. Since the trailhead is situated at an elevation of 2,040 m (6,693 ft) at the Wilcox Creek Campground, you’re quickly on your way to experiencing the high alpine.
“Wow, check out how huge these old trees are!”
With her arms stretched wide around the giant spruce trunk, my friend May wasn’t able to span half its girth. While the first section of the trail felt a little bit steep, we barely noticed as we were awestruck by the 500-year-old trees lining the path. Then, right about the point where the track emerged from the old-growth forest, we realized the grade had eased off.
That’s where the amazing views began opening up in a spectacular panorama. One by one, the giant peaks rose before us – Athabasca, Andromeda, Snow Dome, Kitchener – silent sentinels guarding the valley below. Lined with crevasses that resembled wrinkles and characters lines, the Athabasca Glacier stretched downward from the massive Columbia Icefield like a gently sloping tongue of ice.
One of only two places in the world from where water flows to three oceans, the Columbia Icefield is a hydrological apex, feeding rivers that empty into the Pacific, the Arctic and, eventually, the Atlantic. Impressive.
Alpine Flower Garden
Distracted as we were by the views, we were careful to follow the established trails and not trample any of the fragile high alpine vegetation as we hiked upward toward Wilcox Pass. Happily, there are several options heading in multiple directions over the gently rolling hills of gold and green grasses and low bushes. Looking toward the south, the valley stretched for miles – a corridor framed on either side by chiseled snowy summits.
It was easy to see why, in the late 1800s when the Athabasca Glacier extended right across the valley bottom where the paved parkway lies today, outfitters would follow this route over Wilcox Pass to travel from north to south.
Walking through a meadow sprinkled with delicate wildflowers that danced in the gentle breeze, we reached a gradually sloping rocky ridge and scrambled up it to admire the view from the top of the pass. Then, from the corner of her eye, May spotted movement.
“There, a bighorn sheep!”
Grazing between shallow alpine tarns filled with brilliantly clear water, grazed not one sheep, but two; a ewe and her lamb.
Just when we thought the views couldn’t get any better!