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Canadian Rockies: Banff, Jasper, Icefields Parkway

After road tripping on the west coast of Canada: Vancouver Island, Vancouver and the surrounding area, we flew to Calgary to explore Banff and Jasper National Parks. 

We spent 9 full days here, and also decided on a campervan adventure


Very briefly, we drove up from Banff to Jasper on the Icefields Parkway, hitting many wonderful hiking trails and lookouts along the way.

Lake Moraine

But before I go on to describe the more scenic hiking trails, I'll give you some essential information


Content:

Banff, Jasper, Icefields Parkway


For general information on traveling to Canada, read this blog post.


Discovery Pass

If you are planning to spend at least 7 days in the national parks during your trip to Canada, it is better to buy the annual Discovery Pass than to purchase day passes. 

A day pass is usually 10,5 CAD per person, and a Discovery Pass is 72 CAD and gives you unlimited visits to all national parks in Canada for a year. 


The pass is a little paper that you have to hang on your rear view mirror under the windscreen, it's not enough to have the purchase confirmation in your mailbox, as the Discovery Pass is checked through the windscreen when you pass through the national park gates or inside the national park. If you don't want to wait and pay extra money for shipping to have this little windscreen hanger mailed to your hometown (outside of Canada), it's definitely worth buying it on the spot, at the first entry to the parks. To do this, you'll need to arrive during opening hours at one of the main visitor centers in any of the big national parks. An exact list of points of sales is available on the Parks Canada website.


You can also buy a day pass from a ticket machine, but Discovery Passes must be purchased in person at the ticket office.

map

When to go hiking in Canada 

The best time to go hiking in Canada is from mid-May to the end of September. This is when the snow has already melted in many places, there are no minus temperatures, the days are long and the hours of sunshine are high. June is still the low season, and July to August is the real peak season. 

This is when many people come not only from abroad but also from Canada to enjoy the beautiful nature.

Lake Louise

Weather in the mountains

The weather in the mountains is totally unpredictable. It can be sunny and can start raining heavily in the next 15 minutes. One day it can be 30 degrees and the next day you wake up and find snow on the mountains. If you're going to explore Canada's national parks, you have to be prepared for all kinds of weather. Proper, waterproof hiking gear is important. And the most important of these is good hiking boots. Good hiking boots have good traction, are waterproof, hold your ankles and are comfortable enough to hike 15 km in them per day. 


By the way, Canadians say that there is no bad weather, just bad hiking gear.

Sentinel Pass

What's even more deceiving is if the weather is good at the start of the hike. Even then, you should not start without an extra layer of clothing, because the weather conditions are completely different up on the mountain, the wind is often very strong, and if you sweat during the climb up, you can easily catch a cold at the top.


National Parks - overnight stays

In the Canadian national parks, you can only stay overnight in official campsites, whether it's camping with a tent or sleeping in a campervan. A valid park pass is a prerequisite for overnighting at campsites within the national park.

campervan

Overnight stays with a small campervan start at around 25 CAD, but on average the cheapest places are more like 35 CAD. But it's amazing how the vast majority of people arrive at campsites with huge monster motorhomes, and many even have a caravan installed and leave it at the campsite, they have rented/purchased, all year round. 


I'm not joking, but there are campervans the size of a bus, or more like a size of a 50-60 m2 apartment, with all the extra comforts. 


The best app for finding either paid campsites or free campsites outside of a national park is Wikicamps Canada, or Campendium and iOverlander isn't bad either.


Campsite reservations in advance

In July and August, it's about impossible to find accommodation / camping without advance reservations. 

We already had campsites in mid-June that were full, where we couldn't get a spot, and therefore had to drive to a campsite further away, where we could still be accommodated. This overcrowding is the most intense in Banff and the surrounding campgrounds and around Lake Louise.

However, most campsites have one or two free pitches that are reserved for emergencies, such as a car breaking down in the area or a tree falling on another pitch within the campsite. However, if there are no such problems, usually after 10-11pm, after the reception closes, they will post a notice on the message board for "late arrivals" that campsite X is still available and can be used for overnighting. In this case you have to pay in the morning when the reception opens.

deer

The Parks Canada website is not very user-friendly for reservations, but it is the only place to make a campsite reservation in advance. If you are arriving in July-August (often as early as June), be sure to book early so you don't have to drive around looking for available campsites.


We stayed overnight in these campsites:

  • Two Jack Campground: tiny lakeside campsite

  • Lake Louise Overflow Camp: a large gravel parking lot with a single pit toilet off the main road

  • Lake Louise Campground: a large, well-equipped campground in Banff National Park

  • Whistlers Campground: large, well-equipped campground in Jasper National Park with lots of deer


Bear spray

Bear spray is essential equipment for hiking in the Canadian national parks, because national parks are home to a lot of bears. No joke, even the locals carry it all the time, it's not just a tourist lure.

There are grizzly bears and black bears. And while they might look very cute, they can be very dangerous. 

black bear

If you see a bear from further away, you should stay calm, don't turn your back and you should speak loudly, shout and wait for it to move away. 

But if e.g. you are crossing paths on a hiking trail and the bear feels threatened, it can become aggressive and the only survival option in the event of a bear attack is to use bear spray.

Think of bear spray like a large can of pepper spray. About the size of a half liter bottle. It can only be used once, because if you pull the lever, the entire content of the bottle will shoot out, in about 5-8 meters distance. However, this should really only be used in an emergency when you see the bear attacking.


A bear spray starts at 35-40 CAD, but we were able to rent one with the car, and since we luckily didn't have to use it, we got the price back. 


We were lucky enough to see bears several times, but always from the car on the side of the road. So even though we were only a few meters from them, it was a completely safe situation, and to be honest, from how peacefully they were grazing along the road, it seemed to me that they were completely harmless and I couldn't imagine them attacking us, but still, bear attacks happen quite often. So sometimes the first impression can be deceiving...

cooler box damaged by a bear

It is very important both in campsites and picnic areas, not to leave food scraps behind, as this attracts bears, and it is very dangerous if they get used to human food scraps. That's why there are bear-proof large metal garbage containers at every stop. There is a small slot at the top of the containers where you have to reach in by hand and pull a handle to open the bin. The bears' paws do not fit into this gap, so they cannot open the bins.


Banff , Jasper, Icefields Parkway

And now that we've talked about the operational stuff, I'll introduce you to the best hikes in and around Banff and Jasper National Parks. I'm not presenting them in order of importance, because then we'd be jumping around the map, but I'm presenting them in daily-based itinerary so you can see what is manageable in 1 day.


By the way, Banff National Park and Jasper National Park are intertwined, following each other in complete continuity along the way.


Day 1: Banff and surrounds

  • Lake Minnewanka

Lake Minnewanka

  • Two Jacks Lake

  • Walking in Banff Banff is a charming little town, full of restaurants, shops and tourist attractions. It's worth a stroll around town and a visit to a photo gallery or two, where you can admire some of Canada's finest nature photography.

Banff

Parking in Banff is the easiest at the train station, where there are hundreds of free parking spaces and it's within walking distance of the town center. But if you're planning a short visit, you can park for an hour in the supermarket car park in the town center. 

  • Cascade of Time Garden The Cascade of Time mini botanical garden is located in Banff. It is a pretty little garden filled with mini waterfalls, a stream and flowers. Admission is free.

Cascade of Time, Banff

  • Tunnel Mountain hike: 4,3 km, 268 m elevation gain

I think you can safely substitute the Banff gondola with the Tunnel Mountain hike. The views of Banff and the surrounding mountains are magnificent on the way up, but especially at the top.

Tunnel Mountain

  • Bow waterfall, riverside walk

  • Mount Norquay viewpoint

  • Vermillion Lakes viewpoint


Day 2: Johnston Canyon: Ink Pots return ~11,4 km, ~330 m elevation gain

  • Johnston Canyon: 

  • Lower Falls (2,4 km, 30 m elevation gain)

  • Upper Falls (5 km, 120 m elevation gain)

  • Ink Pots (11,4 km, 330 m elevation gain)

Johnston Canyon

I would definitely recommend Johnston Canyon as it is a very nice hiking trail. There's a steep section at the end where you can get a bit exhausted, but it's definitely worth it.

It's a very popular hiking trail, so arrive early, both because of parking and to avoid crowds on the road and queues at the waterfall and canyon lookout platforms. Many people drop off at Upper Falls, by the way, so there's not as much of a crowd at Ink Pots at the end of the hike.

Johnston Canyon

The Ink Pots at the end of the hike are home to a very special phenomenon. 5 small mini-ponds have been formed around the spring waters that emerge from underground. The mineral-rich, upwelling water of about 4 degrees Celsius seeps through the sand and pebbles and can be seen bubbling up to the surface (the bottom of the mini-pond) in the greenish-blue pools, forming concentric circles in the sand at the bottom of the pond. A very special natural phenomenon.

  • Drive to Lake Louise


Day 3: Lake Louise: ~17 km hike, ~900 m elevation gain if you hike to all the locations mentioned below


Lake Louise (rivaling Lake Moraine) is one of the most famous hikes in all of Banff National Park, or perhaps all of Canada. It's no wonder, as it's a completely unique phenomenon. Lake Louise, seen from above, looks like a pastel baby-blue paint spill. This particular color is due to the meltwater from the surrounding glaciers, which carries what is known as 'rock flour' from the mountains into the lake.These tiny, miniature rock particles float on the surface of the lake and form a special layer that reflects the light.The more of these 'glacial sediment' particles in the water, the more turquoise-blue the water appears.


Parking at Lake Louise is very limited. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., parking is paid, and you can only buy a day pass for 21 CAD. Be sure to arrive very early. In July and August, parking lots can fill up as early as 7am. And then, you can only get here by shuttle bus from the small town of Lake Louise or Banff.


We did a full day hike here. We were very lucky with the weather, as we had sparkling sunshine all the way.

  • Lake Louise: an iconic turquoise glacial lake surrounded by mountains and glaciers

Lake Louise

  • Mirror Lake: a small lake at the base of the Big Beehive with beautiful reflections

Beehive, Mirror Lake

  • Lake Agnes: a medium-sized lake at the start of the Big Beehive summit

  • Big Beehive: a huge rock with a beautiful view of Lake Louise

  • Plain of the 6 glaciers: a hiking trail up to the base of the glaciers, with magnificent panoramic views all the way, an incredible experience

Plain of the 6 glaciers

Day 4: Lake Moraine: ~11,6 km hike, ~725 m elevation gain

I mentioned above that Lake Moraine is one of the most popular hikes in Canada, rivaling Lake Louise. No wonder, as both are truly beautiful. And we were so lucky that we had wonderful weather during both hikes. 


From 2023, you won't be able to drive your own car to Lake Moraine because parking is very limited. Therefore, there are organized bus services where you can only book a limited number of tickets per designated time slot. 

It's also worth arriving early in the morning for the best light, but the early morning bus tickets sell out quickly, so as soon as you know which day you plan to visit Lake Moraine, it's a good idea to book your tickets immediately. This, like the campgrounds, can be booked through the Parks Canada website and registration to Parks Canada is required before booking.


Two days before the date, they still make a few last minute tickets available at 8am, but if you want them, set an alarm and get them at 8 am sharp, otherwise they won't be available. The shuttle costs 8 CAD per person.

 

  • Lake Moraine - Rockpile Viewpoint

Our first short walk took us to the iconic Rockpile Lookout. This is a short little walk with beautiful views. This is the picture on the Canadian $20 bill, by the way.

Since we took the 6:30 bus, we had breakfast here, with this beautiful view. We needed the energy, because a huge hike was ahead of us.

Lake Moraine

  • Larch Valley trail → Minnestimma Lakes → Sentinel Pass

We hiked the Larch Valley trail to the top of Sentinel Pass, which was ~11,6 km round trip and ~725 m elevation gain.

At the top of the hike, we were at the level of the surrounding mountains’ peaks and the glaciers. The panoramic views were beautiful, and we even had to cross snow and ice on the last stretch to reach the summit.

Sentinel Pass

And the little chipmunks are everywhere, from the lakeside to the top of the mountain, everywhere.. :)


We were pretty tired by the end of the hike, so it was nice to sit down on the return bus. It's important to pay attention to which bus you get on, because the bus that takes you to Lake Louise and the one which takes you back to the ski area parking lot (where the bus leaves in the morning) are departing from slightly different locations. So be sure to check the destination sign when you get on the bus.


Day 5: rainy day + Emerald Lake: ~5,1 km, ~122 m elevation gain

Originally we were going to go north to Jasper on this day, but unfortunately it rained most of the day and even snowed on the peaks. It was quite incredible that the previous day it was almost summer and now it was slushy, overcast and rainy.

Emerald Lake

But we were very determined and walked around Emerald Lake even in this weather. If you start the walk clockwise, you can enjoy a beautiful panorama for the first half of the walk. The second part is through the forest.


Day 6: Icefields Parkway: ~230 km drive with beautiful viewpoints, glaciers, lakes and hiking trails

We had originally planned to drive this road a day earlier, but it rained almost non-stop that day. So we had to postpone it for a day, because it doesn't make much sense to do it in the rain. This is a beautiful panoramic road, and the ~230 km journey itself is already a great experience in good weather, as everywhere you look you see beautiful mountains and glaciers, ...

It was still a bit overcast the next morning, but at least it wasn't raining, and you could see everything, even if it was cloudy. 


And since we flew back from Calgary, we drove the same road on the way back, so we could enjoy the Icefields Parkway twice. 


And by the way, we were very lucky with the weather, because during our three-week trip to Canada there was only one day when the weather was really bad, and apart from that, we had perfect weather for hiking, and sometimes it was even 30+ degrees, pure summer weather, which is not typical in Canada in the first half of June.


  • Bow Lake lookout: right on the road

The Icefields Parkway has many beautiful lookout points right along the driveway. Bow Lake Lookout is one of them.

I think it's unbelievable, but almost all roadside lookout points, even if it's just widening of the road, have a toilet. They have well maintained pit toilets (English toilet-style solution). Water is not piped in, but instead of hand washing, there is hand sanitizer everywhere, and it's always refilled. We never once encountered a tank that was empty.


  • Peyto Lake lookout: turquoise glacial lake, short walk from the car park

Peyto Lake

  • Waterfowl Lakes lookout: just down the road

  • Mistaya Canyon: ~2 km walk round trip from parking lot, ~87 m elevation gain

This is an easy hike down from the parking lot to the canyon. It's quite incredible to see the huge current the river has when it arrives at the canyon cliffs. With that kind of force, it's no wonder the water can tunnel its way through the rocky cliffs. You have to be very careful here, because the rocks can be wet from high humidity and water spray, and there are no protective barriers around the edges of the rocks. If someone falls into the water here, they have no chance afterwards.

But I didn't want to scare anyone off, it's worth going down, it's beautiful, just be careful!

Mistaya Canyon

  • Saskatchewan River Crossing:  lookout about 30 meters from the parking lot  

This river basin was an important section of the old fur trade route to British Columbia. For us however, the view was surpassed by the experience of seeing a bear for the first time within a few meters distance. At one point, we saw picnickers beginning to put away food and drinks at the speed of light, and then we noticed a black bear peacefully grazing on dandelions on the other side of the parking lot. We piled into our car just in case, and were able to view the bear from a distance of about 3-4 meters. He was not disturbed, grazing quite calmly, and as soon as he ran out of dandelions, he moved a little away.


  • Big Bend lookout: just down the road

  • Panther Falls: visible from the side of the road, but you can hike to it

  • Parker Ridge hike:

Ezt áttoltuk a visszaútra, mert odafelé borús idő volt, és egyébként sem fért volna bele időben az összes többi látványosság mellett a mai napba, ugyanis így hogy a Parker Ridget áttoltuk, így is sötétedéskor végeztünk az utolsó megállónál, a Maligne kanyonnál.

  • Athabasca glacier hike: short walk from the parking lot, ~a couple hundred meters, ~60 m elevation gain

Athabasca Glacier

This is the glacier you can even hike on. You can also pay for glacier trekking buses. I think this is a very bad initiative because, thanks to global warming, the retreat of glaciers has accelerated to an extreme degree. Every year the glaciers in this area are retreating by about 4 to 5 meters, and the multi-tonne buses and the hot exhaust fumes are making the situation worse...


We were on a glacier hike in Argentina, which was a great experience. The huge difference was that the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina is one of the few glaciers that is still in a growing phase, not a retreating one. And the other big difference is that we didn't go up there by bus, but on foot.


So here in Canada I would definitely not recommend these bus tours. You can walk almost all the way to the base of the glacier. The view from there is beautiful too.

  • Tangle Creek Falls: right on the roadől az út mentén

  • Stanley Falls: ~3,9 km ~163 m elevation gain We missed this hike due to lack of time. But it's supposed to be an easy hike with a nice waterfall at the end.

  • Sunwapta Falls: a short walk from the parking lot, but there is also a longer hike along the river

  • Athabasca Falls: ~1 km, ~25 m elevation change, easy and exciting walk from the parking lot, highly recommended!

Athabasca Falls

  • Valley of the Five lakes trail: ~4,8 km, ~163 m elevation gain

This trail is very close to Jasper, so we did it in the late afternoon/early evening. The lights were very nice and the weather was just right. The lakes, especially 3rd and 4th have a very pretty shade of bluish green color. Easy, shady hiking trail. 

We were very excited during the hike because a few days ago hikers had encountered grizzlies on this trail. We were very observant the whole time and fortunately did not encounter any bears up close.

Valley of the Five lakes

  • Maligne Canyon: ~3,7 km, ~131 m elevation gain

We ended the day with this hike. Specifically, we were the last ones back to the parking lot at sunset. 

A wonderful hiking trail leads along the about 50 m deep Maligne Canyon, with five bridges crossing it. Walking till the fourth bridge is a must as it is the real canyon section, where the water breaks its way through the rocks, and you can see some beautiful formations along the way.

Maligne Canyon

After the fourth bridge the river widens. At the fifth bridge, if you wouldn’t know, you wouldn’t even be able to tell that there is a canyon a few kms away.

After the fourth bridge there is a rock which is a favorite launching point for whitewater paddlers, and from here they can "slip" into the water and begin their adventure. It is a very dangerous sport, but very spectacular for the audience.


The area around the canyon is very special because the surrounding rocks conceal kilometers of underground caves, so there is much more water moving around than you can see with the naked eye. Researchers used red dye to paint the water, and from this they discovered that in summer, when water is abundant, it takes between 12 and 24 hours for water to travel from Lake Medicine to Maligne Canyon through the underground cave system. The same route takes 5-9 days during low flows in the winter months.  


Day 7: Jasper area

  • Sulphur Skyline hike: ~5 km, 700 m elevation gain This was the most rugged hike we did in all of Canada. We climbed uphill for 2,5 kms with 700 meters of elevation gain. But since we didn't start from sea level, but from about 1800 meters, by the time we reached the top we were at the same altitude as the surrounding 2500-3000 meter peaks.

Sulphur Skyline

On the last stretch there were huge gusts of wind. Despite the fact that you're completely warmed up from the steep climbing on the way up, you'll need all the extra layers you can get on the summit. 


At the end of the hike, at the top of the mountain, the panorama was beautiful and special, but for me this hike didn't appeal because we went through the forest until about 100 meters before the summit, with not many views, and not only the way up but also the way down is extra strenuous on the knees.

It's an advanced difficulty hike, so I really only recommend it for those who are in shape.


However, if you're still in the mood, you can have a nice rest at the very end of the hike, as the Miette Hot Springs thermal spa is located at the start of the hike.


After the strenuous hike, a slightly lighter programme followed.


  • Pyramid Lake: beautiful view of the unique reddish pyramid mountain

Be sure to walk into the small Pyramid Island. It is only accessible on foot, it takes about 15 minutes to walk comfortably along, a very atmospheric walk with a beautiful panorama.

Pyramid Lake

  • Patricia Lake

In the late afternoon we drove to Medicine Lake and Maligne Lake. On the way back we saw some black bears. 

The drive to the lakes is very nice and there is a great chance of seeing wildlife in this area.

  • Medicine Lake

  • Maligne Lake, Spirit Island

Maligne Lake

Day 8: Mount Robson National Park, back to Lake Louise

  • Mount Robson National Park

Mount Robson is located in British Columbia, so when we drove from Jasper, Alberta to BC, we crossed the provincial border. And much to our surprise, a roadside wooden sign informed us not to forget to change our watches by an hour... :) 

We had a few stops in Mount Robson:

  • Yellowhead Picnik Park: picnic and short walk along the lakeshore

  • Moose Lake

  • And the Mount Robson Visitor Center with a beautiful view of Mount Robson itself. The main hiking trail was closed because two years ago it was 40 degrees in the summer, so the glaciers on top of the mountain started melting incredibly fast, causing flooding and destroying of the hiking trails.

Mount Robson

  • Overlander Falls – This waterfall canyon is just minutes from the visitor center. It's worth walking down and checking out, but depending on your energy, there is also a longer hiking trail along the riverbank.


  • Parker Ridge: 4,2 km 250 m elevation gain

As mentioned earlier, we skipped this hike due to overcast weather and lack of time on our way to Jasper. However, on the way back we had time and we were also lucky with the weather, let's just say we had to be in the right place at the right time... This hike is said to be one of the most beautiful hikes on the Icefields Parkway.

Parker Ridge

When we parked, it immediately started to rain heavily, but the clouds were moving fast, so we thought we'd wait a while. Good thing we did, because it cleared up quickly and we were on our way up soon. But as it was still cloudy a bit, we took umbrellas and raincoats.


Which was necessary, because we had just reached the top, had a look around, admired the glacier and then another rainfall arrived, not in the form of rain but it was actually a mix of snow and ice. It's amazing how quickly the weather changes here in the mountains.


  • Lake Louise, grizzly bears

But then we luckily completed the hike and headed back to Lake Louise. We arrived at the lake just after sunset, so we could see the lake and surrounding landscape in the evening light. 

But what was even better, that on the 10-minute drive between the lake and the campground, we saw two grizzly bears grazing along the road: a mom with her cub.


Day 9: Waterfall, canyon, shorter hikes

On our last full day, we visited shorter hikes and waterfalls. They were all beautiful. Canmore is the only one I would say not necessarily worth going to if you are short on time. Rather leave enough time for Banff.


  • Takakkaw Falls

Takakkaw Falls

  • Marble Canyon

  • Paint Pots

Paint Pots

  • Numa Creek

  • Canmore, Quarry lake

With these 9 wonderful days, I think we've pretty much maxed out the Canadian Rockies, hiking some of the most beautiful trails in Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. We also saw black bears and grizzly bears. We enjoyed the amazing views of the beautiful turquoise glacial lakes of Lake Louise and Lake Moraine. All this discovery with a super campervan. 

Lake Moraine marmot

I highly recommend Canada, the Rockies and the beautiful hikes in Banff and Jasper National Parks to all my fellow nature and hiking enthusiasts. And if you're really adventurous, take a campervan for the trip of a lifetime!


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