The Rocky Mountains in Canada stretches over 1600 kms and are located at the border of British Columbia and Alberta the two western provinces of Canada. Along its vast stretch lies the Banff National Park – Canada’s first national park and further up in the north is the Jasper National Park – Canada’s largest national park. Both the parks are part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 230 Km long Icefield Parkway – rated as one of the most scenic drives in the world connects the two parks.
Millions of people visit Banff year-round for hiking, biking, skiing, camping and to see its turquoise lakes, magnificent mountain peaks and the picturesque towns and villages. The hub of all the activities is the resort town of Banff. This picturesque small town is located within the Banff National Park and is about 140 kms from Calgary Airport and for many this is the starting point of their Canadian Rockies adventure.
The skyline of the town is dominated by the peaks of Mt. Rundle and Mt. Cascade. The main throughfare – the Banff Avenue is dotted with chateau styled hotels, restaurants, boutiques, and souvenir shops. There is a fee for every visitor to the Banff National Park and you can pick-up your ticket or a pass along brochures, guides and maps from the Visitor Centre located at the Banff Town or at Lake Louse . The most popular activity is to take a cable car ride with the Banff Gondola to the summit of the Sulphur Mountain. Once at the summit you will be surrounded by some of the most breath-taking mountain scenery.
At the peak there is a 3-tier deck offering spectacular panoramic views of the mountain ranges. A stroll in the boardwalk (Vista Trail – Banff Skywalk) leads to the weather observatory which is a National Historic Site on the Sanson’s Peak for stunning views of the town and the valley. One can also hike the South East Ridge Trail to reach the Sulphur Mountain’s true summit.
There are several trails in and around the town and very close to the downtown. Most of these are easy walks and offers beautiful views of the mountains and the rivers. The Tunnel Mountain Trail leads to the summit of the Banff’s smallest peak. It is moderately steep, but you are rewarded with beautiful views of the town and the surroundings. One of best trails is the classic walk along the Bow River. Just steps away from the town centre offering scenic views of the Bow River, the Bow Falls and the gorgeous Banff Spring Hotel. The Bow River Trail and the Bow Falls Trail are paved walk ways along the river on the either side. The falls trail has a separate cycle track along with a pedestrian one that lead you to the top of the falls.
Of the many attractions in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, the most famous ones are the turquoise blue lakes. The glacier fed lakes are one of the top draws and the are many of then around Banff and along the Icefield Parkway. The closest to the town is Lake Minnewanka. Located just 20 kms away from the town center this is very popular amongst the locals for fishing, canoeing, and skiing. It is the only lake in the Park that allows limited use of power boats. The boat cruise is one of the highlights of this lake which are not there in the other ones. Two of the most popular lakes are about 60 kms from Banff town – Lake Louise and Lake Moraine situated along the Bow Valley Parkway.
The Bow valley Parkway is 50 km long scenic route from Banff Town to Lake Louise dotted with many view points offering superb views of the Castle mountain. One of the popular sites in this route is the Johnston Canyon. A treasure for hikers with the creek, two waterfalls and lush forest.
Arguably the most famous of all lakes is Lake Louise, the sight of which is out of just out of the world on a bright sunny day. The turquoise-colored water, the mountain peaks, the glacier, and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise resort all combine to provide an incredible sight. Not too far away is the iconic Lake Moraine, the image of which comes up most of time when you search google for the Rocky Mountains in Canada or the Canadian Rockies. Situated at the base of valley of ten peaks, the reflections of which on the still turquoise blue waters makes an incredible sight that hard to explain in words.
Other than the two National Parks, the drive on the scenic Icefield Parkway is a must for every visitor. Give yourself a full day to enjoy 230 km drive to the Jasper Town from Banff. You will pass through some of most amazing landscapes of mountain peaks, emerald lakes, glaciers, waterfalls, and abundance of wildlife that include big horn sheep and mountain goats amongst others. Just 34 kms north of Lake Louise along the parkway is one of the largest lakes in Banff National Park -Bow Lake. The still and clear blue waters mirror the surrounding mountain peaks. Up next just off the parkway hidden deep in the valleys of Bow Pass is the one highest lake in the Canadian Rockies – Peyto Lake. A short branch road leads to the magnificent view point to perhaps the bluest amongst all the lakes. A 2.5 Km long and steep pathway takes you down to the lake.
At the heart of the Icefield Parkway is the Columbia Icefields – one of the largest non polar icefields in the world. Also known as the Athabasca Glacier, it is one of the most accessible in the world. From the Glacier Discovery Center, you will travel on a massive Ice Explorer Bus to a place where you can walk on the Glacier.
Not too far off the glacier is one of the man-made wonders – Columbia Icefield Walkway. Perched almost 1000 feet above the spectacular Sunwapta Valley on a cliff edge, this is a 1 km long walkway leading to a platform with a glass floor. It is one of the most thrilling experience of the Rocky Mountains in Canada.
Travelling further north just before you reach the town of Jasper is the Athabasca Canyon. It is worth stopping and exploring the stunning waterfalls against backdrop of the gorgeous mountains. Various paved pathways through the narrow canyon lead you the many viewpoints.
At the end of the parkway is the quaint town of Jasper right in the heart of the Jasper National Park. Possibly one of the smallest towns you may ever get to visit, everything in the town is walkable.
The closest airport to Jasper is Edmonton which is almost 365 kms away. However, you can reach Jasper directly by train from Edmonton. The Via Rail Canada has a daily service that takes about 6 and half hours. There are also two scenic trains from Vancouver – The Rocky Mountaineer and the Via Rail service.
Jasper in many ways is like Banff but on a smaller scale. It attracts those who are looking to get further off the beaten track, and it is a paradise for adventure seekers. Be it snowboarding, white water rafting, mountain biking or paddling, its 1200 kms of hiking trails attracts many visitors. One of the thrills of visiting Jasper is spotting wildlife especially the larger mammals like moose, deer, caribou, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, coyotes, wolves, cougars, and black bears.
The top attraction in the town is the Jasper Sky Tram – Canada’s longest and highest aerial tramway. In less than 8 minutes you will at an elevation of over 2200 meters. From the upper tram station, you can hike to the summit of the Whistler Mountain. The hike is about 1.5 kms long and from the summit you get a view of all the surrounding mountain ranges.
Like in the Banff National Park, you also need a ticket or pass for admission to the Jasper National Park. The most famous attraction in the park is Lake Maligne – the largest lake in the Rocky Mountains in Canada. Located about 50 kms from Jasper Town, this Lake has a 90-minute cruise that goes past one of the most photographed places in the Canadian Rockies – the Spirit Island. The island against the backdrop of mountain peak, glaciers and the alpine forest is one of the iconic images of the Rocky Mountains in Canada.
Jasper National Park is mecca for hikers with numerous trails and perhaps the best among them is the 3.5 kms long Maligne Canyon Trail. Malign Canyon is the deepest of all canyons in the Rockies with a depth of more than 50 meters at certain points. There are six bridges built across various points that provide hikers of all abilities an opportunity to marvel at this incredible natural wonder. The second bridge is at the highest point and from the third bridge you get to see a spectacular waterfall. During the winter time there is a guided ice walk that lets you walk along the Canyon’s frozen floor.
Among the many lakes in the park, the closest are the twin lakes – Pyramid and Patricia. Located at the foot of the Pyramid mountain, Lake Pyramid lake drains into the Athabasca river through a 2 km long creek. There is an island in the Lake, named Pyramid Lake Island, connected by the wooden foot bridge. Close by is Lake Patricia is which is also very similar. Both lakes are just 5 kms from Jasper Town and are very popular among locals for fishing and paddling.
Recommended Itinerary – An ideal itinerary would be of 7 days with 3 days each in Banff & Jasper and a full day for driving on the Icefield Park way between Banff and Jasper. Closest airport to Banff is Calgary which is about 140 Kms and takes at least 2 hours and 30 mins. The closest airport to Jasper is Edmonton which is about 365 Kms and takes at least 4.5 hours. So out of the 3 days each in Banff and Jasper you will only have 2 full days to explore.
Transportation – The Roam transit is a very convenient way of getting around Banff Town and its main attractions. In summer and winter months you can go all the way till Lake Louise. There are plenty of Shuttles and Tours both in Banff and Jasper that will take you to all the major attractions.
Best Time to visit – Summer months are the best from late June to early September. These months are also the busiest. Most of September to early October is also good when the crowds are less. Although there is some snow throughout the year at least in Jasper, December to March is peak season for winter sport lovers. The shoulder months of April and May can be a bit of surprise with Blizzards or warm weather.