Canadian Rockies (Part 2) – Glacier Adventure, Glacier Skywalk, Banff Gondola

Posted on: July 22, 2014

DAY 3 – Jasper National Park (Glacier Adventure & Glacier Skywalk) and Banff Gondola


The third day of our trip filled with lots of sight seeing and a bit of driving. In order to do the glacier adventure and see the skywalk, we had to go to The Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre which is located in Jasper National Park. It took us about 2.5 hours drive from Banff downtown and this time was my turn to drive. The road leading to the Discovery Centre is actually inside the Banff National Park which later will turn into Jasper National Park. Before entering the park, we had to pay for entrance fee. The cashier asked us about our destination, where do we stay for the night, and how long we would be in the park. The one-day pass (good until 4pm the next day) for group (2-7 people) and a vehicle is Cad$19.60. Not bad… Along the way, there were so many beautiful mountainous sceneries as well as gorgeous lakes. If you have time, you can stop at one of the following: Herbert Lake, Hector Lake, Mosquito Creek, Helen Lake, Crowfoot Glacier, Bow Lake, Bow Glacier, Peyto Lake, Waterfowl Lake, Glacier Lake, Nigel Lake, and Parker Ridge. From my research, Peyto Lake is very beautiful. We actually turned into the small road toward the lake on our way back to Banff. However, we decided not walk down to the lake since it would be a small hike and we were super tired from the tour. We did stop at 2 of the lakes – I forgot which ones – where there were designated viewing areas. Looking at the gorgeous turquoise lake with snowy mountain at the background was just breath taking! It was also an interesting drive in this area. The shape of the mountains differs from one to another as if it has its own character. Some are very pointy, some have flat top, and some are covered with patchy snow looking like a dalmatian or an orca.

13 Otw Icefield

Highway prior entering Banff National Park

14 Banff National Park

Beautiful Rocky Mountain scenery along the way to the Discovery Centre

We finally arrived at the Discovery Centre. There is a spacious parking lot on the west side of the centre. We immediately went to the ticket booth to redeem our real ticket for both glacier adventure and the skywalk. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long for the glacier adventure. As soon as we got our ticket, we lined up for the shuttle bus. I was a bit shocked since I thought that we were going to ride the big bus with the huge wheels up to the mountain. It turns out that the shuttle bus took us to the Ice Explorer station at the foot of the mountain. *I was super excited!!!* The Ice Explorer bus moved pretty slow – well, it’s better to be safe than sorry when driving on icy path, right?! At one point, the driver warned us that we were about to going down a very steep hill. As you can see in my picture below, we were almost 45° downward angle relative to the ground! It was like riding a super slow roller coaster hahaha…. Once we passed the steep hill, there was a pool of water before we continued to the icy path. The driver said that the water pool is used to wash the Ice Explorer’s wheels so that the bus won’t slip.

15 Glacier Adventure

While lining up for a shuttle bus for Glacier Adventure

16 Ice Explorer

Top (L to R): the first snowmobile, the shuttle bus, the Ice Explorer bus
Bottom (L to R): inside the Ice Explorer, yup we were going down 0n 45° angle, the huge tire tracks
Far right: the Ice Explorer on the Athabasca glacier

After an interesting bus ride, we finally arrived at the glacier! The driver told us that we had about 20 minutes to explore the glacier and we should go back to the bus station riding the same Ice Explorer that we came in. Unfortunately, we didn’t really pay attention to the time we spent on the glacier and we missed our Ice Explorer bus! Luckily, we found another Ice Explorer that took us back safely. I know that the glacier is the most popular attraction since most of the tour agents always bring the tourists here, but honestly, paying a hefty $50 but 20 minutes tour is NOT enough!

Ok ok… enough for my complaint. Let’s back to my exciting – yet limited – exploration of the Athabasca glacier…. When we got off from the Ice Explorer, we saw a lot of people actually slipped when walking on the ice. Luckily, I wore my imitation UGG shoes that kept my toes warm and saved me from slipping on the ice. It wasn’t as cold as I expected up there but when the wind blew, it did chill a little bit. I felt comfortable by wearing a thin jacket and my Minion crochet toque – that my hubby bought me from San Francisco 🙂 There was a narrow ditch where we saw a thick layer of glacier and it actually has lots of small streams with fresh glacier water. An older Chinese lady brought an empty 2L coke bottle and filled it with the glacier water. Feeling curious, me and my hubby actually followed the lady and drank a small amount of glacier water! hahaha…. It was surely fresh and icy cold but it tasted similar to any water – less metallic taste, in my opinion. The glacier water as well as the ice looked so blue because of the purity of the water. There were chunks of ice scattered around and I posed pretending to bite that ice chunk but only for a few second because it was super cold! brrrr…. 😛

18 Athabasca Glacier

On the Athabasca Glacier!

As I mentioned earlier, we were supposed to go back to the shuttle station using the same Ice Explorer bus but we missed it. So, we rode another Ice Explorer down to the station. On the way down, the driver shared more information about the glacier and its area. This area actually consists of 2 different zones: sub-alpine and alpine. If you see my picture below at the very left, you can see the division of the zone. The sub-alpine zone is greener because of the moss and pines, while the alpine zone has nothing that can grow in this area due to extreme temperature change during day and night. The driver mentioned that the pine trees around the area are actually 300-700 years old. However, their figures are so skinny, unlike the big & tall pine tree at my backyard. The reason for this is that the trees only have about 60 days per year to grow. This figure is known as ‘flagging’ (tree with one main skinny branch) since the moraine (the melted glacier mixed with gravel) will break any side branches on the trees. The Sunwapta Lake near the discovery centre is actually a hot spring (not from the melting glacier). If you are curious for the name of the mountain around the Athabasca glacier, there are some signs with the mountain names near the parking lot. As I could remember, they are Nigel Mt., Athabasca Mt., Andromeda Mt., Snow Dome, and Kitchener Mt. And of course, I just had to take one picture in front of the Andromeda Mt. pole hehehe…..

17 Discovery Centre

Left: The Athabasca glacier view from the Discovery Centre
Top right: the Discovery Centre view from the glacier, Sunwapta Lake

18a Andromeda

Me pointing out to Andromeda Mountain 🙂

It was noon when we were back at the Discovery Center. We went up to the 2nd floor where the cafeteria is and boy, it was packed! There were a buffet restaurant and a cafetaria on this floor. The lunch buffet was pretty expensive (I believe it was around $22/person), so we opted to have lunch at the cafetaria. The line up for hot food service was pretty long but it moved pretty quick since the people in front of us were part of a tour. There are some options here, such as fish & chips, burger, some Chinese food, etc. The food was okay and it was a bit pricey – after all, it is a tourist destination area.

After lunch, we continued to our Skywalk tour. Since we already had the ticket, we immediately line up for a shuttle bus going to the skywalk area. The short bus ride made me fall a sleep for a while hahaha… Yes, we were tired from the glacier adventure excitement 😛 Unlike the glacier adventure, you have unlimited time to explore the skywalk and there were lots of shuttle buses going back and forth to the Discovery Centre. The skywalk was just opened on May 1, 2014, so it’s basically a brand new attraction! The main star of this $21-million attraction is the glass platform that extends 30 metres over the Sunwapta Valley (ref). As we entered the skywalk, we were handed in a free audio guide. There are corresponding numbers around the attraction that you can punch in to the audio guide. The guide provides some interesting information and story about the construction of the skywalk as well as the area around.

There are 400 meters of path leading to the skywalk where we took a bunch of picture with the Rockies as the background. There are also a lot of interactive information, such as the flora and fauna in the Rockies, the fossils found in the area, the formation of the valley from glacier, etc. From the audio guide, we were told that the Skywalk is built on a previously disturbed land to avoid any environmental problem and it is fully endorsed by Parks Canada in 2012 (ref).  The steel used in the skywalk was not painted to avoid any toxic run off for the environment, so it is left at its natural rusty colour. We spend a good hour to explore and took picture and as we waited for the shuttle bus back to Discovery Centre, it began to rain! Lucky us!

19 Glacier Skywalk1

Glacier Skywalk

When we arrived at the Discovery Centre, it was raining hard, so we decided to end our visit and drive back to Banff downtown. On the way back, I wanted to visit Peyto Lake since some website recommended to visit this beautiful turquoise lake. When we arrived there, the car parking lot was at the lower side while the lake is actually on the upper side so that we had to take a little hike. Since we were both tired and it was a bit drizzly, we decided not to see the lake.

After 2.5 hours, we arrived back at Banff and went straight up the hill to Banff Gondola. The rain had stopped but the sky was pretty dark. There weren’t many tourists when we were there maybe it was late in the afternoon. We only had to wait a few minutes for our gondola. The gondola track was quite steep! The station on the top of the mountain looked so tiny from the ground. However, the view of Banff from gondola was breathtaking! We saw Fairmont Hotel Banff not far from there, some lakes and Banff downtown while riding the gondola. The ground below the gondola track actually has hiking trails. We saw few people walking below and they actually arrived at the top of the mountain too! I also saw a group of deer laying on the ground near the trail and they were huge! *Sadly, the picture that I took was blurred 😦 *

The gondola ride was about 20 minutes to reach the top of the Sulphur Mountain. According to Brewster’s website, the gondola brought us up from 698m (2,292 feet) to an elevation of 2,281metres (7,486 feet) at the Summit Upper Terminal. As soon as we exited the gondola, there was a little gift shop on the right side. In front of it, there is a small glass door leading to the self-guided interpretive walkway to Sanson’s Peak (ref). The peak is named after “Norman Sanson, who walked to the top of the mountain about every week for 30 years to check the weather” (ref). Just when we walked out the door, the rain started to fall. We managed to get some pictures taken overlooking the gorgeous Rocky mountains and saw a chipmunk eating a leftover but suddenly it was pouring! We went back in and shopped for souvenirs at the gift shop. I managed to buy 2 T-shirts for my dad & my brother because of buy-1-get-1-free promo and two 3D magnets for my mom 🙂

20 Banff Gondola

Top: Banff Gondola; Bottom: on the walkway

When we were about to go, I saw a sign for “Observatory.” I thought it is an indoor observatory tower so we decided to go up the spiral staircase (there is an elevator too). However, the observatory is actually outdoor! Luckily, it wasn’t pouring rain but still a bit drizzly. Again, the view is breathtaking! You can see 360° view of Rocky mountains as well as the walkway leading to Sanson’s Peak from here. When the rain stopped, we saw a huge rainbow. Never in my life, I saw a huge full rainbow and I was super excited! Not long after that, a second rainbow appeared but this time, they were only half rainbows 😛 Anyhow, it really made my day! Although the rain had stopped when we went back down to the station, we decided not to walk all the way to Sanson’s Peak since we were pretty tired. So, we rode down by the gondola. Don’t forget to take picture of the Starbucks café near the entrance. It is claimed to be the highest Starbucks throughout Canada 😛 We had dinner at Pad Thai restaurant at downtown before going back to the hotel.

21 Gondola Lookout

The rainbow from the observatory – it was actually a double rainbow!


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