Near the border of Jasper National Park and Banff National Park sits one of the crown attractions of the Icefields Parkway, Athabasca Glacier spewing off the Columbia Icefield.
While many tourist pay to take the buses to walk on the glacier itself, the best view of the motif is across the valley at Wilcox Viewpoint.
This is the ninth entry of our Canadian Rockies trip series covering our ninth hike. You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.
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The Icefields Parkway travels through the heart of the Canadian Rockies. It is among the most scenic drives in the world. It connects the towns of Banff to Jasper by traversing through their namesake national parks.
While I’ve driven from end to end in a day every time I’ve driven it, my recommendation is to actually take your time and make many stops. I would recommend staying at the campgrounds along the road and soak in all that’s available along the road from grand views of mountain motifs draped with glaciers to out of this world teal colored lakes.
At least I started to follow that last part of my advice as we begin to make our way back south for the last stretch of our trip.
We made several stops, the first of which was a hike up to Wilcox Pass. It was recommended to us from fellow backpackers for the great view of Athabasca Glacier coming off the Columbia Icefield.
There are several hikes specified in the Jasper National Park portion along the Icefields Parkway (Parks Canada) including a few near the Icefield Centre in the Athabasca Glacier area.
One of the shorter strolls is to the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier (1.8 km roundtrip), though you may spend more time walking up the road before the trailhead than the actual hike itself. In other words, this is a busy spot with a lot of tourists and they may not know principles like leave no trace or follow the rules.
Other activities here include tours to walk around on the Athabasca Glacier and the glass skywalk (banffjaspercollection). I wouldn’t recommend just doing the latter if you are capable of hiking, especially how long the lines are.
We had started on our drive south on the Icefields Parkway early in the day and were the second car to arrive at the Wilcox Pass trailhead at around 9:30 am. We were uncertain whether the low clouds we were driving through would clear, but it was a chance we took.
The trail starts uphill through the forest right away.
The first third of a mile was at roughly 14.9% gradient while next third was at a 8.9% gradient to gain the treeline. While we could see the peaks of Mount Athabasca, Mount Andromeda, Snow Dome, and Mount Kitchener (from left to right), low fog covered the glaciers. Fingers crossed as we continued on.
In quarter mile further and 1 mile into our hike, we came to red chair viewpoint. Again, these chairs were placed around the Canada by Parks Canada to emphasize point of interests. The information plack describes Wilcox Pass as the route the first explorers took while navigating the region.
A few steps further came the steepest portion of our hike as the trail turned uphill to avoid a gauly and the stream running through it. For 0.16 miles, the grade was about 20.2% before an easier 12.6% for the next 0.4 miles. The clouds rolled in around us during our ascent, giving us a little pause. But in for a penny, in for the pound.
Around 1.7 miles into the hike, we reached the grassy flat that the pass was located at. Wilcox Peak and Ridge is now visible in the distance and there is a scramble route there (Steven’s Peak-Bagging Journey report). The trail here is slightly muddy trail and had a crossing of a stream.
We would only stay on it for slightly over half a mile until we reached the junction for the viewpoint.
For the last 0.8 miles to the viewpoint, the trail going over a few ridges with the steepest portions with roughly 18.0% grade. The actual trail doesn’t follow the OSM noted trail here, so follow the well marked cairns.
The Mount Athabasca motif became more and more prominent as we continued on.
Until we were at the viewpoint with all the fog having lifted. From left to right, the features seen here include Hilda Peak, Mount Athabasca, Mount Andromeda, Athabasca Glacier, Snow Dome, and Dome Glacier from left to right.
A bigger panorama here also shows Mount Kitchener, Wilcox Ridge, Wilcox Peak, and Wilcox Pass continuing left.
After having the viewpoint to ourselves for a good 20-30 minutes we retraced our steps. On our way down, we were able to see the entire motif a few more times.
The rating below are based on an unevenly distributed scale of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). For full description of the ratings and the categories, see the explanation here.
views/experience: 3. To paraphrase An Idiot Abroad (imdb), I don’t want to live in the really beautiful house, but rather the house across the street from it. The Wilcox Ridge is exactly the house across the street. It provide for many great open views upon the Athabasca Motif, which is the highlight of the hike. It is even well worth your time if you only hike up to the Red Chairs.
difficulty: 2. The elevation profile and the openness to the elements can provide some difficulties to the hike.
technical: 1. The trail is well marked and signed. It is also well trafficked.