Do you ever find it strange to think that glaciers have toes? Well, they do! The terminus of a glacier is called a toe, and these walks will take you right up to the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier. I suppose that makes sense as glaciers are slowly receding (and tiptoeing away!)
I was really hoping we’d be able to fit in a quick Athabasca Glacier hike into our Icefields Parkway road trip, but nothing could quite prepare me for how amazing this landscape shaped-by-glaciers can be. If you fancy a visit, this is on the main road between Jasper and Banff in Alberta, Canada.
Athabasca Glacier Hike Map
Athabasca Glacier Hike – the basics
There are actually two mini trails that make up this hike. First follow the Forefield trail, then continue on to the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier trail.
Distance: 5.4 km
3.6 km for the Forefield Trail and 1.8 km for the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier trail.
Elevation gain: minimal – around 60 m
Highest Point (viewpoint): 1990 m
Time: 1.5 hours. It’d probably be less in summer.
What to bring:
We used microspikes but earlier in the winter snowshoes might be better.
Even in summer, bring warm clothes as the glacier produces it’s own chilly winds
The 10 Essentials (as always)
There are toilets with amaaaaazing views at the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier trailhead.
Be reeeeally careful with dogs. Keep them on a lead so they can’t run off onto the glacier.
How hard is it?
The walks are very easy BUT you need to be careful on the Forefield trail, as the moraines and snow can be slushy/ make your legs fall into postholes. If you go in summer, meltwater streams may cross the trail, so you might need to turn back.
This glacier may look huge, but this isn’t the actual Columbia Icefield. That is high up on the plateau above. The Athabasca Glacier is just one of the seven glaciers that run off the main icefield. According to the Icefield Parkway Driving guide; “With a total area of 200 km2, the Columbia Icefield is one of the largest masses of glacial ice outside the Arctic Circle, surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the Canadian Rockies (Athabasca, Columbia, Snow Dome).” Even more impressively, that icefield feeds rivers that flow into three different oceans. The Pacific Ocean (via the Columbia River through BC), the Atlantic Ocean (via North Saskatchewan river) and the Arctic Ocean (via the Athabasca river.)
If you’d like to learn more about this awesome hunk of ice, take a peek at this brochure: Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield GeoVistas Brochure, published by the Canadian Federation of Earth Sciences, Gadd, B. (2011)
Athabasca Glacier Hike – Forefield Trail
We started our hike in the car park opposite the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. We had a mishap, in that my sister in law, Cerys left her bag in the cafeteria (noooo!!), so George and Cerys took our car and went back to find it, while Marc and I started our walk. Marc and I weren’t sure how far we’d go, so we found the path (to the left of the car park) and just started wandering towards the Glacier.
The thing is, when you walk in this scenery it is so, sooo ridiculously beautiful that it is basically impossible to stop! We could see our path in the snow would link up to the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier trail, so we just kept walking into a prettier and prettier snow-filled wonderland.
We saw a couple of other people on the trail, but mostly we had this whole epic area to ourselves(!) It was only later that I realised we were above the Forefield Trail that’d we’d intended to walk along (Oops!) Still, we had found a trail.
This is looking down from the trail to the toilets at the start of the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier trail. My original plan had been to follow that route in both directions, but it didn’t seem safe to hike over the moraine, so we stayed on our path as there were fresh footprints showing it was passable.
Look at that view!!
Be Safe – Postholes and meltwater
We did not walk on the actual glacier as that is crazily dangerous! If you would like to explore even closer to the glacier, book one of the tours at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Center. We were walking on snow-covered areas of bare rock, boulders and moraines. However as it was springtime, our feet did sometimes make post-holes in the snow. I am a bit lighter, so I could walk on the snow, but each time I heard a yelp and turned around, Marc was up to his knees in snow!
In the end, the snow was still stable enough for us to hike all the way to the glacier. This next photo is the Moraine left by the retreating Athabasca Glacier, with Marc for scale. This kind of hike is great for putting things in perspective and showing just how teeny and insignificant us humans are! Although the combined efforts of 7.7 billion of us sure are having a large affect on this glacier!
Toe of the Athabasca Glacier trail
This is the loop at the end of the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier trail. There are barriers to stop people walking onto the actual glacier and getting themselves killed. Although, when we were there, we could see some people skiing down the glacier(!) If you do this hike, please just stay on the trail. The views are epic enough from here!!
There were some pretty large puddles at the toe of the glacier. This makes me think of a giant ice-lady sticking her toe into a pool of cold water. I am pretty sure the water would be too cold to do more than tip a toe in!
This is the view back down the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier trail. You can see the loos at the trailhead down below, and then the Columbia Icefield Discovery Center in the distance by the mountain. This trail was easy to follow in winter, but it must be even easier in summer when there is less snow.
This is the view of the opposite side of the moraine, next to Sunwapta Lake. I bet that lake is beeeeautiful in the summertime!
Most amazing loo with a view?
At the trailhead for the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier trail, there is one of the most amazing loos with views ever! We actually found so many more amazing loos with views in the Rockies, that I wrote a second loos with views – the Rockies Edition post.
Learn things while you hike!
There are quite a few signboards on the trail, that teach us tourists about how the glacier was formed, why rock flour making lakes crazy colours, about katabatic (glacial) winds etc. I found them all really interesting. However the most moving part of the displays are the sign posts showing where the glacier used to be on different years. It is pretty scary to see how much it has retreated over the last century.
In the end, we made it back to the car park and found Cerys (who had found her bag- phew!) She had walked the top part of the trail, and returned to the car park just a few minutes after us. Cerys and I then walked back along the Forefield Trail looking for my brother George, who had run the whole way along the trail, trying to catch up to us! This has to be one of the most epic jogging routes in the world!?
Athabasca Glacier Hike – Lunch
If you are hungry when you visit the Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier, there is a restaurant and a cafe at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. Just be aware, the food we had there was pretty terrible. It also doesn’t have many gluten free options. Well, there is a massive sign saying they have gluten free options; But when we asked about them, the only thing they offered was an $18 wilting salad, that was so bad Cerys couldn’t eat it! Marc and I shared pretty unimpressive chilli cheese fries and a burger. If you visit the area I recommend bringing a picnic! The views are spectacular, but the lunch options are spectacularly bad.
Still, even a terrible lunch won’t spoil your enjoyment of this little walk! This was one of the most fun hikes we did on our road trip along the Icefields Parkway. It is also awesome that we could see so much during the shoulder season when the ice is starting to melt! I hope you like the look of getting up close to this glacier too!
If you like the look of this walk, please click on the link below to pin them.