CANADIAN ROCKIES

ADVENTURE TRAVEL

Planning a trip to the Canadian Rockies but don't know where to start? We know that this can be a daunting task! On our first trip, it took us about 50 hours of planning and to decide what we wanted to see, figure out when to go, how to get around, where to stay, and what to pack.

 

This Canadian Rockies adventure travel guide will help you through the planning process with useful links and advice that will save you a whole lot of time! 

Living in BC and having visited the Canadian Rockies a few times, we have gone through this process before. We wish there was a guide like this to assist us! 

OVERVIEW

The Canadian Rocky Mountains are an immense mountain range that extends 1,200 km from the American border over the east of British Columbia and the west of Alberta. The landscape is absolutely breathtaking, calling for unforgettable moments and adventures. Amidst the jaw-dropping scenery, you will find an array of wildlife, charming alpine towns, and magnificent vistas. The mountains are composed of shale and limestone, and largely protected by national and provincial parks.

Watch the video below to get inspired by the beauty of the Canadian Rockies!

Canadian Rockies Quick Facts

  • Snow can fall as late as June in the Rockies (and as late as July at higher mountain altitudes). Lakes sometimes only thaw by the end of June!

  • The tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies is Mt. Robson at 3,954 m (12,972 ft)! This is significantly smaller than the highest peak in Canada though. 

  • The most popular park in the Rockies is Banff National Park, which is the oldest one in Canada

  • The Canadian Rockies used to be under the sea level (millions of years ago, of course!)

  • Wildlife thrives here… with a great variety of animals, such as elk, moose, cougars, grizzly bears, black bears, gray wolves, and coyotes, among others.

 

MUST-SEE DESTINATIONS

Banff National Park

With its Rocky Mountain peaks, brilliant turquoise glacial lakes, abundance of wildlife, a vibrant mountain village, and endless outdoor opportunities, Banff National Park is a world-class destination! It is no wonder that Banff is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This area attracts over three million travellers yearly, and is by far the most tourist-ridden park of Canada! Don’t let this discourage you to visit, because the scenery is something you can’t find anywhere else in the world. 

The most spectacular lakes in Banff include Moraine Lake, Lake Louise, Peyto Lake, Bow Lake, and the Waterfowl lakes. These five lakes have the most vibrant colours of turquoise and electric blue, and are easily accessible by car. Learn how to avoid crowds at the 5 most beautiful lakes in Banff National Park.

Other highlights of Banff National Park include Johnston Canyon, the Banff hot springs, the cozy town of Banff itself, and the scenery along the Icefields Parkway that connects Banff to Jasper. 

Hidden Gem: Viewpoint above Helen Lake & the Cirque Peak

Located in the Bow Valley, this peak can only be reached by hiking a 16.3 km (10.1 mi) trail that winds through the alpine meadows to the summit, where epic views reach far beyond the valley.

Viewpoint along the Helen Lake Trail, Banff National Park

Jasper National Park

Jasper National Park is by far the largest park in the Canadian Rockies, with 11,000 square kilometers of surface. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to even more wildlife than Banff, extensive hiking trails, subalpine forest, beautiful lakes, the cute little town of Jasper, and the immense Columbia Icefield! 

The highlights of Jasper National Park include Maligne lake and canyon, Medicine lake, the Athabasca Falls, Mistaya Canyon, the Sulphur Skyline trail, the Valley of the 5 lakes, Mt. Edith Cavell, and the scenery along the Icefield Parkway

Native wildlife is spotted regularly here, including elk, moose, mountain goats, and black bears (we spotted 3 black bears in 1 day on our way to Maligne Lake!)

Hidden Gem: Mt. Edith Cavell

A little out-of-direction, Mt. Edith Cavell can be reached via Highway 93A south of Jasper. A short trail will bring you very close to Mt. Edith Cavell and the Angel Glacier. The glacial-fed lake is absolutely stunning!

Mt. Edith Cavell, Jasper National Park

Yoho National Park

Yoho National Park lies to the west of the Canadian Rockies, in eastern BC. With its exceptional beauty, the park draws travellers from all around the world. Visit Yoho National Park to see some of the most beautiful waterfalls, and outstanding hiking and sightseeing opportunities. 

From the incredible Wapta Falls to the cascading Takakkaw Falls, or the turquoise mystical Emerald Lake to the breathtaking secret Lake O’Hara. Canada’s nature is at its best in Yoho!

Lake O’Hara is one of the best-kept secrets of the Rockies. The amount of visitors per day are limited by the reservation access for bus and camping. Plan early or hike to the site to experience one of the most breathtaking sceneries of the Canadian Rockies.

View over Lake O'Hara from Opabin Plateau

Mount Robson Provincial Park

Being home to the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, Mount Robson Provincial Park is a must-see destination. Also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, this area is comprised of some of the most remote valleys, awe-inspiring lakes, and mysterious mountain peaks. 

The absolute highlight of the area is undoubtedly Mt. Robson! But there are tons of other natural wonders near, such as Kinney Lake and Berg Lake along the Berg Lake Trail, or Moose Lake and Yellowhead Pass Historic Site along the scenic Highway 16.

As reservations for the 46 km (28.6 mi) Berg Lake Trail are limited, this lake is almost impossible to get to within a day. It is a true hidden gem with incredible backcountry hiking, providing one of the most impressive scenery and lakes. We loved every step of the way!

Berg Lake, Mount Robson Provincial Park

Kananaskis, Wells Gray, Mt. Revelstoke 

As Kananaskis Country, Wells Gray Provincial Park, and Mt. Revelstoke National Park don’t attract as many travellers, we call these the “off-the-beaten path Canadian Rockies”. Extremely popular by locals, these areas are filled with flora and fauna, stunning landscapes, and thrilling outdoor activities.

While Kananaskis Country is known for its ruggedness and wilderness, Wells Grey Provincial Park is home to a wide variety of cascading waterfalls, and Mt. Revelstoke National Park to the enchanting Meadows in the Sky Parkway and colourful wildflowers.  

Hidden Gem: Meadows in the Sky Parkway

Often forgotten by travellers, the 26 km (16.2 mi) Meadows in the Sky Parkway is home to wildflower meadows of Indian paintbrush, heather, arctic lupin, and tons of other flora and fauna. Being accessible by car, this parkway can be easily explored within a day.

Wildflowers along the trail at Meadows in the Sky Parkway

 

TOP OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES

Hiking the best trails

The hiking opportunities in the Canadian Rockies are unlimited. From easy day hikes to challenging multi-day hiking in the alpine region, the Canadian Rockies offer trails for everyone who wants to explore the wild nature filled with waterfalls, meadows, lakes and wildlife.

Best day hikes in the Canadian Rockies

 ​​Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit

Our absolute favourite hike, this 12 km long trail in Yoho National Park is a combination of subalpine forest, wildflower meadows, and epic lakes and mountain vistas. If you are not able to catch the bus to the trailhead (like most people!), you add another 10 km one-way. Alternatively, you can hike to the Opabin Plateau once you arrive at Lake O’Hara. This small peak offers the best view of the lakes below! 

 

​​Iceline Trail

Located near Field in Yoho National Park, the Iceline Trail is also on the list of our all-time favourite hikes. Starting near the impressive Takakkaw Falls, the trail winds through a forest until you reach the treeline. The majority of the hike is above the treeline, offering sublime views of the surrounding valley and alpine landscape. There are different trail options, but the most common day choice is to walk to the highest point on the Iceline Trail, and then turn back, which makes 12.8 km (7.9 mi). 

​​Helen Lake Trail to Cirque Peak

Helen Lake Trail was one of the most surprisingly beautiful trails we hiked on our trip through the Rockies. While the first 5 km uphill is rather boring through a dense forest, the rest of the hike offers incredible views of the subalpine forest. The final climb to Cirque Peak is a scramble, but absolutely worth it! You’ll be rewarded with 360 views of the Bow Valley, Bow Lake, Dolomite Pass, and beyond. Out-and-back, the trail is around 17 km (10.6 mi).

​​Sulphur Skyline Trail

The Sulphur Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park is one of the most spectacular day hikes in the area! A 4 km steep uphill trail (8 km/5 mi total) brings you to the summit where incredible views of the valley and surrounding rocky mountains await. Don’t get confused by the Skyline Trail (just like we did…), which is a different hiking trail in the park! 

Larch Valley Trail

Starting from Moraine Lake, the Larch Valley Trail is a great summer hike! Climbing up 4.3 km (2.67) with 535 m (1,755 ft) elevation gain through the dense forest to the larch meadows is a challenge. However, the wildflowers and views are rewarding! We recommend walking the extra 2.5 km (1.55 mi) to the Sentinel Pass, where you can soak up views of the lakes and scenery below. 

Smutwood Peak

Located in rugged Kananaskis Country, the Smutwood Peak trailhead lies along an old logging road. A strenuous 19 km (11.8 mi) out-and-back hike takes you to what is probably the most impressive peak (Birdwood Mountain) in the Canadian Rockies. With several resident grizzly bears frequenting the area, you should be cautious! 

Iceline Trail, Yoho National Park

Best multi-day hikes in the Canadian Rockies

​​​Berg Lake Trail

The 46 km (28.6 mi) Berg Lake trail is a backcountry hiking trail in Mt. Robson Provincial Park. Passing three biogeoclimatic zones, this hike is home to some of the best and diverse scenery in the Canadian Rockies! From the largest peak in the Rockies, to the milky blue Kinney Lake, impressive Emperor Falls, and the glacial-fed Berg Lake… this hike won’t disappoint! Allow yourself at least 2 days to hike out-and-back to fully enjoy the incredible landscapes. 

​​​Mt. Assiniboine

Also called the “Matterhorn of the Rockies”, Mt. Assiniboine is located deep into the wilderness of Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park. There are a few trailheads leading to this magnificent mountain: Mount Shark Trailhead and the route starting at Sunshine Village are both around 30 km (18.6 mi) one-way, whereas Wonder Pass is shorter (26 km / 16.1 mi one-way) but harder! Allow yourself at least 3-4 days to do the full hike, or combine with a helicopter flight in or out. 

​​​Skyline Trail 

Located in Jasper National Park, the Skyline Trail follows 44 km (27.3 mi) of stunning mountain vistas, green valleys, and breathtaking lakes. Hiking in a one-way route (above the treeline for the most part) is what makes this hike a true spectacle. 2-4 days are required to successfully walk from Maligne Lake trailhead to Signal Mountain, crossing three challenging mountain passes. 

Insider Tip

Download AllTrails to check out the hiking trails! This app covers hundreds of hiking trails in the Canadian Rockies.

Mount Assiniboine in the distance

Road trip through the Canadian Rockies

As the Canadian Rockies are well-connected by roads and highways, a great way to explore is by open road. There are various routes winding through the mountains, from town to town, and to the major tourist attractions.

Icefields Parkway

The most scenic and popular route in the Candian Rockies is undoubtedly the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93). Connecting the towns of Banff to Jasper, this epic stretch of road is awe-inspiring with incredible natural wonders and vistas along the way. 

Being 230 km (140 mi) in length, it is technically possible to do the drive in about 3 hours. In reality, however, the road takes approximately 2 days to drive if you want to truly explore the surroundings and scenery. 

Highlights along the Icefields Parkway include the Valley of the 5 Lakes, the Athabasca Falls, Columbia Icefield, Tangle Creek Falls, Wilcox Pass, Waterfowl Lakes, Mistaya Canyon, Bow Lake and Summit, and Peyto Lake. 

Meadows in the Sky Parkway

Located in Revelstoke National Park, the Meadows in the Sky Parkway is often overlooked. A 26 km (16.2 mi) road takes you up to the 2,223m (7293.3 mi) summit of Mount Revelstoke, with several lookouts along the way offering spectacular views over the town and surrounding peaks. 

Take your time (we took a full day!) and enjoy the stops along the way. The cherry on top is the summit, where you will find a few short and longer loop trails through the meadows filled with colourful wildflowers. If you have some spare time, hike to the teal Eva Lake!

Peyto Lake, Banff National Park

Soak in the hot springs

There is nothing more relaxing than soaking in the hot spring after a strenuous hike or outing in the mountains. The Canadian Rockies is home to a collection of hot springs, from resort-style to more natural ones. Whichever you choose, they all provide a place of solitude, peace and healing. 

The more popular (but also touristic) ones include the Banff Upper Hot Springs in Banff, the Miette Hot Springs in Jasper, or the Radium Hot Springs in Kootenay National Park. If you are searching for a more natural look of the pools to soak in, go to the Halfway River Hot Springs near Revelstoke instead. 

 

We visited both the Miette Hot Springs in Jasper and the Banff Upper hot springs in Banff. Our top personal preference goes to the Banff hot springs as it was less crowded, smaller and thus cozier, and had less families and kids around.

For a complete guide on the hot springs of the Canadian Rockies, click here

View the abundance of wildlife 

What makes the Canadian Rockies truly exciting is the abundance of wildlife that lives here! Being home to elk, bighorn sheep, grizzly and black bears, mountain goats, coyotes, wolves, deer, moose, marmots, and tons of different birds, this wilderness area offers excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing. 

The magic of the Canadian Rockies is that you never know when you will encounter wildlife… it could be during a hike in the mountains, a scenic drive along the highway, or even in the middle of a small town! 

Insider Tip

Look for wildlife in the early morning, late afternoon, or a few hours before sunset. These times are the active feeding hours for many animals (including bears!).

Grizzly bears

 

WHEN TO GO

The best times to travel to the Canadian Rockies

As every season is distinctly different in the Canadian Rockies, each one brings different activities and events. So the best time to go totally depends on what activities interest you and what experience you are looking for.

The Hiking & Camping Season

Are you visiting the Canadian Rockies to explore the scenery and to go hiking and camping? Then visit the Canadian Rockies from mid-June to the end of September. During this time, there is the least chance of snow in the mountains, allowing to hike to higher altitudes and see the magnificent colourful lakes! All the roads are usually open and snow-free, making it easier to drive to trailheads or nature attractions at higher elevations as well! It is also a great time to spot wildlife (bears are out of hibernation!).

Unfortunately, this season is very short, meaning that it is also the busiest time to visit! Expect tourist crowds at the main attractions (e.g. Lake Louise) as well as a steep increase in the price of accommodation. BOOK AT LEAST 3 MONTHS IN ADVANCE when you are travelling this time of the year as accommodation options sell out quickly! 

The weather during this period is mild with temperatures as low as 5°C at night to as high as 25°C during the day. Rain can fall at any time of the day (and the weather can change quickly!), so be prepared!

This is also our personal favourite season, as everything is so accessible and nature is at its finest! Get yourself prepared with our full Camping in Canada Packing List!

The Winter activities Season

Are you a winter sports enthusiast? From December to mid-April, it is time to hit the ski slopes! This is the period when snow conditions and temperatures for winter activities are at their best. Besides skiing and snowboarding, there are also plenty of opportunities to go snowshoeing, ice skating, ice climbing, and dog sledding. All lakes are frozen and the roads may become inaccessible (some roads to iconic highlights close during this time!).

The Transitional Season

From October to the end of November and mid-April to mid-June there is a time of transition from winter activities to summer activities and vice versa. However, this time is also when the most variety of animals can be seen.

 

From mid-April to mid-June most of the lakes are still (partly) frozen, some roads might still be closed, and you can still expect some snowfall. Therefore, it is a risk when planning to visit during this time. Besides, when the glacier-fed lakes first thaw they don’t have much colour yet. They only get their turquoise blue or green colour when the silts enter the lakes from the melting glacial water. 

 

Around mid-October, the hiking trails start closing and the lakes start freezing again. 

Look at the chart below for monthly average temperatures in Banff.

 

GETTING AROUND

The easiest way to get around the Canadian Rockies is by driving your own (or rented) vehicle. Public transportation options are limited and infrequent. Most buses connect the towns and cities, such as Calgary, Banff, and Jasper. However, they don’t run buses to the attractions and trailheads. As such, we wouldn’t recommend getting around by public transportation.

We drove once a rental car and once our own car through the Canadian Rockies, giving us the ultimate freedom to do whatever and go wherever we wanted. We had packed our tent and camping gear in the back of our car, so we had a true outdoors experience and didn’t have to spend money on expensive accommodation. 

Car Rentals

A popular way to get around is to rent a car in the Canadian Rockies. We would recommend this if you are planning on camping in the outdoors or staying in a hotel or hostel. You can rent a car from any of the major airports (Calgary, Edmonton) or the mountain towns (Banff, Jasper, Canmore). World-wide providers such as National and Enterprise have their car rental agency in these cities. 

To get the best deal, search on rentalcars.com. Our recommendation is to book early and get a vehicle suitable for some dirt roads (preferably a 4WD)! Expect to pay at least C$500 per week for the car rental (including insurance). Additional fees apply when the pick-up and drop-off location differ.

RV & Camper Van Rentals

Another popular way to conquer the Canadian Rockies is by RV or camper van!

 

The main reasons why we would prefer renting an RV instead of a car with tent: 

  • You can sleep in an actual bed, heaven!

  • The Canadian Rockies can get wet and cold… especially at night! We actually got wet in our tent because it was raining so hard. 

  • You are better protected against wildlife (there was a wolf on our campsite that attacked a family in a nearby tent)

  • It is comfortable and convenient (you have a shower which is not always the case on a campsite)

 

If you are looking for cheap RV and camper van rentals, we recommend checking car rental marketplaces like Outdoorsy or RVezy. As these websites are basically “AirBnB versions of the RV rental industry”, they do charge reasonable prices. 

 

If you would rather rent the vehicle from a trusted RV rental company, then check out Wicked Campers for cheap and artsy options from Calgary or Vancouver, Motorhome Republic for a great variety of vehicles to choose from, or CanaDream for the popular and iconic RV rental! RV rentals range in price but you can definitely expect to pay at least C$1,500 per week (including insurance).

 

PLACES TO STAY

The Canadian Rockies have a wide variety of accommodation options: from five-star resorts, to cozy AirBnB’s, budget hostels, and campsites in the wild. When travelling during the summer season, it is key to book your accommodation months in advance (even for campsites!).

Camping in the Canadian Rockies

Booking campsites can be a complicated process in the Canadian Rockies. There is not one single website or system aggregating the various campsites that exist as each different park uses a different system:

The campsites usually cost between $15-$30 depending on if you are front country camping, doing backcountry, or taking the first-come-first-serve options. When we were in the Canadian Rockies in the summer of 2019, we did not book many campsites in advance as most of them were full. Instead, we went for the first-come, first-serve options and tested our luck!

 

If you don’t want to take that risk, we advise to BOOK IN ADVANCE. National Parks reservations open as early as in January each year. For Provincial parks in Alberta and BC, you can generally make a reservation 4 months in advance for your desired campground.

To learn more about Camping in Canada, read here

Budget accommodation  

Accommodation within the borders of the National Parks (e.g. in the towns of Jasper and Banff) are expensive, so consider staying in the surrounding areas or cities. Stay in Calgary, Cochrane or Canmore when you are visiting Banff National Park, or Hinton, Blue River or Valemount when visiting Jasper National Park or Mt. Robson Provincial Park. Check out airbnb.com or booking.com to find the best deals. 

We stayed at budget AirBnB’s (great value for money!) in Hinton, Cochrane, and Calgary. This was a great decision as we camped for most of the time and were in desperate need of a comfy bed and shower!

Campground to the left of the Waterfowl Lakes

 

ADVENTURE GEAR AND PACKING LIST

Preparing for a trip to the Canadian Rockies is like planning for all seasons. You never know what you will get and every day is totally different. This means that you will need to prepare yourself for both sunny, cloudy, and rainy days. Even when it is warm during the day, the evenings and nights cool off! Make sure to bring a few warm sweaters, a scarf, thermal underwear and a rain jacket! If you are visiting during the winter activities or transitional season, make sure to bring a full winter wardrobe

If you are going to camp, you should also make sure to bring a waterproof tent, warm sleeping bag, comfortable sleeping pads, a camping stove, a cooler, and insect repellent. We also recommend bringing a sturdy water bottle with a purifier, especially when you are planning on hiking. There is often no water on the campsites or along the trail, which means you’ll have to get water from the river. Water purifiers or water tablets take the bacteria out of the water, eliminating the chance to get “beaver fever”. 

Even if you are not planning on hiking, do dress properly as many sights and attractions can only be reached by walking a short (muddy) trail. Bring hiking boots or sport shoes and comfortable pants or leggings.

While a bear is unlikely to attack, there are numerous grizzly bears and black bears in the Canadian Rockies. As there is a high chance that you will encounter one during your visit, we recommend bringing bear spray. Bear Spray is more effective than the bear bells you often see. Bear spray is considered a “weapon” and largely reduces the risk of injury or death in the case of an attack. Make sure you know how to use it! 

Galatea Lake - Rainy and sunny at the same time! 

Insider Tip

The Canadian Rockies are extremely photogenic, so don't forget to bring your camera! We use a Canon EOSGoPro 7 black and the perfect travel-size drone DJI Spark to film our adventures and compile the materials into an amazing travel video! For a full review of the top 7 best travel drones in 2019, CLICK HERE

 

SUGGESTED ITINERARIES

If you have 1 week in the Canadian Rockies

  • 3 days in Banff and Lake Louise

  • 2 days driving the Icefields Parkway

  • 2 days in Jasper National Park

If you have 2 weeks in the Canadian Rockies, add

  • 3 days in Yoho National Park 

  • 3 days in Mount Robson Provincial Park (Berg Lake Trail)

If you have 3 weeks, add

  • 2 days chasing waterfalls in Wells Gray Provincial Park

  • 2 days in Mt. Revelstoke & Glacier National Park

  • 3 days hiking in Kananaskis Country

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