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- Strategic, flexible itineraries in the national parks, including a two-week Canadian Rockies road trip
- The best hikes in the Canadian Rockies: Find the right trek for you with details on length, elevation gains, difficulty levels, and trailheads
- Can't-miss outdoor experiences: Hike to incredible vistas and try to spot moose, bighorn sheep, wolves, and black bears. Soak in a natural hot spring after a day on the slopes or wander through meadows of colorful wildflowers. Ride across the Columbia Icefield in an Ice Explorer, float through the sky in a mountain gondola, or white-water raft down rivers of snowmelt. Go horseback riding though the Tonquin Valley or fish for your own fresh dinner and camp under the stars
- Expert insight from Banff local Andrew Hempstead on when to go, where to eat, and where to stay, from campgrounds to luxurious mountain lodges
- Full-color photos, detailed maps of each park, and handy directions, including driving times and mileages, and coverage of gateway towns
- Background information on the landscape, culture, history, wildlife, and environment
- In-depth coverage of Banff National Park, Kootenay National Park, Yoho National Park, Jasper National Park, Waterton Lakes National Park, and nearby cities of Banff, Canmore, Jasper, Calgary, Radium Hot Springs, Golden, and Kananaskis Country
Hitting the road? Try Moon U.S. and Canadian Rockies Road Trip. Focusing on the parks? Check out Moon Best of Glacier, Banff, and Jasper.
About Moon Travel Guides: Moon was founded in 1973 to empower independent, active, and conscious travel. We prioritize local businesses, outdoor recreation, and traveling strategically and sustainably. Moon Travel Guides are written by local, expert authors with great stories to tell—and they can't wait to share their favorite places with you.
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DISCOVER the Canadian Rockies
13 TOP EXPERIENCES
Planning Your Trip
IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR…
AVOID THE CROWDS
IN THE PARKS
Best of the Canadian Rockies
BANFF AND YOHO
TOP 15 HIKES
Rockies Road Trip
KOOTENAY NATIONAL PARK
YOHO NATIONAL PARK
BANFF NATIONAL PARK
JASPER NATIONAL PARK
BEST WILDLIFE VIEWING
Snowcapped peaks, glaciers and ice fields, multihued lakes, rushing rivers, alpine meadows, and abundant wildlife make the Canadian Rockies a destination that is rivaled by few places in the world. Mother Nature dealt a winning hand to the Canadian Rockies, and governments had the foresight to protect most of the land for all time in a string of contiguous parks—each with its own character but combining to create one massive swath of wilderness.
Outstanding recreational opportunities make the Canadian Rockies unique. Hiking tops the list in popularity. Over 3,000 km (1,860 mi) of hiking trails lace the mountains, ranging from wheelchair-accessible boardwalks to backcountry treks. Biking, canoeing, kayaking, white-water rafting, golfing, and fishing also rank high in summertime popularity, while in winter visitors don skis, snowboards, and snowshoes. An abundance of wildlife can be found in the most unexpected places—an elk grazing on a golf course, a bear feasting on dandelions as you ride overhead on a gondola.
The Canadian Rockies’ parks are filled with tourism infrastructure. The opportunity to vacation in a wilderness setting without sacrificing the amenities of a resort destination is unequaled. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the town of Banff. Its main street is lined with boutiques, restaurants, and hotel rooms serving every budget. To the north, the town of Jasper offers a toned-down version of Banff with similar services. Outside of the parks, the city of Calgary is known around the world for the Calgary Stampede, while mountain towns such as Canmore, Bragg Creek, Radium Hot Springs, and Invermere thrive. Throughout the region, campgrounds cater to those who like to sleep under the stars—even if it is in an RV with all the trimmings.
While natural beauty is the main selling point, the growth of towns as tourist resorts makes the Canadian Rockies an ideal destination for all interests and budgets. One visitor may spend the day golfing one of the world’s most scenic courses, taking a gondola to a mountain peak, soaking in a European-style spa, and then dining in a fine French restaurant before retiring to a luxurious suite. Another visitor may strike out early on foot for a remote alpine lake, go white-water rafting in the afternoon, and then return to pitch a tent and grill dinner over a campfire. . . . Two very different experiences of a most singular destination.
13 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Visit Lake Louise: Backdropped by glacier-clad peaks, its famous turquoise waters are the starting point for spectacular hiking trails.
2 See Wildflowers: In Waterton Lakes National Park, Red Rock Parkway takes you through prairieland, a landscape charred by wildfire . . . and meadows of wildflowers.
3 Drive the Icefields Parkway: This scenic highway through Banff and Jasper National Parks will take your breath away.
4 See Wildlife: You will see wildlife, including bighorn sheep, elk, and even wolves—but you’ll need to have some patience.
5 Feel Waterfall Spray: The narrow, winding road through the Yoho Valley follows a raging river to Takakkaw Falls.
6 Drive Over Highwood Pass: The highest road-accessible pass in the Canadian Rockies puts you within easy reach of alpine meadows—where you can spot wildlife such as marmots, pikas, and even grizzlies.
7 Hike or Fly into Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park: Dotted with alpine lakes and laced with hiking trails, access to this park is only on foot or by helicopter.
8 Seek Winter Adventures: Although winter is low season, there’s still plenty to do, including skating, skiing, snowshoeing, and sleigh rides.
9 Head into the Backcountry: Leave the crowds behind and experience true wilderness on a backcountry hike—or stay at a backcountry lodge.
10 Explore the Columbia Icefield: This ancient icefield is surprisingly accessible, with Ice Explorer buses heading out onto a glacier and hikes leading to lofty views.
11 Go Hiking: The entire Canadian Rockies is a destination for hikers. The largest concentration of trails is in Banff, where outings range from short strolls to all-day treks to wildflower meadows.
12 Soak in Radium Hot Springs: These hot springs have been an attraction for hundreds of years, beginning with the Indigenous Kootenay people.
13 Enjoy Lake O’Hara: This magical lake is the centerpiece of a lush alpine landscape featuring dozens of smaller lakes, spectacular peaks, and a network of hiking trails. Reserve ahead to enjoy it.
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
Banff National Park
Banff is the crown jewel in Canada’s national park system and home to the world’s most photographed lakes. Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and the Icefields Parkway are just some of the park’s awe-inspiring highlights. Biking along the shoreline of Lake Minnewanka, exploring Larch Valley when fall colors are at their height, canoeing across Bow Lake, and hiking in to backcountry Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park may not be as well known, but each activity allows a glimpse of the park you won’t see as often on Instagram feeds.
Canmore is the largest population center in the Canadian Rockies, but don’t let that put you off including it in your itinerary. It has transformed itself from a coal-mining town to a hotbed of recreational pursuits. The surrounding mountains are legendary among the climbing fraternity. Hiking trails lead to crystal-clear lakes and mountain peaks. But Canmore should also factor into your vacation plans for more practical purposes, such as the range of excellent restaurants and a choice of comparatively well-priced accommodations.
Pronounced exactly as it reads, this recreational playground lies adjacent to Banff National Park and is handy for Calgarians who flock west to revel in a diverse range of activities or simply to do nothing at all. Along with scenery rivaling that of the national parks, it has top-notch facilities—1,300 km (800 mi) of hiking trails, 30 lakes stocked for fishing, accommodations ranging from tepees to an upscale hotel, and over 2,000 campsites in 31 campgrounds.
Kootenay National Park and Vicinity
Kootenay may not have the famous resort towns of Banff and Jasper, but what it has it does well: vast areas of wilderness, abundant wildlife, and a network of hiking trails that are suited to all levels of fitness. Highway 93 provides access to natural attractions like Marble Canyon and the Paint Pots, as well as phenomena such as Radium Hot Springs, which have been tweaked for human enjoyment. Visitors looking for creature comforts can travel beyond the park to the towns of Radium Hot Springs and Invermere.
Yoho National Park and Vicinity
Thousands of people pass through Yoho, one of the jewels of Canada’s national park system, daily, most traveling along the Trans-Canada Highway on their way to somewhere else. If only they knew what they were missing. Instead of rushing through, detour to Emerald Lake or up the Yoho Valley. Lake O’Hara is not accessible by public road, but this is a good thing. It makes one of the most scenic regions in all of the Canadian Rockies even more special.
Jasper National Park
Beyond a simple sign at Sunwapta Pass is a natural attraction that will leave you breathless—the Columbia Icefield, the largest and most accessible glacier field in the Canadian Rockies. Continuing north, the Icefields Parkway eventually reaches the town of Jasper, a smaller, quieter version of Banff. Take a walk along Maligne Canyon or a boat tour on Maligne Lake, hike the trails below Mount Edith Cavell, and head west to Mount Robson Provincial Park, and you’ll be following in the footsteps of millions before you.
Waterton Lakes National Park
The old cliché that good things come in small packages couldn’t be a truer description of Waterton Lakes National Park, separated only by an international border from Glacier National Park in Montana. The scenery is dramatic, ranging from prairie to glaciated peaks and from bird-rich wetlands to high alpine lakes, including beautiful Crypt Lake. If you’re looking for wildlife, Waterton Lakes will exceed your expectations. Mule deer and bighorn sheep are common within the townsite.
Yahoo! Welcome to Cowtown, gateway to the Canadian Rockies, where in 1875 a North West Mounted Police detachment set up camp and today you’ll find a world center for the oil-and-gas industry, with ultramodern skyscrapers going up faster than any town planner ever imagined. While oil drives the economy, you’ll experience a different type of energy during the second week of July, when the Calgary Stampede transforms the city into party central, western-style.
When to Go
While the Canadian Rockies and Calgary can be visited year-round, there are two influxes of visitors—one in the warmer months and the other in winter.
Summer (late June-mid-Sept.) is definitely high season, especially the school holiday period of July through August and, in Calgary, the second week of July (Calgary Stampede). Simply said, the weather is unbeatable. The season is dominated by long, warm—and sometimes hot—days, everything is open, and there’s plenty to do and see. Crowded parks, higher prices, and difficulty securing reservations are the downside of summer travel.
Spring and Fall
Late spring and early fall are excellent times to visit the Canadian Rockies for two reasons: You’ll avoid the crowds, and you’ll save money.
Spring (mid-Apr.-late June) is notable for long days of sunlight (in late June it stays light until after 10pm) and a sense of optimism for the upcoming warm months.
Fall (mid-Sept.-Nov.) can be delightful, especially September, with lingering warm temperatures and a noticeable decrease in crowds immediately after the long weekend (at the beginning of the month). While fall colors in general lack the intensity of those in the eastern provinces and New England, larch turn a brilliant yellow throughout subalpine areas of Banff and Kananaskis in mid- to late September.
Local ski resorts begin opening for the winter (Dec.-mid-Apr.) in mid-November. The best powder snow conditions are January-February, although for enthusiasts looking for a combination of good snow and warmer weather, March is an excellent time of year to visit.
Before You Go
Passports and Visas
To enter Canada, a passport is required of citizens and permanent residents of the United States. For further information, see the website http://travel.state.gov. For current entry requirements to Canada, check the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website (www.cic.gc.ca).
All other foreign visitors must have a valid passport and may need a visa or visitors permit depending on their country of residence and the vagaries of international politics. At present, visas are not required for citizens of the United States, British Commonwealth, or Western Europe. The standard entry permit is for six months, and you may be asked to show onward tickets or proof of sufficient funds to last you through your intended stay.
Visitors to the Canadian Rockies have the option of arriving by road, rail, or air. The main gateway city for flights from North America and Europe is Calgary, while Vancouver is also a popular starting point. From these two cities, as well as points across Canada, scheduled train and bus services pass through the region year-round.
Driving, whether it be your own vehicle or a rental car, is by far the best way to get around the Canadian Rockies, although most towns are served by bus.
Unless you’re passing directly through, passes are required for entry into all five national parks covered in this guide. Monies collected from these passes go directly to Parks Canada for park maintenance and improvements.
A National Parks Day Pass is adult $10, senior $8.40, children free, up to a maximum of $20 per vehicle. It is interchangeable among parks and is valid until 4pm the day following its purchase.
An annual Discovery Pass, good for entry into all of Canada’s national parks and national historic sites for one year from purchase, is adult $70, senior $60, to a maximum of $140 per vehicle. Discovery Passes can be purchased online at www.parksorders.ca [URL inactive], at park gates (at the entrances to Banff, Kootenay, Jasper, and Waterton Lakes), at the tollbooths at either end of the Icefields Parkway, at all park information centers, and at campground fee stations.
A Kananaskis Conservation Pass is required for entry into Kananaskis Country. These cost $15 per vehicle per day, or $90 for an annual pass. The easiest way to purchase a pass is online (https://conservationpass.alberta.ca), although they are also sold at visitors centers throughout Kananaskis Country.
In the Parks
Each national park has at least one visitors center, as do surrounding communities detailed in this book. There is also an information desk at the Arrivals level of Calgary International Airport. The main park centers are:
• Banff Visitor Centre (224 Banff Ave., 403/762-1550, 8am-8pm daily mid-May-Sept., 9am-5pm daily Oct.-mid-May) is in downtown Banff.
• Kootenay National Park Visitor Centre (7556 Main St. E., Radium Hot Springs, 250/347-9331 or 888/347-9331, 9am-5pm daily May-mid-Oct., until 7pm daily in summer) is perfectly located for northbound travelers entering Kootenay National Park.
• Yoho National Park Visitor Centre (Trans-Canada Hwy., Field, 250/343-6783, 9am-5pm daily May-mid-Oct., until 7pm daily in summer) is in the heart of Yoho National Park.
• Jasper Information Centre (500 Connaught Dr., 780/852-6176, 9am-7pm daily mid-May-early Oct., 9am-5pm daily early Oct.-mid-May) is in a historic building overlooking a park in downtown Jasper.
Where to Stay
The Canadian Rockies offer accommodations to suit all budgets, including campgrounds, hostels, motels, and high-end resorts. Regardless of your budget, it is very important to reserve well ahead for summer travel, especially in Banff, Jasper, and Waterton Lakes.
The easiest way to get around is in your own vehicle or a rental. Vehicles can be rented from all gateway airports, as well as in Banff, Jasper, and Canmore. Banff and Canmore have excellent public transit, with buses linking the two communities as well as reaching popular tourist areas such as the campgrounds on Tunnel Mountain and the gondola base on Sulphur Mountain. Day tours in Banff and Jasper hit all the highlights, and a summer bus service links Banff and Jasper.
Best of the Canadian Rockies
This itinerary combines the best of the best—the best-known natural highlights, the hikes you won’t want to miss, and the most scenic drives. Understand that you will not see all of the Canadian Rockies in one week, but you won’t miss out on anything either. You’ll head home feeling satisfied.
Fly into Calgary, pick up a rental car, and head for the mountains. After reaching Banff and settling into your accommodation, spend the afternoon exploring the town. Stop in at the information center and walk along the Bow River to the Fairmont Banff Springs.
Head to Lake Minnewanka for the morning’s first tour boat departure with Banff Lake Cruise, which will take you to the far reaches of the lake, passing interesting features like Devil’s Gap. After your cruise is complete, drive the short distance to Two Jack Lake. For lunch, try to get the prime picnic location on a forested outcrop jutting into the lake.
Take the Trans-Canada Highway to Castle Junction and loop back down the Bow Valley Parkway to enjoy the short hike up
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