Distance: Depending on exactly where the cave is located, which changes, it’s about a 1-3km hike to the opening of the cave.
Access: Drive to the Columbia Icefield Centre; about 1 hour south of Jasper on the Icefield Parkway (Highway 93), or 2.5 hours north of Banff.
Tips: Snowshoes, or snow cleats are recommended. The wind coming off the glacier can make for a cold experience, so warm clothing is very important. Inclement weather comes from behind the peaks without warning, blizzards come and go often.
Disclaimer: this cave doesn’t always exist. And that’s part of the magic. It comes down to luck for most, and good timing for others. So, luckily for us locals, we made it down at a time when the cave was at its peak formation.
Another disclaimer: ice caves, especially ones that don’t always exist, are not inherently safe. You take your life in your own hands here, so take every caution and warning seriously. We heard that the cave collapsed about a month after we’d visited. Good timing, and a feeling of the heebly-geeblies.
Now that we’re done with the disclaimers, here’s why you should keep an eye and ear out for the Athabasca Ice Cave.
The trail head begins at the parking lot right off the highway, across from the Icefield Centre (the big building where the glacier tours are run). There is normally a paved road that cars take during the summer to reach the Toe of the Glacier interpretive path. In the winter months, this paved road is not visible but you can discern the general direction to the trail head hut (1st image above).
Make your way toward the hut. From there, it’s less simple. You will traverse up and down a few rock benches covered in very deep snow. We couldn’t actually see the cave from this point, so we continued forward toward what we were guessing what the right location (sketchy). Eventually we glimpsed some bright blue ice shining from an exposed part of the glacier and headed that way.
Getting closer to the mouth of the cave, we could see that the wind had blown snow up and across the opening, so there was only a small hole to go through.
Upon entering the cave, complete awe. The inside had been sheltered from the snow allowing the deep turqoise ice to shine through. We also met some other hikers who were already inside. Words do not suffice, so here are some pictures.
After getting our fill of the cave, we left and explored the area around it. The sun came out and we got some good shots. Overall, it was an incredible experience, but I’ve never been able to return as the cave has not reappeared since (this was in 2016). Before you head out, ask a local about conditions. Even if the cave is not there, the area around the Columbia Icefields is still worth exploring in winter!