About 4 miles north of Parker Ridge, and 2 miles south of the Columbia Icefields Centre in Jasper National Park, is the trailhead for Wilcox Pass. If you’re looking for an easy hike in the Jasper area, the trail to Wilcox Pass gains only 1,100 feet (335 m) in elevation over the 5-mile (8-km) round-trip trek. The major highlight of this route is the sweeping view onto a portion (incredibly, only about 5%) of the Columbia Icefield, a spectacular piece of geological history.
A remnant of past ice ages, the sprawling Columbia Icefield is the largest ice mass south of the Arctic Circle, blanketing roughly 125 square miles and reaching astonishing depths of over 1,000 feet (300 m). Here, the thick, glacial ice has endured for thousands of years, and experts believe the area may have even supported ice for more than two million years. The icefield’s last major advance was during the Great Glaciation, the largest modern ice age approximately 240,000 years ago (a period that lasted for ~100,000 years). Since then, the region’s extreme weather has facilitated the icefield’s continued existence, as it receives an average snowfall of 20–30 feet (6–9 m) annually. Importantly, the glacial meltwater feeds rivers that ultimately flow into three oceans, the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic, making the Columbia Icefield a significant hydrological hub of North America. Comprised of several distinct glaciers, including the prominent Athabasca, Saskatchewan, Columbia, and Dome glaciers, the icefield’s ecological and geological significance make it a pretty fascinating place to stop and ponder Earth’s amazing history while enjoying the incredible, icy views that, regrettably, may not survive current global climate changes.
Beginning in an old-growth forest, the trail to Wilcox Pass quickly climbs to an expansive alpine meadow, where the path rises and falls gently along rolling green hills, dotted with stunted alpine forget-me-nots and globe flowers. While the majority of the hike is through the barren, flat meadowland, the trail culminates with an expansive view of the Columbia Icefield and surrounding summits, some of the highest in the Canadian Rockies. Many visitors merely pause along the Icefields Parkway for a street-level glimpse of the vast Columbia Icefield, but only a fraction of the Athabasca Glacier is visible from the road. While not the most challenging or excitingly scenic hike in the area, Wilcox Pass is unique in that it provides a much grander, bird’s eye view of both Athabasca and Dome Glaciers, as well as Mt. Athabasca, Mt. Andromeda, Snow Dome and Mt. Kitchener.
Pros – Unsurpassed view of the Columbia Icefield
Cons – Landscape is primarily forest and flat, alpine meadow