Riding the Icefields

Four friends ride one of North America’s most dramatic motorcycle routes


On July 19, four friends disappeared from work to ride Alberta’s Icefields Parkway. The Parkway, technically Highway 93 North, parallels the continental divide and snakes through the Canadian Rockies along a route that passes by glaciers, ice-blue lakes, and soaring peaks.

The ride was the brainchild of Greg (BMW R1200RT), who had been scheming for months to ride this route. It took no time to convince Jeff (BMW R1200GS) to come along, and together they mapped out a rough route. They had both worked with Shuman (BMW K1300S) in the past who in turn recruited Ian (BMW R1200GS) to fly in from New York for the ride.

And so began six days of epic riding. Our final route covered over 1680 miles. These pics below came from all of our cameras; the awesome ones are Ian’s, like the intro shot above. :-)

GPS log of our route

The Icefields Parkway is bookended by the resort towns of Jasper and Banff. We had reservations at both of those locations since accommodations get booked up, but outside of that the trip was unplanned except for a rough route home.


Day 1: Marysville to Kamloops

The first couple of days were mainly about burning through miles to get up to Jasper. We opted to endure the interstates to get up there quickly, leaving us more time to enjoy the destination and a more interesting route back.

Gearing up and ready to ride north

The bikes were loaded with more luggage than we’d normally carry, due to a very uncertain forecast. Riding gear for everything from open-mesh hot weather, to totally rainproof cold weather was needed.

We met at the Starbucks (of course) in Marysville, WA, about 45 minutes north of Redmond, for coffee before hitting the road northbound on I-5.

With stops for lunch and gas, it was a largely uneventful haul up, though afternoon temperatures soared up into the high 90s.

We stayed at the Sandman Signature in Kamloops, which was along the Thompson River. It’s a nice hotel, but a bit on the corporate side. The pool was perfect at the end of the hot riding, as was the bourbon at the Shark Club, the Sandman’s business-class sports lounge.

The highlight of Kamloops was our dinner venue: the Brownstone Restaurant. We sat on the garden patio in perfect evening temperatures, and enjoyed great food, great service, and really weak drinks.


Day 2: Kamloops to Jasper

Intended as another interstate-mile-burning day, our Kamloops to Jasper day was a bit more of an adventure. On the bikes at 8:30, we grabbed a traditional Tim Horton’s breakfast and hit the road north on BC Highway-5.

Lunch was at the Log Inn Pub, which had “world famous” burgers in Avola, BC. This pub had many indicators that we were getting into the country…

Lunch at the Log Inn Pub, Avola BC

Things got even more interesting after lunch, when we came upon a wildfire that appeared to have been sparked by a lightning strike. Crews were flying planes in and dropping fire retardant on the site. Their accuracy was very impressive!

BC firefighting crews drop repellent on a wildfire

After watching several air drops, we were ready to ride on. Little did we know at the time that we were riding straight into the source of the lightning strike that caused the wildfire.

Ribbon of blue between storms

The next couple of hours brought intense rain, dark skies, and continuous thunder and lightning. When we stopped for gas in Valmount (pictured — left), the power went out due to the storm.

Back on the bikes, we soon entered Mount Robson Park. This marked the beginning of the really scenic part of our trip. Even though it continued to rain off-and-on, the landscape quickly got impressive.

We arrived at the Mount Robson Inn for the night. It’s a moderate hotel that focuses on tourists. It had a jacuzzi for thawing out after the rainy ride, and is motorcycle-friendly. They give each rider a soft cloth wipe for their bike, and offer a 20% discount to riders who book consecutive nights at their Jasper and Banff motels (which we did). Dinner was at the Villa Caruso steak house, because it was the only place with open tables. There was a reason it was the only place with open tables, though. Greg summed it up perfectly: “This place stopped trying years ago.”


Day 3: The Icefields Parkway! (Jasper to Lake Louise)

Day 3 was the reason for this trip — riding the Icefields Parkway itself. We had decided head of time to make a full day of this leg, even though it’s 144 miles. It deserves lots of photos stops and detours to see the sights. The main Route 93 was augmented with a side trip around 93A, which is a bit more scenic and twisty.

It was still a drizzling a bit, but the sun was peeking through. Our first stop was an unexpected one: a herd of elk!

Elk grazing and dozing.

The park ranger was on the scene with a paintball gun. He said that it’s used to move the herd when he can’t keep people away from them. It’s for the animals’ safety. The ranger was keeping all people on the side of the road, but despite his best efforts, some humans would wander toward the woods. When people get too rowdy, he’ll fire a paint ball either into a tree or into a rump to spook the animals away to a safer place. We agreed that he should be authorized to shoot the people to spook them, rather than the elk.

Back on the bikes, we headed to our first stop: Mt. Edith Cavell. It soars to 11,033 feet and features hiking trails with views of glacier-fed lakes.

Mt. Edith Cavell

The bear warning sign was important, because it was en route to Mt. Edith Cavell that two of us saw the first wild bear!

We continued along Route 93A to a place called Athabasca Falls. It’s a pretty amazing waterfall along the Athabasca River, with a lot of glacier water moving through it.

Athabasca Falls

The day was already amazing, and as we rolled away from Athabasca Falls, the clouds began to break, the sun dried out our gear, and we climbed further in elevation. The views around every curve were breathtaking.

A few more curves brought us to the midpoint of our journey: the Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier. This is the largest icefield in North America, and we were able to hike up to the “toe” of the glacier itself. You have to look closely at the people for a full sense of scale.

Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Icefield

All of the glacier water runs off into beautiful sky-blue lakes that run the length of the Icefields Parkway. There is no color correction in these photos… they’re straight off the camera.

Our destination for the evening was Lake Louise. Since the day had flown by, we rode straight to the Mountaineer Lodge and got checked in, threw our gear into the rooms, and rode up to the lake to snap some sunset photos. It was worth the stop.

Lake Louise and the Fairmont

Clearly, we should have stayed at the Fairmont. But we were too hungry to care, so we grabbed dinner at the fabulous Outpost Pub and enjoyed scotch outside afterward. This video shows what some of the riding was like during the day, but can’t do the scenery justice…

Ending day three was a great reminder of why we ride motorcycles: Riding gives us that rare chance to escape our routines, adventure to someplace new, meet new people, and see things that we couldn’t have imagined before riding to them.


Day 4: Lake Louise to Nelson

Ian got up early and rode up to Moraine Lake to get some sunrise pictures, which turned out to be some of my favorites of the entire trip…

Moraine Lake

Banff is the formal ending of the Icefields Parkway, so we ventured through driving, cold rain to Banff for breakfast. It wound up being a a 60-mile diversion, but the food was good and Banff is a nice resort town. Our drop south began on Trans-Canada Highway 1. We stopped for gas early on, and despite the muscle-memory procedure for gassing up a bike fully loaded with luggage, I left my wallet sitting on top of my tail bag. When I pulled away from the gas station, the wallet flew off the bike into traffic, scattering cards and bills everywhere. But I didn’t know this, and rode on.

Over an hour later, after construction zones and speedy curves, I was racing to try and catch up with the rest of the guys when a Subaru pulled up alongside me, honking frantically. An elderly couple was yelling at me to pull over, and waving… my wallet! I pulled over and they said that they had been struggling for keep up with me for dozens of miles. It wasn’t until it started raining again, and I slowed down, that they were able to goad their ‘buru into catching up. The kind folks had collected my cards and cash and returned it all. I profusely thanked them, gave them a personal card, and asked them to email so that I can send them an awesome Microsoft care package as a thank-you.

We reconnected for lunch in the town of Revelstoke, and proceeded to Shelter Bay, where we caught a flat-bed ferry Columbia arcross Upper Arrow Lake.

Crossing Upper Arrow Lake aboard the M.V. Columbia

The remainder of the day was spent riding along Arrow Lake and Slocan Lake, with winding roads taking us down from the Rockies into the mountain town of Nelson, where we spent the night. Nelson is a great little town with lots of interesting restaurants and places to stay. A couple on a Harley suggested the Hume Hotel, and we lucked out with four rooms there.

The Hume Hotel and Pub

The Hume was a winner. It’s a vintage hotel, and we noticed a brand new KTM 1190 out front, which belonged to the general manager. We immediately cleaned up and met for beers in the Hume’s pub to celebrate a day of great riding. The old couple from the ferry even showed up for a beer with us.

Jalapeño margaritas at Cantina del Centro

For dinner, we ventured out into Nelson and found Cantina del Centro. I can’t say enough good things about Cantina. They had jalapeño margaritas, which were consumed en masse.

Their street tacos were superb.

Best of all, it was stumbling distance from the hotel.


Day 5: Nelson to Grand Coulee

The Hume operates like a bed & breakfast, so we met up in the dining room to talk about the plan for the day. Our roughly-planned route called for us to continue south back toward the States. But as we were talking about what looked like good riding, we caught the attention of our waitress and much of the rest of the diners, some of whom were locals.

Our waitress brought out a paper map, and showed us a route east, over another ferry, that would put us on one of the top-rated motorcycle routes in British Columbia: Route 3A along Kootenay Lake. Other guests from Idaho insisted we ride that route. Who were we to argue?

On the route log, you’ll see a big horseshoe to the east right before we dive south toward the U.S. border. That’s the route that the locals suggested, and that we of course took.

It started out with a ferry ride across Kootenay Lake.

Crossing Kootenay Lake

Everything we were told about the epic-ness of this ride proved true. A few minutes after riding off the ferry and heading south along the lake, we passed a big black bear on the side of the road. He just watched us ride by!

We crossed the border back into the U.S. at the Colville Port Point of Entry, and headed south toward Grand Coulee for the night. We separated as some riders stopped for photos, and wound up taking slightly different routes.

Back in the USA, riding through hot eastern Washington

When we reconnected in Grand Coulee, we got some photos of the dam as the sun began to set.

Grand Coulee Dam

We enjoyed the finest dining that Grand Coulee had to offer at the Pepperjack Restaurant, and slept incredibly well at the only place with vacancy: the Coulee House Inn. It had locking doors which didn’t help when they repeatedly gave us keys to already-occupied rooms. We got what we paid for.


Day 6: Grand Coulee to home

We got an early start, on the bikes at 7:00a with a plan to ride about an hour to breakfast in Soap Lake at the Cougar Liquor Store. Yes, breakfast at a liquor store. They have superb coffee and breakfast sandwiches, too, though.

As we rode south on Highway 155 along Banks Lake, the sun was coming and Ian got some great shots of us riding in the morning light.

We stopped at Dry Falls for some pictures of the incredible geography.

Dry Falls

After breakfast, we agreed to split up for the final push home. Greg and Jeff dropped down to Wenatchee and rode through Leavenworth on Highway 2. Shuman and Ian headed further south Canyon Road and Highway 410 over Mount Rainier.

Everyone made it home on Friday afternoon, in time for Ian to catch his flight back to NYC and for the rest of us to make family committments.

As we look back, the Icefields Parkway ride was a perfect mix of an excellent riding goal — the Icefields Parkway itself — plus a great combination of planned and unplanned riding. Best of all, it was an opportunity to catch up with some old friends and make some brand new lifelong friends in the people we rode with.

Adventures like this are precisely why we love riding: new friends, a sense of adventure, and experiencing the best that Mother Nature has to offer.

We’re seriously considering getting this group together for another ride next year. Hopefully to someplace equally epic.

Ride safe,
-Jeff

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