Stepping out of my car on the first day of our Canadian Rockies vacation, I took a deep breath of the crisp mountain air and looked over at the rare smile on my teen daughter’s face. She gazed up at the towering mountains with wonder and awe, telling me this was the perfect choice for our annual mother-daughter trip.
Perhaps my childhood of family vacations to Vermont was deeply embedded in her DNA, but she is definitely a mountain girl. It can take a lot to impress a teen, but the stunning mountain landscapes and dreamy glacial blue water of the lakes of the Canadian Rockies sure did the trick.
Everyone has seen pictures of red canoes floating on the bright blue waters of Lake Louise, and images of hikers overlooking dramatic mountain vistas. These iconic sites draw over four million visitors to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada each year.
The Canadian Rockies, specifically Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper, have been on my bucket list since first encountering them while working at AAA in college. Yet planning a trip to this region took a good deal of research and coordination.
To help, I have put together both a 7-day and 10-day Canadian Rockies itinerary for you to use based on our trip and what we learned along the way. If you really want to squeeze in the highlights in five days in Banff, you can, but you will be pretty tired at the end!
Getting to the Canadian Rockies
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The Canadian Rockies mountain range spreads over parts of Alberta and British Columbia in Western Canada. The most popular destinations within the Canadian Rockies are Banff National Park, Lake Louise, and Jasper National Park. Therefore, most itineraries are centered around these three main destinations.
However, if you have more time or you are interested in getting off the beaten path, you can also include visits to Kananaskis, Waterton Lakes National Park (which border’s the U.S.’s Glacier National Park in Montana), Yoho National Park, or Kootenay National Park.
Unless you are driving or taking the Rocky Mountaineer train over from Vancouver, most visitors will fly into either Calgary or Edmonton. There isn’t a big difference in driving times if you are visiting both Banff and Jasper, but if you are visiting only Banff, Calgary is the easier option. You can also fly into Calgary and out of Edmonton but you may find a round trip airfare from the same city more affordable.
We flew in and out of Calgary on Air Canada. Since we had to connect in Toronto (leave PLENTY of time for that connection), we arrived in the mid-afternoon and departed in the early morning. Therefore, we spent our last night at the Courtyard Marriott near the Calgary airport. Depending on your flight times, you can always shuffle your visit around.
7 Day Canadian Rockies Vacation Itinerary
If you only have a week to spend in the Canadian Rockies, I would recommend the classic big three — Banff (or nearby), Lake Louise, and Jasper. Depending on when your flights arrive and depart, you may want to drive straight to Lake Louise. You could then break your trip up as follows:
- Day 1: Fly into Calgary and drive to Lake Louise
- Day 2-4: Drive up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper for 3 nights
- Day 5-7: Drive down to Banff or Canmore for 3 nights and then depart early on the last day to fly home
Day One: Lake Louise
Upon arrival in Calgary, hop into your rental car and head straight up the Trans Canadian Highway for the two-hour drive to Lake Louise. You should arrive in time to spend the late afternoon or evening exploring the Lake. Just be prepared for crazy traffic and parking challenges in Lake Louise.
Everyone is tempted to hire one of those iconic red canoes for an hour and paddle around the lake. Just keep in mind that they come with a hefty price tag (around $140 an hour!) so you may want to just take a picture and save your canoeing for later in the trip. You can still enjoy walking around the lake and taking in the view from the various vantage points.
If you have the budget, you can’t beat the location and views at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. However, if you haven’t won the lottery recently, the Post Hotel & Spa, a Relais & Chateaux property, makes a lovely second choice. Just be warned that the “discount” side faces the train tracks and may be loud for light sleepers. We were kindly upgraded to a suite on the “preferred side” and slept like a rock.
We really enjoyed this charming property that offers the character of a Swiss Chalet and luxurious touches without feeling pretentious. The hotel is also renowned for its fine dining restaurant, although we were to tired from a busy day for a fancy meal, so we availed ourselves of the more casual Outpost restaurant.
It is easy to see why this hotel was named one of the top 10 resort hotels in Canada by Travel & Leisure. We would have happily stayed a few nights but if time is limited, you are better off moving on to Jasper were the crowds thin out and there is plenty to do. If you have some more time, follow my friend Brianna’s tips for seeing the best of Lake Louise.
Day Two: Icefields Parkway to Jasper
Before you head out of town the next morning, you will likely want to stop in at Lake Moraine. This is an extremely popular tourist attraction and when the parking lot is full, they close off access. We were told that in the summer you need to be in the parking lot before 5:30 am to get a spot.
Unfortunately after a full day, we were too tired to make that commitment. We tried to drive by during our brief stay in Lake Louise but each time the parking lot was closed. Your other option is to take the shuttle from the park and ride or from Lake Louise. Just keep in mind that this is going to kill a lot of time waiting for the shuttle and your tickets need to be prebooked.
If you miss Lake Moraine, don’t fret, there are plenty of other beautiful lakes to see in the Canadian Rockies! We walked over and picked up breakfast at The Trailhead Cafe before starting out on our day’s adventure along the Icefields Parkway.
You will want to fuel up on gas and snacks before heading out on the Icefields Parkway as there is only one service station and a handful of places to eat between Lake Louise and Jasper. Plus, you should allot the full day to exploring the sights along the Icefields Parkway.
There are countless beautiful view points to stop and enjoy along the Icefields Parkway. I will tell you about some of the top “can’t miss” stops and you can decide if you want to fit them all in or save some for your drive back.
About one hour from Lake Louise, you will come upon Bow Lake and the Crowfoot Glacier. There are a couple of nice pull outs that have paths down to the lake. If you are looking to spend more time here though, I would recommend driving to the far end of the lake and parking at the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. Here you can walk along the lake and pop into Simpson’s Trading Post or the Bow Lake Cafe.
Just 10 minutes past Bow Lake you will come to the Bow Summit Trail overlooking the famous fox-shaped Peyto Lake. It used to be unmarked and just called Bow Summit, but on our recent trip they had signs for Peyto Lake, making it easier to find and likely more crowded. Keep in mind that you may want to check the Alberta Parks website before you go as we read that the parking lot will be closed for repairs starting in the fall of 2019.
The lake is not visible from the parking lot, and if the parking lot is full, there is parking along the access road. I read that it is a 3.8 km round trip, although it felt shorter. Keep in mind though that a section is uphill so you need to be prepared for a bit of a climb. Altogether, this stop should take about an hour.
The viewing platform can be extremely crowded, but if you can get into the corner of the lower platform, you should be able to get an unobstructed view of the lake.
Another 25 minutes will bring you to Mistaya Canyon. The big busses seem to skip this stop so it is a little quieter and therefore, more enjoyable. It is about a one kilometer hike down to the canyon (which means back uphill on the return.)
Here you will cross over a bridge that spans the Mistaya River and be able to walk along the rim of the canyon and see how the water has carved its way through the stone. Take a few minutes to walk down on the rocks and observe the powerful water. I’m not sure why this spot wasn’t more crowded, but I’m glad it wasn’t as it made me love it even more!
A few minutes further up Icefields Parkway and you will come to The Crossing, which offers gas, a restaurant, cafe, gift shop, and most notably, bathrooms. Alberta Parks actually does a good job offering rest rooms at most of the major attractions and trailheads, but those aren’t always pristine and can have long lines.
Bridal Veil Falls
After The Crossing, you will note that you start to ascend. The road winds up and around to the land of the big horn sheep. If you are lucky, you may see some grazing along the highway. There is an overlook that allows you to see the road and the valley below from a higher vantage point.
Nearby you will find Bridal Veil Falls, although it can be easy to miss and the parking lot is small.
Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre
After you cross into Jasper National Park, you will come to one of the jewels of the Icefields Parkway, and that is the Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. This is the home base for exploring the glacier and the various related activities.
Inside the visitor center you can eat at the restaurant or cafe, explore the exhibits or take in the movie downstairs, hit the bathroom, and meet up with various tours. Pursuit Banff offers two types of experiences, the Glacier Ice Explorer and the Glacier Skywalk, which can be combined into a Glacier Adventure ticket.
If you are interested in either of these activities, I would highly recommend you book a timed-ticket in advance or you may arrive to find them sold out for the day, or that you need to wait two hours before the next availability.
We were hosted on the Glacier Adventure and we arrived early to have lunch in the cafe. At our appointed time, we joined the queue to load the bus out to the glacier. Once arriving at the foot of the glacier, we then loaded up into the Ice Explorer vehicle for a drive out onto the glacier.
Once we arrived, we were given 30 minutes to explore on the glacier within the noted boundaries. Unfortunately they didn’t do a good job warning people of the dangers of going onto the glacier and we saw many people taking risks by going onto the glacier on their own beyond the boundaries and even some wearing completely inappropriate clothing (sandals and skirts!) to walk on the ice.
If you have never been on a glacier before (we have done glacier hikes in Iceland), then it is a cool experience. However, the lack of safety enforcement and the negative environmental impact of these large glacier vehicles left a bad taste in our mouths and I have trouble recommending it.
Another alternative could be a glacier hike with a proper glacier guide or just hiking on your own from the parking lot to the foot of the glacier (but please, never go onto a glacier without a licensed guide!)
After our time on the glacier, we boarded another bus to the Glacier Skywalk. It is called the Glacier Skywalk but don’t be confused by thinking that this glass walkway is over the glacier. Instead, it juts out over the gorgeous Sunwapta Valley and has views of the glaciers in the distance.
If you don’t mind glass floors, this Skywalk offers beautiful views. The only downside is that it is only accessible via a bus from the glacier or the Icefields Discovery Centre. So waiting for your timed-ticket and then waiting for the next return bus can really eat into your day for a stop where you will likely only spend 15 minutes on site.
There are many more stops to make along the Icefields Parkway, but you may want to save these for your return journey because chances are you will be getting tired or it will be getting late. However, I will list them here just in case.
Tangle Creek Falls
If you choose not to continue straight on to Jasper, your next stop will be Tangle Creek Falls. When traveling north, the falls are on your right (northbound side) but the parking lot is across the street on the left (southbound side) so be careful crossing the street.
This tiered waterfall is quite close to the road but if you want to climb up to the upper falls, you will need to scramble over some rocks. Hannah loved getting close enough to stick her hand into the falls, even if it did get her sweatshirt soaked.
Another 35 minutes north will bring you to the turn off for Sunwapta Falls. The upper falls are just a short walk from the parking lot, but if you want to see the lower falls too, it is a little further (less than a mile.)
Even though the walk is short and it is a popular spot, I would suggest that you still carry your bear spray. I can’t remember if it was Sunwapta Falls or Athabasca Falls, but one of them recently had a bear walk right across the bridge over the falls, dodging tourists along the way. Having to decide whether to face down a bear or jump into the falls is not a choice you want to make.
The last recommended stop before you get into Jasper is at Athabasca Falls, about 15-20 minutes further north. It can get really crowded when the busses arrive but there are different paths that you can take to get away from the crowds.
These powerful falls have carved through the rock, similar to what you find at Mistaya Canyon. There are different viewing platforms where you can capture some great pictures of the falls. You can also follow the signs to view the Lower Canyon, and get a great view of the Athabasca River.
When you arrive in Jasper, I would recommend grabbing dinner at Jasper Brewing Company if the line isn’t too long.
Where to Stay in Jasper
If you can afford to stay at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, you likely will not be disappointed. We stopped in there before our visit to the Jasper Planetarium and it was beautiful. However, there are also plenty of other cute and affordable cabin resorts near town.
We stayed at the Jasper House Bungalows and really enjoyed our four night stay. The cabins are cute and some have beautiful views of the Athabasca River. There is also a restaurant on site and plenty of space to roam around. We shared a one-bedroom cabin with a pull out couch in the living room. It also had a small kitchen so you could prepare your own meals if you wanted.
Personally I liked staying outside of town and it was always easy to drive into town and we had no problem finding a place to park. Some of the other resorts that looked attractive were the Alpine Village Cabin Resort, Tekarra Lodge, and the Pyramid Lake Resort.
Day 3: Maligne Lake and Maligne Canyon
On your first full day in Jasper, I would recommend heading down to Maligne Lake. Get there early before the parking lot fills up, but give yourself plenty of time to get there are there are often “animal jams” on the road. You can grab a delicious breakfast at the Waffle House at the lake.
You can rent canoes to paddle the lake, but you need to look out for boat wakes. Maligne Lake is huge and the water can get a little choppy. It would take something like 10 hours to paddle to the end of the lake. So if you want to see more of Maligne Lake than the area around the historic boat house, pre-book a scenic boat tour out to Spirit Island.
Spirit Island was made famous by Kodak in an advertising campaign in the 1960s. While the true meaning of the name is still unknown, First Nations people view this beautiful island as a sacred place. The 90-minute narrated cruise includes a 15 minute stop at a photo spot overlooking Spirit Island.
After the cruise, you can hike along the lake or have lunch at the Lake House Cafe. When we finished, we weren’t hungry yet (still full from those waffles), so we headed back to Maligne Canyon.
At Maligne Canyon, you can have lunch at the Maligne Wilderness Kitchen. The food is delicious and the outdoor patio is perfect on a nice day. Just be prepared for a bit of a wait. It will give you time to rest up before hiking along the canyon.
Maligne Canyon is the deepest canyon in Jasper National Park, with a depth of more than 50 metres at certain points. You can hike along the rim and criss cross the canyon over six bridges at various points of the canyon. The First and Second bridges are easy hikes, but if you head up to the Third Bridge, you can get a view of the waterfall.
If you want to do a longer hike, you can continue all the way to the Sixth Bridge, but keep in mind that it is going to be uphill on the way back. Round trip would take about three to four hours.
In the evening, you can head into Jasper for dinner at Earl’s Kitchen or Evil Dave’s. Keep your eyes peeled because elk love to graze along the side of the roads at the evening.
Day Four: Peak Nic and Pyramid Lake
Jasper Food Tours
There are so many things to do in Jasper, but if you only have a few days, you should hit the highlights. One of our favorite activities of our trip was our hosted “Peak Nic” experience with Jasper Food Tours. We met up with Estelle from Jasper Food Tours at the Old Fort Point trailhead.
Our tour started off with a hike up to the top of Old Fort Point, with beautiful views of Jasper and the Athabasca River. At the top, we commenced a back country cooking lesson. Estelle amazed us with how easy it was to prepare a gourmet meal with just what we carried in on our backs. Lunch consisted of dal, rice, chili, fry bread, and chai.
Even if we never camp and use what we learned, it was still a unique and fun experience (and a delicious lunch!) We worked off that food with a hike the long way back down.
In the afternoon, I would recommend either splashing around at Annette Lake, a local favorite, or rent a canoe to paddle around Pyramid Lake. If you visit Pyramid Lake, be sure to also walk out to Pyramid Island. We spent a late night out there with Jasper Photo Tours learning about night sky photography and taking pictures of the stars.
Jasper is a Dark Sky Preserve so make sure you take some time to go star gazing! You can sign up for the night sky and telescope program at the Jasper Planetarium at the Jasper Park Lodge.
Day Five: Jasper to Banff
If you have more time, I would add in another day in Jasper. But if you only have a week, it is time to head back down the Icefields Parkway to Banff. If you already hit all the sights on the way up, you can always take a trip on the Jasper SkyTram or hike the Valley of Five Lakes.
Once you get to Lake Louise, take the Bow Valley Parkway down to Banff. Give yourself time because this is a great spot for wildlife spotting. Just please, please stay in your car. We saw two bears and at one sighting many people were out of their car and approaching the bear (with their kids!)
Johnston Canyon is one of the most popular day hikes in Banff National Park. Expect the parking lot to be full and to have to park on the road, unless you get there very early or go late in the day. We arrived around 5:30 pm and there were plenty of parking spots.
The walk to the Lower Falls isn’t too long, but the walkway can be quite narrow so expect some pedestrian traffic jams. A bridge over the river gives a nice view of the falls, but you can get a better one if you want to wait in line to go through the tunnel to the other platform.
The hike to the Upper Falls is steeper but not as crowded. We visited after a very active and tiring day and therefore stopped once we got to the Lower Falls.
Banff Trail Riders
When you arrive in Banff, you may want to take an evening trail ride with Banff Trail Riders. We were hosted on a trail ride along the beautiful Bow River to a cowboy cookout. Once we arrived, we enjoyed a delicious steak dinner before saddling back up for the ride back. Just keep in mind that these go out rain or shine, so dress appropriately! We were quite soaked when it decided to rain on our ride back.
Where to Stay in Banff
So I say, why stay in Banff? Canmore is only 20 minutes away and it offers the same cute, mountain town vibe as Banff but without as many people (and a good deal cheaper.) Canmore has a lot of condos that are available on Airbnb, and offer tons of space for families.
We had a hosted stay at the conveniently located Basecamp Resorts. Our one-bedroom suite had a gorgeous full kitchen and a living space with a pull out sofa. There was even a rooftop hot tub we could use and with Rocky Mountain Bagels right next door, breakfast was a breeze before hopping onto the highway into Banff.
Day Six: Banff
There are so many things to do in Banff, from shopping to hiking to gondola rides and hot springs. However, if you are feeling more adventurous, we had a fabulous time doing the Mt. Norquay Via Ferrata.
We were hosted on a four-hour Ridgewalker Via Ferrata course at Mt Norquay (one of Canada’s Big 3 ski resorts). Even though the Via Ferrata is designed for beginners, it is still a quite a workout to scale the mountain, clipped onto cables and clinging to rungs while balancing on small holds. There was even a narrow plank bridge to cross. But we made it to the top and the beautiful views, sense of satisfaction, and major mom points made the effort worth it.
After climbing, we had a great lunch with a view at the Cliffhouse Bistro before taking the chairlift back down to the lodge. Try the gorditos or the bao buns, they are delicious!
After an exhausting morning on the Via Ferrata, you will probably want some down time in the afternoon. This is a good time to head into Banff and enjoy some shopping or take a walk along the Bow River. When you are ready for dinner, check out the Bear Street Tavern. The pizza is amazing and they serve it with this honey and oil dipping sauce. It sounds strange but it works and is delicious!
Get ideas for more things to do in Banff with kids!
Day Seven: Fly Home
If you have some time before heading home, take a drive over to Two Jack Lake and Lake Minnewanka. Lake Minnewanka is huge (and there is the ruins of a town at the bottom) and you could spend a whole day there swimming, playing, or taking a boat cruise.
We really loved our time at Two Jack Lake. You can walk around a good portion of the lake and soak in the beautiful views. When you are there, keep an eye out for Alberta’s famous red Adirondack chairs.
10 day Canadian Rockies Itinerary
If you do have 10 days in the Canadian Rockies, you have time to get away from the crowds and experience some of the lesser-visited National Parks or Provincial Parks. We started our trip in Kananaskis, which is about 35 minutes from Banff. If can also make sense to end there if you are flying out of Calgary, since you will be even closer to the airport.
Day Seven: Kananaskis
If you are staying 10 days, use the seven day itinerary above and then, instead of flying home, continue down to Kananaskis. Spend your morning at Two Jack Lake in Banff or take a hike on the Tunnel Mountain hiking trail, and then head on down to the Pomeroy Mountain Lodge in Kananaskis.
On your way you could stop and enjoy some whitewater rafting or stop at Canoe Meadows and watch the kayakers braving the man-made rapids there.
The Pomeroy Mountain Lodge is a great mountain resort with a ski village vibe, making it a good home base for exploring the area. If you are over 18, there is also a brand new Nordic Spa (for an additional fee).
Even if you can’t spend the afternoon soaking in the hot and cold tubs at the Nordic Spa, all hotel guests can enjoy the indoor waterpark (although best for the under 12 set), the indoor/outdoor hot tubs, and the sauna and steam rooms. There are also multiple restaurants on site, but you will want to make reservations in advance.
Day Eight: Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes
The thing to know about Kananaskis is that there is a LOT of wildlife in the area. We saw endless signs about bear alerts and warnings to expect bear encounters. We did end up seeing a grizzly bear momma with her two cubs, but luckily only from the safety of our car. Visitors are advised not to pull over or stop for wildlife on the side of the road and definitely do not get out of the car.
Before heading out on any hikes, it is good to check the Alberta Parks website for safety notices and bear warnings. Also, pop into the Peter Lougheed Provincial Park visitor center and they will let you know where wildlife has been spotted recently, as well as educate you on what to do in case of an animal encounter. Bear spray is highly, highly recommended!!
We really enjoyed exploring the shorelines around Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. There were enough people around that we didn’t worry too much about bears (although we carried our spray and tried to tag along behind groups.) The views were just lovely, especially when we cut through the woods to a less busy part of the lake.
Originally we were planning on hiking the Rawson Lake Trail, but that was closed due to a negative bear encounter. Instead, we finished up our day at the Highwood Pass picnic area. We took a short trail through the meadow to see the wildflowers, but skipped the Ptarmigan Cirque Interpretive Trail. If offers wildlife viewing and views of the Rockies from the highest paved pass in Canada, but we were tired and a bit scared about recent bear sightings up there.
Day Nine: Spray Valley & Chester Lake
If you have a good 4×4 rental car, I would recommend driving the Smith-Dorrien/Spray Trail highway through the Spray Lakes region. It is a gravel road that can be quite bumpy, so you will need to take it slow on the 65 km between Kananaskis and Canmore, but you don’t need to drive the whole length.
Just be sure to be fueled up and bring snacks and drinks because you won’t find much along the way except beautiful mountain views and maybe a grizzly bear or moose sighting. In the summer and winter months, you can stop in to Mount Engadine Lodge for tea in the afternoon.
If you are up for a good, rewarding hike, plan to spend a few hours hiking Chester Lake. Be aware that the first two miles of this six mile round trip is uphill. All the huffing and puffing was worth it as the trail levels out through an alpine meadow with beautiful views of the mountains.
Eventually we arrived at the stunning, emerald green Chester Lake. During our whole trip we only saw a dozen other people, and there were only three others fishing at the lake when we arrived. We circumnavigated the lake, taking in the view from every direction, scrambling over a rock pile at the base of the mountain at the far side of the lake.
Luckily the way back is mostly downhill. The workout will be satisfying and you won’t feel at all guilty at dinner that evening!
Day Ten: Fly Home
If you have time before your flight, there are plenty of other hikes and photo stops in Kananaskis Country before you make the 1.25 hour drive back to Calgary.
The Canadian Rockies makes a great vacation — whether it is a mother-daughter trip, family vacation, girls’ trip, or whatever. There is so much to see and do. Just be sure to follow my tips and plan early because it is an extremely popular destination.
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Tamara Gruber is the Founder and Publisher of We3Travel. A former marketing executive and travel advisor, Tamara is an award-winning travel writer and recognized expert in family travel. She is also the publisher of YourTimetoFly and the co-host of the Vacation Mavens travel podcast.