What to Do in the Rocky Mountains?
You could spend years exploring the Rockies and still not see everything. What to do depends largely on your budget and how much time you have.
Here are some of the top highlights that can be seen on a 4 day “whirlwind” tour of the Canadian Rockies:
BANFF - A high energy tourist mecca in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Banff is the most famous town in the Rockies. It is surrounded by 4 main mountains (Cascade, Rundle, Sulphur, and Tunnel) and features a variety of shops, museums, hotels, and attractions. The most famous hotel is The Banff Springs Hotel, probably the most recognizable hotel in Canada. Banff townsite is the heart of the National Park system and was the first National Park to be established in Canada in 1885. In the summer you can go on a horseback trail ride, soar to the top of Sulphur Mountain on the Banff Gondola, rent a bike to explore some of the local trails and sidestreets, hike to your hearts content, or soak in the World Famous Upper Hot Springs. In the winter Banff turns into a skiers paradise with Mt. Norquay right on the town’s limits, Sunshine Mountain only 25 minutes away and the Lake Louise ski area only 55 minutes away. Banff was named the #1 tourist destination in Canada by Trip Advisor! (http://ca.news.yahoo.com/blogs/dailybrew/banff-named-no-1-tripadvisor-com-lists-top-172826773.html)
LAKE LOUISE - This is the most famous lake in Canada and deservedly so. Lake Louise amazes visitors with it’s vivid colour and scenic majesty with the Victoria Glacier as a dramatic backdrop. The Chateau Lake Louise dominates the eastern shore and is a popular tourist destination in itself. No trip to the Rockies is complete without a stop to admire the beauty of Lake Louise. An easy trail takes visitors around the shore of the lake for some great photos back towards The Chateau.
MORAINE LAKE & The VALLEY of the TEN PEAKS - This stunning lake was featured on the back of the Canadian twenty dollar bill for years. It is a little off the beaten track however on long weekends in the summer the parking lot is overflowing with traffic as people literally line up to see this awesome lake. It is best viewed from on top of the rock pile at the east end of the lake as the extra height makes the water colour seem even more amazing.
ICEFIELDS PARKWAY - The highway has been described as the most beautiful highway in the world. It stretches between Lake Louise and Jasper and straddles Banff and Jasper National Parks. The highway is lined with towering mountain peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, and lots of opportunities to see wildlife. The Parkway is a secondary highway and so is not regularly plowed in the winter making it best for travel between April and October.
PEYTO LAKE - Located on the Icefields Parkway, this scenic lake is a fan favourite. The lake shore is not easily accessible however the viewpoint high above the lake makes for stunning pictures. It is only a couple of minutes from Bow Lake but, because you can’t see Peyto Lake from the Icefields Parkway, it is easily missed. There is a bit of a hike up to the viewpoint from the car parking lot however it is an easy 2 minute walk from the bus lot.
BOW LAKE - Also located on the Icefields Parkway, this scenic little lake is the headwaters of the Bow River which flows through Banff and on out to Calgary. It makes a great rest stop as you travel the Parkway with a small coffee and souvenir shop available.
ATHABASCA FALLS - One of the most impressive waterfalls along the Icefields Parkway, this stop is very popular because of the gorge it has carved out of the rock and because it is easily accessible to the highway. Located about 20 minutes south of Jasper, this thundering falls is definitely worth the stop!
JASPER - The second most famous town in the Canadian Rockies. Jasper is in a much broader valley than Banff and it is at the northern end of the Icefields Parkway. If you have a bit more time, Jasper is a great staging point for visits to Maligne Canyon, Maligne Lake, the Marmot Mountain gondola, Mt. Edith Cavell and assorted hikes. In the winter, Marmot Basin is a great ski destination. Jasper is at the intersection of the Yellowhead Highway and the Icefields Parkway. If you go south on the Parkway, you come to Lake Louise and the Banff area. Head east on the Yellowhead and you come to Edmonton. West on the Yellowhead takes you to Mt. Robson and British Columbia. Jasper was named the #11 tourist destination in Canada by Trip Advisor.
MT. ROBSON - This majestic peak is the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. It is located about 1 hour west of Jasper on the Yellowhead Highway. The mountain is so large that it forms it’s own weather system around the peak which means that the top is often hidden in clouds on an otherwise clear day. There is a tourist info centre just off the highway with information on the many hikes and camping opportunities in the area.
This entire area is a prime centre for hiking and backpacking. There are thousands of kilometers of trails to explore in Banff, Jasper, and Yoho National Parks. It is easy to get away from the crowds on some of the lesser know trails. There are National Park Information Centres in Banff, the town of Lake Louise, at the Columbia Icefields Centre and in Jasper. These are excellent resources to get information on favourite hikes and lesser known trails.
Over the years we have found the following to be the most popular attractions:
The Columbia Icefields Ice Explorer Snowcoach Tour. Leaving from the Columbia Icefields Info Centre on the Icefields Parkway, guests travel out on to the Athabasca Glacier on specially designed “Snowcoaches”. Guests have approx. 20 minutes to explore the glacier, make a snowman, have a snowball fight (even in the middle of summer!) or perhaps have a sip from a fresh glacial stream. The tour takes approx. 90 minutes and has been the #1 favourite of our guests over the past decade or so.
The Banff Gondola. The gondola takes guests to the top of Sulphur Mountain with stunning views of the Bow Valley, the town of Banff, the Spray Valley and all the way out to Lake Minnewanka. The views are unforgettable! Allow at least 90 minutes for this activity.
Canoe Rentals. You can rent a canoe at Lake Louise, Moraine Lake or in Banff along the Bow River. The canoes will take 2 to 3 people and are a great way to get a different viewpoint of the surrounding scenery.
If you have a bit more time, here are some more recommended sites.
Cave and Basin – This is the original Hot Spring discovered in 1883. It’s discovery led to the formation of the National Park System in Canada. If you don’t have time to take the full tour through the historic site / museum, there is a set of stairs to the left of the entrance that lead up to a number of small natural hot springs plus the entrance to the original hot springs cave.
Sundance Canyon hike – There is a paved trail that starts at the Cave and Basin and leads to Sundance Canyon. The paved trail follows along the Bow River for the first bit and then heads into the forest where it ends at the start of the Sundance Canyon trail. This is “the road less traveled” and, once you are on the Sundance Canyon trail, it is easy to forget that you are only a couple of kilometers from the bustling town of Banff. If you don’t have time to do the entire trail, it is still worth taking the paved trail along the Bow River until it heads into the forest.
Tunnel Mountain loop – This is a scenic loop that takes you up Tunnel Mountain to some great viewpoints over the town of Banff, the Banff Springs Hotel golf course (a great place to spot Elk), the Hoodoos, Surprise Corner (with it’s amazing Photo Op of the Banff Springs Hotel), and past the Banff School of Fine Arts.
Bow Falls. This scenic little waterfall is located just off the road from Banff town centre to the Banff Springs Hotel. Well worth the stop, especially earlier in the season when the water flow is much higher.
The Banff Springs Hotel. In peak season (July and August), much of the hotel is cordoned off and reserved for guests only. However you can still get to many of the shops and restaurants within this historic hotel. It is worth a visit to meander through some of it’s great halls and sitting rooms with awe inspiring views of the Rockies. Outside of peak season, the hotel is open for all to explore and soak in it’s rich history.
Lake Minnewanka. This is the largest lake in Banff National Park and is only a 15 minute drive from the town of Banff. There is a very scenic loop that takes you past Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake. It’s a great spot for a picnic lunch or to look for wildlife. The most common wildlife are Big Horn Sheep and Elk. You can take a scenic cruise to the head of the lake or just hike along the shore.
Johnston Canyon. This is a great little hike located on the old Trans Canada Highway (1A) about 20 minutes from Banff. There are 2 waterfalls with the first easily accessible by virtually anyone. The trail follows the beautiful canyon and at times it is no more than a catwalk drilled in to the side of the cliff face. The first falls is viewed from inside a very small cave. The second falls involves a longer hike and requires decent walking shoes to get to. The second falls is higher and is viewed from a small platform jutting out in to the middle of the canyon.
Sunwapta Falls. This pretty waterfall is located about 15 minutes south of Jasper on the Icefields Parkway. It is about 1 km off the Parkway on a well maintained road. Much less visited than Athabasca Falls, this is a waterfall where you can get away from the crowds.
Mistaya Canyon. The canyon is an easy 10 minute walk from the small parking lot on the west side of the Icefields Parkway. The trailhead is just a few minutes south of the Junction with Highway #11 at “The Crossing”. It is not visited nearly as often as Johnston Canyon or Maligne Canyon giving visitors more of a natural feel to the experience.
Maligne Lake. This famous and beautiful lake is about a one hour drive south east of the townsite. To really get a feel for the lake you need to either rent a canoe or take one of the scenic cruises that tours the lake. Their are a number of great stops along the road to Maligne Lake including Maligne Canyon and Medicine Lake. Medicine Lake empties throughout the summer through underground tunnels so the water level can vary a great deal. There is a great, short, walk through part of Maligne Canyon. Park at the far end of the parking lot, furthest from the souvenir / coffee shop and follow a small trail that repeatedly crosses the canyon. The trail ends at the coffee / souvenir shop.
Patricia Lake & Pyramid Lake. Both lakes are a short drive from the townsite and can get a little crowded in peak season however they are worth the drive as their location makes them very accessible and the lakes themselves are beautiful.
Mount Edith Cavell& Angel Glacier. The mountain is located south of Jasper off of Highway 93A. The road up to the parking lot is pretty rough however once you get to the parking lot there is a great loop trail that will take you past a small lake and Angel Glacier. The temperature tends to be a lot colder than in Jasper so a toque and sweater are recommended if hiking the trail.