Exploring the Canadian Rockies: Banff & Jasper

Exploring the Canadian Rockies: Banff & Jasper

Banff, Jasper & Around

I often feel like a terrible Canadian, as I have explored very little of my own country. This feeling is the worst when I am abroad and fellow travelers learn that I am Canadian. They start to ask me about different places, cities or activities. Sadly, I very rarely have been to any of them. This summer I decided I wanted to take more road trips and visit more of Canada. This is an ambitious goal for a few reasons, 1. Canada is a huge country, covering , making road-trips more road and less trip; and 2. it is really expensive to fly anywhere within Canada (might as well go to a different country for the same price).

Canada is such a diverse country, geographically and culturally. Many a time it is hard to pinpoint what it means to be Canadian, to share with others Canadian traditions, cuisine and even what the landscape is like. One really cannot lump together the whole country, or it’s people into a stereotype. There is too much, too much land, and too much adopted from other cultures. Perhaps you could say that we are nice people, saying ‘thank-you’ a little too much and ‘eh’.

I had 6 days off work around my birthday; which was just enough time to venture out of British Columbia and into (just barely) the neighbouring province of Alberta. We focused our few days in the Canadian Rockies, in the Banff and Jasper area. We spent very little time in the towns, because the true charm and draw of this area is the wilderness.

Leaving Vancouver

The drive between Vancouver and Banff is about 9 hours, direct with no stops; however you will be making stops, if only for gas and toilet breaks. We split up our drive, stopping off in the Okanagan one night to visit Frans’ family in Peachland. From Peachland to Banff was about 6 hours direct. We traveled the Trans Canada Highway (HWY 1) to Banff. The drive consists of varying scenery from city, to the valley with abundant farmland, to the dry desert-like Okanagan, into the mountainous region at the Rockies. We mounted our GoPro on the dashboard, and got some pretty awesome footage of our drive.

Banff National Park

We arrived in Banff late in the afternoon. Fortunately we had no problem getting a campsite. By the time we set-up camp and made dinner, it was starting to get dark, so off to bed. The following morning is when we really started our adventures. We drove into Banff and spent an hour or so wandering around.

Banff Town

Banff itself is pretty small, home to 8,000 people. The main part of town is chateau-style, looking very much like a town you might find in the Swiss Alps or like Whistler, BC. Many of the shops focus on outdoor gear for summer and winter, a variety of restaurants, cafes and tourist souvenirs. We bought matching Banff Canada fleece jackets for warmth, as we had a chilly night. There is plenty of accommodation ranging from luxury hotels to motels, in and around town, though I am sure it books up quickly in all seasons.

Banff is among the Rocky Mountains, specifically surrounded by Mount Rundle and Mount Cascade, with Bow River running through the center. Between mountains, the green forest and blue river, the view, even from the heart of town, is always awesome.

Places to Visit around Banff:

  • Banff Hot Springs
  • Banff Gondola
  • Historical Sights
  • Sulphur Mountain
  • Vermillion Lakes
  • Art Galleries

Our next stop was in Canmore to climb Ha Ling Peak. I will write more about our hike in another post.

Bow Valley Parkway

Is one of the two highways connecting Banff and Lake Louise, the other being the Trans Canada Highway (1). Bow Valley is the more scenic drive, with more opportunities to see wildlife and has various points of interest along the way.

After our hike, we headed toward Lake Louise, via Bow Valley Parkway, to find a campsite and to have a head start on the following days drive. After setting up camp in the early afternoon, we drove out to Johnston Canyon, which is accessible along Bow Valley.

 
 

Johnston Canyon

Is a deep gorge created by Johnston Creek eroding the surround limestone over thousands of years. Johnston Creek originates on Castle Mountain and eventually joins the Bow River. The walk starts deep within the canyon, almost level with the creek, on well maintained paths at an easy difficulty but grows increasingly more difficult the farther you walk, particularly due to elevation gain.

 
 

Lower Falls

Located about 1 km, 30 minutes from the trail start. Make sure to view the waterfall from the bridge and up-close via the short tunnel through the canyon rock to a viewing platform a couple of meters from the falls – you will get a little wet from the mist off the falls.

 
 
 

Upper Falls & Ink Pots

The path to Upper Falls is more challenging, as you climb out of the canyon. It is an additional 1.5 km from Lower Falls. Once you’ve made it, be sure to check out both viewpoints: (1) the platform looking over to the bottom of the falls and (2) a platform overhanging the gorge, with an outlook across to the top of the falls, accessed via steep trail.

The trek to the Ink Pots is an additional 3 km from Upper Falls. The trail takes you out of the canyon completely, through the forest and into a meadow. The Ink Pots are seven pools of green coloured mineral springs.

Jasper National Park

The following morning we completed our drive along the Bow Valley Parkway, a stop in Lake Louise and then connected with the Icefields Parkway, towards Jasper.

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway is listed as one of the most beautiful drives in the world. The highway continues to drive through the Rockies, with jagged mountain peaks rising above you on both sides. The drive starts off in forested area, passing by the picturesque turquoise blue glacier lakes, then moves into a tundra area where the icefields once were, leaving little to no plant-life.

 
 

Bow Lake & Bow Falls

Bow Lake lies alongside the Icefields Parkway. It is another glacier lake, and when the light hits just right the water is a perfect turquoise colour. There are two places to stop and admire the lake, a view point parking lot at the side of the road and at the historical Simpson’s Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. You can see Crowfoot Mountain and Crowfoot Glacier towering above the lake. From the lodge parking lot, you can access the Bow Galcier Falls trail. The trail starts off by walking around the lake, then up toward Bow Glacier. The walk is 4.6 km one way, with little elevation gain. We hiked in running shoes and had no issues. We did not go all the way up to the falls, but stopped once we had a good vantage.

Peyto Lake

Only a few minutes drive down Icefields Parkway, Peyto lake is again famous for its colour, caused by glacial silt, and panoramic views. The easy access viewpoint is only ~1 km from the parking lot, however the views of the lake become more spectacular the higher you hike. Going past the major Peyto Lake lookout a few meters there is a trail leading downwards to the lake or further along is another trail leading to an old fire road. The fire road leads to nearby old Bow Lake lookout, once the lake comes into view, scramble up the mountain behind you.

Columbia Icefield

Is the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains. It feeds 30 glaciers in total, including the following 8 major glaciers, listed below.

  • Athabasca Glacier
  • Castleguard Glacier
  • Columbia Glacier
  • Dome Glacier
  • Stutfield Glacier
  • Saskatchewan Glacier

The Columbia Icefield was last major geological features to be discovered by man in western Canada, due to its isolation and harsh weather conditions. Found along Icefields parkway, there is a discovery center and opportunities (via tour group only) to venture out onto Athabasca Glacier.

 

Jasper Town

A small town of only 5,000 people, Jasper is the main town in Jasper National Park. We only ventured into Jasper the morning of our departure to fuel up our car and our bellies.

Other Places to Visit

  • Edith Cavell
  • Maligne Valley
  • Sunwapta Falls

Camping

Banff: there are 17 campgrounds listed on the Parks Canada Website. 11 of which take reservations, 6 that are first-come-first-serve, 2 are specifically for trailers only, 1 is pre-equipped with gear and 2 oTENTik sites, which are permanent yurt-like structures.

Jasper: there are 12 campgrounds. 4 of which take reservations, 8 that are first-come-first-serve, 1 specifically for trailers only, 1 oTENtik sites.

The front-country facilities range from RV hook-ups and tent sites with bathrooms, hot showers, cooking huts, bear-proof food storage and disposal to just bathrooms. We did not stay in any back-country sites on this trip. All campsites in the national parks are “bare campsites” meaning that NO food items are to be left out, which includes any cooking utensils, supplies, garbage and left overs. These items must be placed in the vehicle or in the bear-proof storage.

 
 
 

Tips for Banff & Jasper 

  1. It is a popular tourist destination all year round – be prepared for crowds and for accommodation to book up. Even if you are camping, I highly recommend you reserve ahead of time. I thought it was first come first serve camping, which ultimately had us jumping from campsite to campsite each night and perhaps missing out on more sightseeing time. Fortunately, we were able to find campsites.
  2. If you are camping, remember you are in the mountains – it gets cold at night even in the summer. Bring warm sleeping bags/blankets and extra clothes, just in case.
  3. During the summer, there is often a campfire ban to prevent wildfires. Bring a portable stove or BBQ to cook on.
  4. Always be prepared, especially when out hiking, mountain weather is unpredictable
  5. The drive between Banff and Jasper is only 3.5 hours, but there are so many places to stop and things to see, you will easily need 2-3 days. Especially if you plan to go on hikes. Give yourself time.
  6. Fill up on gas before leaving a major town
  7. Bring snacks in the car as there are only a few stops between towns

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