By Canada specialist Victoria
I can be cynical when I travel, but driving out of Jasper along the Icefields Parkway, I couldn’t help stopping to admire the view. It’s difficult to grasp the scale of the Rocky Mountains until you’re surrounded by them, their sharp peaks layered one in front of the other like a pop-out card.
A trip to the Rockies isn’t about cramming in as much as possible, it’s about putting on a waterproof and a pair of boots and just getting out there, pausing to watch a passing elk or moose, gazing up at some of the world’s darkest, star-crowded skies (occasionally graced by the Northern Lights), and wandering away from the busier spots to find your own secluded tract of land.
How to explore the Canadian Rockies
Banff National Park
Self-driving is your best option for getting around. It means you can travel at your own pace, dictating where you stop to take in views or explore places that pique your interest.
You could visit the Rockies as part of a wider trip, beginning or ending in Vancouver with stops in-between at Whistler and Wells Gray Provincial Park. Alternatively, you could fly directly into Calgary, just a two-hour drive from Banff. There are also several train routes that cross the Rockies.
Highlights of the Canadian Rockies
Jasper National Park
Grizzly bears, Jasper National Park
The alpine town of Jasper is situated in the heart of the national park, set against a backdrop of huge mountains. It’s compact enough to explore on foot, and its humble wooden buildings make the whole place feel untouched by time.
You can sample the town’s restaurants, bars and shops. It’s mainly used though as a gateway for enjoying the park’s outdoor activities, from hiking, canoeing and white water rafting along the Athabasca River, to taking a guided motorcycle ride in a Harley Davidson sidecar.
Close to the town is the Jasper SkyTram, which takes you to the top of Whistlers Mountain. Standing at an altitude of 2,500 m (8,100 ft), the views in front of you stretch for miles, encompassing the town, distant mountains that seem to be shrugging off wispy clouds, and lakes gleaming blue and silver in the sun. I knew the Rockies were vast, but it was only when I gazed across them from this summit that I was able to really appreciate their size.
Maligne Valley and Lake
Spirit Island in Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park
Many of the park’s natural highlights lie within Maligne Valley, 15 minutes northwest of the town. I suggest taking a guided trip out to explore them, stopping first at Maligne Canyon, a 50 m (160 ft) deep gorge carved by the Maligne River over the course of 10,000 years. Taking a short walk to the canyon’s rim, you can see the river flowing through and a series of waterfalls gushing down the limestone rock face.
Next you visit Medicine Lake. Formed by meltwater flooding the valley in spring, it dries up completely as the temperature rises. It’s a pretty spot at any time of year thanks to the steep-sloped mountains and bottle-green firs on all sides.
For me, though, the highlight of the valley is Maligne Lake. This is the quintessential Canadian lake, whose smooth, aquamarine waters lap the shores of Spirit Island — a tiny islet with huddled trees that forms one of the most photographed views in the Rockies. You can take a 90-minute boat cruise around the lake and up to the island, looking out for ospreys diving to catch fish. Kayaks and canoes can also be hired — I find it impossible to visit the Rockies without taking up a paddle.
Walking in Jasper National Park
Mount Edith Cavell, Jasper National Park
I headed out with a guide to learn more about the history, geology and wildlife in this part of the Rockies, but the park’s many walking trails are easy to navigate if you want to explore independently. Maps are available from the park’s information points.
I like the 3.2 km (2 mile) Mary Schaffer Loop, which takes you around the shores of Maligne Lake to a viewpoint above, before winding through pine forest. The trail is named after the park’s first official visitor, who arrived in the area in 1908. You can learn about her explorations through the interpretive displays set up along the trail.
For a tougher challenge, the 9 km (5.6 mile) Path of the Glacier trail takes you up to Mount Edith Cavell — one of the most prominent peaks in the Rockies — and rewards you with close-up views of several glaciers. You also pass Cavell Glacier, where chunks of ice occasionally fall with a splash into the milky-turquoise waters of Cavell Pond. You’ll also see the Angel Glacier, which resembles an angel with outspread wings.
Where to stay in Jasper National Park
Alpine Village Cabin Resort, Jasper National Park
I like staying at Alpine Village Cabin Resort because you have the best of both worlds — you’re only 2 km (1.2 miles) from central Jasper, but can enjoy the classic ‘cabin-in-the-woods’ experience. The stone and pine log cabins, each featuring a private terrace, are set among the trees close to the river and can sleep up to five guests.
Road from Jasper to Banff, Icefields Parkway
I’d never have thought that a day of driving would turn out to be the highlight of my trip. But the journey south from Jasper to Banff along the 232 km (144 mile) Icefields Parkway is no run-of-the-mill road trip. While, taking the parkway, you could arrive in Banff after just four and a half hours, you’ll pass so many tempting viewpoints and walking trails that your journey time can easily double — I’d urge you to blank out a whole day.
Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park
Leaving Jasper, you ascend quickly, arriving at Athabasca Falls after half an hour. Here you can follow a trail along the river to a viewing platform set next to the falls — close enough to feel the icy spray and see the white plume of water thunder down into the canyon, whose different strata are on show.
Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier
As you continue to drive up, higher than the tree line, the landscape gets drier and rockier and less earthly. About halfway along the route, you reach the edge of the Columbia Icefield, which comprises eight glaciers.
I recommend visiting the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre to learn about the formation of the icefield. From here, you can visit the most accessible of the glaciers, the Athabasca Glacier, either on a 90-minute tundra buggy ride or as part of a guided ice walk.
Having visited glaciers in New Zealand, it felt novel to set foot on one without needing a helicopter. My guide told me about the impact glaciers have had on the landscape and how they’re now rapidly retreating due to rising temperatures — the modern-day car park was covered by the glacier just 80 years ago.
A five-minute trip from the Discovery Centre takes you to the Glacier Skywalk, a 400 m (1,312 ft) walkway elevated 280 m (918 ft) above the glacier-formed Sunwapta Valley. Part of the walkway is glass, giving you bird’s-eye views of the trees, waterfalls and ice below. Interpretive stations tell you about the area’s geology and wildlife, as well as the technology behind the skywalk’s construction.
Peyto Lake, Banff National Park
Driving away from the icefield, the land becomes greener as the road winds around the mountains. Definitely worth a stop is Peyto Lake, one of the route’s standout viewpoints, just an hour or so northwest of Banff. You can take a short but steep walk up to a viewing platform overlooking the lake, whose bright-blue waters almost glow in the deep glacial valley. Soon after this stop, you’ll pass over Bow Summit — the Icefields Parkway’s highest point.
Banff National Park
Banff is the flagship town of the Rockies, watched over by towering mountains in the middle of the park. It was the area’s natural hot springs that first attracted people here over a century ago, and you can still take a soak in the warm mineral waters at Banff Upper Hot Springs.
I found Banff was busier than Jasper, with a good choice of restaurants and shops. Calgary’s airport is just two hours away. Its central location in the park gives you easier access to the quieter areas, as well as the lesser-visited Kootenay and Yoho National Parks.
Lake Louise and Moraine Lake
Lake Louise, Banff National Park
In summer, people head to Lake Louise for a walk or to navigate the calm turquoise waters by canoe or paddle board. In winter the lake freezes over, and the canoeists are replaced by ice skaters.
Despite the lake’s popularity, it’s possible to walk a few minutes from the car park and find relative solitude. But, just 20 minutes up the road, Moraine Lake is much quieter and just as beautiful. Its water is even more vivid, pooled at the foot of huge, steeply rising mountains.
Moraine Lake Lodge has the best setting of any hotel I’ve stayed at. After a technology-free night in one of the log cabins, I was able to explore the lake in the early morning and late afternoon when no other visitors were around. You can rent canoes from the lodge’s boathouse, or take guided walks with the resident naturalist.
Walking in Banff National Park
Banff National Park
From Lake Louise, I followed the 3.4 km (2.1 mile) Lake Agnes trail to a friendly teahouse on the shores of nearby Lake Agnes, where far fewer people tend to venture. The trail is fairly steep in places, but offers views over Lake Louise and nearby Mirror Lake, which is much smaller. The teahouse is a worthy reward, stocking over 100 varieties of loose-leaf tea and plenty of cake.
Setting off from Banff town, you can follow the 4.3 km (2.7 mile) Tunnel Mountain Trail, which winds up 300 m (984 ft) through pine forest to a viewpoint at Banff’s lowest summit. Again, the trail is quite steep in places, but well maintained and signed. At the top, stop to take in a panorama of the town and the Bow and Spray River Valleys.
Another route I recommend is the 10 km (6.2 mile) Bow Falls to Hoodoos Trail. Following the banks of the Bow River, you can stop to watch the falls and turbulent rapids frothing over rocks and boulders. The walk is relatively flat, much of it through forest, but the highlight is reaching the hoodoos — otherworldly spires of rock sculpted by the wind.
Where to stay in Banff National Park
Ambleside Lodge, Canmore, Banff National Park
Rather than staying in Banff, I base myself in the smaller town of Canmore, half an hour southeast. This peaceful town has several B&Bs, including my personal choice, Ambleside Lodge. Its living room has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the mountains, and there are just three guest rooms, so it feels like a home. The owner, Dave Booth, is a certified mountain guide and can take you out along some of the park’s trails.
Lesser-known highlights of the Canadian Rockies
Kootenay National Park
Kootenay National Park
Just over the provincial border, Kootenay National Park fringes Banff National Park but sees far fewer visitors. Following trails through the same wilderness mountain and lake scenery, it often felt like I had the whole park to myself. There’s also more chance of spotting wildlife such as elk, moose, deer and bears.
The park has several natural springs you can visit, including the Paint Pots — a collection of iron-rich springs that bubble up to the surface, creating orange, yellow and green pools and turning the ground rusty red. There’s also Radium Hot Springs, a pool complex where you can bathe in warm natural spring waters.
Cross River Cabins
Cross River Cabins, Kootenay National Park
Tucked away on the southern edge of the park, Cross River Cabins is a place where guests wish they could spend an extra night. The epitome of seclusion, it’s hidden at the end of a long gravel track with mountains looming large in the near distance.
Just a handful of log cabins are dotted among the pine trees, and the main lodge has a wood-fired hot tub. There’s an emphasis on sustainability here, and the Patenaude family who own the property are keen to ensure it has minimal impact on its surroundings.
From the property, you can head out with experienced local guides along some of the area’s hiking trails, formed from old animal trails or logging roads and generally unknown. There are several rivers nearby for canoeing, kayaking, white water rafting or fishing.
Best time to visit the Canadian Rockies
June to September is the main travel season, but I prefer visiting in late September, when the landscape is dappled green and burnt orange. At this time, visitor numbers have thinned out, but you can still enjoy the same activities before temperatures plummet. I also like visiting in May — while lakes are sometimes still frozen at this time meaning some activities are off-limits, the snow-covered mountain peaks create a dramatic backdrop and visitor numbers are still relatively low. As May turns to June, everything becomes vivid green and wildflowers spring up.