The Canadian Rockies
It doesn't get much better.
The Canadian Rockies are some of the prettiest and most impressive mountains on the planet. Canada did a magnificent job of protecting them with four major National Parks and dozens of Provincial Parks and smaller National Parks throughout the various mountain ranges that make up the Canadian Rockies.
You could easily spend an entire summer exploring them, something we fully intend to do within the next few years, but if you just want to experience some of the highlights over a week or two, read on.
Logistics & Timing
You do generally need a car to get the most out of the Rockies. The easiest approach is to fly into Calgary and rent a car there. Better yet, take the train from Vancouver or from somewhere in Eastern Canada. The train stops right in Lake Louise and Banff. Very romantic if you plan to just focus on these areas and use the excellent shuttle system to get around.
Every season is a joy, including winter if you want to experience snow sports there. Summer offers the warmest weather but also the biggest crowds and frequently smoke from forest fires.
If this is your one and only trip there, try to give yourself at least a week and preferably two, especially if you are a hiker.
Crowds are the number one complaint of people visiting this astonishing natural wonder, and they can be a bit absurd in the most popular locations. But escaping them is just a matter of planning, knowledge, and setting your alarm.
Use the tips below to avoid the worst of it. You've been warned.
Banff National Park
Banff National Park encompasses 2564 square miles full of ski resorts, mountains, rivers and wilderness along with the cute (busy) town of Banff itself.
It's the ideal place to begin your journey as it's the first park you will come to driving West on Highway 1 from Calgary.
The town offers a variety of lodging, dining and shopping options. The main street of Banff is closed to traffic and makes for a lovely stroll even in the height of tourist season.
An easy walk or bus ride away (just across the beautiful Bow River from downtown) is the Fairmont Banff Springs. This is one of the grand hotels built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad at the dawn of the railroad era to draw tourists from the East to the magnificence of the West. If you can't afford to actually stay there, at least go and have dinner, a drink or just a look around.
Insider Tip: Banff is pricey. For cheap drinks go to the Canadian Royal Legion at the end of Banff Avenue next to the river. Cheap drinks and tasty food on a budget can be had at the Old Spaghetti Factory.
Fairmont Banff Springs
Certainly one of if not the most famous lakes in the world. The incredible turquoise color of the water set against soaring mountains and glaciers makes it one of the most photographed spots on the planet.
Lake Louise is in Banff National Park and an easy 20-minute drive from the town of Banff. However, that's where easy ends. Lots of photographs means lots of photographers. In 2023, the park had to do what many other parks around the continent have done and implement a shuttle bus system.
Shuttle buses help manage crowds and traffic jams, but they are the enemy of those who didn't plan their trip six months before. Getting a last minute trip up to Lake Louise from the visitor center is tough. You can hike it instead as it's about a 2km uphill, uninspiring hike. A better strategy is to save your legs for the hikes you want to do from the lake and drive up there at 6AM and snag one of the parking spots that will filled by 7. $21C in 2023 (and worth it). Arriving by 6AM has the added benefit of there only being a small crush of people clamoring to get their photo taking flashing the thumbs up sign in front of the lake as opposed to the mob scene that will be there the rest of the day. Better still, when you take off on your hike, you will be the only one on the trail, for a time.
Harder than Lake Louise logistics even is Moraine Lake. This is another Instagram casualty. No cars are allowed period. Shuttles only and it's too far to walk it for most (15.6km, also uphill). Rent an e-bike for this one if you can. Or book your shuttle the second they become available (dates vary but it's typically March or April at Parks Canada's website).
Finally, there are some private shuttles that for a hefty surcharge ($99 for the sunrise shuttle to Moraine Lake) will get you up to both places.
Peyto Lake, Icefields Parkway
Jasper National Park
Like Banff, Jasper is both town and park. The park is massive (4200 square miles) and is not (quite) as crazy with tourists as Banff.
Technically in both parks, but connecting Banff to Jasper is Highway 93, 227km of mountain road paralleling the Continental Divide. It is one of the most scenic drives on the planet. There are countless peaks, lakes, hikes and glaciers to explore along the way.
Yoho National Park
A mere twenty minutes west on Highway 1 from Lake Louise is the Continental Divide, British Columbia, and Yoho National Park. It's smaller than its more famous cousins, but shouldn't be missed.
Because it is so close, you can day trip it fairly easily from Banff or Lake Louise, though we chose to stay in Kicking Horse Campground in the park to be even closer to the wonders there. Parts of Yoho can be very crowded (Emerald and O'Hara Lakes in particular) but it still feels like you've left the crowds behind in comparison to Banff.
Takkakaw Falls (1224 feet)
Where to Sleep
This is only out of necessity since you will want to devote as much of the day as possible to exploring. However, when darkness falls and you need to be horizontal there are some options.
Hotels & Lodges - They are concentrated in Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper, however there are very cool ones tucked into some more out of the way settings too, like Emerald Lake in Yoho. They range in price and luxury and I'll leave you to the usual websites to find what's best for you. But if like us, they don't quite fit your budget then consider...
Hostels - There are excellent ones in both Banff and Lake Louise. They are clean, funky, have kitchens, bars and cafes, and most significantly if you are no longer 22 years old – private rooms. Lori and I were able to get our own, spartan rooms which means now awkward conversations from the guy from Dusseldorf, unless you want to hang with him in the bar.
Camping - This is how we roll nowadays, which for those of you with enough time to drive out there is a great option. Best
Banff: Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court - great location with easy shuttle buses (or 2 mile hike) to town. Full hookups. A rarity in National Parks.
Yoho: Kicking Horse - No hookups, but awesome location with views of Cathedral Mountain.
Jasper: Several to chose from along the Icefields Parkway and in town. We have not tried them yet. Next time.
Groceries: There is an IGA in Banff and a smaller grocery store next to the Lake Louise Visitor Center. They are expensive. If you are in Yoho, the closest option in Lake Louise back up the pass. But the small town of Field, BC while having no groceries has two very serviceable restaurants. At the Truffled Pig, you can even do your laundry downstairs while enjoying an ice cream cone. Jasper also has a grocery store.
There are a lifetime's worth of options, but here are some of our very favorites. As with all hikes, do it early early before everyone else is up and out, or around dinner hour to avoid crowds and heat.
Banff National Park
Tunnel Mountain Campground to Banff along the Bow River. Just a nice way to get to town and lovely views of the river, Rundle Mountain and the Banff Springs Hotel.
Plain of the Six Glaciers Lake Agnes Loop - This is a classic. Start out at 6AM. Have Tea at the Six Glaciers Tea House when it opens at 9. Then hike the switchbacks up to the beehive and down to Lake Agnes before returning to Lake Louise.
Yoho National Park
Iceline Loop - Another classic circuit. Start by Tannanakka Falls lot and hike up to the Iceline Trail, then connect to Laughing Falls Trail before returning.
Emerald Basin & Emerald Lake Loop
Wapta Falls - A flat easy out and back to the Kicking Horse River and a mini Niagra type cascade.
Jasper National Park
Maligne Canyon - Any easy hike with great canyon views
Edith Cavell Meadows - Requires a permit but is fairly astonishing
Beauty Creek - A hidden gem along the Icefields Parkway