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Icefields Parkway GyPSy Guide Driving Tour App

Canadian Rockies Trip Planner

People from all over the world are drawn to the Canadian Rockies every year to explore its craggy mountains, sparkling lakes, and ancient glaciers. Visitors come to the Canadian Rockies to ski the ‘Champagne Powder’, dine on Rocky Mountain cuisine, recharge at natural hot springs and decadent spas, and take advantage of the international cultural events as well as eclectic shopping and nightlife.

Contents

How To Get Here

The Canadian Rockies spans the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia in Western Canada, encompassing Banff, Jasper and Yoho National Parks.

By Plane

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Calgary

Calgary is known as the gateway city to the Canadian Rockies, and most visitors will arrive in Calgary at the Calgary International Airport (YYC) in Alberta. Calgary is the closest city to the Rockies, and less than a two-hour drive from Banff National Park. Most major airlines fly to Calgary, including Canada’s own WestJet and Air Canada, as well as American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines, KLM and Air Transat. There’s a number of large car rental companies based at the airport, and public shuttles available year round. There’s no train system between Calgary and Banff, although there are talks of this in the future.

Edmonton

Located three hours north of Calgary, the Edmonton International Airport (YEG) in Edmonton is the second major airport in Alberta and the closest major airport to Jasper National Park. Most major international airlines service Edmonton International, and several car rental companies are based at the airport. Banff National Park is about a four-hour drive from Edmonton and Jasper National Park is a 3.5-hour drive.

Vancouver

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Some visitors opt to arrive in Canada at the Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in Vancouver, British Columbia. Visitors then travel to the Canadian Rockies via a domestic flight from Vancouver to Calgary or Edmonton serviced by one of Canada’s local airlines including WestJet, Air Canada or budget airline Flair.

By Car

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Most visitors arrive by car from Calgary, which is less than a two hour drive from Banff National Park on the Trans Canada Highway (also known as Highway 1). For those arriving in Edmonton, expect around four hours to drive to Banff National Park via Highway 2 and the Trans Canada Highway, or 3.5 hours to Jasper National Park along Highway 16 (also known as the Yellowhead Highway). It’s also possible to drive from Vancouver to Banff or Jasper but count on a full day to make the journey.

By Train

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For those looking to arrive in the Canadian Rockies in style, then the luxurious Rocky Mountaineer train is a popular choice. This lavish passenger train provides a scenic journey from runs from spring to fall from Vancouver to Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper, and runs each year from spring through fall. The Rocky Mountaineer travels only during the day so that passengers don’t miss any of the views.

For a more budget-friendly option, Via Rail provides service to Jasper year round from Vancouver and Edmonton. There’s currently no train system between Calgary and Banff.

By Shuttle

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If you prefer to leave the driving to someone else, shuttle, coach and private car services (Banff Airporter, Pursuit, Discover Banff Tours) operate daily from Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary to Banff and Lake Louise. Sundog Tours operates a direct shuttle service from Edmonton to Jasper, or you can combine multiple services to travel from Calgary to Jasper. You can also take a full-day bus journey from Vancouver to Banff with Rider Express, but most people find it more convenient to fly into Calgary or Edmonton.

Getting Around & Shuttles

Car or RV

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Having a rental car will give you the most flexibility to travel at your own pace, and other than a few popular spots with limited parking it’s the easiest way to get around and visit all of the places on your list. While the towns of Banff, Lake Louise and Field are accessible via the Trans Canada Highway which is typically well maintained, it’s worth remembering that the Icefields Parkway and secondary roads may have variable conditions in winter as well as seasonal road closures.

Shuttles

Banff National Park

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pc: Nick Fitzhardinge

The Town of Banff is well serviced by town shuttles and ski shuttles which you can combine to easily reach most of the town’s top attractions. If you’re taking a sightseeing tour or guided outdoor adventure activity, most tour companies will pick you up directly at your hotel and drop you off at the end of the day.

The town itself is small, and a flat and picturesque walk from one end of town to the other (around 40 minutes). However if you are staying in the Tunnel Mountain area, you’ll have an uphill walk back to your accommodations, or you can use the local Roam public transit system around town. Roam also services the neighbouring town of Canmore, local sights and attractions such as the Banff Gondola, and even Lake Louise.

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pc: Damian Blunt

In summer, Parks Canada has shuttles available to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake from the Lake Louise Park and Ride located at the Lake Louise Ski Resort, but these must be reserved in advance. Taxis are easily available in the town of Banff and are approximately $10­-15 CAD anywhere within the townsite.

If you are choosing to base yourself in Lake Louise, it is possible to get by without a vehicle but this will limit your visit to activities only in the Lake Louise area. If you want to explore, hike or sightsee to other lakes, glaciers and mountain trails then you will have far more flexibility with your own vehicle.

Jasper National Park

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Unlike Banff, the Town of Jasper does not have a town shuttle system but has a similarly compact downtown area that’s easily accessible on foot from most hotels. It’s also popular and fun to use the extensive bike paths for closeby viewpoints. Jasper is serviced by taxis and some local sightseeing tour companies offer hotel pickup for their tours. 

Yoho National Park

There’s no public shuttle or taxi services within the park, however some tour companies offer private transport services on request.

Entrance Fees

A National Park Pass is required for anyone entering Banff, Jasper or Yoho National Parks. Visitors can purchase day passes which are valid until 4:00pm the following day, and provide entry to each of these three parks, as well as Kootenay, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Waterton Lakes and Elk Island national parks.

For longer stays, or if you plan to visit regularly, it’s more economical to buy a Discovery Pass which provides entry to all Canadian national parks for one year.

Visitors can purchase park passes ahead of time online, or upon arrival at the park gates and visitor centres. In summer, the entrance lines at the Banff National Park east park gate (coming from Calgary or Edmonton) can be quite long. Purchase your park pass head of time online and you’ll be glad to skip the queue in the through-traffic lane.

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Where To Stay

Banff National Park

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Banff

Most accommodations in Banff National Park are located within the Town of Banff. You will find quite the range from luxury, superior and moderately priced hotel style rooms and suites within a convenient walking distance of the downtown area, to condo, chalet and cabin properties (with kitchen/ettes) on Tunnel Mountain (about a 3 minute drive to downtown). 

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Lake Louise

Lodging in Lake Louise is located either close to the lake, or down in the valley closer to the village. Due to the short supply and high demand, there are no bargains (exception: Lake Louise hostel) except in the lowest shoulder seasons in spring and fall. However if you are looking to splurge for a night or two, or prefer secluded surrounds, Lake Louise has several mountain lodges, usually in idyllic settings, with spectacular mountain and lake views. There are no condominium style accommodations or bed and breakfasts, but there are a few cabin properties that allow some self-catering options. 

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Campgrounds

For those looking for camping options, there are several RV-friendly campgrounds inside the park operated by Parks Canada including Tunnel Mountain in the Town of Banff and Lake Louise near the Lake Louise Village. Both campgrounds are open year round, but you’ll want to book in advance as the campgrounds are often fully booked, especially in peak summer and holiday periods.

During peak periods when the park is busy and pricey, many visitors opt to stay in nearby Canmore which is just an 8-minute drive from the Banff National Park east gate, or 25 minutes from downtown Banff.

Jasper National Park

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PC: Parks Canada / Ryan Bray

Jasper

Most of the accommodation options near Jasper National Park are located in the Town of Jasper, where you’ll find the full range of budget to luxury stays including hostels, inns, motels and hotels. Jasper also has a large number of licensed private home lodgings that you won’t find in many other national parks, and cabin accommodations are increasingly popular in this resort town. There are also several RV-friendly frontcountry campgrounds including the newly upgraded Whistler’s Campground which is open year round.

Yoho National Park

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Emerald Lake Lodge is the most iconic accommodation in the Yoho National Park. The lodge features 24 cabin-style buildings which sleep up to 200 guests in private lodge rooms, each with their own wood burning fireplace. The property sits along the spectacular Emerald Lake and is consistently rated one of Canada’s top winter lodges. 

A small number of guesthouses and motels are located in the small town of Field, and there are several frontcountry campgrounds open in the summer within the park. There are also many more accommodation options in the full-service town of Golden in British Columbia, located just outside the park.

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Listen to stories, local tips & directions along the road.  Commentary plays automatically based on your location.  No cell or wifi required, tour offline with GPS.

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When To Visit

Late June through early September are the busiest months in the Canadian Rockies. This is when you’ll find the warmest and sunniest weather, and also when most viewpoints and attractions are open. Late September brings a short flurry of hikers during ‘larch madness’, that brief window when these alpine trees change to a brilliant golden yellow. Winter is popular for skiers, and also for international visitors seeking a real ‘white’ Christmas.

Spring brings mixed weather. The real possibility of heavy rain mixed with snow on the mountains, snowpack preventing hiking in the high elevations and lakes still frozen over, but balanced with the best chance of seeing wildlife emerging from winter hibernation in the valleys.

October and November are the low season with excellent rates, fewer tourists and cool windy weather. While many attractions and tours aren’t open during the low season, it’s a great time to see the mountains first dusted with snow in the high alpine – and often in town as well.

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Christmas is a magical time in the mountains ­and many visitors come to Banff seeking that picture-perfect white Christmas. January is typically cold and snowy, but if you can brave the colder temperatures it’s a great time to take advantage of low season special rates. February and March are the powder months, with a good snow base and warmer winter weather – and the most popular time for skiers to visit. For families, April and May are excellent months for spring skiing. June can be rainy, but it’s the best time for wildlife viewing, as animals including bears, elk, bighorn sheep and deer are abundant in the valleys.

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How Much Time Do You Need

Ideally you’ll want to spend at least one week to truly explore the Canadian Rockies, without having to rush through the attractions. This will give you more time to relax, or to enjoy activities along the way in addition to sightseeing.

If you only have three days it’s still possible to squeeze in the main sightseeing viewpoints in Banff and Yoho National Parks, but you’ll need to add more days to your itinerary if you want to check off all the main ‘must see and do’ items, or to visit Jasper.

Expect to spend 10 hours or more to drive and sightsee the Icefields Parkway. Start from Banff/Lake Louise and turn around at the Athabasca Glacier, or continue on to spend nights in Jasper. 

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How To Avoid The Crowds

Visiting during the off-peak shoulder seasons of April to May, and October to November is the easiest way to avoid the crowds in the Canadian Rockies. Just remember that some of the key attractions are closed during these periods, or indeed throughout the whole winter, such as Moraine Lake, Takakkaw Falls, Mt Edith Cavell and the Miette Hot Springs. 

Winter will be comparatively quieter, but the main towns will still be bustling. The best way to visit the most popular viewpoints during these busy periods is to go at off-peak times. So, set that alarm clock and get up early!

The exception to this would be Moraine Lake, as the small parking lot often fills up by sunrise. The Moraine Lake access road is closed as soon as the parking lot is full, so this one you’ll want to consider booking a shuttle or a tour to visit. Otherwise plan to visit in the evening once the crowds have left for the day.

Not To Be Missed Activities

If you are up for a little more action than just sightseeing, the Canadian Rockies offer up a number of activities that are just enhanced by the surrounds.

Horseback Riding

Whether it’s moseying along trails in Banff, Lake Louise or Jasper for a few hours, or venturing further into the backcountry and staying in lodges for a few days, riding horseback has you imitating the original explorers and peoples that explored the Rockies.

Whitewater Rafting

Spring snowmelt sees the trickle of rivers turn into exciting whitewater rapids of various classes.  While the Kananaskis River and Horseshoe Canyon (close to Banff and Calgary) Athabasca and Sunwapta (Jasper) rivers offer a thrill for all ages, it’s the Kicking Horse River (Golden BC) that is the ultimate dare for adults wanting to experience class 4 rapids. 

Skiing

Easily accessible from Banff in a single tri-area ticket with shuttle service, the ski resorts of Sunshine Village, Lake Louise and Banff Mt Norquay each offer superb and varied terrain. Marmot Basin is Jasper’s local ski area about a 25 minute drive south from town. Day trips to Nakiska, Kicking Horse and Panorama are also available from Banff with shuttle and ticket packages.

Dogsledding

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pc: Travel Alberta / Mike Seehagel

For winter visitors, the top activity on most people’s list (other than skiing) is dogsledding. And there’s simply nothing like being pulled on a sled by a team of dogs through these awe-inspiring mountain landscapes. You’ll find dogsledding tours near Banff in Canmore and Kananaskis, in Lake Louise, and in Jasper.

Icewalks

As the rivers and waterfalls freeze solid into natural ice sculptures, canyons turn into scenes from the movie “Frozen”. Day icewalk hikes include guided tours that use ice cleats over your boots to walk on the frozen creekbed or along steel catwalks built out from the cliff walls. For the ultimate thrill, venture in for an evening icewalk at night using a headlamp and see the falls lit up.

What to See and Do in Banff National Park

Lake Louise

The jewel of the Canadian Rockies, the turquoise-coloured Lake Louise is perfectly framed by towering peaks and the Victoria Glacier and is a definite must-see sight. Stunning photos can be snapped from the lake’s foreshore, and if you want to see that famous glacier-fed blue hues, July and August is best.

Hike the famous Plain of Six Glaciers or Lake Agnes tea house trails to take in the surrounding views and see glaciers carving on the warmest days – sending thundering chunks of snow and ice off the face of the glacier. Rent a canoe or take the Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola for a more leisurely paced tour (located a short drive from the lakeshore).

SHUTTLE RESERVATIONS

Finding a parking spot at Lake Louise is difficult at any time of year, and especially challenging in summer. To guarantee summer access, it’s strongly recommended to make a reservation on the Parks Canada shuttle.

In 2022 the shuttle operates from May 13 to October 10 from the Lake Louise Park and Ride at the Lake Louise Ski Resort. Bookings are recommended and reservations open on May 4. Visit the Parks Canada website for reservations and further details.

Moraine Lake

Located a short drive from Lake Louise, the Valley of the Ten Peaks is considered so iconically Canadian that it was featured on the Canadian $20 bill for many years. Canoeing, taking the short walk to the Rockpile Viewpoint, hiking to Consolation Lake or Larch Valley, or simply enjoying a delicious meal at Moraine Lake Lodge are all popular ways to enjoy Moraine Lake.

Unlike Lake Louise which is open year round, road access to Moraine Lake is closed in winter due to avalanche risk. Moraine Lake is only accessible from late May to early October (weather permitting).

SHUTTLE RESERVATIONS

Parking at Moraine Lake is extremely limited and the road is often closed to traffic from 7am – 4pm in peak summer months once the parking lot is full. To guarantee summer access, it’s strongly recommended to make a reservation on the Parks Canada shuttle.

In 2022 the shuttle operates from June 1 to October 10 from the Lake Louise Park and Ride at the Lake Louise Ski Resort. Bookings are recommended and reservations open on May 4. Visit the Parks Canada website for reservations and further details.

Banff Gondola

GyPSy Guide Driving Tour App Banff National Park
pc: Chris Amat

Taking the gondola ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain, where all ages can take in 360 degree views across six mountaintop ranges, is one of the most classic experiences in Banff. Once atop Sulphur Mountain, those inclined can follow the short elevated boardwalk trail to Sansons Peak and Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station. Keep your eyes out for bighorn sheep along the way

Also, don’t miss the new bistro, which offers coffee and market style dining which you can enjoy while you watch the sunset.

Local Tip: The Banff Chairlift at Banff Mt Norquay offers open ski style chairlifts to a small bistro with excellent small meal options. While much smaller, it is often less crowded.

Banff Upper Hot Springs

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pc: Noel Hendrickson

Travellers originally came to Banff to “take the waters” as part of a health retreat to the mountains. Indigenous Peoples had first discovered the springs and used them for their healing properties. Water temperature is currently between 37-40C/98-104F and contains a unique blend of sulfate, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium and sodium. The Banff Upper Hot Springs are the only hot springs where you can bathe in Banff National Park and they are located beside the Banff Gondola base station.

Didn’t bring your swimsuit? You can rent the old-fashioned bathers for a few dollars which can provide quite a few giggles, not to mention some interesting photo opportunities for social media posts.

Icefields Parkway

The Icefields Parkway is one of the world’s most spectacular drives, and its praise is well deserved. Along this 233km (145 miles) drive between Lake Louise and Jasper, visitors will enjoy views of hundreds of glaciers, towering mountain peaks, and find amazing wildlife watching opportunities. Travelers will be treated with countless highlights along the way, including Peyto Lake, Athabasca Falls, Sunwapta Falls and Bow Lake.

What to See and Do in Jasper National Park

Columbia Icefield

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pc: Mike Seehagel / Pursuit Banff Jasper Collection

The Athabasca Glacier is one of the principal outflows from the larger Columbia Icefield, and it’s one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. You can drive right to the toe of the glacier and view markers that explain how far the glacier has retreated over recent years. Located across the road the Icefield Centre is a place to learn about the wonders of the Athabasca Glacier.

It’s here where you can sign up for the Columbia Icefield Adventure Tour which will take you up onto the glacier on an Ice Explorer, a giant all-terrain vehicle. The ticket also includes a separate bus taking you to a glass bottomed SkyWalk out over a canyon. Allow at least three hours for both full experiences.

Pre-book to save lining up, especially during peak summer dates, estimate four hours after departure from Banff or 3 hours from Jasper.

Maligne Canyon

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Maligne Canyon is one of the most impressive canyons in the Canadian Rockies and should not be missed. Water fed from tall mountain ranges and nearby lakes has forced its way through the limestone to carve this impressive, deep and narrow canyon.

From the main parking area, Maligne Canyon is only a minute’s walk, but several trails wind through the canyon and there are many different views. For those looking to experience the best parts of the canyon, start from the fifth bridge location, which provides the opportunity to follow the trails that run the entire length of the canyon.

Maligne Lake

Located just a 45-minute drive from the town of Jasper, Maligne Lake is one of the most scenic lakes in the Canadian Rockies and a must-see if you’re in Jasper for a few days. Taking the famous cruise around the Maligne Lake to capture the iconic photo of Spirit Island, a tiny picture-perfect tree-topped island evergreens, is by far the most popular way to enjoy the lake. Just make sure to prebook your cruise time before you go. There are also several places to enjoy the lakeshore, although hiking trails are short and limited.

Miette Hot Springs

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Located on the eastern side of Jasper National Park, approximately 50 minutes driving time from the town of Jasper, the Miette Hot Springs features the hottest thermal pools in the Canadian Rockies. Relaxing in the pools after a long day of sightseeing is ideal, but visiting at any time of day is fun. Unlike the hot springs in Banff which are open year round, Miette Hot Springs are only open from early May through mid October.

What to See and Do in Yoho National Park

Emerald Lake

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The Canadian Rockies has so many spectacularly-coloured alpine lakes, surrounded by gorgeous mountain peaks, it can be difficult to choose which ones to see. Emerald Lake is the largest lake in Yoho National Park and it’s not to be missed. After the initial thrill of this picture-perfect sparkling turquoise lake, you can explore further by taking a flat hike around its perimeter or enjoying a paddle on its pristine waters. The historic Emerald Lake Lodge is one of the Rockies’ premier lakeside lodges and is a great place to enjoy a gourmet lunch or micro-brewed beer on the patio surrounded by incredible Rocky Mountain views.

Takakkaw Falls

The second highest waterfall in Canada, Takakkaw Falls are the biggest and the mightiest of the many incredible waterfalls in the Canadian Rockies and a must-see during your trip to Yoho National Park. The falls are easily accessible via a short path and visitors will enjoy feeling the mist from this glacier-fed cascade. The drive through Yoho Valley to the falls is often a lucky place for spotting wildlife and there are other short scenic stops to make along the way. The road usually does not open until June due to avalanche hazards, and then closes in early October.

Spiral Train Tunnels

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A pivotal event in the history of Canada, was to complete a railroad connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The mighty Canadian Rockies created a difficult barrier for railway engineers and surveyors to overcome and the Spiral Tunnels are an excellent example of the ingenuity required to overcome the steep grade. From the Spiral Tunnels viewpoint along the TransCanada Highway, you can view the two spiral tunnels where trains, climbing and descending through Kicking Horse Pass, corkscrew through the mountain and appear to loop over themselves.

Best Hikes

Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park

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Johnston Canyon is one of the most popular natural attractions in Banff National Park and it’s accessible via a relatively easy 1.1 kilometre (0.7 mile) trail. The trail follows steel catwalks built into the canyon walls to the Lower Falls, where you have the option to crouch to through a short tunnel to reach the final viewing platform. Continue on the trail a bit further (and steeper) to the incredible 40 metre (130 foot) Upper Falls.

In the summertime, the cool canyon provides a natural air-conditioning effect with the fine mist from the falls. In the winter, all this mist freezes and turns into an icy landscape of frozen waterfalls and snow-covered trees. Be sure to take ice cleats if travelling in winter or early spring as the trail can melt and refreeze making it treacherous, or join a guided ice-walking tour which includes the use of ice cleats and other winter safety gear.

Plain of Six Glaciers, Banff National Park

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Who doesn’t love a hike that has a teahouse at the other end? Starting from the Lake Louise lakeshore, this popular 3.3 mile one-way (5.4 kilometre) trail takes hikers around the back of Lake Louise, and up close to the hanging glaciers.

Bring a packed lunch and plenty of water with you, or you can grab lunch at the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse. This log cabin teahouse was built in 1927 and operates with no electricity or other modern conveniences, All goods are made on propane stoves and brought in by helicopter or by staff hiking in. Bring cash as credit cards are not accepted.

If you’re looking for a longer hike, there are plenty of options to connect with other trails including the trail to the Lake Agnes Teahouse, another historic teahouse in the mountains above Lake Louise.

Local’s Tip: This hike is accessible from June to September, which is peak season in the Rockies and the Lake Louise parking lot fills up quickly. You’ll want to head to Lake Louise early in the day if you’re driving, or otherwise catch a bus from Banff.

Tunnel Mountain, Banff National Park

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This Banff local’s favorite hike is located right in the Banff townsite. A short drive or walk from downtown Banff, Tunnel Mountain is a year-round 1.5 mile (2.4 kilometre) hike that takes you to up 850 feet (260 metres) to the summit. Banff’s smallest mountain has sweeping views over the town and up to the Banff Gondola and Banff Springs Hotel. This hike is family-friendly, but make sure to bring ice cleats with you in winter as it can get very icy.

Mount Edith Cavell, Jasper National Park

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The Mount Edith Cavell area in Jasper offers some of the most popular summer views and lots of hiking options. Many visitors stick with the short half-mile (800 metre) paved trail from the parking lot to the viewpoint overlooking Cavell Pond and the layered ice of Cavell Glacier, but those looking to explore further will find plenty of challenging trails that will take you deeper into subalpine forest and meadows with great views of the Angel Glacier.

Just remember, the Cavell Road is narrow with tight switchbacks and not suitable for trailers or large motorhomes. The road is also closed in winter, and only accessible from late June to mid October.

Takakkaw Falls (and Beyond), Yoho National Park

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Canada’s second highest waterfall is only a ten minute walk from the parking lot on a family-friendly paved trail – with the option of going up right up close to feel the spray! For those wanting to explore further, the parking lot is the jumping off point for lots of hikes including the 8.8 km (5.5 mile) hike to Laughing Falls to the full-day 20.8 km (13 mile) Iceline Trail in the high alpine.

The road to Takakkaw Falls, Yoho Valley Road, is open seasonally from mid June through mid October. And due to its tight switchbacks, RVs and trailers are not permitted.

Burgess Shale Hike, Yoho National Park

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High up in the mountains, overlooking Emerald Lake, the Burgess Shale Walcott Quarry is a sensitive area where you can view seabed fossils that are the oldest example of complex life on earth. It’s a difficult hike with serious elevation but incredible views. Access is restricted so you can only visit the area with a Parks Canada Guide on a guided hike, so you’ll want to reserve online and prepare well in advance.

Stanley Glacier, Kootenay National Park

Located just outside Banff in Kootenay National Park, the Stanley Glacier hike provides excellent rewards for a moderate hike. Follow the 3.2 mile (5.2km) trail past waterfalls and through forest regrowth to a stunning alpine basin. It’s the perfect lunch stop where you can watch glacier meltwater tumbling down massive rock walls from the surrounding amphitheatre holding Stanley Glacier. And keep your eyes peeled for hidden fossils.  Trilobites, hyolithids, brachiopods, and sponges from the Eldon formation, which you can learn more about on a guided hike with Parks Canada.

Parker Ridge, Icefields Parkway

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Whew! This short 6.4km (4 mile) but steep 339m (1100 feet) round trip hike at elevation will get you puffing and your heart pumping. But you’ll be rewarded with outstanding views of the Saskatchewan Glacier you can’t see from the road and most just drive by.

Sunshine Meadows, Banff National Park

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One of Banff’s top ski resorts is also home to some of the best summer hiking trails in the Rockies at Sunshine Meadows. Bypass the long hike up to the meadows with a ride on a gondola and chairlift. From here you can enjoy incredible 360 degree mountain views over three pristine alpine lakes from the observation deck, or explore the numerous alpine hikes at your leisure or with a guide. If you’re here at the right time in late Spring early summer you’ll see thousands of wildflowers fill the meadows.

Awesome Experiences

Wildlife

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From bears to bighorn sheep, elk to ground squirrels and if you’re extremely lucky a cougar, wolves or moose, seeing wildlife is often the most thrilling highlight of a visit to the Canadian Rockies. The best season is spring, as animals congregate along the valley floor.  Awaiting the higher alpine thaw and returning again in late summer for berry season. The best time of day to spot wildlife is usually the cooler early morning and late evening hours, but you can be lucky at any time of day.

If you do happen to spot wildlife, please remember these animals are wild, unpredictable and need their space in order to survive. And be sure to follow Parks Canada’s recommendations on keeping safe distances from animals and adhere to all speed limits.

Dark Sky Preserve, Jasper National Park

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Jasper was officially designated as a Dark Sky Preserve in 2011 by the Royal Astronomical Society in Canada, and is one of just 17 Dark Sky Preserves in the country and the second largest in the world. The park’s limited light pollution creates ideal conditions for dark sky viewing so be sure to take advantage of local stargazing spots, tours at the Jasper Planetarium, or the annual Dark Sky Festival.

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff National Park

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Canada’s own ‘Castle in the Rockies‘ is one of Banff’s most iconic sights. This luxury hotel opened in 1888 and has since been recognized as a Canadian National Historic Site. One of its most famous views is from across the Bow River at the Surprise Corner viewpoint, but visiting it in person is highly recommended. Even if you’re not staying here, the public is welcome to dine at the (many) restaurants or join in some of the events throughout the year, like Christmas at the Castle.

Heli Sightseeing

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pc: Alpine Heli Tours

There’s perhaps no better way to truly appreciate the magnitude of the Canadian Rockies than from the air. Whether it’s snowy peaks in winter, larch trees in fall or sparkling glacier lakes in summer, there’s incredible beauty to be seen in any season.

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pc: Banff & Lake Louise Tourism

Cultural Experiences

For a small town by population standards, Banff enjoys a surprisingly rich menu of cultural pursuits. Numerous museums provide an amazing insight into the geological and natural history of the Rocky Mountains and a wide range of art galleries feature local artists and mountain culture themes like nowhere else.

The Banff Centre is the town’s treasure and features acclaimed festivals such as Mountain Film and Book Festival, WordFest, Summer Arts series, and other opera, dance and art events.

Cave and Basin National Historic Site, Banff National Park

GyPSy Guide Driving Tour App Banff National Park

The Cave and Basin National Historic Site is located in the town of Banff near the natural thermal springs. The springs of the Cave and Basin area were well-known and used by First Nations people, but in 1883, three railway workers stumbled on the cave and its thermal mineral springs and triggered much interest in the area which ultimately led to the establishment of Canada’s first national park, Banff National Park.

Today, visitors can browse the exhibits at the site’s interpretive centre and tour the original underground cave where you’ll hopefully spy one of the endangered tiny Banff Springs snails which are found nowhere else in the world.

Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum, Banff National Park

This museum is one of Alberta’s oldest, and is a remarkable place to learn about First Nations’ cultures. Set in a distinct log fortress on the banks of the Bow River, follow the up-to-date accounts of the return of the buffalo to Banff National Park, take pictures, dance, play music, and participate in shows demonstrating authentic traditions and storytelling.

Banff Centre of Arts and Creativity, Banff National Park

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PC: Banff Centre & Rita Taylor

Founded in 1933, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity is a learning organization that’s become Canada’s leader in arts and culture. With hundreds of public performances, events and exhibitions throughout the year, there’s something for everyone from exciting outdoor shows to classical music recitals, to free artist talks and open studio events. One of the local favorites is the annual Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival held in fall every year.

Jasper Yellowhead Museum, Jasper National Park

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pc: Tourism Jasper

The Jasper Yellowhead Museum is dedicated to collecting and preserving exhibition documents and artifacts that illustrate the human history of the park and the Yellowhead Corridor. The historic gallery includes exhibits on the fur trade, the railway, and early exploration and tourism in Jasper National Park.

Spirit Island, Jasper National Park

GyPSy Guide Driving Tour App Jasper National Park

Located halfway down Maligne Lake, Spirit Island is only accessible by cruise, kayak or canoe. One of the most photographed places in Canada, the island is a spiritual place for the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, who believe mountains are physical representations of their ancestors.

Best Places to Enjoy the Sunset

Banff Gondola, Banff National Park

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pc: Banff Gondola by Pursuit

If you’re looking for a mountaintop sunset without the climb, the Banff Gondola is the spot for you. You can watch the sunset from the summit of Sulphur Mountain year round, riding a fully-enclosed gondola all the way to 1,281 m (7,486 feet). You can take in the views from the 360-degree rooftop observation deck, or while enjoying dinner or a glass of wine from Sky Bistro.

Vermilion Lakes, Banff National Park

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A photographer’s favourite, you’ll always find at least a few setting up their cameras here at sunrise and sunset. And with Mount Rundle as a backdrop it’s easy to see why this is one of Banff’s best sunset spots. Vermilion Lakes is conveniently located a short walk, drive or bike ride from downtown Banff.

Lake Louise, Banff National Park

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In the evening once (some) of the crowds have left, sunset is a magical time to see Lake Louise. It’s a top sunset spot for the young and old, as the lakeshore is wheelchair accessible and just a short walk from the parking lot. As the sun sets across the valley and hits the Victoria Glacier, you might even see the glacier turn pink.

Medicine Lake, Jasper National Park

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Around a 20 minute drive from downtown Jasper, Medicine Lake is a great sunset spot and convenient if you’re driving back from an afternoon at Maligne Lake. There’s a few parking lots and viewpoints right next to the lake making it easy for anyone to look for a perfect composition. 

Pyramid Lake, Jasper National Park

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Located at the base of Pyramid Mountain and just 15 minutes from the town of Jasper, this lake is one of many small lakes left behind by retreating glaciers and a popular spot full of beautiful scenery and viewpoints. A top sunrise or sunset spot, if you can come here when there’s less crowds don’t miss the iconic shot of the wooden bridge leading to Pyramid Lake Island.

Moraine Lake, Banff National Park

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Perhaps the most sought after sunrise spot in the Canadian Rockies, Moraine Lake also has one of the smallest parking lots. For most of the season that the access road is open (mid May to early October), you have to arrive increasingly early to try and nab one of the parking spots for sunrise. You’ll find that the parking lot is usually full by 5am, if not earlier, and you’ll be turned away. Sunset viewing at the lake is typically a far more relaxed experience and you’re much more likely to be able to find a parking spot. While the water may not be quite as still in the evening, it’s still well worth the visit, especially if timed as an after-dinner sightseeing stop.

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PC: Travel Alberta / Noel Hendrickson

Food

When it comes to dining, Banff has an incredible variety of cuisine to choose from. You’ll find everything from French bistros, sushi restaurants, and Thai spots to steakhouses and fine dining establishments featuring a wide array of locally-sourced ingredients and Rocky Mountain fare. Even the casual eateries offer fresh, regional ingredients – think curries, wood fired pizza, noodles, and of course good old burgers and fries, Banff will make sure no taste goes unsatisfied.

Despite its small population setting, Lake Louise is known for its fine dining options. But don’t worry, as it is a vacation resort area, smart casual attire is just fine. Most Lake Louise area restaurants are located within the hotels and lodges but you’ll find a couple of restaurants around the Samson Mall area. Budget-conscious travellers will also find a grocery store here with pre-made sandwiches and other grocery items.

Poutine

Canada’s combination of french fries, gravy and cheese curds sounds simple – but you’ll find that it’s taken very seriously! This popular dish is originally from the province of Quebec but can now be found throughout Canada. It’s easily found as an appetizer or a side dish at most bars, or Banff has a dedicated poutine eatery served with authentic Quebec squeaky cheese curds.

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Elk and Bison

Looking for something unique to try during your visit? Canadian game meat such as elk and bison are popular choices and can be found on charcuterie boards, served as steaks, and even in burgers. 

BeaverTails

Originating in Ontario, this Canadian pastry is famously shaped like a beaver’s tail with an array of sweet toppings to choose from. If you see sidewalk queues in downtown Banff and Jasper, it’s most likely outside of a BeaverTails store.

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Maple Taffy

Is there anything more Canadian than maple taffy made in the snow? Maple syrup is boiled, poured into rows in the snow and then rolled onto sticks to make this chewy, irresistible candy. You’ll find maple candy in most sweet stores year round, or freshly made maple taffy included as part of some winter tours and events.

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Caesar Cocktail

As the story goes, this famous cocktail was created in Calgary by a restaurant manager for a new Italian restaurant. Often compared to a Bloody Mary, the Caesar was created by mashing clams to create a ‘clam nectar’ and to this day claim juice remains an unusual, although key component. It’s now considered Canada’s national cocktail and you’ll be able to try one in pretty much every bar in the Rockies.

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Events

Ice Magic and SnowDays Festival, January

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pc: Banff & Lake Louise Tourism

Located right on the lakeshore of Lake Louise, the annual Ice Magic Ice Carving Competition is a perfectly magical winter experience. Every year in January, watch incredible ice carvings take shape under the precise hands of skilled artists, or simply enjoy the finished sculptures once the winner has been announced. At the same time of year, Banff hosts the SnowDays Festival with larger than life snow sculptures and activities in downtown Banff.

Canada Day, July

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Celebrate the national day of Canada with the locals on July 1. The highlight of Banff’s celebrations is the popular parade right down Banff Avenue, along with family-friendly activities throughout the day.

Jasper Dark Sky Festival, October

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PC: Tourism Jasper

Held in October every year, Canada’s largest celebration of the night sky caters to all levels of astronomy fans. Stargazing, astronomy speakers and outdoor concerts, the Dark Sky Festival is the perfect time of year to appreciate the incredible beauty of Jasper’s Dark Sky Preserve.

Christmas, November and December

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pc: Kelly Macleod

Christmas is a special time in the Canadian Rockies, and celebrations usually start in November! The holiday season kicks off with the Banff Christmas Market and Banff Christmas Parade. The Canada Pacific Railway Holiday Train travels across the country and stops in Banff. Get there early and watch as the brightly decorated holiday train glides into your station, and stick around for a star studded line up of live performances. And if you want to keep celebrating Christmas, Banff even has a year round Christmas store!

Canadian Rockies Packing List

Wear Layers: Dress is casual, and no matter which season you’re visiting in, it’s all about layers. July and August are sunny and warm, but you’ll be surprised how chilly a summer evening becomes as soon as the sun sets, and how quickly the weather can change during any given day. You’ll want to have a sweater and light jacket in summer, and a heavy winter jacket, gloves and warm hat in winter. Hikers and skiers will want to bring additional specific pieces with them including wool base layers and a rain jacket / ski pants and jacket.

And of course, there are many local shops which carry mountain equipment and clothing perfect for the changing conditions.

Footwear: Comfortable, sturdy shoes are a must even if you’re not planning on hiking. Expect to spend a fair bit of time wandering around the main towns and walking to various viewpoints. And of course hikers will want to have a good pair of hiking shoes or boots with them.

Daypack: Having a good, comfortable daypack is necessary if you plan on hiking or any day trips using the shuttles. You’ll want a pack large enough to store water bottles, snacks, extra layers, sunscreen, and other personal items. 

Bathing Suit: Relax in hot springs or soak in a hot tub while snowflakes float down upon you. If you’re a brave soul you might take a dip or dash in a glacier-fed lake.

Lip Balm: The mountain air is dry! Add to that the long sunny summer days or cold winter winds and you’ll be glad you packed some lip balm. 

Sun Protection: An essential item, year round! Don’t let the clouds fool you, the weather constantly changes and you’ll be glad you lathered up before you went out (and that you brought some with you to reapply during the day).

Bear Spray: The Canadian Rockies is home to both black bears and grizzly bears, and although bear encounters are very rare, it is important to be prepared for any animal encounters. Bear spray is available to buy and rent from retail stores in Banff and Jasper. Avoid these encounters by making noise (sing or call out – bear bells do not work) along the trail, hiking in groups and being aware of current trail and seasonal conditions and warnings.

Ear Buds: Bring ear buds to continue listening to the tour while on the Lake Louise and Moraine Lake shuttles.

Plastic Bag: We always carry a plastic bag when we hike, so we can do our part and help keep the trails and waterways clean. If you see some trash along the way, pick it up, drop it in the bag. When you get back to the trailhead, simply drop your bag in the recycling or trash bin and voila! You’ve helped keep the parks beautiful for everyone who visits.

Top Tips for Visiting the Canadian Rockies

  • Buy Your Pass Online: Pre-purchase your National Park Pass online and save time driving through the National Park entrance bypass lane, if open.
  • Gas Up: Fill the tank before you go, there are limited services within the park, outside of the towns.
  • Water and Food: Bring plenty of both. You’re in the mountains so it's good to keep hydrated as there are limited options outside the towns. Bring lunch and snacks that you can enjoy in the many picnic areas.
  • Wear Layers: You could expect hot sun, rain, cold wind, sleet and even snow any month of the year. Conditions can change rapidly, so pack extra layers in case. Plus, if you visit the Athabasca Glacier it's always about 15C (27F) colder on the glacier than at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre.
  • Shuttles: Parking at Moraine Lake and Lake Louise is extremely limited in peak summer months. To guarantee summer access to these lakes, it’s strongly recommended to make a reservation on the Parks Canada shuttles that operate from May to October.
  • Columbia Icefield: You can view the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier in a number of ways, the most popular is the Columbia Icefield Adventure Tour which will take you up onto the glacier on an Ice Explorer, a giant all-terrain vehicle. Pre-book to save lining up, especially during peak summer dates.
  • Plan Ahead for Hiking: Hiking in the Canadian Rockies should be well planned. Please check in at the Visitor Centres for latest trail conditions, closures and suggested trails for your fitness and time limits.
  • Bring Binoculars: Great for wildlife spotting and close up views of glaciers.
  • Pack a DC Charger: Using location services will drain your battery faster so bring a 12V DC charger for keeping your phone charged throughout the day.