In our July, 2012 story, “Touring the Canadian Rockies,” we gave an overview of Canada’s Rocky Mountain National Parks, and in “Reaching Canada’s Rocky Mountain Parks,” we told you how to get to there.
Two months later, we hit the trail, camera in hand, and spent eight days touring those mountains.
This one-minute plus film will whet your appetite for traveling to the Canadian Rockies:
Here’s our tips for making the most out of your Canadian Rocky Mountain adventure.
When to Go, When to Book
If you enjoy winter sports, head to the Canadian Rockies when they are blanketed in snow. Otherwise, go in summer or early fall.
Development in the parks is modest by U.S. standards. But that means that there are limited hotel rooms and other lodgings. The odds of snagging a room at the end of a day of travel might not be that great, so booking ahead is a good idea.
Summer is prime-time. Expect hotel rooms to be booked fairly far in advance, and visitors to be filling up the roadways and restaurants. And if you want to attend the Calgary Stampede in July before or after you visit the parks, make room reservations in Calgary four or more months ahead of time.
Fall is a slower time of year. Our trip took place during the latter half of September.
Once we left Lake Louise behind on the way to Jasper, we encountered relatively little traffic, even though it was Friday. Throughout our trip, there was plenty of parking at trailheads, and we had little difficulty finding tables at restaurants.
But the parks are close enough to the gateway cities of Calgary and Edmonton that local residents can drive there in a few hours and, as we discovered, finding a room on fall weekends can be problematic.
Snow can fall at any time in the Canadian Rockies, even in summer. But there was no hint of it during our trip, when temperatures ranged from the high 60’s into the low 80’s, and rain fell only briefly during one morning at Lake Louise.
If you want to cover the entire 180 miles between Banff and Jasper National Parks, you’ll need a week or more for your trip, depending on how you’ll be travelling to and from the region, and whether or not you plan to spend time in Calgary, the city with the closest major airport to the parks.
Our trip lasted 11 days, including a day of travel each way between San Francisco and Calgary. We could have easily spent two or three weeks in the parks.
Here’s the itinerary we followed, along with advice on how you can trim or a day or so off our suggested trip if you have less time to spend touring the area.
Day 1: Arrive in Calgary
While you could hop off the plane and drive to Banff National Park in about two hours, or even all the way to Jasper in five, we recommend chilling out for a night or two in Calgary before heading off to the parks. Look for a copy of the “See Calgary Map” to help you find your way around the city.
You can get into downtown Calgary by bus, shuttle, taxi, limousine, or rental car. If you are staying in a downtown hotel, you’ll be able to walk virtually everywhere. But picking up a rental car on arrival at the airport may save you time when you’re ready to make your getaway into the Canadian Rockies.
We stayed at the Hotel Arts, just south of the heart of downtown, within an easy walk or short drive of central city restaurants and attractions.
You’ll find the historic Fairmont Palliser and major chain hotels downtown. Tourism Calgary’s “Visit Calgary” Website has a list of area lodgings.
Calgary is famous for its rodeo, the Calgary Stampede, held each July. But that doesn’t mean that beef steak is the only fare on offer in the town. Dining options are as good as in most major U.S. cities.
Our fine dining choice, Divino Wine & Cheese Bistro, provided us with excellent food and service, and wine selection.
For a more casual meal, we ate at the Craft Beer Market, a large brew pub close to our hotel, where you can get plenty to eat at reasonable prices.
Day 2: Calgary
Spend the morning shopping at the Hudson’s Bay department store, have a leisurely lunch, and then drive or walk north to the edge of downtown to Prince’s Island Park along the Bow River. It’s a pleasant place for an afternoon stroll.
One-night stay option: Pack up your bags, toss them in your rental car, and head for the mountains the day after your arrival in Calgary.
Day 3: Drive to Jasper
The Canadian Rocky Mountain parks run in a roughly southeast to northwest direction from Banff, at the southern end, to Jasper in the north. Famous Lake Louise is about mid-way between those two towns.
To avoid repeatedly drive back and forth on the highways, and to be within reasonable driving time back to Calgary to catch your flight home at the end of your trip, we recommend starting out from Calgary and traveling all of the way to Jasper, then after a stay there, working your way back south to Banff, with a stop at Lake Louise along the way.
It would take you about 5 hours of non-stop driving to cover the nearly 260 miles between Calgary and Jasper. But unless it’s raining cats and dogs, or caribou and moose, the scenery will compel you to frequently pull off the highway for “photo ops.”
So plan on leaving Calgary at around 9 to 10 am, and arriving in Jasper at 5 to 7 pm.
At Banff, you’ll enter the national park after paying the entrance fee at a toll both. If you are staying a week, it will probably be cheaper to purchase an annual park pass, good for both Banff and Jasper National Parks, as well as all other Canadian National Parks. (Even if you plan on driving through the parks and leaving the same day, you need to pay the entrance fee.)
Lake Louise Village, just off Trans-Canada Highway 1, is a good place to stop for a quick lunch and, if necessary, to fill up your car’s gas tank. Shortly after you leave there, you’ll be on Highway 93 and, except in the town of Saskatchewan River Crossing, you’ll have few opportunities to eat or buy gas until you each Jasper, three hours (without stops) and nearly 150 miles later.
About half-way between Lake Louise and Jasper you’ll reach the Columbia Ice Field visitor center. You can stretch your legs, view and photograph the Athabasca Glacier or take a guided excursion to it, or have a snack or meal.
From the Ice Field Centre, it will take you another hour and half without stops to reach your lodgings in Jasper. But before leaving the Centre, pick up a copy of the Parks Canada “Points of Interest” and “Trails around town” map for the town of Jasper and Jasper National Park. The separate “Jasper Visitor Map” will be useful, too.
We highly recommend Becker’s Chalets, single and multi-unit cabins on the Athabasca River, just a short drive south of downtown Jasper.
Our unit looked newly built, as did the others, and had a full kitchen. Even though it’s a family resort, and all rooms were booked during our weekend stay, it was a quiet and relaxing.
Becker’s has an on-site dining room, and a guest laundry facility.
Jasper’s high-end option is the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, located on the other side of the river, north of town.
Check the Tourism Jasper Website for accommodations elsewhere along the river, on the lakes, and in town.
Since we expected to arrive about 7 pm on a Friday evening, we made advance dinner reservations at Becker’s for that night.
But to give our stomachs and wallets a break, we shopped at Robinson’s grocery store the following day, “dined in” the next two nights, and had breakfast in our room. Use the “Jasper Dining Guide” to find local restaurants with fare that suits your palate and your travel budget.
Day 4: Jasper
After breakfast, stop at the Patricia Street Deli to pick up sandwiches, snacks and beverages for a picnic lunch. Then drive out Pyramid Lake Road to scenic Patricia and Pyramid lakes for a couple of easy, short walks.
In the afternoon, ride the Jasper Tramway up to 4,279’ above sea level to get a bird-eye view of the town, the Athabasca River, and the surrounding mountains. On a clear day, you should be able to see Mount Robison, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, off the northwest in the adjoining province of British Columbia. Check the Tramway Website for hours of operation and, if wish, to make advance reservations.
Day 5: Jasper
Grab the fixings for a picnic, and drive 7 miles north out of Jasper to Maligne Canyon. A short, steep hike, will take down along the narrow defile through which the Maligne River flows, and then back up to the parking lot. If you don’t want to picnic, you can have lunch at the restaurant.
Continue up the road another 22 miles to Maligne Lake (30 miles and one hour or so from Jasper) and take the 90 minute Spirit Island cruise south through the mountains and back. To make sure you get on the boat, reserve a spot in advance. You can get a snack or meal in the restaurant at the lake.
Two-night, one full day option: Do either the Patricia and Pyramid lakes and Tramway outings, or go to the Maligne Canyon and Maligne Lake; our preference would be to do the latter.
Day 6: South to Lake Louise
Head back to the Patricia Street Deli to pick up lunch to go, then drive south out of Jasper toward Lake Louise.
Athabasca Falls, 18 miles south of Jasper, offers a scenic stroll, and a good place for your picnic lunch. At Sunwapta Falls, 16 miles farther south, the river plummets into a limestone gorge similar to Maligne Canyon.
If you didn’t get a close-up look at the Athabasca Glacier on your way to Jasper, stop at the Ice Field Centre before continuing on to Lake Louise.
Lake Louise is like an emerald dangling from a silver-snow chain from the mountains. Its one of the most scenic spots in the entire Canadian Rockies. So if you can afford it, bunk at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, right on the east shore of the lake, preferably in a lake-view room.
Deer Lodge and Paradise Lodge & Bungalows are just down hill from Chateau Lake Louise. The lodge at nearby Moraine Lake is another option. Visit the Banff Lake Louise Tourism Website for other lodging choices. Pick up a copy of the Lake Louise Area Map.
Banff lodging option: Banff is about an hour’s drive south of Lake Louise on the freeway, so you could stay there and do a day trip to the Lake Louise area. There are also several places to stay along the Bow River Parkway that parallels the freeway between Lake Louise and Banff.
We enjoyed both a lunch and a dinner at the Lake Louise Station Restaurant in the historic train station down the mountain from Lake Louise and near Lake Louise Village.
Day 7: Lake Louise
Have lunch the Lake Louise Station Restaurant, or in the Chateau Deli at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel.
Tour the hotel grounds, lobby and shops in the afternoon, and take a short stroll along the lakeshore.
Day 8: Lake Louise
After breakfast, put on your hiking boots, grab your camera and daypack, and trek 7 miles from Lake Louise up to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House or a little over 4 miles to the one at Agnes Lake for lunch. If you’re a power hiker, consider visiting both in a single day. If you’re not up to hiking, you can reach the Tea Houses on a guided horseback ride.
If you like the great outdoors, but don’t want to hike or ride a horse, you can paddle a canoe on Lake Louise.
Two-night, one full day option: Do either the Moraine Lake and Chateau Lake Louise hotel self-guided tour, or our recommended outing to the Lake Agnes Tea House.
Day 9: Emerald Lake and Banff
After breakfast, pick up a picnic lunch at a deli at Chateau Lake Louise or in Lake Louise Village, and head north and west on Highway 1 to Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park. Stop along the way to view the roadside exhibits about the building of the railroad over Kicking Horse Pass.
After lunch and a short hike at Emerald Lake, head back east on Trans-Canada Highway 1. When you reach the Lake Louise exit, turn left and drive east across the freeway overpass, then turn south onto the two-lane Bow River Parkway to enjoy the scenic two-hour drive to Banff.
Option: Skip the trip to Emerald Lake, and do some short hikes off the Bow River Parkway as you make your way south to Banff.
Banff is the region’s largest town. You’ll have several lodging options here.
We had a great view room at the Rimrock Resort Hotel, perched on the edge of a mountain, a short drive from downtown.
You’ll find plenty of places to eat in Banff.
The Rimrock Resort Hotel was excellent for dinner and breakfast. A bar on the hotel’s lobby level is a great place to enjoy a cocktail or glass of wine after a day of sightseeing and before dinner.
We also had dinner sitting at the bar of the Bison Restaurant & Terrance in downtown Banff where the food was good and the staff friendly.
Balkan, a Greek restaurant, proved to be a good lunch option during our one full day in town.
Day 10: Banff
After breakfast, spend the morning learning about the history of the mountains and the Rocky Mountain National Parks at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in downtown Banff.
After lunch, explore the public areas of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. (Call ahead to see if a guided tour is offered.)
Day 11: Home
Allow at least two hours to drive from Banff to Calgary International Airport, and up to two hours to check in for your flight and, if necessary (as is the case for travelers headed to U.S.airports) to clear U.S. Customs and Immigration before departing Canada.
Tips: If your flight departs Calgary in the morning, consider overnighting there rather than in Banff. TripAdvisor.ca offers additional suggestions for travelers returning to the U.S. from Calgary by air after visiting Canadian Rocky Mountain parks.
Still trying to decide whether head to the Canadian Rockies? This video should clinch it for you.