Summer is the best time to visit the Canadian Rockies. The weather is warm, the jade-green lakes are glistening, and the awe-inspiring mountains are calling.
We’re still not sure what causes this slightly sedative effect – the pockets of pristine nature, the many quaint country towns that have a charming vibe, the calming presence of the waterfalls or the abundant wildlife – all we know is that it’s almost impossible to travel here and not feel like you’re spending your days in a dreamy haze.
Here’s our pocket guide to the best spots during a summertime Canadian Rockies visit.
THE PARKS: LAKES, FALLS & TRAILS
There are so many parks to visit in the Rockies. From Banff National Park to Yoho National Park, BC Parks, Canmore, and Kananaskis. We found ourselves venturing outside every day, exploring the parks, lakes, and trails.
Here are just some of our favourite spots:
Banff National Park
Lake Louise / Lake Agnes Trail
You’ve seen the pictures. It really is like something out of a dream. Get here early (before 8am) so you don’t have to go back to the overflow carpark (10km away). You can walk around the lake, jump in a canoe ($105CAD for 1-hour) or take the gondola ride. We opted for Lake Agnes trail, where you can enjoy tea and scones in a quaint teahouse at the top.
Not far from Lake Louise, is the lesser well known Moraine Lake that’s just as beautiful with its glistening turquoise-water. There are lots of trails to explore, or you can hire a canoe. Again, parking is a challenge during peak times, but most tourists only come for a photo and head off so you won’t have to wait long.
Johnston Canyon / Ink Pots
This is one of the most popular sights in the Rockies. The first half is an easy walk along the canyon, where you can get up close to the thundering falls. The second half is worth the extra 2-hour hike. You’ll be rewarded by a beautiful meadow set against the Ink Pots, a series of jade-green pools where the undulating springs bubble up to the surface.
Yoho National Park
No trip to the Rockies is complete without a drive along the Icefields Parkway, the world’s most scenic highway. Surrounded by mountains encrusted with mighty glaciers, rushing waterfalls and wildlife, you’ll be enthralled by the beautiful scenery.
Now, this has to be one of our favourite lakes of all time. The milky green water is so silky and smooth, it looks completely surreal. The inconspicuous walk from the carpark leads to this hidden gem. A great pit stop on the way to Jasper.
We didn’t make it to Maligne Lake as we only did a day-trip to Jasper (600kms!), but if you’re staying a few days, we have been told it’s worth going the extra 50km from Jasper to see this magnificent lake.
The glacier-melts from the Columbian Icefields power the mighty falls. From the carpark, you can hear the roar as the falls cascade down into the deep ridges of the canyon gorge. The water is milky white in summer due to the sediment. Take advantage of the several viewing points.
Canmore / Kananaskis
This is a great spot to take a boat out or go on a day hike. We opted for C-Level Cirque trail which offers a unique view of the Rockies. This area is known for heavy bear activity so heed the warnings, travel in a group, and carry bear spray.
Ha Ling Peak
This is an advanced trail with a steep ascent (5-hours return). As you near the summit, the dirt becomes loose shale before a final steep ascent with some pretty heavy duty rock scrambling. Highly recommend hiking shoes and poles. We spotted a caribou and a wild bear on the mountain!
Barrier Lake / Prairie View Trail
This is a moderate hike (3-hours return) with a constant ascent, while the wide trail is also ideal for mountain bike riding. There are three viewpoints overlooking Barrier Lake, with strong winds at the top – definitely worth braving for the incredible view.
British Columbia Parks
If you’re driving from the Rockies to Whistler / Vancouver, you can easily stop by Lake Emerald. It’s a scenic spot with daisies and pink-hued fields in the distance. There is also a 5.5-kilometre trail stretching around the lake. The perfect spot to jump in a canoe.
This is the second highest waterfall in Canada, after Niagara Falls. It’s one of our favourite falls, as you can get up close and feel the mist as it covers the entire area below. It’s hard to believe a thick glacier-melt powers this thundering falls. Best of all, there are multiple hiking trails to explore.
A charming town set against the backdrop of the Rockies, Banff covers all the major tourist needs with restaurants, shops, museums and a well-equipped information centre. While the town can become a little congested, we had no problems with parking or wait times for meals.
Over the Bow River, there’s the grand railway hotel, Fairmont Banff Springs, where you can marvel at the 18th Century opulence. While staying here might be a little pricey for the regular traveller, visitors can still wander around and snap a few photos overlooking the valley.
After days of hiking, you can relax your aches away at the hot springs located a short drive up Sulphur Mountain. The man-made hot spring has great facilities, with fresh hot spring water circulating through the pool, making it appealing even in the busiest tourist season! We were pleasantly surprised at the low entry fee of only CAD$7.30!
It’s easy to see why Canmore is on the rise, with its beautiful Bow River Loop. Visit the local farmer’s market, take a tour of the Grizzly Paw Brewery or gorge on ice cream at one of the many local artisan stores. Canmore offers a more ‘local’ experience with many of the stores offering locally produced goods without the influence of big brands.
One of the most historical areas in the Rockies, Jasper is the quaint town at the end of the Icefields Parkway. You might even catch a glimpse of the Rocky Mountaineer.
If you love the thrill of mountain bike riding, you can get your fix here. In the summertime, the ski fields turn into downhill mountain bike trails, by using the ski lifts to transport both people and bikes to the top. The town itself is very touristy as it was built for the 2008 Olympics, but worth a stop enroute to Vancouver.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed in Airbnb accommodation for our month-long stay in Canada, as they were significantly cheaper than hostels. For instance, a private room in an Airbnb was $70 CAD p/n, whereas two beds in a hostel dorm (sleeping 23 people!) was $140 CAD p/n. Go figure!
We booked our accommodation in January for our visit in August/September, as 85% of accommodation was already booked out. Summertime is peak season, so it’s worthwhile booking early in the year, as prices tend to triple later on.
Tip: Accommodation can be extremely expensive in Banff Town, so to keep costs down we stayed in Canmore, a 20-minute drive from Banff. This choice worked out, as Canmore had great hiking trails, shops, and a quaint village.
Hiring a car
Hiring a car is a must for exploring the Rockies, as it allows you to easily visit the parks and trails, which can be a few hundred kilometers apart.
We booked our rental via CarRentals.com (a division of Expedia), which had some of the cheapest rates. The best thing is you don’t need a credit card to book, and you can cancel anytime.
We found an incredible deal with Enterprise for $536 USD over 21 days (Calgary to Vancouver). With taxes ($220), a drop charge ($261USD) and insurance ($26 per day CAD), the rental cost $1,400CAD ($70CAD per day).
The other option is to take a shuttle service from Banff Town to Banff National Park, but bear in mind the service is limited, and you won’t have the flexibility to explore the various lakes, trails or parks outside of Banff.
Alternatively, you can take the Greyhound bus from Calgary and Canmore / Banff and from Canmore/Banff to Whistler / Vancouver. However, the buses can be very long, and you don’t get to stop and see the sights along the way.