travel // canadian rockies roadtrip

When I found out I was pregnant early last year, we started thinking of places to take a “babymoon” in late summer when I would be 6 months pregnant. The Canadian Rockies – Banff, Jasper, and Yoho National Parks – had always been on our list of places we wanted to visit, and this seemed like as good a time as any. It ended up being one of our favorite trips we’ve done, with stunning views at every turn, and we can’t wait to go back. The following is the itinerary of where we stayed, where we ate, and where we stopped on our 6 day trip.

A few things to note:

  • If you plan to go at the height of the season (July/August) you really need to plan ahead. We booked our lodging on May 1 for the second weekend in August, and it was slim pickings.
  • You’ll need a pass from Parks Canada – if you purchase it in advance and have it with you in the car, there’s no need to stop at the park gates.
  • Our lodging was all around 400 CAD per night once we were in the mountains. We were splurging on this trip – you can find cheaper options.
  • Given my pregnancy and the length of our trip, we stuck to shorter easy/moderate hikes, but saw a lot we would have loved to do that were longer and more strenuous.

Thursday: Bay Area to Calgary

We flew from the Bay Area to Calgary after work on a Thursday evening, arriving close to midnight. We picked up our rental car and stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton Calgary Airport so we could get an early start the next day. Not much to say about the Four Points – it was everything you want after getting off a plane at midnight: clean, comfortable, and close to the airport.

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Highway 1A on the way to Banff

Friday: Calgary to Banff

We set out early Friday morning to drive to Banff. We made a quick stop at Bumpy’s Cafe in Calgary for coffee and pastries, which was conveniently located across the street from a Safeway so we could stock up on water and snacks for the drive. There aren’t a ton of stores or businesses once you get onto the Icefields Parkway, so it’s definitely a good idea to have some things on hand.

For the trip to Banff, we opted to take the scenic route along Highway 1A, which took a bit longer but was a beautiful drive off of the main Highway 1.

We got to Banff around lunchtime and stopped for pizza at the Bear Street Tavern before checking in at our lodging for the night, Buffaloberry Bed & Breakfast. Banff is a very walkable little town, and the Buffaloberry is a great four-room B&B perfectly located just a few blocks from the main drag. We stayed in the Oatmeal & Chaff room and our hosts Theresa and James couldn’t have been nicer, from the delicious homemade breakfast, to offering tips on things to do in the area, to putting up with an embarrassing late night doorbell when my pregnancy brain reared it’s ugly head and I stupidly locked our keys in our room.

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Banff Viewpoint

We spent the afternoon doing a hike up Stoney Squaw Trail. It’s a moderate 4.2km out and back with great views of the valley and mountains around Banff. Look for the trailhead on the right side of the Mt Norquay ski area parking lot (near the end of the Mt Norquay Scenic Drive). Note that the trail does continue beyond the summit, but we followed the route shown on the AllTrails app to make sure we could get back to our car.

If you don’t have time for a hike, at least make a point to stop at the Banff Viewpoint along Mt Norquay Scenic Drive, which offers a panoramic view of Banff and it’s surrounding peaks. We made a quick stop at the Vermilion Lakes on our way back into town, then had a delicious dinner at the Juniper Bistro overlooking the lakes. Since the sun sets so late in the day this time of year, we had a great view with our 8:30pm reservation.

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Vermilion Lakes

Saturday: Banff to Lake Louise

Before setting out for Lake Louise, we did a walk from our B&B along the Bow River to Bow Falls, and up to the historic Fairmont Banff Springs, before grabbing sandwiches for the drive at Wild Flour Bakery. The Banff Visitors Centre on Banff Ave proved to be a helpful resource for maps and information about the wider region before we headed out on our drive. It’s also where we purchased our bear spray, which luckily we didn’t need to use. Since you can’t take bear spray on a plane, we also stopped here on our way back to Calgary at the end of the trip to donate our canister to Parks Canada.

For our drive to Lake Louise, we downloaded our favorite resource of the trip: the GyPSy Guide app for the Canadian Rockies. The app uses GPS to offer tidbits and directions while you are driving, so you don’t have to keep your nose stuck in a guidebook the whole time. As a bonus, the app works offline, which was great when we were in areas with spotty cell signal, and working off an international data plan. We absolutely loved using this, and I’m not sure how we could do another scenic road trip without “Robert” providing stories and insights along the way (yes, we named our tour guide).

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Johnston Canyon

There’s a ton of stuff along the drive from Banff to Lake Louise. We took the Bow Valley Parkway, and basically stopped anywhere Robert told us to. Our main stop along the way was for a hike and to eat our lunch at Johnston Canyon. The out and back trail is paved and goes along a beautiful glacial blue stream through a canyon to a waterfall. It was very cool, but an absolute madhouse with tourists. We discovered pretty quickly that any of the big name places along the tour bus route (like this one) were generally packed with people, but there were plenty of spots where the views were just as incredible but practically deserted (more on this in a minute).

We got to the town of Lake Louise in the early afternoon and checked into our room at the Mountaineer Lodge, a motel-style spot that’s been nicely updated and included complimentary breakfast. We really lucked out booking this place, as it was right across the street from a shuttle stop that turned out to be the best option for getting to the lake itself. If you aren’t staying in town, and the lot at the lake is full (which is usually the case this time of year) you have to park in the overflow lot 2km down the road and take a longer shuttle up to the lake. In our case, we were able to park at our hotel, walk across the street to the shuttle, and have a short ride up the hill to the lake (with Robert on headphones, naturally).

Lake Louise is the poster child for this region, with it’s blue green water, red canoes, historic hotel, and glacial peaks in the distance. Unfortunately, smokey haze from fires in the region dampened the effect a bit, but it was still a very majestic view. This was another location that was packed with tourists, but we grabbed drinks to go from a cafe at the Fairmont and escaped the hoards by doing the short flat walk to the other end of the lake. We were rewarded for our efforts with less people and a really neat view of the hotel over the lake, plus Nick got to dip his toes in the freezing lake water.

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Lake Louise

At the recommendation of the helpful front desk clerk at the Mountaineer Lodge, we waited until about 7pm to drive over to Moraine Lake, which is just down the road from Lake Louise. The parking lot is tiny, but by this point in the day most people were leaving and it was just in time for some gorgeous views of the lake at sunset. This is one of those places that photos can’t do justice – it’s so much better in person, and was by far our favorite stop of the trip. Definitely do the “Rockpile Trail” near the parking lot – it’s got a decent amount of switchbacked steps but offers the best view, along with spots to just sit and soak it all in. We did a bit of the lakeshore trail as well, but it was getting dark so we didn’t make it all the way to the end.

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Moraine Lake

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For dinner that night, we stopped in at Bill Peyto’s Cafe for some comfort food. This restaurant is part of the Alpine Centre hostel and is nothing fancy, but it did the job for a quick and tasty dinner.

Sunday: Icefields Parkway

After a quick breakfast at the Mountaineer Lodge, we hit the road with Robert on the Icefields Parkway, which goes from Lake Louise all the way up to Jasper. Since our lodging for the night was the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge at Bow Lake, we didn’t have time to go all the way to Jasper and back in one day, but we still packed in quite a lot:

Peyto Lake: An impressive turquoise-toned glacial lake at the highest point along the parkway. It’s a short walk uphill on a paved trail from the general parking lot to the first overlook, which is next to the parking lot for tour buses and handicapped parking. This is another spot that was packed with people – it’s not hard to believe that it’s the “most visited and photographed lake in the Canadian Rockies.” Evidently you can do an easy hike to the Bow Summit Lookout for additional views of the lake, which would likely have much less foot traffic, but we opted not to do it this trip.

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Peyto Lake

Saskatchewan River Crossing: The point where the three rivers actually meet and the road goes over them is pretty impressive, but “The Crossing” is basically a glorified truck stop (and doesn’t have a view of the rivers). We stopped here for lunch, and while it’s worth a stop if you need gas, food, or a bathroom, it can definitely be skipped otherwise.

Weeping Wall: Maybe it was the time of year, or the fact that it was raining, but this wasn’t as impressive as it sounded. We got the idea with what we could see from the car, so we decided not to stop.

Columbia Icefield Centre: This is the most touristy spot we came across on our trip. Multiple parking lots filled with cars, and a visitors center that was packed with crowds of people. It’s the launching point of the “Glacier Adventure”: a bus ride onto the glacier, where you can get out and walk around, and then access to the “Glacier Skywalk.” The center has a cool view of the three glaciers on the opposite side of the parkway, otherwise it’s just a good stop for a bathroom and food. We opted not to do the Glacier Adventure, rationalizing that we’d already walked on a glacier once in Iceland and it wasn’t worth the cost and the 45 minute wait. We saw the Skywalk a bit further up the road and as far as we could tell it didn’t have much of a view of the actual glaciers, a hunch that was later confirmed by talking to people who had done it.

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View from the Columbia Icefield Centre

Parker Ridge: Definitely worth a stop. This involves a moderate out and back hike up about a mile of switchbacks, and the view at the top is spectacular. At it’s peak, you end up on a ridge overlooking a panoramic scene of glaciers, waterfalls, and a turquoise glacial lake. The best part: it’s not on the tour bus itineraries, so we saw only a handful of people the whole time we were there. A total juxtaposition from the Icefield Centre, with a far better view.

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Parker Ridge

Bow Lake: We were a bit spoiled with our experience at Bow Lake because our lodging for the night was on its banks. That meant we didn’t have to jockey for parking, and we got it mostly to ourselves the next morning before the crowds arrived. The Num-Ti-Jah Lodge is fairly rustic, and at least the room we stayed in was pretty dated. We were clearly paying for the view, which in our case was stunning and included both the lake and glacier. We also had one of the best dinners of our trip in the Elkhorn Dining Room on site, so make sure you reserve a table if you are planning to stay there.

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Panoramic photo from the shore of Bow Lake

Monday: Emerald Lake

We started off the morning with free coffee from the lodge and a walk along the trail at the edge of Bow Lake. We didn’t make it all the way to the Bow Glacier Falls, but enjoyed the views of the glacier from the water’s edge. After spending some time enjoying the views, we hit the road and headed back toward Lake Louise, turning off to get to Yoho National Park and our destination for the day: Emerald Lake Lodge.

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Emerald Lake Lodge

Along the way, we stopped to look at the Spiral Tunnels and wait for a train to go through. This is an area of rail where there is a tunnel that goes in a spiral, so you see the front section of the train come out on top of the bottom section of train. We’d heard that trains come every 15-30 minutes, and one had just passed, so we waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally, after over an hour, we got a train. And it was…interesting? But definitely not worth an hour plus wait to see it.

We made a stop in the small town of Field for a delicious lunch at the Truffle Pigs Bistro. The town of Field is really cute, but I’d try to time your entry and exit between trains if you can, as there’s only one way in and out of town across the train tracks. After we left Field, we made a quick stop to check out the Natural Bridge on our way to Emerald Lake, which is an interesting natural rock formation within the glacial river.

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View from our room at Emerald Lake Lodge

Since we were staying at Emerald Lake Lodge for the night, and it was a bit of a splurge, we tried to get there on the early side to take advantage of it. There’s a special parking lot for guests where a shuttle picks you up to take you through the public parking area and up to the lodge. The lodge itself is made up of clusters of cabins on a peninsula that juts out into the lake. Although it’s right next to the area by the public parking that is crowded with tourists, the lodge portion feels surprisingly secluded and quiet. Our room was really cozy, with a fireplace and a balcony overlooking the gorgeous lakeview. We’d heard a lot about how wonderful this place was, and it definitely lived up to the hype.

We had the afternoon to explore the area, so we rented a canoe and went out for a paddle, which was a neat way to see the lake and the lodge. We also walked the flat trail that went around the lake. There are a number of other trails that go up into the mountains around the lake, but easy-to-moderate trails were my limit for this trip, so we’ll have to go back. We finished off the day with dinner in the Mount Burgess Dining Room in the main lodge. They require reservations, but we we were able to make them the day-of when we arrived.

Tuesday: Back to Calgary

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Takakkaw Falls

We had a leisurely breakfast in the Mount Burgess Dining Room at Emerald Lake Lodge before hitting the road. Most of our day was spent driving back to Calgary to catch a late afternoon flight, but we did stop off at Takakkaw Falls for a short walk and a photo op.

We definitely packed a lot into our short trip – I wouldn’t recommend trying to do more than this in 5 days. Moraine Lake and Parker Ridge were by far our two must-sees of the trip, while some of the more touristy spots like Johnston Canyon, Peyto Lake, and the Icefield Centre could certainly be skipped if crowds aren’t your thing. And I definitely wouldn’t waste your time at the Spiral Tunnels.

Even though we saw a lot this time around, there were many things we didn’t get to do! We can’t wait to get back there with our newest family member in tow.

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