Distance: 13.6 km round trip, day trip, allow 5-6 hours.
Access: Finding the trail head is a little tricky because it is no longer marked and the small pull off is hidden under the highway. If you’re heading southeast along the Icefields Parkway, drive 11.7km past the Banff-Jasper boundary. There is a gravel pull out in the middle of Big Bend, but that’s not the trailhead! Continue driving and turn right onto an obscure, unpaved road which drops below the highway. There is an old concrete bridge, park just before the bridge. The trail head is unmarked but there are a few paths that lead into the forest. Turn right onto the second path, there are pebble arrows along the path to make sure you don’t wander off into another path.
Tip: Consider looking at a map before heading out on the trail or talk to a parks trail expert. It’s not maintained by Parks Canada anymore but the path is hiked enough by locals and explorers so that the trail is in good condition.You’re definitely going to need good hiking shoes for this one, preferably with ankle support and hard soles.
Saskatchewan Glacier Trail is one of the most off-the-beaten paths I’ve taken. It’s not talked about in most hiking guides but I found a decent article in “Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies” by Kathy and Craig Copeland. This hike was so much fun, it really was quite the adventure; a little danger, off path exploration, amazing scenery, and absolutely nobody else on the trail.
The trail proved to be a little harder to find than I expected. We didn’t read the instructions correctly the first time and after crossing the concrete bridge we continued on the wide gravel road that took us on a completely different adventure. The trail was actually an old WWII road which eventually died off into the forest. It was actually really neat as we hiked over three old bridges with dates and some old relics around the area. We came across several old rusted nails and even an old chain saw. The trail passes a beautiful waterfall only visible from the road as well; so it proved to be really interesting and we actually hiked under the bridge connecting the parkway across the North Saskatchewan River. The whole area was actually used as a training camp for U.S. mountains troops during WWII. There is a lot of history in the area, it’s really beautiful.
So when we finally realized we were definitely on the wrong path we turned back. When we found the right one we continued on. The path follows the river and parkway for a while before heading across the gravel flats you can see from Big Bend. Then it ascends into the forest again. After what only took about half an hour of easy hiking you arrive at the opening of the glacial outwash flats. To your right is the valley’s north wall or Parker Ridge (see post Parker Ridge Trail) and before you is really an incredible sight. The Saskatchewan Glacier is visible ahead and about 5 km distant.
The trail can go either way here. If you continue west you will be on the old WWII road which ends at kilometer 6. This trail takes you along the south bank of the river and limits how far you can actually get. Instead we chose to go north. This rough trail will take you to a narrow, deep chasm which funnels the North Saskatchewan into a torrent. This chasm is strewn with heaps of dead fall which allows hikers to reach the north bank. Before crossing you must be completely positive that the natural bridge is safe to cross. Falling would be fatal. Assess the risks before crossing. If the bridge seems strong enough (which it was for us) cross carefully.
Go left after crossing and follow a boot beaten path that follows the river’s northernmost channel. Eventually the trail becomes sharp vegetated slopes and you’ll want to get down and either rock hop or ford the river. It’s not too deep and quite narrow so fording isn’t too difficult. I feared for my camera at this point and I didn’t have waterproof shoes so I definitely got soaked. However it is naturally quite windy in the valley as the wind blows from the glacier. This helped me dry off quickly, and the sun from the hot day wasn’t unwelcome either. From this point it’s pretty much up to you. How far you want to travel is up to you and depends on how experienced you are, how much time you have, and what equipment you’ve taken along.
You can continue up-valley crossing rocky rubble, fording streams, getting every closer to the glacier. If you hike around mid-July you should be able to see a several waterfalls on your left, one of which is quite huge and very high up the face of the rock. There are also waterfalls on the Parker Ridge side of the valley. Using this way you can reach the glacier but only if you are prepared and carry the right equipment. You’ll soon come across steep ice-cored moraines and attempt a last scramble and a last ford across a deeper, wider, and swifter part of the river. Use your judgment wisely. Do not actually proceed onto the ice without proper equipment and training.
This hike is interesting in the fact that you can always see your destination but it feels like forever until you finally reach it. It feels like walking through the process of creation or another world. The valley was carved out 12, 000 years ago by the receding glacier so it’s actually quite young. The rocks change from small and stable to large pieces of rubble so your pace changes constantly. If you don’t have good shoes it’s going to hurt! We could have spent all day wandering the valley but it began to get late and we had to drive back to Jasper. It really is something that most tourists will never do, so if you’re looking for solitude this is the hike for you.
Note: We didn’t see any wildlife but we definitely saw a lot of bear poop on the forested trail. Keep in mind that it’s the only practical way out of the valley so the chances of seeing a Grizzly is actually higher than most areas. If you’re a geology nerd you’re going to love it here. Check out the gallery to see what you can expect from this beautiful hike.