Dear reader: This article contains links to products and services that I may be compensated for, at no extra cost to you.
Ice bubbles are a bizarre yet breathtaking natural spectacle. Seeing them is truly a bucket list experience (see my full list of bucket list-worthy things to do in Alberta here!)
Abraham Lake in Alberta is one of the best places in the Canadian Rockies and the world to witness this stunning phenomenon. Surreal photographs of the ice bubbles are, of course, all over social media these days, attracting the masses of selfie-takers to the Abraham Lake in winter.
I’ve been visiting the Abraham Lake and Nordegg area with my family since I was a kid, mostly as summer trips from where we live in Edmonton. The area is incredibly beautiful in any season, with loads of lakes, waterfalls, wild camping opportunities, and hiking trails. It is very close to Jasper and Banff National Parks but few tourists ever make it there. It was only in recent years that I learned about the ice bubble craze. And just like everyone else stuck at home this winter and turning to the great outdoors, I finally went to check them out.
In this article, I’ll introduce the best places to see ice bubbles at Abraham Lake based on my recent experience (late January 2021), other places to visit at Abraham Lake in winter, how to get there, important safety concerns, and everything else you might need to know.
Heads up that lake conditions and best spots change all the time, but I hope this snapshot from the peak of ice bubbles season in 2021 helps you to plan your future trip.
Why Does Abraham Lake Have Ice Bubbles?
The North Saskatchewan river was dammed to create the reservoir now called Abraham Lake. When the lake is created, areas with grass, trees, and other vegetation are submerged. The lake’s water levels go up and down at different times of the year, so various plants are continually covered and uncovered with water.
When bacteria in the water feed on decaying organic matter from the plants, they release methane. As ice begins to form on the surface of the water, some of the methane gas gets suspended in the form of bubbles in the ice. As more layers of ice build up, the bubbles also become layered one on top of the other, creating that visual effect of frozen bubbles that we love so much.
Ice bubbles can be seen in many lakes in Alberta in winter, but because of Abraham’s unique fluctuating lake levels due to the dam, it’s has an especially large amount of them.
In case you didn’t know, methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Methane trapped in Arctic ice for thousands of years is also being released in greater amounts due to global warming, and this in turn is only increasing the greenhouse effect. If you really wanted to test this, you could pop one of the bubbles at Abraham Lake while holding a match to it (please don’t actually try this).
Also read: 10 Epic Things to Do in Banff in Winter
When Is the Best Time to See Bubbles at Abraham Lake?
Abraham Lake usually begins freezing over in December, but it is not safe to walk on the lake so early. It’s not like whole lake just freezes all at once and becomes safe. More time is needed for thicker ice to form.
Usually the best time for seeing Abraham Lake’s methane bubbles is from mid-January to mid-February. By mid-February, the ice usually becomes less clear and/or totally covered in snow.
This of course is going to vary by year. A warmer winter (which, these days, is more common than not) means that it might be a little later before it’s safe to walk on the ice.
My suggestion is to check the Facebook group Hike Alberta (there are always lots of posts with Abraham Lake bubbles) and random people’s Abraham Lake posts on Instagram to gauge when it’s a good time to go.
Keep in mind that weekends can get really crowded. Ideally you should aim for a weekday. I also suggest keeping a close eye on the Abraham Lake hourly weather forecast. The lake is known for being crazy windy and can get very cold. The bubbles look way better when it’s sunny, so try to visit when the weather is going to be clear.
Is it Safe to Walk on Abraham Lake?
Just because Instagramers have started posting pictures of the ice bubbles at Abraham Lake at a certain time in a given year, it doesn’t mean it’s totally safe to go.
Some photographers take great risks to get those amazing photos. Others use special equipment like ice thickness detectors to check the thickness of each spot before the set out.
Also, the thickness in one spot can be totally different than the thickness in another spot just a few meters away. Because this is a dammed lake, the water levels below the ice vary constantly. There is often a gap of air between the ice and water. This means if you fall in (and people sometimes do), rescue could be impossible.
Staying closer to the shore is always best, even at the peak of winter. Venturing off onto sections you aren’t sure about is never a good idea, and never go when it’s too early in the season.
In early 2021, four different people fell into Lake Minnewanka (which also happens to have ice bubbles, but they are harder to find) in Banff National Park while skating on it in a single weekend. People have also fallen in at Abraham Lake. Don’t become a statistic!
Abraham Lake is also extremely slippery when frozen. You may have to walk down slippery slopes of ice just to get onto it. I highly recommend wearing ice cleats like these ones that I got. They worked extremely well!
You can also buy them at Mountain Equipment Co-Op. You can even get very simple slip on ones for kids for only $10.
How to Get There and Where to Stay
Abraham Lake is in the Nordegg Area on the David Thompson Highway (Alberta 11), 200 kilometers directly west of Red Deer (see my guide to the best things to do in Red Deer). It is between Rocky Mountain House and Saskatchewan River Crossing (a scenic stop on the Icefields Parkway between Jasper and Banff National Parks).
From either Edmonton or Calgary, it is a 3.5-hour drive to Abraham Lake. From Edmonton, it’s a pleasant drive mostly through farmland via Drayton Valley, or you can take the number 2 south then head west from Lacombe toward Rocky Mountain House.
From Calgary, you’ll have the choice of going north on the 2 or via Banff then east on the David Thompson Highway from Saskatchewan River Crossing. Note than you’ll need a Discover Pass to drive on the Icefields Parkway.
If you don’t want to spend so much time on the road in one day, I’d recommend staying at the Best Western in Rocky Mountain House, which has a pool with a waterslide (check current restrictions to see if the pool is open).
Abraham Lake can also be accessed from Jasper (2.5 hours), Lake Louise (1.5 hours), Banff (2 hours), and Canmore (2 hours 20 min). If you’re staying in Banff, check out my recommended Banff itinerary.
Where to See Ice Bubbles at Abraham Lake
Below are the main places where you can easily access Abraham Lake from the highway. For each one, I’ll describe what there is to see there, and whether or not you can usually see ice bubbles there.
I’ve listed these stops in the order you’ll find them driving from the east (Nordegg) side, i.e. coming from Edmonton, Calgary, or other cities in Alberta. If you’re coming from the west (Icefields Parkway, Jasper, Banff, Lake Louise, etc.) then you’ll want to read the below list in reverse.
But to get straight to the most important point: the best places to see bubbles at Abraham Lake are the unnamed parking lot between Windy Point and Hoodoo Creek, the pullover just past Hoodoo Creek, and at Preacher’s Point at the southern end of Abraham Lake.
I’ve use the stop names as they appear on GoogleMaps.
There’s no reception at Abraham lake, so you won’t be able to use GoogleMaps once you get there. Zoom in and take photos of the below map and save them on your phone, or you can be extra nerdy like me and draw your own map before you go.
Allstones Lake Staging Area
The first place to stop that you’ll encounter is the Allstones Staging Area. There’s a small sign and parking lot just off the highway on the left (lake side). This is the starting point for a great full-day (or overnight) hike to Allstones Lake.
You most likely won’t see bubbles here. In fact it’s not recommended to go on the ice here. It is quite close to the Big Horn Dam and not considered safe because the water levels fluctuate a lot, create unsafe ice conditions.
The main point of stopping here is for the viewpoint looking over where the Allstones Creek meets Abraham Lake. It only takes a few minutes to stop here, so why not?
Huge chunks of smashed up ice make for some pretty cool photographs. There are a few small trails that go down closer to the lake, but you need to exercise caution here.
For more off-the-beaten-track travels in Alberta, explore these epic things to do in Waterton Lakes National Park.
Windy Point is a cape that sticks out into the lake. There’s a decent sized parking lot here, and the main reason to stop is for a great view of the lake looking in both directions.
You could easily spend an hour here exploring the cape. There are places where you can get down to the lake, but it’s not normally a great spot for seeing ice bubbles.
To find the parking lot, keep your eyes peeled for the small turn in at the start of the cape, before the road goes between two walls carved into the rock.
Unnamed Parking Lot (not on GoogleMaps)
About halfway between Windy Point and Hoodoo Creek, which are both marked on GoogleMaps, there’s an unnamed parking lot on the left (lake side) of the road with an outhouse and a path going down to the lake.
This is the best spot for ice skating on Abraham Lake, when it is safe to do so. There are lots of ice bubbles here. However, because everyone skates here, the surface of the lake is rough, so the bubbles are not very clear or easy to photograph.
Pro Tip #2:
Bring a snow shovel to clear off snow on the lake if there has been recent snowfall, and bring some water to pour on the lake to make the ice surface clearer and better for photographs.
When I visited, Hoodoo Creek had the clearest and most visible ice bubbles on Abraham Lake. There were several patches here where people had cleared off the snow and the bubbles were spectacular. Almost all of my ice bubbles pictures in this article were taken there.
Hoodoo Creek also had a cool tunnel below the ice when I visited (see pics below). Of course these kinds of features will be different every year, though.
Some people were also ice skating at this spot, but further out from the shore, so they weren’t ruining the ice bubbles.
There’s no parking lot at Hoodoo Creek. When driving in from the Nordegg side, it’s just past the small sign on the highway that says “Hoodoo Creek”. There’s lots of space on the shoulder of the highway to park, and a large, clearly visible path down to the lake. Usually there are many cars parked there in season, so you won’t miss it.
Coral Creek White Goat Staging Point
This is a spot where you can do a short hike down to the waterfront with a beautiful view of the lake, but it’s not a bubble viewing location. As you can see from the above photo, it’s totally not safe to walk on the ice here.
After you pass the large David Thompson Resort in the Cline River area, watch for the Coral Creek Staging Point parking lot on the right (mountain) side of the road. This is where people park to hike the Coral Creek Trail.
Instead of turning right into that parking lot, turn left off the highway to find another parking lot in the woods. It also looks like people do camping here.
You can walk down Coral Creek a few minutes down to where it meets the lake. I enjoyed some beautiful views of Abraham Lake here, with no one else in sight.
Abraham Lake Viewpoint
A couple minutes after the highway crosses over Cline River, there’s a small road to the left going down to the lake, marked Abraham Lake Viewpoint on GoogleMaps. This spot is also called Cline Landing. It’s just after the staging points for the Cline River Falls hike and and Pinto Lake hike.
The road down to the lake is a little steep and icy, so I did not attempt to drive down in my car. I just parked on the highway shoulder and walked down. When I visited, the lake was totally covered in snow here (and it supposedly often is), so it’s not a good spot to see bubbles, unless you’re willing to bring a shovel and try your luck.
The spot does a have a nice view of the lake, but if you are bubble hunting, you can probably give it a miss.
Preacher’s Point is probably the most well known spot for viewing methane bubbles at Abraham Lake. It has a huge parking lot, and people often camp here in summer.
Because this is a large flat plain beside the river, it usually gets covered in very shallow water. This means you can often see bubbles with the grass and other vegetation visible below them. The shallow parts are of course safer, but keep in mind that the deep, fast flowing river is also very close by.
While Preacher’s Point is considered one of the best spots, it was already totally snowed over when I visited in late January. People had shoveled off a few spots, and I could see some bubbles, but they weren’t very clear.
This is probably a great spot earlier in the bubble season. It’s also the first stop you’ll make if driving from the Icefields Parkway/Jasper/Banff/Lake Louise side.
Other Things to Do at Abraham Lake in Winter
While the ice bubbles are the main attraction in winter at Abraham Lake, they aren’t the only one. Here’s are some other ideas for making a full day-trip out of your visit.
Ice Skating at Abraham Lake
As I mentioned above, a lot of people like to ice skate at Abraham Lake in winter. However, just as walking on the lake can be very dangerous, so can ice skating. Perhaps it is even more dangerous, because you travel much faster on skates and cover more ground, which also means more chances of venturing onto unsafe ice.
Having said that, when I visited, the parking lot halfway between Windy Point and Hoodoo Creek (the only parking lot with an outhouse) seemed to be THE place to go ice skating on Abraham Lake.
And the best part? You’ll be skating on top of ice bubbles. Just don’t expect the ice bubbles to be super clear, as everyone skates here, so the ice is all scratched up.
Winter Hikes Near Abraham Lake
Two of the most popular winter hiking trails around Abraham Lake are Cline River Falls, an easy hike to a frozen waterfall that starts near Abraham Lake Viewpoint, and Siffleur Falls, a similarly easy yet rewarding hike south of the lake.
Other trails you can consider in the area are Coral Creek Canyon Trail, Pinto Lake Trail, and Allstones Lake Trail.
Other Places to Visit Around Abraham Lake in Winter
On the drive from Rocky Mountain House to Abraham Lake, there are several lakes and provincial Parks that offer possibilities for snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and more.
These include Jackfish Lake, Saunders Provincial Recreation Area, Fish Lake, Goldeye Lake, and the impressive Crescent Falls.
Heading west, the Icefields Parkway, which connects Jasper and Banff National Parks, is a journey of its own, with numerous impressive things to see and do. See here for my list of the best Jasper National Park lakes.
Note that you will need to have a Discover Pass hanging in your car to drive on the Icefields Parkway.
Well, that that sums up my guide to visiting Abraham Lake in winter. I hope you’ve found all the information you needed.
Have you visited recently? Please feel free to post any updates on where the best frozen ice bubbles were during your visit in the comments below!