Article courtesy of the Affluent Traveler Collection
A vast wilderness packed with inspiring scenery, wildlife, and a seemingly endless lineup of recreational activities, the Canadian Rocky Mountains have everything a traveler could want in an epic-sized vacation.
If glaciers and mountains, impossibly blue lakes, and alpine meadows sound like your kind of fun, exploring the Canadian Rockies and the four national parks that comprise it might be the best travel decision you’ll ever make. Banff National Park and Jasper National Park in Alberta dominate the eastern side of the mountains, while Yoho National Park and Kootenay National Park are found to the west in British Colombia. These four contiguous national parks, along with Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine, Hamber provincial parks, create one of the most dramatic UNESCO World Heritage Sites found anywhere on Earth.
The Crown Jewel of the Canadian Rockies
As Canada’s first national park and the flagship of the nation’s park system, Banff National Park is a grand spectacle in every season. Over three million visitors a year make the pilgrimage to the park for a variety of activities that include hiking, biking, skiing, and camping in some of the world’s most breathtaking mountain scenery.
Established in 1885, Banff National Park is renowned for its stunning Lake Louise. While many have seen photos of the lake, most aren’t prepared for how it feels to experience it in person. The sight of its emerald green water, rugged peaks, and glaciers are quite overwhelming. Late in the day, with the glowing sun dropping behind Mount Victoria, it is quiet and still. As you wander around the lakeside path it seems like the entire scene is for just you to enjoy. It’s a feeling you’ll remember for the rest of your life. And while Lake Louise absolutely deserves all the hype, don’t just stop at the lake’s head by the chateau. Follow the well-marked trail to Lake Agnes Tea House in the late afternoon for stunning views across the valley and to see pikas “eep!” among the rocks.
In the warmer months, one of the best bike rides in the area is just outside the town of Banff. The eight-mile Lake Minnewanka Loop road runs through classic Canadian Rockies scenery –mountains, lakes, meadows home to bugling elk throughout fall, and boulders where it’s hard not to say hello to the resident bighorn sheep (just be sure to always keep your distance). When you reach Lake Minnewanka, veer off the road and along the shore for excellent singletrack mountain biking.
When you’re ready to chill, head to Banff Upper Hot Springs. The views out to Mount Rundle and beyond while you bathe and relax here are truly unreal. Go in the evening to watch the famous mountain faces turn pink under the setting sun.
Bigger than Your Wildest Dreams
Extending over 4200 square miles, Jasper National Park is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies. The region’s iconic valleys and mountain passes were first explored by Indigenous Peoples and early fur traders, and later by railway workers laying ties for two transcontinental routes. Park establishment dates back to 1907 with the creation of the Jasper Park Forest Reserve. Today, adventurers can take advantage of incredible backcountry locations, alpine day hikes, adrenaline-pumping mountain biking, and great paddling. For something with a more relaxed pace, take in one of the many scenic drives while picnicking amongst majestic peaks, and enjoy unique wildlife viewing. Winter highlights include snowshoeing, skiing on groomed trails, fat biking, and skating.
As in all the national parks, wildlife sightings are common across Jasper’s varied landscape. So, keep a lookout for the park’s 53 species of mammals, but only from a safe distance. Wildlife can be spotted in the park year-round, with bear sightings common in valleys in spring, and sheep and elk during rutting seasons in fall. You might even see elk roaming the town, or grizzly bears with their large humps, and the blunt, tan muzzles of black bears. There’s also moose, and two species of deer. Keen observers will spot bighorn sheep, wolves, and coyotes, as well as mountain goats. Lucky hikers may even see a rare woodland caribou. Remember, always stay in your vehicle when possible and never approach wildlife.
While you could spend a lifetime touring Jasper’s vast wilderness, even a half-day will take your breath away. If you find yourself short on time consider taking Maligne Lake Road which winds through a stunning valley to Maligne Lake. There you can take a boat tour, enjoy an alpine hike, and snap a photo of the world-famous Spirit Island. Just be sure to not miss the roaring waters and sheer limestone walls of spectacular Maligne Canyon.
A Towering Spectacle
Named for a Cree expression of awe and wonder, Yoho National Park lies on the western slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains where vertical rock walls, waterfalls, and dizzying peaks draw visitors from around the world. With exceptional hiking and sightseeing, the park offers a unique glimpse of Canada’s natural wonders, from the secrets of ancient ocean life to the power of ice and water. From river valleys and glaciers to alpine meadows and mountain peaks, Yoho National Park supports diverse ecosystems. Yoho’s alpine environment also provides important habitat for mountain goats, grizzly bears, pikas, and whitebark pine. Casual visitors and seasoned backpackers alike will find plenty to love about this special park.
Families can unplug and spend time together at one of four campgrounds in Yoho and enjoy plenty of fantastic day hikes to a half-billion-year-old fossil bed, or immerse themselves in Canadian history by traveling through the mountain pass that linked the West to the rest of Canada.
A great way to better understand the diversity of this part of the world is by joining a Parks Canada guided conservation hike where you’ll get an insider’s look at the leading-edge work being done to protect species at risk and restore balance in critical habitats. On the Paget Fire Lookout hike your guided hike begins in a dense subalpine forest climbing to the Paget Fire Lookout with sweeping views across the Continental Divide. Your guide will tell the story of whitebark pine and limber pine, species at risk.
Another fantastic hike in Yoho takes visitors to beautiful Lake O’Hara, an unparalleled hidden gem that’s home to exquisite hanging valleys, jewel-blue lakes, and breathtaking vistas. An excellent trail network for the region is maintained by the Lake O’Hara Trails Club and Parks Canada. Keep in mind that access to this sensitive alpine area is limited to provide high-quality and meaningful experiences for visitors and maintain Lake O’Hara’s unique alpine environment.
A Land of Striking Contrasts
Established in 1920 as part of an agreement to build a new road across the Rockies, Kootenay National Park is a place of unique juxtapositions, from icy mountain rivers to steamy hot springs.
Spend just a little time in Kootenay and you’ll quickly realize the rich variety of activities and experiences that await you, from hiking glacier-clad peaks along the Continental Divide to finding cactus on the dry grassy slopes of the Columbia Valley. Enjoy backcountry camping on a multi-day trek or relax in one of three front-country campgrounds. The hot mineral waters of Radium Hot Springs are also a favorite among visitors and the day spa services at the Pleiades Spa offer thorough pampering for whatever aches you may have after a couple of days on the trail.
Of particular interest to kids and the young at heart are Kootenay’s Burgess Shale fossils that are some of the oldest and most complex in the world. These fossils represent a complete ecosystem that existed for only a very short time after the first explosion of multicellular life on earth.
The shale fossils are so important that they have been recognized as a unique attribute to the region’s UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. Scientists are still making new discoveries and finding new animals, which are changing our understanding of early life and evolution.
Whether it’s a leisurely scenic drive to discover new surprises around every bend, spending the day exploring deep canyons and tumbling waterfalls just a short stroll from the road, or traversing the park’s backcountry trails, Kootenay is a vacation playground that’s perfect for all lovers of the great outdoors.