Majestic snow capped rugged mountain ranges, stunning glaciers, the bluest of lakes, lush green forests and beautiful blue skies – visiting the Canadian Rocky Mountains will absolutely take your breath away. It is one of the most scenic and exiting landscapes one can dream of. If you are lucky enough, you might also get some amazing wildlife sightings.
The biggest risk road tripping through this part of the world is that you will immediately run behind schedule as you will be tempted to stop at every turn to admire yet another unbelievably beautiful view.
It’s truly impossible to cram everything that is worth seeing and doing into on trip. The list of stunning places, attractions and activities across the area is almost limitless. On the positive, that’s the perfect reason to return. It’s safe to say, I will.
So what should be on your list for a first time visit to this amazing part of the world?
Firstly, the exact outline of your tour will be tweaked by the destination where you will kick-off your trip.
Calgary and Edmonton are the two cities with international airports closest to the Canadian Rockies. I started my trip in Edmonton mainly because I wanted to continue into the Okanagan Valley. Since Jasper was a clear must on my list, Edmonton meant I could avoid going back and forth part of the route.
Driving the 370 kilometres from Edmonton to Jasper on the Yellowhead Highway will take about four and a half hours. Once you leave the town of Edmonton behind, traffic will be fairly light and after about two-thirds of the route you will start to see the first glimpses of the impressive mountain ranges.
Jasper National Park
Once entering Jasper National Park, there are plenty of accommodation along the road. With the main attractions located around the town of Jasper, however this would be the most central place to stay.
Jasper itself is a typical Canadian mountain town largely built on tourism. It is fairly small and its main attractions are the shops, restaurants, cafés and bars along the main road. The town also offers a large number of hotels, bed & breakfasts and self-catering apartments.
If you are at the lookout for a special place to stay, than your obvious choice would be the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. It is located just five kilometres from Jasper town directly at the shores of beautiful Lake Beauvert.
Already the nearly 50 kilometres drive from downtown Jasper to Maligne Lake along the twisting road flanked by thick green forests is worth making the trip. Along the road, you will be constantly reminded about the abundant wildlife calling this area home. I was told by many locals that there is usually a good chance to see deer, elk, moose and even bears crossing or walking along the road, especially early in the morning. Unfortunately, it was too hot for the animals to come out of the forest during the time I was there.
Once you arrive at Maligne Lake, you will be blown away by the beautiful scenery of glistering blue waters surrounded by impressive mountain peaks.
The second largest glacier-fed lake in the world, Maligne Lake stretches for around 22 kilometres from the visitor centre at its northern end all the way through to the perhaps most famous and most photographed view of the entire Canadian Rockies, Spirit Island.
Spirit Island is accessible via a roughly 90-minute return cruise with Maligne Tours. Boats will stop for about 15 minutes at the island to allow you to take pictures. Alternatively, you can rent a kayak or hike along the shoreline, in which case you will need to make it a two day excursion staying overnight at one of the campgrounds along the lake.
Located alongside Maligne Road, on the way to Maligne Lake, you definitely need to stop at beautiful Medicine Lake.
Kind of a curiosity, Medicine Lake is visible only in Spring and Summer after it has filled up with melt-water from nearby glaciers and mountain peaks. The lake, which in reality is no real lake, starts to disappear at the end of summer through ‘holes’ which are actually underground channels carrying the melt-water downstream to Maligne Canyon. So what seems to be a like in Spring and Summer is actually flooding, as the amount of melt-water is overflowing the channels.
A spectacular narrow gorge fifty metres deep offers views of spectacular water-carved gorges and rushing water. There is a hiking trail alongside the whole length of the canyon which is crossed by six bridges.
Around Jasper, there are several other lakes worth seeing if you still have some time including Patricia and Pyramid Lakes, Lakes Annette & Edith and Lake Beauvert. All offer boat rentals and there are a number of hiking trails around each of them.
Jasper Sky Tram will get you up to a nearly 2300 metres elevation offering you breathtaking views over the area; on clear days you can actually see as far as the Columbia Icefields.
The 230 kilometre drive connecting Jasper to Lake Louise in Banff National Park was coined ‘one of the world’s ten greatest drives’ by National Geographic Magazine. I am fairly convinced, everyone who has driven the Icefields Parkway will agree.
Prepare to be blown away from the sheer majesty of the Columbia Icefield with its eight different glaciers, along with various waterfalls and aquamarine coloured lakes awaiting to be explored along the way.
A favourite stop about halfway along the Icefields Parkway is Columbia Icefields Glacier Discovery Centre from where you can access the Athabasca Glacier either on foot by your own or with a tour operator that runs excursions with specially designed tour buses – the Ice Explorer bus – that will directly drive onto the glacier where you than will be able to walk on the ice as well.
One of six toes of the 325 square kilometre panning Columbia Icefiled, Athabasca Glacier at its thickest point is around 300 metres deep. Yet due to climate change the glacier has lost over half of its volume in the past 125 years. You can actually see a huge difference if you look at the pictures outside the Discovery Centre showing the size of the glacier around the year 1844.
If you want to experience the Glacier Skywalk, the Discovery Centre will be your starting point as well, with buses driving you from there to the Skywalk, located a couple of kilometres from the centre (there is no possibility for private cars to park directly at the skywalk).
Keep in mind that almost everybody driving the Icefields Parkway is stopping to do the two tours. To avoid having to wait for hours for the next available tour, buy your ticket in advance either at a Brewster office (the tour operator for the two excursions) or online. You can combine the Glacier tour and the Skywalk into one package; allow for around two and a half to three hours of the whole tour.
Along Icefileds Parkway you will come across incredibly beautiful lakes tempting you to drive right into the next parking lot to just enjoy the views for a while longer.
If you have time, stop at Peyto Lake and hike up to the viewing platform overlooking the lake. It is just a 15 minute walk, allowing you to take in the particular shape of the lake which resembles a wolf.
Bow Lake is one of the largest lakes in Banff National Park. There is no way you will not want to pull off in one off the various lookout points to admire the lake and its surrounding mountains.
Banff National Park
Banff National Park was established in 1885 and is Canada’s oldest national park. It’s also constantly ranked as one of the most beautiful national parks in the world. As soon as you set foot in the area, you know why.
It is, in fact, the most touristy of Canada’s national parks. Be prepared to find large crowds during the peak summer season (July to early September). As many will drive ther own (rental) car, parking lots around most lakes are usually filling up quickly in the mornings. Indeed, due to the high traffic some roads will get closed for cars altogether, with closures usually starting mid-morning. If you want to visit Lake Louise and Moraine Lake in particular, you will likely need to take a shuttle.
Arguably the most famous location in all of Banff National Park, Lake Louise is also one of the most crowded. The first tour buses will start to arrive early morning and the crowds won’t leave until the sun is starting to set.
However, with its stunning glacier backdrop and surrounding mountains it is a location not to be misses. Make sure to be here early in the morning not just to beat the crowds. This is the time when the lake looks the most spectacular with the glacier and mountain peaks reflected on the water.
Start your visit with a leisurely stroll along the promenade then rent a canoe, walk the Lake Louise Shoreline trail or hike up to the famous Lake Agnes Tea House for some freshly baked pie and a cup of tea.
Also drop into famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise for lunch in one of its various restaurants, or afternoon tea/drinks at the lounge. Keep in mind the hotel can get quite busy as well and house guest are given priority in seating at the restaurants.
Moraine Lake is equally spectacular with its pristine waters and towering mountains. The mountain range behind the lake in the Valley of the ten peaks is know as the ‘twenty dollar view’ because in the past this view was featured on the old Canadian twenty dollar note.
For a slightly different view of Lake Moraine, hike up the famous rack pile right to the left when entering the lake from the parking lot.
The area around the lake is known for having several bears roaming the area. If you want to hike up into the mountains, chances are you are required to be a group of at least four when there are active bears in the area as otherwise there’s a danger you might get attacked.
Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola
Take the gondola up to Mount Whitehorn for spectacular views of Lake Louse and Victoria Glacier. A short hike down from the upper summer gondola station, you will find Wildlife Interpretive Centre from where you can set off to different guided hikes and learn more about the area, especially the local wildlife.
Bow Valley Parkway
When you drive from Lake Louse to Banff (or the other way round), make sure you take the Bow Valley Parkway instead of the faster but less scenic Highway No 1. It will add around 20 minutes on your commute but the beauty of this twisting road flanked by lush green forest that at times gives way to views of Bow River and the surrounding mountain peaks will more than make up for the time.
Also make sure to stop at Morant’s Curve. Other than offering one of the most scenic views of the Bow River below you and the backdrop of rugged mountains in the background, this is the unrivalled number one spot to take photos of trains in the Rocky Mountains, in particular the Rocky Mountainer. The spot is named after the first photographer that took pictures of trains at this very spot, Nicholas Morant, who worked for Canadian Pacific Railway.
Banff Town itself is another mountain town built largely around tourism. it’s main avenue is lined with lots of souvenir and clothing stores, restaurants, cafés and booths where you can book various tours (hiking, skiing, wildlife adventures) around Banff National Park.
An important landmark of the area worth dropping a visit is Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel which is a National Historic Site of Canada. The hotel was the largest hotel in the world when in opened in 1888.
In addition, take the Banff Gondola up to Sulphur Mountain for another spectacular view of the area. After a hike around the summit, relax at Banff Upper Hot Springs.
Just around 13 kilometres outside of Banff, you will find Lake Minnewanka. The name in Stoney language means ‘water of the spirits’ because the waters are said to be haunted.
The lake once was much smaller featuring a holiday resort called Minnewanka Landing. In order to supply Banff with hydro-electronic power, a dam was built in the 1940’s which raised the lake by around thirty metres, making it the largest lake in the Rocky Mountains. It also led to the flooding of the Minnewanka Landing resort which today has become a popular spot for scuba diving.
Beautiful Emerald Lake is a 30 minutes drive from Lake Louise. It already belongs to Yoho National Park but it should be on your list whilst you are in the Banff / Lake Louise area. It is as stunning as the usually better known lakes in Banff and Jasper National Parks (although renting a canoe is actually still a bit cheaper here).
Have you already been or are you planning to visit the Canadian Rockies?