The award-winning architectural gem, scheduled to open May 1, will give visitors a whole new perspective on the Columbia Icefield.
By Margo Pfeiff
Swallow your vertigo and literally step into the sky high above the vast glacier-carved Sunwapta Valley, AB.
The new Glacier Skywalk, due to open on May 1, is not just another walk in the park. It’s an award-winning architectural masterpiece, a great steel arc protruding from a cliffside supporting a glass-floored catwalk that floats in mid-air offering a mind-opening and mind-blowing perspective of the Columbia Icefield region—a classic Rockies’ destination and one of National Geographic Traveler magazine’s “Canada’s 50 Places of a Lifetime.”
The Athabasca Glacier snakes down within sight of the Icefields Parkway, the route between Banff and Jasper. Visitors have long stopped to take photos at this dramatic viewpoint overlooking the river of ice, but now Banff-based Brewster Travel Canada—which has been touring visitors around the Rockies for more than a century—is about to cut the ribbon on its newest project designed to enhance visitors’ appreciation of the icefields.
The experience begins with a 400-m (1,312-ft) walkway following the edge of the steep canyon wall. Along the way, six interpretive stations explore the geographical, geological, glaciological, environmental and evolutionary history of the 325 sq-km (125.5 sq-mi) Columbia Icefield, a unique eco-system that is one of the few remnants of the great ice sheets that covered much of North America during the last Ice Age.
Then comes the highlight: a glass promenade that curves 30 m (98 ft) out from the cliff face. Hold your breath, step out and look 280 m (918 ft) down through glass under your feet at the wild Sunwapta Valley.
Stand in the sky with nothing between you and the panorama of a sprawling glacial valley with gushing waterfalls, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and a skyline of distant snowy peaks and glaciers. Anchored into the bedrock, the cantilevered walkway is an extension of the landscape designed to entice visitors out of their cars to engage seriously with nature and garner a greater understanding of a rare and vanishing glacial environment south of the Arctic Circle. Its contemporary design blends with its natural surroundings, one of the reasons it beat 60 other projects at the 2011 World Architecture Festival.
To complete your front-row experience with nature, board one of Brewster’s massive big-wheeled Ice Explorer buses specially designed to motor onto the glacier. Get up close and personal with this 300-m (984-ft) thick ice sheet by standing on ice that fell as snow as long as 200 years ago.