The mass of natural parklands, wild animals, soaring mountains and fresh air (not to mention busloads of tourists from all over the place) that make up the Canadian Rockies can be overwhelming for a vacationer to plan for.
Let me (try to) be of some assistance…
My girlfriend and I have gotten good at planning “birthday festivals” for each other, each using a week’s vacation (if possible) to head out to a location that we’ve desired to visit for awhile. Last March (for my 32nd) it was a week spent in Antigua. The kicker was the three days we spent in Montserrat, a place I really had wanted to visit for quite awhile.
For her July birthday (and after some last month re-planning) we decided to visit Banff, a part of Canada she’d been obsessed with since she was a girl (ever since her Aunt visited and bought a t-shirt back for her). I’d been to Banff once before as my family often drove up into Alberta every so often when we lived in Montana. However, I’d only been to the town of Banff and Lake Louise, so my experience was rather limiting.
So it was to my great surprise that there is more to Banff than Banff. While I knew of Jasper, a more northerly, perhaps even more stunning park, I apparently had no idea that the Yoho and Kootenay National Parks sat right across the British Columbia border. While I had heard of those two in name, I admittedly did not know it was all bunched together. Four parks in one area? You gotta be kidding me! My brain could barely handle the logistics of spreading activities over two parks, let alone four.
Not only that, but there are two more Canadian national parks a bit further out from Yoho. Canada’s version of Glacier National Park is about an hour-and-a-half drive. Mount Revelstoke National Park is attainable soon after exiting Glacier and driving further west.
Not only that, but our route was bringing up through Saskatchewan and Grasslands National Park, then bringing us down through Waterton Lakes National Park on the Alberta-Montana border (a park I’d visited far more extensively as a child). Want more? How about toss in a stop at the scenic lookout at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and a finale at Yellowstone National Park for a possibility of visiting ten full-fledged, warm-blooded, totally legit North American national parks in a mere nine days.
Let me cut the fat out right now. We ended up making at least a stop at nine of these parks. Mount Revelstoke was left out after we drove all the way from Yoho to Glacier to find there wasn’t much to do for someone with a mere hour left on a day pass (day passes end at 4 p.m. the next day, so we were on the “next day” and trying to save on our permit fees). We had boots-on-the-ground stops at Teddy Roosevelt and Grasslands. We saved a fuller effort for the other six aforementioned parks and finished with nine parks in nine days…not bad!
Anyway, let me guide you through the how-to’s to how we shaped our itinerary of the Canadian Rockies parks….
BANFF NATIONAL PARK
Banff is the tourist hotbed and likely your first destination (and should be your first if you are planning to hit up all four parks in the area, I don’t recommend basing oneself in Jasper unless you want to drive the full Icefields Parkway multiple times during your trip). Since you’ll likely be worn out by the drive over (unless you flew into Calgary), I’d go slow and hit up the Johnston Canyon trails for some impressive gorges and waterfall views. After that you’ll naturally wind up at Lake Louise where you can decide on whether to take in the hugely popular Moraine Lake or park near the Chateau Lake Louise and take in the eponymous lake and it’s glacial surroundings (the famous glacier has lost most of its bulk in the past few years).
A lot of Banff National Park exists on the Icefields Parkway to Jasper (many assume the Icefields is entirely in Jasper – it’s not). There are plenty of nice lakes (Peyto Lake comes to mind) to see on the Banff side of the Icefields and can be done on a (long) day trip to Jasper or can be added to a full day Banff itinerary (but keep in mind you’ll be driving past these same things en route to Jasper on another day)
BEST OF BANFF: Bow Lake and Peyto Lake were beautiful, if crowded. Lake Louise is always charming, but is also packed with tourists. We visited Moraine Lake on a cloudy and rainy day, so I can’t give it my best review.
AVOID: You have to see the major Banff locales at least once to appreciate this tourist epicenter of the Canadian Rockies. While I wouldn’t say there is anything to avoid, I wouldn’t spend too much time within the confines of Banff.
WHERE TO DITCH THE TOURISTS: The hike to the tea house on Lake Louise is popular. It’s a quirky hike with some good views, but is mostly for the novelty of getting to an eatery up top. There will be plenty of people on this route but none of the busload types you see down by the lake. It’s also worth checking out a restaurant on Bear Street when in the town of Banff. The street is one block removed from the main drag and easy (and free) 3-hour parking can be found on Bow Avenue. Bear Street Tavern has some incredible pizza!
JASPER NATIONAL PARK
Jasper is the more northerly and, in many circles, better regarded park of the two Alberta portions of the Rockies. It is certainly epic, with its rocky, jagged peaks and stunning flora and fauna, not to mention snow caps and glaciers everywhere.
Jasper from Banff doesn’t seem to be a recommended day trip (I tried searching for recommended itineraries online and really couldn’t find anything). One thing is, your drive is going to be long, and the drive itself is so beautiful, why rush? But a day trip can be done and it can be done fairly reasonably.
For one, leave early (at least be on the road by 7:30 a.m. at the latest). You’ll probably be stopping by the aforementioned Bow and Peyto lakes while your on the Icefields. You officially enter Jasper at the Columbia Icefield and this massive glacier is at least worth a stop to take a few photos and enter the visitor’s center (you can even get tours on the glacier itself, but we decided this felt too gimmicky for the value). Two nice waterfalls are further down the Icefields, and both the Sunwapta and Athabasca falls are worth a stop and a walk around. You’ll get one of your best looks at a glacier at the very nice Mount Edith Cavell which is situated on it’s own exclusive road right outside of the town of Jasper.
BEST OF JASPER: Arguably the drive itself, it is truly impressive! The glacier at Mount Edith Cavell was a beast and we even heard a huge rumble and saw a piece break off.
AVOID: We didn’t do the Columbia Icefield tour, there are just way too many tourists and it would have hampered our day trip plans considerably.
WHERE TO DITCH THE TOURISTS: Jasper is slightly more reasonable when it comes to dealing with crowds and parking – we never had much trouble, even though it was one of the busiest weeks of the summer. The road to Mount Edith Cavell is impossible for buses to traverse (but perfectly fine for anything else) so it’s not a mob scene out there.
YOHO NATIONAL PARK
Yoho was our first foray into the British Columbia side and it was an impressive surprise! Yoho packs a great one-two punch of the epic Takakkaw Falls and the gorgeous Emerald Lake. Takakkaw is the third-highest waterfall in all of Canada, and arguably packs a more powerful punch than the two ahead of it. Emerald Lake is easily as pristine in its bluish-green hues as its Banff counterparts, and is slightly less crowded with great trails that circumvent the lake.
We unfortunately cut our Yoho experience short, opting to do a half-day so we could drive out to Glacier National Park. Without researching Glacier much beforehand, I assumed there would at least be a trail or lake to see for the casual tourist. Outside of a visitor’s center that focused mostly on train travel through the Roger’s Pass, there was nothing much to stop and see other than more soaring mountains surrounding the road.
Looking back, we felt that Yoho really deserves a full day and is a true hidden gem and, perhaps, better alternative than Banff.
BEST OF YOHO: Both Takakkaw and Emerald Lake may be the best examples of a waterfall and a lake (at least of the most accessible ones) in the entire four-park area. We wish we had stayed longer, especially at Emerald.
AVOID: The temptation of driving further and leaving Yoho. Yes, there are two more national parks west of Yoho, but you’ll be driving too much to accomplish anything on a day trip to those parks.
WHERE TO DITCH THE TOURISTS: Emerald Lake and Takakkaw get plenty of tourists, but it didn’t seem overwhelming, and nobody is really overcrowding the walking paths and trails. Of course, if you want to avoid tourists, drive to Glacier if you must (there were very few people at the visitor’s center there).
KOOTENAY NATIONAL PARK
I didn’t expect much from Kootenay, the second park on the British Columbia side. I was pleasantly surprised when we decided to visit on an unseasonably cold July day (the same day as my girlfriend’s birthday). A cloudy, rainy drive through Banff turned into a sunny, cool stopover at Marble Canyon in Kootenay (after a quick look at the continental divide sign that celebrates the border between two parks and provinces).
Marble Canyon is awesome! It’s basically a gorge that gets deeper and deeper as you walk towards a waterfall. The Kootenai River continues to cut into the rocks here with an unbelievable force and its pretty awesome to see. Well worth the stopover! Numa Falls is a very quick and easy stop if you’re in the area as well.
The Floe Lake trail is highly recommended by many who do it, but keep in mind that it is a sunrise-to-sundown adventure and (from what I’ve heard) is a manageable, but grown-over footpath (meaning it might be hard to see the trail sometimes). Floe Lake looks incredible from photos though, and I wish we had better weather and more time to try it.
BEST OF KOOTENAY: Marble Canyon is a can’t miss if you’re in Banff already. Floe Lake could be considered one of the best options for a good, long hike in all of the Canadian Rockies.
AVOID: Most of Kootenay’s major highlights (including the Paint Pots, which were closed off and only accessible via a longer hike from Marble Canyon) are not far from the Alberta border. It may not be worth driving all the way through to the Radium headquarters if you are pairing Kootenay with other things to do in Banff.
WHERE TO DITCH THE TOURISTS: Tourists didn’t seem to be much of a problem at Kootenay. I don’t think much of the mainstream tour itineraries include the park (especially outside of Marble Canyon) in their offerings.
Depending on your road trippin’ route, you may have a chance to add stopovers at other Canadian parks (if not U.S. parks) along the way. There are a few within decent driving distance. Here was our experience…
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK: The Canadian version of this park is actually further removed from Glacier Park in the U.S., which is twinned with Waterton Lakes in Canada instead. I recommended Glacier for those in the Revelstoke or Golden, B.C. areas with more time to dedicate exclusively to the park.
MOUNT REVELSTOKE NATIONAL PARK: Probably the least known park of the Canadian Rockies “Big 7”, Mount Revelstoke lies just a little past Glacier. Again, this is probably best to take in if you are in that area already or maybe have a full extra day to kill from Banff and don’t mind a lot more driving.
WATERTON LAKES NATIONAL PARK: Not really doable as a day trip from Banff, unless you account for seven hours of driving for your day (in the long summer days, this could maybe be feasible for some). It’s a gorgeous park with perhaps the most charming hotel of them all (the Prince of Wales overlooking Waterton Lake and, in the distance, Glacier National Park in Montana). Out of all these listed, this one is the most worthy of any major effort to go see it.
GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK: This little oddity in southwestern Saskatchewan is a patchwork of formerly private pastures that are being sold back to the government to integrate into a protected national park. It definitely stands in stark contrast to what you’ll see in the Canadian Rockies, but it is kind of interesting to feel like you’re in the middle-of-nowhere.
ELK ISLAND NATIONAL PARK: This one is near Edmonton and may make for a much easier side-trip from Jasper than from Banff. We didn’t fit this one in, but I hear there is plenty of wildlife (that being, of course, elk, and plenty of bison as well).
HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR PARKS CANADA DAY PASS
You can visit all the parks in the Banff/Jasper area on one day pass. That means the pass you pick up in Banff can be used in Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay. Even better? It can also be used in any of the “other parks” I listed here too (sans Grasslands, which is well removed and free anyway).
Passes are somewhere between $9-10 per person/per day (depending exactly on which park you buy them from). So, using approximation, we cost $20 per day being a pair. We visited the parks on five different days, but only paid $60. How’d we do this, you ask? Well…
Each pass is good until 4 p.m. the next day. You are allowed to freely be on Canada’s Highway 1 (not anything else, including the Icefields Parkway), which passes through the park, but anything else needs a pass. That means you can do all the touring around the parks that you want, but at 4 p.m. on the day of pass expiration, you better be on the main highway or outside the park entirely or you can face some trouble.
That means, with some strategy, you can plan for a second day on your one day pass to include some Highway 1 driving starting at 4 p.m. This is best if you are planning a second day of Yoho or Kootenay activities only (and are staying outside of the parks like we did in Canmore – if you stay in Banff, you need multiple passes). We happened to make it all the way out to Glacier on our 4 p.m. day, and made it back to Canmore at around 6:30 p.m. It saved us $20.
We did that strategy again for our final day, since we planned to hit up Waterton Lakes on the drive back to the States. We arrived in Waterton at 11:30 a.m. on the second day of a one-day pass. The guy stationed at the entrance let us know we had until 4:00 p.m. Well, we were out by 1 p.m. anyway, so that was no problem. Five days of Canadian Rockies parks and only $60 instead of $100 spent. That extra $40 essentially went towards a nice meal at Banff’s fantastic Bear Street Tavern.
If you have a much larger group, you may find that the annual parks pass works better for you. A family/group pass runs for around $140, which pays off for a group of four on the fourth day. These can be ordered online.