“Hey Guys! We just finished a road trip in Country X and it was the best drive of our travels so far”
I’m sure you’ve read this line umpteen times in our posts over the past couple of years. It’s no secret that we love road trips, but it so happens that every once in a while, we go on a gorgeous road trip that knocks our socks off. Amongst the dozens of road trips we’ve been on, our most scenic experiences have included our road trip through Bavaria, our drive through Iceland, and the few weeks spent driving though New Zealand. Our epic road trip to Leh Ladakh was definitely THE most scenic of the lot.
That is till we found ourselves in the Canadian Rockies! You’ve probably guessed by now what’s coming next. Yes, you’re right! Our road trip in Canada has been the impressive drive of our life. YET. That’s sure to change in the future as we discover more of this crazy world 🙂
This road trip wasn’t even part of our grand North and Central America plan to begin with! It so happened that our Alaska cruise ended in Vancouver, and some of our friends showed us a picture of a turquoise lake nestled in the mountains. Water so turquoise that it prompted me to say “definitely photoshopped”. We were so intrigued by this image that we read more and more about Banff and Jasper national parks and decided, on a whim, to take a week long detour to the gorgeous province of Alberta. Well, it turns out, the photo of the lake wasn’t photoshopped. This is what we saw a few days ago:
Now after looking at these photos, can you blame us for getting tempted to plan this short road trip to the Canadian Rockies? And you know what, we must have seen hundreds of such picturesque sights throughout our week long sojourn in the Rockies! Now that we are all set to say goodbye to the pristine beauty of this region, we thought we’d take you on a visual treat through Banff and Jasper national parks, and truth be told, relive our magical week there too 🙂
Planning a Road Trip in the Canadian Rockies
Winter affords a variety of magical activities including snowshoeing, skiing, sleigh rides but summer is when the bears wake up and elks come out to play. There are a number of activities – hiking, canoeing, fishing, and boating on offer. Roads, alleys, even highways are laden with flowers – pristine daisies, colourful flowers, and Alberta’s characteristic wild roses. Moreover the lakes, being glacially fed, acquire their distinctive blue colour only in June when they are full. Soaring cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and azure blue skies all melt to make perfect frames. Trust us, you can’t make this up. Don’t believe us? Here you go:
Here’s our suggested 1 week itinerary (easily customisable to 10 days) for a road trip in Alberta Canada. Of course you could spend weeks exploring this gorgeous corner of our planet, but a week offers a perfect introduction to the area without breaking the bank 😉
Quick Top tips for a road trip in the Canadian Rockies
- Stock up on non-perishable snacks in Calgary. Supermarkets can get quite expensive in Banff and Jasper and are hard to find
- You will want to stop every 10 minutes because the scenery wows. Factor that into driving times
- If your nationality is allowed to, apply for ETA Canada online. If your nationality is not applied to online, make sure you get your visa stamped in your passport.
- Book accommodation WAY in advance, especially if you’re travelling during summer months.
- Buy passes online to prevent wasting time at the entry gates
- There are lots of cable car rides in the area. If you want to go on one gondola ride, make it the Jasper Sky Tram
- If you want to choose just one hike, make it Peyto Lake
- Don’t pay for a wildlife tour – bear sightings are common in both national parks. We spotted plenty of bears on the day we drove the Icefields Parkway.
- Day 5, Day 5, Day 5 🙂
Day 1 Fly to Calgary and pick your rental car
The most logical place to start a road trip to Banff and Jasper is Calgary. It’s well connected domestically and internationally and is only a short 2 hour drive from the fairytale town of Banff.
We picked up our rental car at Calgary airport. We can’t stress enough on the need for a car when exploring this region. There are plenty of tour agencies who ferry tourists to majors attractions, but trust us when we say, you’ll be missing out on a WHOLE lot if you don’t drive yourself through the Canadian Rockies. We rented our car with Hertz – make sure you book in advance if travelling during the summers!
The night was spent at a hotel nearby, all set for an early morning start. I stayed put at the hotel but Vid did nip out for a sunset shot or two under the ruse of “wanting to get comfortable behind the wheel of a new car” (these photographers, I tell you :-)):
Stay: We stayed overnight at Clique Airport Hotel when we got to Calgary. Just like with Banff and Jasper, hotels were booked out in Calgary. On comparing the prices and availability with other sites, we found a decent deal on Clique hotel, which is a great option close to the airport – it’s affordable, modern and clean. It also offers free parking for guests – perfect if you’re renting a car.
Days 2-4 Explore Banff National Park
We started early to drive to Banff National Park. The drive is gorgeous but the real fun begins on getting to Banff. 3 nights are enough to explore Banff National Park. You need to purchase a park pass (CAD 9.8/day) to enter the national parks. Once that’s done, many of the attractions, public toilets, and parking are free.
Here are some of our favourite and not-so-favourite things to do in the area:
- Lake Moraine : Let this be the first thing you see in the area. Lake moraine’s sparkling turquoise waters will seduce you within seconds
- Lake Louise and Gondola Ride: It’s easy to combine your visit to Lake Moraine with a gondola ride at Lake Louise. The experience is said to afford incredible views of the area- we are sure it’s stunning in winter but it’s a bit underwhelming in summer. The gondola ride costs CAD35, so we’d suggest skipping it!
- Short cruise on Lake Minnewaka: It’s impossible to be all laked out in this area – there are dozens of lakes in the national park, each one better than the last. Minnewaka is the largest lake in Banff. Expect incredible mountain scenery, rocky cliffs, and emerald green waters. If you’re lucky you might spot grizzly bears and bald eagles too! An hour long cruise costs CAD 60 but there are longer wine and cheese cruises if you have an evening to spend in the area. If you’re short on time, you could skip this cruise and opt for one in Jasper instead.
- Bow Valley Parkway: When driving from Banff to Lake Louise, venture onto Highway 1A, also known as Bow Valley Parkway. It’s a very scenic drive and affords great views of Bow river that meanders through the valley alongside the parkway. There are plenty of gorgeous hikes and trails here.
- Johnston Canyon: Situated half an hour away from Banff on Bow Valley Parkway, this is a really nice, albeit crowded, hike through a gorge. It’s an easy trail to the Lower Falls, and if you want moderate exercise, make your way to the Upper Falls. We did, and it was fun!
- Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake scenic loop drive: This stunning drive starts very close to Banff town and loops through Two Jack Lake, Jackson Lake, and Minnewanka Lake. We were told that it’s a great little drive to spot wildlife and it didn’t disappoint! While we didn’t spot any grizzlies, we did spot elks, deer, and lots of birds.
- Banff Town: Walk through the picturesque town of Banff and soak in the hustle bustle of the area. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes to grab lunch here.
- Take a tour: If you’re in Banff for a longer time, take a tour that suits your interests. You could opt for a helihike to a nearby glacier, go canoeing on Bow River, or go for a horse ride in the area.
Stay: Try to find accommodation in Banff. Fairmont is a great option if you enjoy luxury hotels. But do beware accommodation in Banff is extremely limited and runs out months in advance. We couldn’t get a single hotel room in Banff during the month of August. So we chose the neighbouring town of Canmore as a base and stayed at Rocky Mountain Ski Lodge. Double rooms will set you back by CAD 170/night (not including breakfast). The rooms were spacious and comfortable but not particularly luxurious. However the location was great to get on to the highway to Banff quickly.
Day 5 – Drive the Icefields Parkway and explore glaciers
For the two of us, this day was definitely the highlight of the entire road trip. If you, like us, are exploring Banff and Jasper on your road trip of the Canadian Rockies, then spend day 5 driving from Banff to Jasper. The route is home to the uber-scenic Mountain roadway called Icefields Parkway. This 230 km road is one of the most scenic roads in the world. You could cover it in 4 hours or so, but that would be criminal as you’d be missing out on so much! Take your time (and LOTS of it) driving this stretch. Here are a few pit stops you must make along the way:
Now there are dozens of lakes in the area and you’ll cross a few as soon as you start driving the ice fields Parkway but resist the temptation to stop- instead save that time for bow lake, which is truly as gorgeous as they come. The glistening waters of the lake are truly spectacular on a sunny day. There are loads of picnic benches next to the lake, so it’s a perfect spot for brunch.
Travelling extensively has spoilt us rotten – these days we seldom find panoramas that knock our socks off but Peyto lake is definitely one of them. A short 10 minute hike takes visitors to a vantage point but don’t stop there. Carry on for another 10 minutes on the main trail and then for another 5 minutes on a small alpine trail that leads to another, much more scenic, view of the lake. It’s so gorgeous, we were transfixed to the spot for the good part of an hour!
3.Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre
For stunning views of the glacier and surrounding valley and some gorgeous photos hop on the Glacier Skywalk (CAD32, 15 minutes) or the Glacier Adventure (CAD65, 80 minutes).Here you can actually walk on the Athabasca Glacier after a short drive in a specially designed monster truck.
You can actually drive quite close to the glacier for free. There’s a parking lot which offers decent views of the glacier. However you need to take one of these tours in order to get ON the glacier itself. It’s worth booking tickets in advance as the tours are quite popular during summer months. You could definitely skip the Glacier Skywalk but do try and go on the Glacier Adventure where a monster truck will transport you to the middle of Athabasca Glacier!
And don’t forget that this stretch of the park is home to lots of animals and birds, so drive carefully and be attentive. You never know when a bear or mountain goats spring onto the highway from nowhere. Always keep your eyes on the road as it’s easy to get distracted. We spotted tons of beautiful wildlife on this day.
Stay: You’ll undoubtedly be tired at the end of this day, what with all that driving. Make sure you book your accommodation in Jasper at least 6 months in advance as accommodation as Jasper runs out quickly during peak summer months. Fairmont offers great rooms with views to boot. Try to find a hotel in Jasper but if you can’t, we suggest accommodation in nearby Hinton – it offers easy access to the Jasper National Park.
Day 6: Explore downtown Jasper and drive to Maligne Lake
Jasper National Park is the largest park in the Canadian Rockies. Banff is prettier while Jasper is more rugged and handsome. Jasper is a charming lil town with a few restaurants, supermarkets, and panoramic views of the Rockies. Spend a lazy morning walking around town after the long drive on Day 5.
If you’re up for a bit of a drive then head to Maligne Lake. The sparkling lake is home to a tiny “island” called Spirit island (technically a peninsula but turns into an island when the lake’s water level rises) and it’s easy to spend a couple of hours there. We took a lake cruise at Maligne – it’s a fun tour that lasts 1.5 hours and offers an opportunity to acquaint oneself with little corners of the lake and the spellbinding scenery all around.
Rest in the afternoon and set off on an aimless drive to experience some gorgeous panoramas during sunset. Trust us when we say this, you could drive to any part of the park and find yourself in paradise. We went on an aimless drive to Athabasca falls and loved watching the sun set over the gushing walls.
Day 7: Jasper’s Skytram and Athabasca Falls
You have a long drive back to Calgary the next day, so it’s best to take it easy. We enjoyed a well-deserved lie-in and lazed around till noon on Day 7 🙂 We boarded the Jasper Skytram in the afternoon, and were pleasantly surprised on getting to the top. The sun was shining bright and there was a nip in the air – perfect weather to relax and enjoy the spectacular view of Jasper town below. An afternoon well spent!
Day 8- Drive back to Calgary
We started early in order to catch sunrise at Sunwapta Falls, an hour’s drive from Jasper. Seeing the ochre sun rising up form the mountains right behind the falls was the perfect start to the day!
We were so glad we started early from Jasper on this day. The first 2-3 hours of the drive were breathtaking. Scenes appeared in front of us as if right out of a painting – empty roads winding through the valley as the rising sun lit the valley in orange hues and clouds hung around low as if hugging the trees. Vid must have taken at least 50 photos in a span of 30 minutes.
Brunch spot for the day was at Waterfowl Lake that offered perfect reflections of the peaks that rose across from us – could not have asked for a better spot to munch on our sandwiches 🙂
There’s so much to see and soak in when driving the Icefields Parkway that one day is just not enough.A lot of people start at Calgary, drive to Banff and Jasper, and then continue on to Edmonton before flying out from there. That’s why we recommend flying in and out of Calgary so that you get to drive this scenic road twice!
Stay: We reached Calgary by brunch and spent our last night at Clique Hotel, before flying out of Calgary
Budgeting for this road trip
Expect to spend CAD 2500-2700 for 2 people on a week long road trip in the Canadian Rockies. You will spend approximately CAD200 on fuel, CAD700 on car rental, CAD900 on good mid-range accommodation, CAD500 on food & drink, CAD 150 on national park fees, and CAD200+ on activities and tours. Of course this cost is heavily dependent on the season you travel in, the kind of tours and hotels you choose, and the number of people in your group. It will increase if you dine out a lot or opt for luxury accommodation. It will decrease significantly if you travel in a group and share car rental and accommodation costs. These prices are for a trip taken during peak season in August 2016. Prices in the low season will be significantly lower.
There you have it – our itinerary for one of our most favourite road trips so far. Have you driven in the Canadian rockies? We’re sure you loved it as much as we did, yes? 😀
*All costs true of August 2016.
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