If these glaciers could think, what would they make of the highway that whooshes past them these days? The cars freely zip along the road at 90 kilometres an hour, while the glaciers, so gradually, move just an average of five centimetres a day. And, not only that, the cars are moving forward - unfortunately the glaciers here in the Canadian Rockies are slowly receding.
But it's this contrast that makes the Icefields Parkway one of the world's greatest drives. On either side of a modern highway where you can travel hundreds of kilometres in a day are glaciers that look like rivers frozen in time, waterfalls that endlessly throw the melting snow down between boulders, and imposing peaks that have watched over it all for 100 million years.
Ahead of me, the road takes a turn and disappears over a ridge. It almost looks like it is driving straight into one of those dramatic snow-covered mountains that will form the backdrop for my day. But as I come up the slope, I see the highway continue down the other side and bend around the wide river below, following the natural flow of the water to find its way between the hulking natural monuments. To one side is a turn-off, and I pull in for the first of many short diversions.
The Icefields Parkway runs between two of Canada's most beautiful national parks, the adjoining Jasper and Banff. Heading south, it starts in the town of Jasper and finishes at Lake Louise, for a total distance of 233 kilometres. It's just the right length to be able to drive in a day and stop plenty of times - and it's these stops that are the icing on the icy views from the road.
One of the first places I come to is the Valley of the Five Lakes. Each of the five lakes here is a slightly different size and depth, meaning the water appears to be a different colour in each one. If you're ready to stretch your legs, a 4.5-kilometre hiking trail goes around the lakes, or there are ways to cut between them to make it shorter.
About 30 kilometres from Jasper, I reach Athabasca Falls, one of the highlights of the drive. I can hear the thundering of the water as soon as I get out of the car and, when I get to a viewpoint, I can see why it's so loud. Although only 20 metres high, a huge amount of water is rushing over the edge down through the canyon below. A bridge leading over the falls opens up a series of trails to see the cascades from various perspectives.
Back on the parkway, it takes another 25 kilometres until I hit my next stop, another set of beautiful waterfalls called Sunwapta Falls. Steep and narrow, the water comes from the large river, goes around a small island, and then rushes down as it squeezes between the rocky cliffs beneath. Hiking through the pines and firs, possibly with ospreys gliding above, you can get to a set of lower falls away from any crowds of visitors.
It's possible to see a handful of glaciers from the Icefields Parkway as you're driving along, and one of the easiest to spot is the Stutfield Glacier. With ice perched precariously on craggy rocks towards the top of a slope, it looks like it may crash down the cliff and into the forest below at any moment. It's stunning... but it's just an introduction to the area I'm about to reach, the heart of Jasper's frozen landscape.
The Columbia Icefield, the largest for which the parkway was named, is the star of the drive. Straddling the border between Jasper and Banff national parks, it's the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains of either Canada or the US.
Most of the action for the Columbia Icefield starts from the Glacier Discovery Centre, a large visitor complex on the side of the road with a restaurant and shops. Beanies on, jackets zipped up, people are heading off in red and white snow buses to be driven to the massive Athabasca Glacier, with a chance to walk on the 10,000-year-old frozen flow.
Other visitors are catching the transfer to the Skywalk, the glass-bottomed path that juts out about 280 metres above the valley floor. But at about $40 just to walk on the platform (and with poor planning meaning I don't have time for the expedition in the snow bus), I instead choose to hike by myself up to the foot of the Athabasca Glacier. Up close, it gets even colder, with the bitter wind rushing down the icy glacier and right into me like pins. But even as I turn numb, I feel more than I have all day, connected to the ancient landscape where time is almost frozen.
Both Jasper and Banff national parks have lots to offer visitors and are easily accessible from either Edmonton or Calgary respectively. Turning your stay into a one-way journey through both parks, in from one city and out through the other, doesn't just save you backtracking. It also takes you along one of the greatest drives in the world, watched over by glaciers, waterfalls, and mountains.
See more about driving the Icefields Parkway on Michael's Time Travel Turtle website.
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