Have you ever wondered what it would be like to step into a storybook? Perhaps the type of story about castles, princesses, and soaring enchanted mountains? Do you dream about turquoise waters nestled in an alpine paradise? If so, look no further than the Canadian Rockies. I’m hardly exaggerating. Towering ice-capped peaks reflect the pastel colored light of sunrise and sunset. Suspended glacial sediment in alpine lakes creates perfect pools of opaque icy-powder blue. And while there are no castles or princesses, Chateau Lake Louise does look like it’s fit for the princess it was named after. Don’t believe me? Just keep reading.
The Canadian Rockies are mesmerizing and encompassed within the westward provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. Much of the range is protected within National and Provincial parks, which just so happen to make the perfect, budget-friendly escape for anyone in need of some inspiration, soul searching, or just a serious reset.
What you’ll find in this post:
– A downloadable PDF of our 8-day itinerary and corresponding google maps
– Money saving tips for budget friendly travel
– Our budget
– What we packed
BANFF NATIONAL PARK I saw a picture of Lake Louise in a NatGeo magazine when I was 10, and I’ve been (not so) patiently waiting to visit Banff ever since. Having just arrived from hot and dry SoCal, I could hardly contain my excitement as our plane touched down in Calgary. Chez and I quickly secured our rental car and left the city behind us. Open lowlands quickly transformed to rolling foothills, which soon turned to towering rocky mountain peaks as we drove up the Trans-Canada Highway toward Banff.
Banff National Park was established in 1885, making it Canada’s oldest national park. Its home to almost 3000 square miles of breathtaking, pristine mountainous wilderness, teeming with wildlife. Nestled at the foot of the mountains, its town is a collection of quaint little shops, lodges, and rustic restaurants. The town is alive with people window shopping, admiring the scenery, meeting for coffee, and browsing the farmers market, which attracts local artisans and live music. The vibe made us feel right at home.
Lake Louise If you’ve ever seen pictures of Lake Louise, you’ve probably seen the view looking out from shore: the color of the water fading seamlessly over white rocks from the palest blue to deep turquoise at the foot of surrounding mountains. What you probably didn’t see were the crowds of tourists and the massive luxury hotel situated on the shore. It’s the textbook example of Instagram vs. Reality. But the lake is breathtaking and an absolute must-see, nonetheless.
In a bid for solitude, we weaved through the crowds on the shore in search of a birds-eye view of the lake. The hiking around Lake Louise is amazing. Most hikes are short and easy to moderate, yielding great reward for relatively little effort. But honestly, I would have been more than happy to work harder for the views. Well maintained trails led us through dense coniferous forests and stands of golden aspens. The treeline broke every once in awhile to give us small glimpses of the lake below us as we climbed in altitude.
At the summits, we were rewarded with unspoiled views of Lake Louise and its surrounding peaks. From above, the color of the lake turned to a brilliant opaque turquoise, appearing as though someone had colored it with a crayon. The color of the lakes was surreal, but the explanation lies in the geology of the Rockies. Long ago, the Rockies were shaped by glacial activity. As they moved, the glaciers eroded rock underneath them, creating fine rock silt, which remains suspended in the water column. And its the sunlight reflecting off the rock silt in the water that creates the iconic water of the Rockie’s alpine lakes.
We spent awhile on each summit. With only a week to explore Alberta, our itinerary was packed, so I was grateful for the time that we took to consciously slow down, enjoy the views, and do our lungs the favor of breathing fresh air. I even got to share my lunch with a local Gray Jay.
We found our way back to the car just before dark with tired bodies and happy hearts. Our drive home was filled with conversations about life as we were treated to a pastel sunset and a northern lights show.
Moraine Lake Morning came quickly and I was jolted awake by the sound of my alarm. 4:00AM. Pitch black and frosty outside, we pulled ourselves out from under the warmth of our blankets to chase sunrise at Moraine Lake.
Moraine Lake is one of the most photographed lakes in the world. The water is a brilliant blue and surrounded by the mountains of the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Its rocky shoreline is bordered with dense stands of conifers and colorful canoes. Although less touristy and only half the size of neighboring Lake Louise, easy vehicle access during most of the year means that Moraine Lake is often teeming with people. So, although sunrise is the quietest time to enjoy the lake, we weren’t surprised to find the parking lot already full when we arrived. We were far from alone. We climbed the rock pile on the shore and searched for a spot to hang our hammocks.
Nature was still sleeping, but the chatter was plentiful as photographers attempted to capture a photo unique from the already-well-recognized view of the lake. 7:13AM. An orange glow appeared on one of the peaks on the far side of the lake, and suddenly the surrounding conversation dissipated. All was quiet as we watched with 100 of our closest friends as the sun rose in the east, wishing a good morning to the mountains, one by one. Worth the wake up call.
ICEFIELDS PARKWAY The Icefields Parkway connects Banff to Jasper National Park, 230km to the north. This highway twists and turns along the Continental Divide, through valleys of dramatic rocky peaks, thick coniferous forest, aspen stands, expansive icefields, and lakes the color of blue Gatorade. It’s also been rated one of the Most Beautiful Drives in the World and one of the Top 20 Drives of a Lifetime.
The drive takes about 3.5 hours in total, but took us much longer as we stopped (probably too often) to take pictures, explore roadside lakes, and pick our jaws up off the ground.
JASPER NATIONAL PARK At the northern end of the Icefields Parkway lies Jasper National Park. More wild, isolated, much less populated than Banff, Jasper is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the “wildest” and largest of the Rocky Mountain parks. The park is filled with expansive glaciers and impressive waterfalls. Its also home to the world-famous Columbia Icefields, one of the world’s only Icefields accessible by road. Grizzly bears, moose, caribou, elk, and wolves roam freely. Its truly a backcountry paradise.
However, Chez and I were ill-equipped for wandering the backcountry, so we opted to check off some must-see lakes and waterfalls, making sure to stop and grab the insta-famous picture at Athabasca Falls.
We continued north to Maligne Lake. The road to the lake was long and winding, guiding us through thick forests that showcased the scars of previous prescribed burnings. Sections of forest in the park are selected year-round to be set ablaze, with the goal of restoring and improving the park’s biodiversity and keeping Mountain Pine Beetles at bay.
We meandered around the perimeter of Maligne lake until sunset, through moss-covered forest and along pebble beaches to an open viewpoint of Mt. Edith Cavell. The setting sun cast a pink glow on the mountains surrounding us while the moon rose overhead. I took a deep breath and couldn’t help but feel so lucky to be there. We sat on the shore in silence for awhile while we admired our surroundings, but I could have easily sat there all night.
YOHO NATIONAL PARK Yoho is a small national park located about 2 hours west of Banff in the neighboring province of British Columbia. This place is truly a hidden treasure. Far less crowded than Banff, and even Jasper, but equally as beautiful.
Lake O’Hara is the most popular destination in the park. It’s a heavenly glacial lake located right at the mouth of the park, and is accessible only by bus or a 13km hike. Because scoring a bus ticket is just about as difficult as securing permits to Havasu, and a ride out if we hiked in wasn’t promised, we decided to forgo Lake O’Hara in favor of nearby Emerald Lake.
Off the beaten path at the western end of the park, we found Wapta Falls.
I read a statistic once that 90% of tourists don’t wander more than a mile from the parking lot. If that’s backed by science, I’m not sure. But I’m willing to believe it and pretty damn thankful when it comes to places like this one – hidden only 2 miles from the road, but left completely unspoiled by the throngs of people that flock places like Emerald Lake. It was truly one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’d ever seen. And we had the hike almost completely to ourselves. No overflow parking. No tour buses. Only the calls of Gray Jays punctuated the silence of the forest around us. We spent some time there, grateful that 9 out of every 10 tourists don’t know what they’re missing.
I didn’t think it was possible for a place to rival the beautify of Iceland so closely, but the Canadian Rockies completely surpassed my every expectation and successfully took my breath away…over and over (and over) again. I often don’t feel the need to visit the same place twice, but I know for a fact that I’ll be returning here. Upon our departure, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of homesickness for the mountains as the plane climbed in the sky and they faded from view. But for now, I’ve got a full SD card and an even fuller heart to hold me over until next time.
– Save on accommodation:
Camping: If roughing it is your thing, then camping will save you the most money. There are dozens of campgrounds scattered around Banff, Jasper, and along the Icefields parkway.
(Tip: Look for homes in Calgary or Cochran for trips to Banff and Yoho instead of staying in the town of Banff)
You’re allowed one free night of car camping in the motel parking lot of the Saskatchewan River Crossing on the Icefields Parkway. This includes access to their services (restaurant, bathrooms, laundry). But be sure to check in with the motel first
– Save on car rentals:
Rent a car outside of the airport. You’ll avoid all the fees associated with airport- specific car rentals (we saved about $150 with Hertz doing it this way)
– Save on food: Stop at the grocery store and stock up on food for breakfast and lunch. It will save you a lot of money on food if you’re not eating out for all three meals.
Ask if the grocery store has discount/membership cards. You’ll often be able to sign up for one before checkout at customer service
Canoeing is a very popular activity in the parks. And its easy to see why. Who wouldn’t want to glide along turquoise lakes with stunning mountain views? But an hour in a canoe on Lake Louise or Moraine Lake will set you back $100/hour. Get the best bang for your buck by canoeing on Lake Minnewanka instead. It still delivers the iconic water and mountain views for only $60/hour.
Gas stations are few and far between once you leave Banff, so make sure you fill up in Lake Louise. Halfway between Banff and Jasper, you’ll find gas at the Saskatchewan River Crossing. Stop here if you need to fill up and grab coffee or a snack, but be warned that the gas station is full-service only and everything inside is very expensive.
What we spent:
*Rental car: rented for 8 days through Hertz off-site location in Calgary – includes price of Uber to airport to rental location
*Gas: filled approximately 5 times for 11-gallon tank
*Airbnb: prices include cleaning and service fees
*1 Night car camping: 1 night of car camping is free at Saskatchewan Border Crossing
*Groceries: included everything needed to make lunch for almost every day + snacks/fruit/protein bars. Total price was after signing up for grocery store club discount card
*National Park Passes: were free for the year 2017. Check Parks Canada website for yearly park fees