Driving to the Canadian Rockies is possible from anywhere in North America but is most convenient if you live in western Canada or the Pacific Northwest. Driving saves money on transportation costs and allows you to bring along camping equipment and sporting gear such as mountain bikes and canoes.
Driver’s licenses from all countries are valid in Canada for up to three months. You should also obtain a one-year International Driving Permit before leaving home (U.S.-licensed drivers do not require an IDP to drive in Canada) if your license is in a language other than English. Inexpensive and available from most motoring organizations, an IDP allows you to drive in Canada (in conjunction with your regular license), without taking a test, for up to three months. You should also carry vehicle registration papers or rental contracts. Proof of insurance must also be carried, and you must wear seat belts. All highway signs in Canada give distances in kilometers and speeds in kilometers per hour (kph). The speed limit on most major highways is 100 kph (62 mph).
If entering Canada from the United States in your own vehicle, check that your insurance covers travel in Canada. U.S. motorists are advised to obtain a Canadian Non-resident Inter-provincial Motor Vehicle Liability Insurance Card, available through U.S. insurance companies, which is accepted as evidence of financial responsibility in Canada.
When renting a vehicle in Canada, you have the option of purchasing a Loss Damage Waiver, along with other types of insurance, such as for your personal effects. Before leaving home, find out if you’re already covered. Many people are—through gold credit cards, higher levels of motoring association membership, or home insurance (in the case of personal effects)—and additional coverage may be unnecessary.
Routes in Canada
The TransCanada Highway (Highway 1) stretches from one end of Canada to the other and is the world’s longest national highway (7,821 km/4,860 miles from end to end). It passes through the Canadian Rockies towns of Canmore, Banff, and Golden. The first major city east of the mountains is Calgary, 128 kilometers (80 miles) from Banff along the TransCanada. The northern route across western Canada is the Yellowhead Highway, which passes through the town of Jasper, in Jasper National Park, 364 kilometers (226 miles) east of Edmonton.
From Vancouver, on the west coast of British Columbia and the major air gateway from Asia, it’s 836 kilometers (519 miles) west to Banff along the TransCanada Highway and 781 kilometers (486 miles) northwest to Jasper along Highway 5. The TransCanada and Yellowhead Highways are linked within the Canadian Rockies by the Icefields Parkway, which runs parallel to the Continental Divide between Lake Louise and Jasper, a distance of 230 kilometers (143 miles).
Routes from the United States
Reaching the Canadian Rockies from the United States is possible via a number of routes. From Seattle, the shortest approach is to follow I-5 north to Vancouver and jump on the TransCanada Highway. If you’re traveling north from the Rocky Mountain states, Highway 93 will provide a warm-up for the mountain scenery north of the border. This route crosses into Canada north of Kalispell, merging with Highway 95 from Spokane, Washington, at Cranbrook, then continuing up the west side of the Canadian Rockies to Radium Hot Springs, where you can cut through Kootenay National Park to Banff.
Much quicker is I-15, which begins in Los Angeles, looping through Las Vegas and Salt Lake City on its way north to Montana. I-15 enters Canada at the 24-hour Coutts/Sweetgrass border crossing south of Lethbridge, Alberta. From Lethbridge, it’s a three-hour drive to Banff, or you can choose to head west to Waterton Lakes National Park. Total distance from Los Angeles to Banff via I-15 is 2,600 kilometers (1,617 miles). From the Midwest and eastern states, there are innumerable options, including I-94 through Minneapolis or crossing into Canada east of the Great Lakes and driving the entire way within Canada.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition