Alberta is home to the majestic Canadian Rockies, some of the most beautiful mountain ranges, nature, and wildlife I've seen around North America. If you're a hockey fan, you've probably heard of Calgary and Edmonton, and you can find all kinds of parks and natural areas throughout the province, most notably Banff
. Kananskis is amazing and just outside of Banff
. Nearby you'll also find Yoho
National Parks (technically located in British Columbia
). The Icefields Parkway between Banff
is magnificent, like the mountain version of the Pacific Coast Highway
. Surely warmer in the summer, this mostly wintry area has a diverse and abundant amount of wildlife, outdoor activities, and friendly people.
Suggest Staying: 1-2 weeks
Transport: Plane, bus, train, taxi, rental car
Highlights: Mountains, hiking, lakes, glaciers, wildlife
Suggest Staying: 2-4 days
Most people flock to Banff and then head out, but Jasper is truly a hidden gem not to be missed, or maybe not so hidden as it is highly visited. When I was researching Banff, I had never heard of Jasper, but after reading about some of the attractions and seeing pictures, I was immediately inspired to visit. Banff is great if you want to be hit with beautiful attractions, have lots of convenience, and enjoy a more touristy experience (more on Banff below), while comparatively Jasper is more for the backpacker and outdoor enthusiast. That’s not to say it’s not resorty in places. There is the town of Jasper which has all the conveniences of accommodations, restaurants, shops, and super markets. I think for me, Jasper had this amazing beauty to it that was so majestic and raw, covered in emerald lakes, streams, and waterfalls with wildlife like elk, moose, and bighorn sheep easily spotted. A bit quieter, a bit more open, a bit less touristy, Jasper edged out Banff ever so slightly for me personally. I also happened to enter Jasper during a snow storm in September, and it turned out the next two days opened up with sunshine and blue skies making the mountains and lakes glisten from freshly fallen snow. It was magical.
See & Do
- Maligne Valley. Probably my favorite area in Jasper. Hike around the Maligne Canyon, visit Medicine Lake and Maligne Lake, spot wildlife like moose and bighorn sheep from the road or possibly even crossing or eating it (a gaggle of bighorn sheep were literally licking the road when I drove by). Absolutely wonderful.
- Miette Hot Springs. Couple short hikes if you’re interested, the longer Sulphur Skyline Trail, or go directly to the amazing hot springs nestled up in the mountains. There is a cafe if you get hungry. Swimsuits and towels available to rent. Lockers provided.
- Icefields Parkway. Connects Banff and Jasper. The winter version of the Pacific Coast Highway in California. Absolutely beautiful.
- Columbia Icefields. Visitor center with tours, guides, maps, and food. Short walk to the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier which is awesome. Tours will take you on the glacier for a closer look. Don’t walk on a glacier by yourself! There is also the Glacier Skywalk which I didn’t do because I didn’t feel like paying the $35. You also have Wilcox Pass and Parker Ridge trails if you’re up for some hiking and stunning views.
- Sunwapta Falls. Gorgeous waterfalls and canyon. Must see. Short walk to upper falls, 1.7km to lower falls. Cafeteria style restaurant there that’s quick and has great soup, sandwiches, coffee, and other things to stay in or to take away.
- Kerkeslin. Look for sign that says Goats and Glaciers for some stunning mountain views.
- Athabasca Falls. Gorgeous waterfalls and canyon. Must see.
- Horseshoe Lake. Clear lake.
- Athabasca Pass Lookout. Incredible, breathtaking views.
- Valley of Five Lakes. Trail to several lakes.
- Edith Cavell. High point and mountain. May be closed during or after inclement weather.
- Pyramid Lake & Mountain. Recreation area if you want to go boating, hiking, or just chill. Also nearby Lake Edith and Lake Annette. Short hikes around the lakes.
- Jasper Downtown. Shops, restaurants.
- Getting There. You can fly into Edmonton, drive from Banff or Calgary, or take the train from several different Canadian cities like Vancouver or Banff. I heard from other travelers the train takes a very long time.
- Getting Around. Public transportation around the area is pretty much non-existent, and although there are some organized tours, it’s best to have your own car to get around.
- Lodging. There are many lodges, cabins, hostels, and campgrounds in the area. Most are not easily found through aggregated booking sites, so you’ll have to spend time researching what you want. I loved the hostel I stayed at. Bit expensive, but super clean, well organized, and amazing kitchen! Dorm and private rooms. Accommodations fill up fast in Jasper, so I would recommend booking in advance so you don’t get all the way up there and then have no place to stay.
- Weather. You’re in the mountains where weather is unpredictable. Check the forecast, but do know that it could also be better or worse. I arrived during a light snowstorm. Luckily it cleared up the next couple days and I had a wonderful time. The Icefields Parkway may have road closures due to inclement weather, especially after October.
- The Town vs. The Park. There is the town of Jasper which is located in Jasper National Park. This is a bit different than in the U.S. where we don’t typically have developed towns and national parks together, but it’s quite convenient. So Jasper is small town, but with full amenities so you can buy anything you might need that you forgot or didn’t want to bring.
- Toe of the Athabasca Glacier. Drive to the second parking lot across the street from the visitor center (not the first lot, the second one that’s closer to the glacier). It’s a 30-minute loop to the glacier. You’ll see signs showing dates of where the glacier was at that point in time, and thus can see how it’s drastically shrinking.
- Northern Lights. It’s possible to see the northern lights if it’s clear, dark, and there is magnetic activity. Good vantage points around Jasper are near Maligne, Edith Cavell, or Old Fort. Probably also along the Icefields Parkway. Just face North! Stay in the know with any dark skies site, one in particular for this area is Aurora Watch.
Highlights: Mountains, meadows, hiking, wildlife, winter sports, hot springs
Suggest Staying: 2-5 days
Stay Around: Canmore
One of the most traveled to national parks in the world, Banff has some of the most majestic and beautiful lakes you’ll ever see. It’s no wonder people visit here from all over. From it’s emerald green lakes, glaciers, mountain hikes, hot springs, and exceptional food, it’s impossible not to love this place. Even in lousy weather you can still see the emerald lakes. Due to Banff’s popularity, it gets very crowded, especially during summer months and early fall. It’s quite busy, so you’ll have to venture out on some longer hikes if you seek solitude. Otherwise, you can just navigate through the crowds to score some amazing pictures.
See & Do
- Lake Louise. Small town located about 30 minutes north of Banff, you’ll find the spectacular Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, the two most popular attractions in the park and not to be missed.
- Plain of Six Glaciers. Hike the trail (4-6 hours) for some spectacular views of glaciers. Stop at Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House for tea and/or a meal.
- Lake Agnes. Hiking to the lake via the Beehive and Mirror Lake. Very steep, takes about an hour one way. Lake Agnes Tea House has food and drink, but gets very crowded.
- Lakeshore Trail. Enjoy the leisurely flat walk along Lake Louise.
- Rockpile Trail. Best views of Moraine Lake. Combine with the Shoreline Trail for more.
- Sentinel Pass Trail. This longer trail (4-5 hours) is extremely popular in the fall when the Larch trees turn bright yellow.
- Cave & Basin. Don’t miss this national historic site, the first national park created in Canada. There’s an exhibit, hot springs pool inside a cave, short hike around the marsh, and spectacular mountain views.
- Sundance Trail. Flat trail along a beautiful emerald stream with great views of the mountain backdrop. You’ll end up at Sundance Canyon which continues into a steep, rocky loop through the canyon itself which is very nice. Takes roughly 2 hours for the trail plus canyon loop. If you don’t want to do the entire trail, go for about 30 minutes along the river, it’s lovely.
- Banff Upper Hot Springs. Soak in the hot springs pool. Swimsuits and towels available to rent. Lockers provided.
- Johnston Canyon. Awesome upper and lower falls. Takes about an hour to the lower falls or an hour and a half if you continue to the upper falls (one way). Must do.
- Mount Norquay. Skiiing, gondola, iron road (via ferrata – iron rungs for climbing the mountain). Tours to do mountaineering and cross an insane suspension bridge.
- Sulphur Mountain. Great views along the trail.
- Banff Downtown. Enjoy great food, shops, spas. Bow Falls accessible via short trail or driving. Cascade Gardens (free). Banff Hotel downtown attraction even if you don’t stay there.
- Tunnel Canyon Rd.. Loop drive around the mountain, view hoodoos. Take all the way to Lake Minnewanka.
- Canmore. Enjoy great food, shops, spas, rock climbing in this smaller, slightly cheaper version of Banff only about 20 minutes away. Larch Island Walking Path is serene and you may see wildlife.
- Kananaskis. Beautiful area in the mountains with all kinds of nature, wildlife, and hiking. The drive along route 40 is incredible with many places to stop off and hike or picnic.
- Icefields Parkway. Driving north towards Jasper, the Banff section contains some spectacular sites as well as the amazing drive itself. Bow Lake, Bow Glacier Falls, and Crowfoot Glacier are nice stops along the way. Farther up, Peyto Lake and Bow Summit are spectacular.
Food & Drink
- Good Earth. Healthy eats.
- Balkan Restaurant. Greek and Mediterranean.
- Chaya. Awesome authentic Japanese ramen noodles.
- Rocky Mountain Bagel Co. Breakfast, bagels, coffee, tea.
- Communitea. Excellent tea selection and healthy eats.
- Harvest Cafe. Healthy eats.
- Good Earth. Healthy eats
- Elita Restaurant. Healthy eats, broad selection, family owned, accommodates dietary restrictions.
- Mii Sushi & BBQ. Ramen, sushi, Korean/Japanese bbq.
- Getting There. You can fly into Calgary, or take the train from several different Canadian cities like Vancouver. I heard from other travelers the train takes a very long time. It’s also only a few hours from Glacier National Park in Montana if you just want to drive or take a bus.
- Getting Around. Public transportation around the area is excellent for the main attractions like Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and downtown Banff. Some buses are paid, but there are also free shuttles from overflow parking lots off the highway.
- Lodging. There are many lodges, cabins, hostels, and campgrounds in the area. You may not easily find through aggregated booking sites, so spend time researching online for what you want. Accommodations fill up fast in Banff, so I would recommend booking in advance.
- Weather. You’re in the mountains where weather is unpredictable. Check the forecast, but do know that it could also be better or worse. Fall in September has warm and cold fronts.
- The Town vs. The Park. There is the town of Banff which is located in Banff National Park (which spans a huge area). This is a bit different than in the U.S. where we don’t typically have developed towns and national parks together, but it’s quite convenient. There are full amenities so you can buy anything you might need that you forgot or didn’t want to bring.
- Bear Spray. I didn’t see much wildlife in Banff, but if you’re going hiking alone, bring bear spray. Popular trails tend to have plenty of people on them.
- Lake Louise. There are restrooms at the tea houses on the respective trails mentioned above. If you do Lake Agnes, you can go back the way you came or continue forward to meet the Plain of Six Glaciers trail to do a combination hike and then loop back to the base of Lake Louise. Most people do one or the other, so if you combine them through the skyline part of the trail, you may be hiking solo (or with your group) as there will likely not be many (or any) other hikers on this 30-45-minute stretch.
3. Waterton Lakes
Highlights: Lakes, mountains, hiking
Suggest Staying: 1/2-2 days
Stay Around: Waterton
Waterton Lakes is the Canadian side of the same mountain range system as Glacier National Park in Montana (there is also a Glacier National Park in Canada, it’s different though and farther north). I originally heard about this place at a bar in West Yellowstone from a guy who worked there. It’s only an hour from Glacier and worth a quick stop (or longer if you dig it) if you’re heading farther north into Alberta, like to Banff. Beautiful lake, hiking around, waterfalls, a few restaurants, and camping. I just passed through and stopped for lunch.
See & Do
- Waterton Lakes National Park. The town of Waterton with shops and restaurants as well as the park with the lakes, falls, hiking, and camping.
- Cameron Lake & Cameron Falls. Lake and waterfalls.
- Lundbreck Falls. Waterfalls with prehistoric origins. Nice for a pit stop or picnic lunch if you’re heading north.
- Frank Slide. Famous devastating rock slide.
- Lodging: $885 (AirBnB, hostel)
- Transportation: $886 (rental car)
- Activities: $77 (Canada parks pass, hot springs)
- Food: $550 (estimated $50/day)
- Planning. Due to the unpredictability of the weather in the mountains, I would suggesting budgeting at least an extra day as buffer in case there is snow or rain. If weather is good all days, you can do more or be more leisurely with your activities and spread them out.
- Cost. Alberta is pretty expensive, especially when it comes to food. Both Jasper and Banff had a high cost for accommodations, and meals were anywhere from 25% to double what I'm used to paying in the U.S. for something similar. So just be aware and budget accordingly.
- When To Go. I went after U.S. Labor Day in September which is the shoulder season. I thought it was great because you have less crowds, cooler temperatures, and before inclement weather approaches. You may even get lucky and get some light snowfall that makes the area even more spectacular but doesn't result in road closures. You also get the beautiful fall foliage and variety of colors. I imagine summer would allow for more boating and warmth for outdoor activities.
- National Parks Pass. If you're going to be exploring the national park system in Canada for more than 7 days, it's worth getting a national parks pass for less than $60 and is good for a year. You can purchase at any national park or online
- Glaciers. Glaciers are actually many thousands of years old ice which has been densely forged over time. As a result, what does not melt, slowly moves down the mountain on which it is perched, beautifully sculpting the sharp tips you see along the Canadian Rockies. Once that snow and ice melts entirely, the glacier is no more and you are left with just the mountain
- Emerald Lakes. I found it interesting that all glacier fed lakes have a very fine layer from the silt for which all colors are absorbed by light except for the beautiful emerald green you end up seeing. The color also changes based on your vantage point (looks more green from up higher). These emerald lakes are everywhere in Alberta. It's kind of amazing.