Road trip through National Parks in Western Canada | British Columbia & Alberta

June 2018

Alberta is home to two of the oldest national parks in Canada: Banff and Jasper. After 8 months of teaching in Vancouver, we set to explore in June the rest of the nearest provinces with a compact car. Instead we got a huge Jeep. Alright then, here we go.

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How long?

We planned this trip to last two weeks. Though this itinerary can definitely be done in much less time, having a couple of weeks free is an advantage for several reasons. First, less piled up fatigue. Although a road trip and countless hours spent behind the driving wheel go together, I assure you that you will be glad not to drive for 7 hours straight. The more tired you are, the less energy you have to hike or to make the most of the incredible scenery that surrounds you. Second, driving less during the day means having more time to leave space for pauses according to your mood. If you want to stop on the road because you have stumbled upon a great place and you would like to relax for a couple of hours, you can do it! Which leads to my final point: the luxury of taking your time. In my opinion, there is nothing more frustrating than to have to rush when you are in an amazing place. If you have the ressources, in terms of money and time, I think that it would be wiser to favour more time than to plan everything to the minute. You are bound to have surprises on the way, good and/or bad, and time will become your best friend.

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To do what?

Here is a rough look at our stops with this itinerary:

  • British Columbia: Vancouver → Squamish (Shannon Falls, Sea to Sky gondola) → Whistler → Pemberton (One Mile lake) → Joffre lakes → Kamloops → Wells Gray provincial park → Mount Robson provincial park

  • Alberta: Jasper national park → Icefields Parkway → Banff national park

  • British Columbia: Kootenay national park → Radium Hot Springs → Yoho national park → Glacier national park → Revelstoke → Kelowna → Vancouver

Here is the link to the Google Maps that I made and that lists all the places we were interested in.

How many days in Jasper and Banff National Parks?

Three days in Jasper National Park and four in Banff National Park should be a sufficient amount of time so that you do not have to rush to one place to another. It is also a way to tackle several hikes that you would want to do. Depending on the period of the year, it is necessary to check the official websites (Banff, Jasper, and the others) beforehand for warnings, closures, and trail conditions in order to plan your trip accordingly.

Between the two national parks, one full day can be dedicated to the Icefields Parkway because there are a lot of beautiful stops where you will want to take in the views for a while. Great stops include but are not limited to: Peyto lake, Bow lake, Mistaya Canyon, Columbia Icefield (I will write a full article on that), Sunwapta Falls, and Athabasca Falls. Two full days are ideal if you want to hike some trails like the Parker Ridge and the Wilcox Pass.

How?

To me, a car rental seems to be the best option you could have to stroll around as you want. We booked our car through Avis but we previously had a very good experience with Budget which we would recommend as well and which is sometimes cheaper. This time, our rental cost us between 800 and 900 Canadian dollars for a compact car, for two drivers. We ended up with a vehicle from a superior class, a SUV. It was a pleasant surprise at the beginning but we soon realised that it was not a great deal since that type of car does use a lot more gas quicker than a regular car. We did not take any specific additional insurance and although we did have a few small misfortunes, it was nothing we could not fix. It is up to you to choose whatever fits best your needs.

The road to Alberta

Leaving Vancouver, as the miles go by, you quickly understand why the road is named “Sea to Sky”. In the distance, after a turn, the mountains pop out and the sea is just there right next to them. Like a movie set. It is almost ridiculous how beautiful everything is. Do not hesitate to stop on the road at Shannon Falls and Brandywine Falls, both of them are impressive and free.

Between those two stops, you can also pause at “Sea to Sky gondola”. It is expensive ($44 CAD for an adult, 2$ off if you book online...) but I would say that it is worth it. The gondola overlooks the Howe Sound and offers a splendid view. Once you are all the way up, you have a suspension bridge (not for the faint-hearted or people prone to vertigo), different viewpoints, and most importantly several trails starting there. Give yourself some more time if you wish to do one as most of them are quite long.

I do not ski and it was already the end of May anyway so Whistler was not an unforgettable place for me. There are quite a lot of summer activities (biking, zip lining, and others) available but the prices were discouraging. Meaning way out of our budget, just like the accommodation, so we eventually ended up sleeping in the car that night near Pemberton with the rain lulling us to sleep. The following day, you can have a pleasant walk around One Mile Lake. There a thick fog that enveloped the trees and gave off a moody vibe. I also recommend stopping at Nairn Falls if you have time.

If you have to stop somewhere along the road, you should definitely do it at Joffre lakes. Free, this place is often packed during the clear summer days: plan ahead and get there early as even the parking lot can fill up quickly. They are called Joffre lakes because there are actually three of them: the first one, already very pretty, is accessible in five minutes from where you have parked, the other two lakes ask for effort to reach them. Those lakes are well-known for their turquoise colour but it all depends of the period of the year. Late May, we were lucky to find that the lakes had thawed already and the beautiful colour was there. However, every year is different and alpine lakes can thaw more or less quickly. It is also the case for Moraine lake, Louise lake, Peyto lake, and others.

There is quite a bit of elevation to get to the "Middle lake" but nothing impossible with regular pauses. Still, you will probably be out of breath after the two hours. The water is cristal clear, the weather is beautiful but things can quickly change in this province.

The climb to reach the last and higher lake, "the Upper", is steeper but shorter! You will trudge approximately half an hour before you arrive. The view when you get there is well worth the effort and I suggest you take the time to have a well-deserved picnic or snack. We were planning on doing just so when the weather suddenly changed, without warning of course. In late May, we did not expect to see any snowfall but we are in Canada after all. Under the snowflakes, we retraced back our steps to the car.

Although we wanted to arrive soon in the National Parks, we also did not want to miss the beautiful provincial parks along the way. The Wells Grey park will please any waterfall fan! The Mount Robson park is just before the Jasper National Park and is home to several interesting trails.

Jasper National Park

In order to have access to Canadian National Parks, you have to pay a pass. The fees vary according to your age and the time spent in the parks. You can purchase a daily admission ($10 CAD for an adult per day) or get an annual pass which gives an unlimited access. This pass can be for an adult ($68 CAD) or for a whole family/group/full car ($136 CAD). It is up to you to figure out which option is the best fit for you depending on how many are travelling and how many days you plan to spend in National Parks (in Alberta and/or elsewhere).

For this trip, we were two people and we had already visited National Parks in British Columbia and in Quebec so we logically opted for the annual group pass.For this trip, we were two people and we had already visited National Parks in British Columbia and in Quebec so we logically opted for the annual group pass.

Concerning the accommodation, it is good to know that a fair amount of camping spots inside the park have to be booked online in advance. Every camping site has a different date for the start of those bookings and they can go quickly so you need to check on the official website and be ready when they become available. Other camping sites work on the principle of first come, first served. There are also other forms of housing (hotels or else) in Jasper but the price range is quite high. In terms of budget and organisation, we decided to book two AirBnb outside the park: one night in quiet Dunster and two nights in Hinton on the other side.

Our AirBnb in Dunster was a room in a house lost in the middle of nowhere, it was a bit challenging to find it in fact but once there we were charmed. Glenda, the woman who rents two bedrooms in her house, is adorable and warmly welcomed us. For $56 CAD a night for two and a delicious breakfast, the price-quality ratio is more than adequate. Afterwards, staying at Hinton was a great way for us to be only 20 minutes away from the entrance of the park while having an affordable accommodation. This can be a solution to consider if you are on a tight budget like us: our goal was not to spend more than $50 per night.

The highlights of the park for us were the following. Maligne Canyon, the deepest canyon in the Rockies: water flows freely here and has gradually used and sculpted rocks, some of them going as deep as 50 meters. After a long winter, the water from the glaciers melts and impressive torrents make their way down.

Usually, Columbia Icefield is a stop made on the Icefields Parkway. We chose instead to go there in our first three days so that we could have the time to do an excursion there during a full morning. That also made it possible to have more time for the other cool stops on the Icefields Parkway. I will talk more about Columbia Icefield and our experience there in another blogpost.

Maligne lake is one of the lakes we liked the most. We decided to gain height to see the lake's beautiful colours by taking the Bald Hills trail. This hike is not too long, 2 or 3 hours, and has a nice viewpoint. If you choose to take the shortcut on the way up, like we did, the climb will be very steep but shorter: 4 kilometers. The other way is longer, 6 kilometers, but less difficult. We went back down this way because the shortcut was slippery with remains of snow.

Once up there, there is already a great view but apparently the highlight is at the top of the hill. Unfortunately, we had not enough time to go up and we were also clearly not equipped adequately since snow was up to the knees on the hill. Going up in sneakers would have been a poor idea, next time maybe!

Medecine lake, less popular than others, remains nevertheless very cute: there is less people and it can be a great place to picnic or to rest for a little while. Wildlife can be regularly seen around there, like these sheeps which seemed to relish from who knows what in between pebbles.

The lake spreads on a quite large surface and its water varies a lot according to the seasons. During fall for instance, the lake empties, so make the most of the summer to enjoy this place. It is along the road to reach Maligne lake, once on the other side, the views are grand as well.

You will find many other places pinned on the Google Map that I gave a link to higher in the post. Wherever you go, you will be amazed by the open spaces.

Icefields parkway

Driving mile after mile, we understand why this road is considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world. Mountains that were hidden reveal themselves after a turn, imposing, cars look like insignificant toys and us like Legos. A full day is not too much to do this drive as there are many points of interest. The ideal option for walk lovers would be to have even longer, two days, to enjoy the trails.

Our favorites were Sunwapta Falls, Mistaya Canyon, and Peyto lake. I could have spent hours looking at Peyto lake changing colours depending on the light. When we arrived there, it was raining and rather cloudy, but still gorgeous. After half an hour, we were about to leave but a sunny spell found its way. The sun invaded the valley and illuminated the lake to reveal the wolf-shaped lake's sublime colour.

That fascinating colour comes from the glaciers' water which collects rocks particles called rock flour when going down. This rock flour is very light and stays suspended in water. When the sun shines on those particles, rays of all colours are sent. Rock flour absorbs them, except one: turquoise. Since it does not absorb it, it acts like a mirror: it reflects it.

banff national park

I see Banff National Park a bit like the big brother of Jasper, things seem even bigger here. We gave ourselves four days to explore it.

Here, we decided to divide our nights: two nights outside the park in Cochrane in an AirBnb to save some money because the price ridiculously low, and two nights in a hostel in Canmore. The latter can be a great option if you are travelling alone at $40 CAD a night in a (very) small dormitory. It also has the perk of being much closer to the entrance than other remote accommodation. Though it might seem like nothing, not having to drive 1 hour and a half to take a shower and sleep after a long day of hiking is so nice. Besides, its location is top-notch with unobstructed view of the Three Sisters.

Having a breakfast/lunch/dinner/ here is pretty rad. We even saw some does the last day. We definitely recommend this hostel! The kitchen is big and perfect to prepare some snacks or meals to recover.

We had planned a fair amount of hikes but some trails were still closed. We advise you to pop by the Visitor Centre of every park you visit in order to have these kind of precious information and pieces of advice in keeping with the length of your visit, your physical condition, or your interests. In downtown Banff, you should stop by Beaver Tails (queues de castor en français) for a sweet snack! This typical Canadian food (a deep-fried dough basically) will fill you up really quick and will help to warm you up.

Johnston Canyon is a pleasant stroll along a river, accessible to all physical conditions. The water in the cove is once again of a beautiful colour. At the end of the path, there is a nice waterfall worth having a look at.

A more challenging hike which leads to an impressive viewpoint on the park is the one of Sulphur Mountain. It is possible to access this viewpoint with a gondola if you are willing to pay $30 CAD. The climb, free, has a good amount of elevation (700 meters) and you can feel it. The way down is much easier, of course.

You can relax at the foot the mountain by taking a bath in the Banff Upper Hot Springs for 7$ CAD. It is usually crowded but it remains awesome to fall asleep in warm water with an unbeatable view of the mountain range.

Lake Louise is THE lake everyobdy wants to see during their visit to the national park, therefore be ready for a lot of people there. If you did not get up really early, you probably will not manage to find a parking spot (unless you are extremely lucky!) and you will have to do a U-turn to goto a much larger parking space a few miles away from where you can take a shuttle bus that leads to Lake Louise. The shuttle bus comes often and is quick to reach its destination (around 10 minutes). One piece of advice: arrive early at the Lake Louise parking lot or go straight to the shuttle bus parking lot in order not to loose time.

From Lake Louise, there are several trails that you can tackle. After reading a bit about it online, we picked the Big Beehive trail. You can stop at Lake Agnes and its teahouse or you can keep going. From there, there was quite a lot of snow and we were still not equipped but we kept going this time.

After a few minutes of an arduous climb, we finally get to the top. From this height, the colour of the water is so vivid and sharp, it seems like the water in the lake has been photoshopped! We stayed there for a long while taking in the view.

We went back down by the other side and we walked part of the Plain of the Six Glaciers trail. This can lead to a Swiss style teahouse. We retraced our steps to catch the last shuttle bus to go back to the parking lot where our car was parked. The way down is pleasant and you arrive just in front of the lake and the Fairmont hotel. After a walk along the lake, you will meet the crowd again.

Concerning Moraine lake, it should not be forgotten that the road leading to it is closed a large part of the year. Be careful to check online the dates for its opening. In 2018, the road was closed from mid-October until the 22nd of May. Just like for the other lakes, many trails can be taken from here but we were already worn out after the Big Beehive so we only climbed the pile of rocks which are facing the lake. To get to the rocks, you need a minimum of balance to cross the wood logs on the water. Obviously, I fell on the water. In front of a lot of people. My dignity stayed there.

the road back to british columbia

We started on the road back and we thought it would be nice to go through other national parks. People tend to flock less to those but they are just as beautiful as the other ones that are more known. Therefore, we took advantage of this to go through Kootenay National Park. We stopped first at Marble Canyon. A wonderful cove where we stayed a couple of hours to watch the water flow. Paint Pots, a few miles after, was another highlight, very different from what we had seen so far. The trail, short and beautiful, quickly leads to red clay soils. This colour is given by ochre deposits and this ground was used in the past by First Nations to dye their clothes but also their skin.

After a night in a cute little motel in the quiet town of Radium Hot Springs, we went on our way to do something we had booking in advance: rafting! It was a first experience for both of us and it was awesome. We did that with Kootenay River Runners. From what I remember, it was one of the cheapest options in the province and it was also the most practical for our route. We went for the Toby Creek descent, more for beginners like us but still fun. It also fitted our budget as it was the lowest price: $67 CAD per person. Our instructor was great: funny and professional. She explained really well the instructions to follow and then it was time to pull the unflattering wetsuits on and paddle. Obviously, I could not bring my camera but if you have a GoPro, now is the time to take it out! For those who want to have a souvenir, you can buy for 30$ CAD a little USB key in which all the photos taken by the company's photographer are.

The photos above were taken by the photographer of Kootnay River Runners. All rights reserved.

In the afternoon, we drove towards Yoho National Park and its beautiful Emerald lake. Its name pays tribute to the emerald colour of the lake. In the middle of the lake you can find a hotel with private wood cabins, it is absolutely dreamy, the price is less dreamy! The walk around the lake is a must and lasts about two hours. Bring your swimsuit to take a cooling dip in the water. We arrived at Takakkaw Falls in the late afternoon. 300 meters high, they are quite impressive. Leaving the landmark, the sun started to set and a golden light slowly laid down on the mountains' summits.

We only crossed Glacier National Park, there were a lot of works going on and very little trails open for hiking. On the way back to BC, you can stop in Revelstoke, a cute little town with some nice shops and the Modern bakeshop & café which offers great things to eat. The drive across Okanagan is beautiful with large stretches of green lands. Well-known for its wine production, we could have visited some wineries if we had more time. Our journey ends with our return in Vancouver to spend the last few days before going back to France for the summer. The sun kept us company until the end.

Do not hesitate to ask questions if you have some, to leave a comment to let me know what you like or what you would have liked to see or read. See you soon!