We were drawn to Canada’s Banff and Jasper National Parks by the promise of some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. The abundance of majestic mountains, turquoise glacial lakes, lush alpine meadows, and powerful waterfalls, not to mention the numerous wildlife sightings, made every day an adventure. We experienced Banff and Jasper in mid-June, but the parks’ adventurous spirit can be had all year long. Experiencing the Rockies’ frozen splendor in winter can be just as exciting as during the warmer months.
The town of Banff is charming and very walkable, and it has plenty of great restaurants and shops to explore. But it gets quite busy in the warmer months, so be prepared for the crowds. A popular activity in Banff is to take a relaxing soak in the warm mineral waters of the historic Banff Upper Hot Springs, one of three Canadian Rockies Hots Springs located in the National Parks.
Parking in town may be free, but it is with limited hours at many of the lots. And parking at many of the major attractions from May to September is extremely difficult if not impossible in some cases. The best way to get around town or to visit these attractions is by using the Roam public transit system and the Parks Canada shuttle buses. Visit the Banff/Lake Louise transportation website for a complete list of transportation options.
We began our Canadian Rockies adventure with the Discover Banff and its Wildlife Tour. Operated by Discover Banff Tours this 3-hour morning small bus tour offers a great introduction to the town of Banff, its history and its landmarks. With stops at Bow Falls (site of some scenes from the Marilyn Monroe film River of No Return), Surprise Corner, Hoodoos Viewpoint, and Minnewanka Lake, the tour provides some great photo opportunities. After getting some great photos of the historic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel on the tour, we made sure to visit to the hotel and experience this grand four-star resort. Enjoy a cocktail or a bite to eat in one of its many dining options whether indoor or on its spacious patio.
Another way to experience Banff and its surrounding area is to view it from the summit of Sulphur Mountain. This is easy to do with the Banff Gondola. Offering stunning views of six mountain ranges and the sweep of the Bow Valleyand the town of Banff, the newly-transformed summit building has a 360-degree observation deck, two restaurants, an interpretive centre, and a multi-sensory theater. We enjoyed a glorious sunny day on the outside patio sipping a glass of wine while marveling at the breathtaking views. A 1-kilometer boardwalk takes you to the peak of Sulphur Mountain and the site of the historic weather station. It is advised that you make reservations for a tour time and that you use public transportation or the free shuttle service from town.
One of Banff’s iconic landscapes that we enjoyed was the relatively easy hike in Johnston Canyon. Wide trails and catwalks with handrails lead hikers through the canyon 1.1 km to the Lower Falls and then continuing another 1.6 km to the Upper Falls. Offering stunning views of the canyon walls and the falls, many of the catwalks are perched directly over the rushing waters of Johnston Creek. This hike is very popular in the winter, as the canyon becomes a maze of glittering ice. Be sure to don ice cleats for this walk. Because this area is so popular, consider using Roam public transit during the summer months.
Two of Banff National Park’s most visited natural wonders are Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. Both lakes, surrounded by glaciers, feature stunning turquoise waters with majestic snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. Be sure to hike the Lakeshore Trail at Lake Louise for outstanding views and great photo ops. A couple of more adventurous trails are the Lake Agnes Tea House Trail and the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House Trail. Take some time to check out the famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel situated on the shores of the lake. Take the convenient shuttle to Lake Moraine – it is nothing short of mesmerizing. Take the easy walk along the Lakeshore Trail for outstanding views of the lake and the surrounding Ten Peaks. The Rockpile Trail is also fun and offers alternative views of the lake.
Renowned scenic drive
The drive from Banff and Lake Louise into Jasper National Park is a treat, as the route includes the incredibly scenic Icefields Parkway, considered one of the most picturesque alpine drives in the world. Drive past glaciers, sparkling waterfalls and turquoise lakes on your way to Jasper. Make stops at Crowfoot Glacier, Bow Lake and Peyto Lake for some outstanding photo ops. A must-do along the Parkway is a stop at the Columbia Icefield Centre. An unforgettable experience for us was the ride on the massive Ice Explorer coupled with a walk onto the Glacier Skywalk. The Ice Explorer transported us onto the surface of the Athabasca Glacier where we were able to walk safely on the ancient icefield. We then experienced an exhilarating walk on the cliff-edge walkway leading to the Skywalk where a glass floor is all that separates you from a 918-foot drop. Also be sure to keep your eyes open for wildlife as you drive the Icefield Parkway. We spotted a number of black bear, moose, elk, and big horn sheep as we continued our drive into the town of Jasper.
The town of Jasper has an unpretentious small-town charm. A great way to get introduced to the town is by taking the Downtown Foodie Tour run by Jasper Food Tours. Longtime local, Estelle Blanchette, hosts the tour. Get the inside scoop on the history and cuisine of Jasper through Estelle’s storytelling while you sample some delicious food and drink at four of the town’s restaurants on this three-hour walking tour. Get a bird’s-eye view of Jasper and the surrounding area with the Jasper SkyTram, Canada’s highest and longest guided aerial tramway.Open from late March to late October, the SkyTram brings you to the top of Whistlers Mountain for some outstanding views of six mountain ranges, turquoise lakes, glacial-fed rivers, and the town of Jasper. A 1.4 km alpine trail leads to the mountain summit and a breathtaking 360-degree panorama. Be sure to check the website for times that include breakfast or hamburgers at the Summit Restaurant in the admission price.
A guided tour that we recommend is the Maligne Valley “Wonders of Jasper “with Sundog Tours. This six-hour tour includes a stop at “disappearing” Medicine Lake, a 90-minute Maligne Lake boat cruise to the enchanting Spirit Island (a world-famous Jasper landmark and site of an award-winning photo), and a guided walk at Maligne Canyon. No guarantee, but you are very likely to spot wildlife from the bus on this tour or anytime while driving around Jasper.
Other sites to visit that are just short drives from town include Patricia and Pyramid Lakes and Athabasca Falls. For an evening activity check out The Jasper Planetarium at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Here you can explore the Jasper Dark Sky Preserve, the world’s largest accessible astronomy park.
Considered two of Canada’s most popular winter playgrounds, Banff and Jasper offer numerous winter activities such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice climbing and ice trekking, and, of course, some of the best downhill skiing and riding in North America. The Banff area sports three world-class ski resorts: Sunshine Village, Mount Norquay, and Lake Louise. Jasper’s alpine wonderland is Marmot Basin, which features a 3000-foot vertical and five mountain faces.
Banff, Canada’s first National Park, and Jasper, Canada’s largest National Park, are both part of the UNESCO-designated Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. Both parks are year-round playgrounds offering outstanding natural beauty and unending opportunities for adventure and fun.
Photos by Stephanie Sylva
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