When they built the Canadian Pacific Railway, the head engineer commented, "since we cannot bring the mountains to the tourists, we'll just have to bring the tourists to the mountains!". The Rockies are arguably the most buitiful part of Camada, and the most spectacular sights are remarkably accessible. We urge visitors to visit not just Banff & Lake Louise (though you can!), but to explore, north, south, west and east.
Here are the things you should try to do on your first day (this may take more than a day if you are travelling with children)
Start out in Banff, park your car on or just off Banff Avenue and take a walk down Banff Avenue away from the river to the Park Information office and then back on the other side toward the Bow River.
On this side of the bridge is the Luxton Museum and a nice park. The post office is a block west, so you can mail your post cards.
Return to your car and head over the bridge. You can head right to the Trading Post, straight ahead for the Park Wardens Office (popular for wedding photos), or left toward the Banff Springs Hotel.
Park anywhere there's a free spot near the Banff Springs Hotel (valet parking and parkade parking are pricey, but if you don't have a choice...) check out the lobby, go up the stairs and find the back deck and outdoor pool with their stunning views. You can grab a bite in any of their fine restaurants.
On the way back, just after the Banff Springs, there's a right hand exit down to the Bow Falls, where the Bow River cascades over a rock ledge and are spectacular in Spring/Summer with the glacial melt thundering over. There's a little wooden walkway up beside the falls.
Return to Banff Springs Road toward town, make a left turn, and drive up the hill to the Upper Hot Springs Pool. If you have a chance, take a dip (great after a day of hiking or skiing!)
Head down the hill a bit, and watch for signs (on the left) to the Sulphur Mountain Gondola. This will give you a sky-high view of the region. If you are on a budget, alternatively hike up Tunnel Mountain, by the Banff Centre, for great views up and down the Bow Valley. Its a 20-30 minute hike, and not too challenging, even for young teens.
Head back to Banff Avenue, and turn left at the park (Luxton Museum) and first right to head toward the Trans-Canada Highway. Cross over the highway and head up the hill toward Mount Norquay. The roadway zigs and zags up the mountainside, and just before the ski hill is a great viewpoint. In the winter, skiers can ski from the ski hill right to the motel you passed on the left after crossing the highway! It's said from the top of the Mount Norquay ski hill, you can see the bottom of the ski run between your bindings!
Head down the road back to the highway, and this time turn right (west) toward Lake Louise.
Watch for signs leading to "Highway 1A", which is a nice two lane tourist route with spectacular views
When you see Castle Mountain, you know you are near Lake Louise. The town in the valley is nothing special, though its worth stopping in the Samson Mall to get info about the Icefields Parkway (this is a highly recommended Day Two trip, see below)
Head up the Lake Louise road, which climbs several hundred metres to the famous Lake Louise, and adjacent Chateau Lake Louise. Walk around the grounds, and maybe partway around the lake on the flat trail (the "Teahouse Trail" looks interesting, but it's a half day commitment, all on its own)
In summer, there is a riding stable and canoe rental on the south side of the lake, near the parking lot, and wonderful hike along the north shore of the lake to the glacier you see on the other end of the lake. Even more interesting, for those who have a half day (and good, fit legs!) is a hike to the right to the famous Tea House. In winter, you'll have to settle for a view of the ice-covered lake, and the cleared skating rink beside the Chateau. Head inside, as well, to check out this stunning example of castle architecture, not to mention there are several restaurants (and lounges) where you can eat & drink while enjoying the view.
When heading back to Banff, take the east exit (by Cascade Mountain and the railway tracks) for a side trip to Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake
Head back to Banff and enjoy dinner at the many restaurants, and check out the many bars, pubs and nightclubs catering to visitors and locals.
Head east of Banff to to Canmore. The town, formerly an important coal mining town, is now the gateway to the Rockies and Kananaskis Country. The town has two great golf courses, Three Sisters in the valley and SilverTip, which has the second highest slope rating in the world!
When you get off the Trans-Canada head east up SilverTip Trail (to the golf course of the same name) to get stunning views of the valley to the west (morning light from this location makes for great photos!).
Head into town and up head to the Smith Dorrien Trail (gravel road) to Kananaskis Country. As you rise above Canmore, you pass the Canmore Nordic Centre, used for the 1988 Olympics for cross country and biathlon events (and it's used for mountain biking in summer)
A little further up the road you can get to Grassi Lakes, worth a short 15 minute hike for their stunning surrealistic colours.
Keep heading up the Smith Dorrien Trail until you pass the dam the Spray Lakes Dam, which are the Canmore water supply and you can drive along Spray Lakes for a few kilometres. The road is gravel (and dusty) so don't drive fast... you may also miss the You may have pass mountain goats and sheep on the slopes above or on the road! From the dam (on your way back) you have great views from above ot the town, all the mountains cradling the Bow Valley, and the Grassi Lakes.
Head back in to Canmore (stop at the Spray Lakes Dam for photos, and then walk Canmore's Main Street with its shops, restaurants, and Grizzly Paw Brewpub.
Here are suggestions for extra days in the Rockies:
Head west from Banff and about 7 miles west watch for the Sunshine Village turnoff. This ski resort straddles the Alberta - BC border, and has winter skiing and summer hiking (with a lodge right up on the ski hill!) There's a great gondola ride to take you up to the "Village". From the Sunshine Parking lot, there are several great hikes of varying difficulty, up the 22 km Healy Pass Trail
If it's September, one of the "Bucket list" hikes is the Larch Trail, starting out from Morraine Lake, 11 km south of Lake Louise's lake and chateau. You need a group of at four (bears!) and take a whole day. If it's a weekend, you may have to park in the "Overflow Parking Lot" on the Trans-Canada, and take the shuttle bus up, based on parking availability.
If you are less athletic or less adventourous, we recommend seeing Morraine Lake, and its rockpile, and drive back to Lake Louise (park in the large lot just south of the Chateau Lake Louise), and take a walk on the pathway around the lakeshore, for views of the glaciers on the currounding peaks, before rturnign to the Chateau Lake Louise and have tea or a meal in the Chateau or on the patio overlooking the lake (depending on time of hear). In peak summer season, and parking is limited/unavailable, you may have to park off the Trans-Canada in "Lake Louise Overflow Parking" and Parks Canada will have a free shuttle to Morrraine Lake and Lake Louise, and back.
Head past Lake Louise, to Castle Junction (under the shadow of Castle Mountain), formerly called Eisenhower Junction, and take Highway 93 south to Radium & Fairmont BC. The road has some spectacular views and moments, though it's about 2 hours to Radium. The eastern part of BC stays in Mountain Time like Alberta, so you won't have to switch your watches. Radium has a nice Hot Springs and two ski areas and number of golf resorts nearby. You can be back in Banff the same day.
Take the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) north to Jasper. Worth a detour: Bow Lake & Glacier, Peyto Lake. Continue north to the Columbia Icefields, and the Athabasca Falls. new attraction is the Glacier Skywalk, near the Columbia Icefields (run by Brewster).
In Jasper, three things are truly worthwhile: the Jasper Tram (just south of town), The Jasper Park Lodge, with its bicycling room service waiters, just north of town and across the Athabasca River, and the Miete Canyon just north of the town. If it's late and a night-time drive back to Banff on the twisting mountain roadway seems daunting (and you'll miss out on the views), you may want to stay the night and drive back to Banff in the morning. Be sure to fill up in Jasper, before returning, as there is no gas station btween Jasper and Lake Louise.
For a two day trip, head west on the #1 Trans-Canada to Yoho, past Lake Louise:
You will pass under several wide landscaped animal bridges. These are typically 100 ft wide (30 metres) and are landscaped with indigenous trees and shrubs to fit in with the ground-level landscape on either side of highway. They are used by all types of animals to cross the highway safely.
After crossing into BC, you'll pass the Spiral Tunnels. Here you can watch the massive freight trains enter and leave a circular tunnel above itself! The trains pass here at least 1 per hour, so it's worth packing a picnic basket. This viewpoint is open in summer only, and best/easiest access driving westbound.
A few kilometres further, you pass Field (stop at the Alberta Visitor Center there for bathroom break), and continue west toward Golden.
After leaving Yoho National Park, you will cross the spectacular curved Park Bridge (the valley below drops as much as the rock cuts above the road and bridge) and you can take a photo of the bridge from the BC Visitor Centre at the bottom of the hill. Over the next few miles you will observe many avalanche/rockslide control features along the highway, including concrete walls, pre-cast concrete barriers, rock anchors, heavy chain-link curtains
Golden is home to Kicking Horse Resort (skiing in winter, mountain biking is summer), the town has a wooden covered bridge across the Kicking Horse River, and a very charming downtown just off the highway. You might also visit the Northern Lights Wolf Habitat to the northwest in the Blaeberry area.
Cross the Columbia River at Donald, and at the top of the hill is a view to Kinbasset Lake, created by a distant dam around a curve in the Columbia River
Then you enter into Glacier National Park, which includes the Rogers Pass, which has great exhibits in the visitor center. You will pass through several concrete snow sheds which protect the highway from avalanches in winter, from the area's 50 feet (17 metres) of annual snowfall.
On the west side of Rogers Pass you will pass a number of rafting operations, and on the right side is Mount Revelstoke National Park, and there are just-off-highway hiking trails: Giant Cedars and Skunk Cabbage (both a half hour and an easy hike, with some stairs)
Just east of the town of Revelstoke is the Meadows in the Sky Parkway (the highway exit is easy to miss!) and itís a half hour drive up, past several scenic viewpoints, and the top has two lakes with a flower-covered meadow (they may be dried up in August)
North of Revelstoke is the Revelstoke Dam (about 19 km north) with a visitor center and below the dam is the BC Forestry Museum with some impressively HUGE forestry harvesting machinery
Stay overnight at Revelstoke, and then head back the next day
Revelstoke Mountain Resort (just south of town) has great winter skiing, with over a mile of vertical (tied with Whistler-Blackcomb) and some impressive annual high-mountain snow falls. In the summer, you can ride The Pipe Mountain Coaster which has 1.4km of twists and turns, and a 279m vertical drop.
If you want a side trip from Revelstoke, head west to Three Valley Gap, where there is a hotel, and several attractions (Heritage Ghost Town), and you can continue past the lake at Three Valley Gap to Crazy Creek Falls, The Enchanted Forest, and Skytrek Adventure Park.
If you are visitng in July, you may want to check out Calgary and the Calgary Stampede events, festivities and frfee breakfasts!
Blue = Trans-Canada Route| Green = bicycle friendly scenic route | red = downtown detour from TCH | Purple = Future Ring Road