This guide is brought to you courtesy of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
The key starting points for your road trip through the majestic Canadian Rocky Mountains are Calgary, located in Alberta, and Vancouver in British Columbia. If you are eager to dive into the vast wilderness promptly, begin your journey in Calgary and head west. You’ll find yourself embraced by the deep Rockies in less than an hour. However, setting off from Vancouver or Edmonton, Alberta’s second international access point, demands a more extended trip before reaching the ‘wow’ moment.
The Quintessential Journey
Kick-off your adventure in Alberta’s capital, Edmonton. Don’t miss out on the River Valley, Canada’s largest urban park. Your westward journey towards the mountains spans approximately three hours as you shift from the prairies, through the foothills, and finally into Jasper National Park. Consider spending a couple of nights in Jasper, where wildlife sightings are frequent throughout the year. Given that Jasper has half the hotel capacity of Banff, it’s advisable to book in advance and look out for the best deals.
Next, follow Highway 93 southbound to Banff National Park, making a point to visit the Columbia Icefields. After spending two nights in the Banff/Lake Louise vicinity, continue your journey south via Highway 93 through Kootenay National Park. A stay in Radium Hot Springs (don’t miss a dip in the pools!) is recommended before heading further south for breathtaking views at Crowsnest Pass and Waterton Lakes National Park. From Waterton, a pleasant three-hour drive will bring you to Calgary, but a detour to the UNESCO Heritage site, Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump is well worth it. Finally, backtrack to Highway 22 for panoramic views at Highwood Pass, Canada’s highest.
Left: As the first national park in the country, Banff is a favoured stop on road trips originating from Edmonton, the capital city of Alberta.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK UNRAU
Right: Located in Yoho National Park, Takakkaw Falls (meaning ‘magnificent’ in Cree) is among the highest waterfalls in Canada.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ALEX RATSON, GETTY IMAGES
The Express Trip
If you are pressed for time and have only two to three days, initiate your journey from Calgary. Visit the stunning Three Sisters mountain range near Canmore and stop at the Canmore Nordic Centre, a hub for cross-country skiing during the 1988 Winter Olympics and a popular mountain biking spot. As a place to stay, Canmore offers a wider accommodation range compared to Banff or Jasper.
From Canmore, travel to Spray Valley Provincial Park or Banff National Park to see the beautiful Lake Minnewanka. Beyond the town of Banff, visit Cave and Basin, an indigenous site of significant importance for over 10,000 years and the birthplace of Canada’s national park system.
After a morning in Banff, hike up Sleeping Buffalo (aka Tunnel Mountain) for a gentle Rockies’ peak. Alternatively, visit Norquay ski resort for a 2.6-mile walk on the Stoney Lookout loop through the evergreen forest. Accessible year-round, this quiet route offers the best views of the distinct Cascade Mountain and the formidable Western Cordillera’s front ranges.
On your last day, drive to Lake Louise for a sunrise view. In favourable weather, take the summer chairlift from the ski area, an excellent spot for grizzly sightings. Then venture into Yoho National Park and drive up to Takkakaw Falls, open from May/June to September/October. Lastly, lunch at Truffle Pigs Bistro & Lodge in the town of Field offers a relaxed, gourmet dining experience amidst the Rockies.
Peter Lougheed Park
Located in Alberta’s Kananaskis Country, Peter Lougheed Park is home to Highwood, Canada’s highest pass (closed from Oct-May for animal migration). It’s a less popular coach tour destination, but wildlife, including grizzly and black bears, elk, deer, moose, cougars, lynx, and Rocky Mountain wolves, is plentiful.
Situated near Lake Louise, these ‘magnificent’ (as interpreted in Cree) waterfalls are among Canada’s tallest. The thunderous meltwater from the Daly Glacier plunges into the Yoho Valley, overlooked by the towering 3,189m Cathedral Peak. This area is superb for backcountry hiking and camping (remember to pack your bear spray).
Jasper’s Dark Skies
Jasper, with a wider valley than Banff, has subdued its lights, amplifying the visibility of the Aurora Borealis. Alongside Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, Jasper is a prime Canadian Northern Lights spot. The peak season is from December to March, but starry skies can be observed year-round during clear weather.
Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, this precipice marked the world’s largest meat harvest site, where the Rockies ascend from the prairies. It remains one of the best-preserved sites illustrating the millennia-old hunting techniques used by the Plains People.
Published in the June 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Canadian Rockies road trip
What are the key starting points for a road trip through the Canadian Rocky Mountains?
The key international gateway cities for a road trip through the Canadian Rocky Mountains are Calgary in Alberta and Vancouver in British Columbia. You can also start from Edmonton, Alberta’s capital.
What is the recommended route for a classic trip through the Canadian Rockies?
The classic trip begins in Edmonton and takes you through River Valley, Jasper National Park, Columbia Icefields, Banff National Park, Kootenay National Park, Radium Hot Springs, Crowsnest Pass, Waterton Lakes National Park, and ends in Calgary with possible detours to the Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump site and Highwood Pass.
How can I plan a shorter, fast-track trip through the Canadian Rockies?
For a shorter, two-to-three-day trip, start from Calgary and visit the Three Sisters mountains and Canmore Nordic Centre. From there, go to Spray Valley Provincial Park or loop around Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park. On your last day, enjoy a sunrise at Lake Louise and venture into Yoho National Park.
What are some highlights and attractions to see on a Canadian Rockies road trip?
Highlights and attractions include Peter Lougheed Park, Takakkaw Falls, the Aurora Borealis in Jasper, and the historic Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump site.
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