Sometimes, the most stunning places aren’t across the world, but across the country. We spent 8 days in Alberta (and some places in BC) exploring multiple turquoise glacier lakes, countless stunning mountain views, and one gorgeous hike after another.
We had four nights in Banff, three in Jasper, and finished with two nights in Calgary to see the Stampede! Although the Canadian Rockies are thought to be one of the most expensive destinations in Canada, especially since we were visiting in peak season (early July), it’s possible to stay on a budget if you book reasonably priced guesthouses (find them on TripAdvisor and email them to book; they’re not listed through online travel agencies) and limit your meals out – picnic in the mountains instead! We spent a total of $1784 CAD ($99 CAD per person per night) all in, including hotels, car rental, gas, restaurants & groceries, and activities. Of course, the flights were booked on points.
Other than bringing hiking shoes, just one: avoid the middle of the day. In July, the sun is out from approximately 5:30 am to 10:00 pm. Banff is infamous for its massive crowds taking away from the serenity of nature (Jasper is far less crowded). But the crowds are only out from around 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. This gives you over four hours in the morning and five hours in the evening to take photos without someone’s selfie ruining the scenery. Make sure you do all the busy hikes/walks during this time. During the middle of the day, I recommend either going for a long hike (most tourists won’t do hikes longer than a few kilometres), or just relax and rest your legs.
So here’s what we saw and did in the Canadian Rockies!
On our first afternoon we took a drive around Yoho National Park, across the border in British Columbia. The hour long drive went by quickly thanks to the incredible scenery along the TransCanada Highway. We pulled off the road to Takakkaw Falls which follows the very white-coloured Kicking Horse River. We stopped a few times for pictures, including once at the Cathedral Mountain Lodge. This place is stunning – private cabins along the river with amazing scenery, and close to Lake Louise where you’ll find most hikes and lakes. Even if you can afford one of the Fairmonts, I would still recommend staying here; it’s much more “special.”
We walked the trail to Takakkaw Falls, which was nice and short and not crazy busy considering it was still early (but still busy). The falls were huge and very misty – bring a raincoat/poncho! Luckily the mist created a big rainbow which was a great bonus.
Eventually we made it back to the car and drove to Emerald Lake with a quick stop at the Natural Bridge. We arrived a little past 6 and there were very few people out front. We walked the 5km perimeter trail, and it was stunningly beautiful and totally – almost unnaturally – empty. I think Emerald Lake is my favourite in the Rockies, even though it’s not quite as “epic” as the others.
Plain of Six Glaciers Hike
On our second day I woke up at 5:00 am feeling slightly sick, but decided to hike the 15km Plain of Six Glaciers trail anyways. It was worth it. Barely.
We started the trail at 7:00 am, and we were literally the first ones on the trail and the second and third to “summit.” It was an amazing hike. On the way up we were in these huge alpine areas with not a soul in sight. After making it to the top with only one small break we managed to drag our at this point useless bodies down to the beautiful alpine teahouse for a much-needed break and snack.
By the time we headed back down, the trail was crowded with hikers. We couldn’t get any unobstructed photos and were so glad that we chose to go at 7am – when we had the whole trail to ourselves.
We had a 7:00 pm picnic here, when the crowds had mostly died down. If we wanted to escape them we could have walked around the lake, but our legs were too tired from the Plain of Six Glaciers hike.
Johnston Canyon is probably the busiest “hike” in Banff, for good reason. The trail through the canyon has incredible views, the path is paved and easy, and it’s only 5km roundtrip. I couldn’t imagine hiking this in the middle of the day, it must be a single file line in each direction! So we started the hike at 7:00 pm. In the back of my mind I was thinking we’d be stranded in the dark (who starts a hike at 7:00 pm???), but we are far north!
The 232km drive between Banff and Jasper is often ranked as the top scenic drive in Canada. On the way there, we stopped for short hikes at Peyto Lake (it looks exactly like the pictures!), Mistaya Canyon, and finished with a speed-walk up Parker Ridge (took us under 30 minutes).
The walk up Parker Ridge was harder than expected and was a little underwhelming at first, but got better as we got higher and ended with great views of the surrounding mountains and the Saskatchewan Glacier at the top. Well worth the short hike!
On the way back, we stopped at all the Jasper waterfalls: Athabasca Falls, Sunwapta Falls, Bridal Veil + Panther Falls, and Beauty Creek/Stanley Falls. The first two were right next to the parking lot, giving nice waterfall views for zero effort. Next up we pulled over at Bridal Veil Falls, which you can see right from the road. We walked the 1km trail to Panther Falls, which is all downhill. The views of Bridal Veil Falls didn’t improve that much as you got closer, and the switchback hike didn’t seem to lead anywhere. Then suddenly we felt mist, turned the corner, and there’s Panther Falls! Much much bigger/better than Bridal Veil, and it produces a ridiculous amount of mist – we couldn’t stand there for more than 30 seconds.
Valley of the Five Lakes
The short (maybe 5km total) Valley of the Five Lakes trail was our favourite in Jasper. Extremely beautiful and few people (even though we went in the middle of the day). It’s the type of trail I would do every morning if I lived here.
We rented a canoe at Maligne Lake, located around an hours (scenic) drive from Jasper town. The canoe rental was $50/hour, which is cheap given the expensiveness of the area – this is the only activity we paid for on this trip. The website says they close at 5:30 pm, but it’s actually 5:00 pm; luckily the friendly Aussies working there let us take a canoe out anyway!
Edith Cavell Mountain
We walked the short Path of the Glacier trail at Edith Cavell for some excellent mountain views. There’s also a longer Cavell Meadows trail which I hear is great, but it was closed when we were there because a grizzly was hanging around the trail. The highlight was witnessing a massive avalanche.
Gratuitous Animal Photos
After 7 days of hiking and relatively healthy eating, we arrived in Calgary with a mission: gain back all the calories we had burned, and then some.
A few tips:
- Get tickets at Mac’s, $27 for two tickets + two cokes (vs $18/ticket at the door).
- Want free food? You’re in luck! Calgary goes crazy during the stampede, and every business is sponsoring some type of event with free BBQ and/or pancakes.
- If you’re visiting during the day, either walk or take public transit assuming you’re staying close by. If you found a cheap points hotel in the suburbs like we did, you’ll need parking. You can park at a train stop and take the train (inconvenient, expensive), pay for parking nearby (expensive), or park for free in the Ramsey neighbourhood, a 20 minute walk away (free)!
The Stampede was amazing. It’s essentially a huge fair with lots of small events (motorcycle tricks, dog show, etc) and bands marching around. In the expo centre we even got free massages! Plus generous samples of chocolate. We arrived prepared to eat, and we did little else – we probably split 5 or 6 meals between the two of us. Every dish we ate was incredible, and the prices were actually less than I was expecting for a touristy event like this. In the end we shared a bowl of cookie dough, “bear balls” (little doughnuts with toppings), homemade chips, mac n’ cheese, a frozen chocolate-covered banana, and cilantro-lime pirogies topped with fried shrimp.
We stayed a few hours, returned to our hotel for a break, and returned at around 8:30pm (metered parking spots are free after 6 so there’s lots of easy free parking downtown). We ate more food, watched the dog show, watched Theory of a Deadman for a little (they have free concerts every night), and even managed to stay up long enough to see the 11:00 pm fireworks – which only started at 11:20pm.
Basically, arrive with an empty stomach and roll home unable to take another bite but ridiculously satisfied.
Alberta surprised us in a lot of ways: from gourmet fair food to scenic hikes to adorable guest houses, it has a lot to offer. Canoeing on Maligne Lake, going a bit crazy on our 15km Plain of Six Glaciers Hike, and never actually seeing the sunset (because we can’t stay up that late, duh) were just some of the highlights.