It’s been ranked the #1 place in the world to visit in 2017 by Lonely Planet, the Telegraph and New York Times and there really couldn’t be a better time to tick Canada off your travel bucket list.
If the promise of magnificent scenery and captivating cities isn’t enough to persuade you, 2017 marks Canada’s 150th anniversary, with year-long celebrations planned from coast to coast, including FREE entry to all national parks. Plus the current exchange rate and weak Canadian dollar makes it a more affordable destination to visit than elsewhere in North America right now.
It might be the second largest country in the world but road-tripping the Canadian Rockies is easy and you don’t need as long as you think to enjoy the highlights of beautiful Alberta and British Columbia.
We had just 12 days to explore this spectacular part of the world but managed to pack in an epic road trip that took us on a journey through Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, Wells Gray Provincial Park and Vancouver.
Best time to visit:
We were fortunate to get a glimpse of this majestic country in late September/early October. Early Autumn is a glorious time to visit Western Canada – temperatures are still moderate, the crowds have thinned out and prices are more reasonable, as the high season comes to a close. Leaf-peeping season is also in full swing!
Flight time: 9h 30 London – Calgary/Vancouver.
Low-cost Canadian airlines WestJet and AirTransat started flying direct routes from London to Calgary and Vancouver in 2016, making flight prices much more competitive across the pond. We managed to pick up direct flights into Calgary and out of Vancouver for less than £400 pp.
Self-drive is by far the best way to see the Rockies and gives you the freedom to stop whenever you want to take in the scenery (trust me, you’ll be pulling over ALL the time!)
Canadian Affair provides reliable price comparisons on car rentals plus they offer FREE one-way drop off agreements on certain routes. Other companies can charge up to $150 for dropping off your car in a different city to where you collected it, so make sure you always read the Ts&Cs before you book.
Top tip: Don’t bother paying extra for a GPS system with your rental car. The roads are so simple and easily signposted – we hardly used our GPS and regretted forking out for it. A good old-fashioned road map still cuts it in Canada!
Canadian Rockies – 12 day itinerary
Fly into Calgary International Airport and pick up your rental car from the airport. Depending on what time your flight gets in, consider spending a few hours or even a night in the city of Calgary – check out VisitCalgary for tips and advice.
We decided to head straight for the Rockies, just a 1 hour 20 minute drive from the airport. Canmore is an excellent and affordable alternative to staying in the busier town of Banff. Just 15 minutes drive from Banff National Park, it’s a peaceful little mountain town, full of character and local charm. It actually ended up being our favourite place we stayed during our entire trip!
For accommodation, check out the Lamphouse Hotel (formerly the Bow Valley Motel but has recently been renovated) for its central location, affordable rates and super friendly staff – and have you seen those views?
Spend your evening exploring Canmore – wander along Policeman’s Creek Boardwalk or to Grassi Lakes before dining at one of the local restaurants. The Grizzly Paw Brewing Co. offers a great menu and selection of local beers (did I mention the Canadians love their brewskis?!)
Grab breakfast at Rocky Mountain Bagel Co. before heading straight for the attractions of Banff National Park.
All visitors need a pass to enter Canada’s national parks by car – this would normally set you back by $20 per day but throughout 2017, you can sign up for your FREE Discovery Pass here.
Banff has a great free parking facility on Bear Street (the Bear Street Parkade) where you can park for up to 12 hours with convenient central access to Banff Avenue. From here, take the short 10 minute bus ride (Roam Route One $2pp) directly to the Banff Gondola. Ticket prices for the gondola are $42pp (or cheaper if you combine with other attractions) but it is worth every penny to witness some of the most spectacular panoramic views in the Rockies.
It’s a short 8 minute gondola ride up the mountain then you are free to spend however long you like walking around the many boardwalks and trails at the top. Be sure to also check out the new indoor visitor centre where you can grab a coffee and take in the breathtaking views.
Hop on the return bus back to Banff and spend some time exploring the local area. Drop into the Visitor Information Centre and browse the shops and cafes along Banff Avenue. Walk along the Bow River Trail for views of Bow Falls and Surprise Corner.
Next, grab the car and head for the Lake Minnewanka Loop – a 15 mile scenic loop that can be easily accessed from the town of Banff. Allow at least 1 hour to do the drive – longer if you want to make any stops.
Johnson Lake, Two Jack Lake and magnificent Lake Minnewanka itself are some of the key highlights along the loop.
Head back to Canmore in time for dinner – the Rocky Mountain Flatbread Co. was one of our favourite spots but it’s popular with the locals, so be prepared to queue!
Head out along the Bow Valley Parkway this morning – a 30 mile alternate route between Banff and Lake Louise with excellent opportunities for wildlife spotting.
First stop – Moraine Lake, the jewel of the Rockies. So iconic, in fact, that it used to feature on back of the Canadian twenty dollar bill and remains one of the most photographed spots in Canada. There are several trails around the lake including the Rockpile Trail – a short walk up to the top of the rocks will reward you with the most magnificent views of the turquoise water below and the Valley of the Ten Peaks.
You can hire canoes on the lake from $35/hour or if you have a bit more time to spare, head for the Larch Valley/Sentinel Pass trail-head from the parking area. This hike is one of the main attractions of the Rockies in the autumn because of the brilliant yellow larch trees and foliage along the trail.
Continue the short drive on to Lake Louise – one of the most iconic spots in the Rockies. You can easily spend hours just wandering around the lake, admiring the Chateau or hiring a canoe but I would highly recommend making time for one of the popular tea-house hikes, which start from along the lake-shore.
There are two main hikes – The Lake Agnes Teahouse Trail and the lesser-known Plain of Six Glaciers. The latter was hands down our favourite hike in the Rockies.
It’s a fairly moderate trail – approx 3.4 miles each way so you’ll want to allow at least 4-5 hours return. Seeing the turquoise blue of Lake Louise emerge as you wind your way up the trail is truly a magnificent sight. The last few kms are pretty tiring, so you’ll be relieved to see the rustic tea house finally loom into sight at the top. With no running water or electricity, it’s like stepping into the past – reward yourself with a hot cup of tea or a refreshing glass of homemade lemonade before descending back down the trail.
Head to Johnston Canyon this morning and follow the boardwalk trails through forest, limestone caves and waterfalls. This is one of the most popular and easy hikes in the area and best of all admission is totally FREE!
Allow the rest of the day to explore Yoho National Park – home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the Canadian Rockies. Must-see stops include Takkakaw Falls – Canada’s third highest waterfall; the Natural Bridge lookout and Emerald Lake. The emerald colour of the lake is truly breath-taking and with Emerald Lake Lodge perched on the edge, it looks like something straight out of a postcard.
We hired canoes for $45 p/h and had the lake all to ourselves!
Head out early today to explore one of the world’s most iconic highways – the Icefields Parkway.
This jaw-dropping road connecting Banff to Jasper is packed full of glaciers, waterfalls, lakes and incredible mountain scenery. You need a whole day, at least, to properly explore – be prepared to pull in CONSTANTLY for photos and general ‘wow’ moments!
There are several ‘must-see’ stops along the way including Bow Lake and Nim Ti Jah Lodge (be sure to pop in for home-made cake and coffee). Next up, Peyto Lake is truly an unmissable sight and one of the highlights of the Parkway – you won’t believe the colour of the lake until you see it with your own eyes!
Allow yourself a couple of hours to hike the Parker Ridge Trail – a short but hugely rewarding hike which will take you up face to face with the Saskatchewan Glacier and sweeping panoramic views of Jasper National Park.
The next and most popular stop is the Colombia Icefield Glacier Adventure, which includes entrance to the Glacier Skywalk. It’s certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience to say you’ve stepped foot on to a glacier but we felt this excursion was overpriced for the experience at $94 pp – you might want to consider skipping it and spending your time elsewhere along the Parkway.
Finally, make a quick stop at thundering Athabasca Falls before arriving into the town of Jasper.
Mount Robson Inn is a comfortable and well-located choice with the added (and rare!) bonus of a free breakfast.
Head for Maligne Road this morning, which is renowned for its mountain scenery and wildlife spotting. We were fortunate to see elk, big horn sheep and even black bears along the road!
Drive all the way to Maligne Lake and book on to the Brewster boat tour (available May – October). Prices may seem a little steep at $72pp but this is a truly brilliant and entertaining tour that takes you out to one of the most magical attractions in all of Jasper – Spirit Island.
Once you’re back on dry land, head back along Maligne Road stopping at Maligne Canyon to take the short self-guided interpretative trails past towering gorges and waterfalls.
Spend the evening around Jasper – head to the balcony of Earl’s for cocktails and fantastic sunset views before dining at the popular Jasper Brewing Co. where you’ll find delicious pub food and house-made craft beers.
Head to Patricia Lake and Pyramid Lake this morning, just a 10 minute drive from Jasper. These stunning, lakes are often overlooked but reflect (quite literally!) the real Canada you imagined. Be sure to walk across the bridge to Pyramid Island for some great views and photo opportunities.
Next, drive the winding road to Mount Edith Cavell and come face to face with a glacier. There are two hiking options – the quick and easy Path Of The Glacier Loop, which will take you to the foot of the Angel Glacier or if you have 4-5 hours to spare, the Cavell Meadows Loop will take you up higher rewarding you with phenomenal views.
End your day with a well-earned visit to Miette Hot Springs – the hottest mineral springs in the Canadian Rockies. Tickets are just $6 pp and this is a great way to relax after a week of hiking and sightseeing! Keep your eye out for wildlife around the car-park – it’s a popular hangout for mountain goats!
Leave Jasper behind today as you start making your way across to Vancouver. (Top tip: you’ll gain an hour today as you cross the border into British Columbia – even more time to explore!)
Mount Robson Provincial Park will be your first stop – Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Rockies and an impressive sight to see. Stop in at the Visitor Centre for information on what to see and do in the area. If you have a few hours to spare, the Kinney Lake Hike is truly spectacular – taking you through enchanted forests to a beautiful, deserted lake and picnic area.
Next, head onwards to Clearwater for your overnight stay. Clearwater sits on the edge of Wells Gray Provincial Park, a spectacular wilderness area renowned for its wildlife and waterfalls – it’s a nice alternative to Kamloops if you’re looking for a stopover on your way to Vancouver.
We didn’t have long to explore this beautiful region but we made sure to visit the magnificent Helmcken Falls and enjoyed the drive through the stunning autumn foliage that surrounded us.
The Gateway B&B (www.booking.com) is located at the entrance to Wells Gray Park and offers good value for money and a homely experience (including the best stocked fridge you have ever seen!). The owners also offer discount vouchers to dine at the local Gateway Grill where you’ll find great food and atmosphere.
Get comfortable because today is a driving day – it’s a 5-6 hour journey from Clearwater to your final stop – the buzzing city of Vancouver (check out 10 of the top things to do in Vancouver here).
Drop your rental car off on arrival and spend your evening relaxing around the popular Yaletown area, where there are plenty of great bars and restaurants to choose from. The rooftop terrace at The Keg Steakhouse and Bar provides incredible views of downtown Vancouver and great cocktails to enjoy after a long day of driving.
We stayed at Moda Hotel – basic, no frills accommodation located in the arts and entertainment district, close to everything Vancouver has to offer.
Head to historic Gastown this morning – browse the boutique shops and stop for brunch in one of the many stylish cafes or restaurants. Be sure to spot the old Steam Clock and the famous statue of Gassy Jack before heading to Coal Harbour along Vancouver’s famous waterfront.
From Canada Place you can take in fantastic views of North Vancouver and watch the seaplanes taking off. There are plenty of places to grab lunch around the waterfront – Cactus Club Cafe is worth a visit for its incredible views across the harbour (and check out those fancy toilets!!).
After lunch, continue walking along the waterfront until you reach Stanley Park – Vancouver’s top rated attraction. Across the road you can hire bikes from Spokes from $7.62 p/h and this is an excellent way to tour Stanley Park and the Seawall.
There are lots of interesting stops throughout Stanley Park including the Totem Poles and Hallelujah Point, where you’ll be rewarded with stunning skyline views of the city.
As you make your way around the Seawall there are plenty more great photo opportunities including Siwash Rock and Lions Gate Bridge. Take your time and spend a full day exploring this beautiful area of Vancouver.
Take the Aquabus water taxi to Granville Island this morning ($4.50 pp). The main attraction of this wonderfully quirky district is the Public Market where there are endless rows of food goods to sample and buy – it’s a foodie’s paradise!
In the afternoon, take the Skytrain (Canada Line) from downtown to Queen Elizabeth Park for unparalleled views of the Vancouver skyline and distant mountains. Walk around the beautiful gardens and visit the Bloedel Conservatory (admission $6.50 pp) home to more than 120 free-flying exotic birds and 500 exotic plants.
Head back downtown and finish off your trip with the ultimate Canadian experience – an ice hockey game! The Vancouver Canucks play regularly at Rogers Arena from October – April and pre-season tickets are available from www.stubhub.com from just $15.
Spend your final morning doing some last minute shopping around Robson Street – grab brunch at the popular Café Medina (the famous waffles are famous for a reason!) before catching your flight back home. Top tip: Save money on a taxi and take the Canada Line Skytrain for $4 pp direct from downtown to Vancouver International Airport (approx. 25 minutes).