The best way to experience the magnificent Canadian Rockies is to get in a car and drive. You can go at your own pace and pull over when you see something pretty. Wind your windows down, play your own music and enjoy the freedom of the open road as you cruise through 3 of Canada's most beautiful national parks.
This road is remote and the terrain is wild with some the best mountain scenery you can experience whilst driving. Paralleling the Continental Divide, the road winds through two national parks, journeying pass pristine turquoise lakes and the world-renowned Columbia Icefields.
The Icefields Parkway, also known as Highway 93 North, is 232km and would be a 3-hour drive if you didn’t stop but that would be a crime. Take your time and spend the day out there. If you’re travelling from the south, alternative roads for getting back to Banff are limited, but it’s worth doing twice!
You should make pit-stops at Peyto Lake, Athabasca Falls and Sunwapta Falls, which can all be accessed by easy walks of less than 10-minutes from the car. Or you can pull over at one of the many trailheads and hike deep into the heart of the Canadian Rockies. The Icefields Centre is the hub for tours that take you out on an “Ice Explorer” truck onto the vast Athabasca glacier (although if you’re short of time or money, you can enjoy the magnificent views, albeit at a distance, for free from the balcony of the Icefields Centre).
Despite warm, sunny summer days, it can still snow in August and temperatures can drop to below freezing so bring something to wrap up in when you get out the car! From November to April, the road conditions can be poor if its icy or reduced visibility with road closures of several days not uncommon during heavy snowfall and dangerous avalanche conditions. In winter, many trailheads and the Icefield Centre are closed. Also, make sure you have a full tank of gas before hitting the road. There’s no gas stations between Lake Louise and Jasper.
TRANS-CANADIAN HIGHWAY 1
Don’t overlook this highway. This faster, more main road has its benefits with breathtaking views of the mountains from start to finish. Most people are heading for Lake Louise but add on an extra 25km and enter Yoho National Park continuing on to the tiny village of Field.
Between Banff and Lake Louise you will drive alongside some of the Rockies most striking mountains including Mount Rundle, Mount Temple and Castle Mountain. As you travel between Lake Louise and Field, you cross the BC/Alberta border where there's the opportunity to de-tour to two of British Columbia's most beautiful lakes; Emerald Lake and Lake O'Hara (note: you need to book a shuttle bus for Lake O'Hara). As you catch-up with the railway tracks, you will most likely see the iconic red Canadian Pacific trains but if the tracks are empty, keep an eye out for grizzly bears feeding on grain along the railway line.
With peaks of thousands of metres above you, the weather along this route is forever changing, especially as you enter Kicking Horse Pass. Clear blue sunny skies, hazy purple sunsets or snowy blizzards are just some of the backdrops that will frame this spectacular scenery.
This road is also one you don’t have to rule out if you’re not plan on hiring a car. Greyhound buses use this route with the advantage of the bus giving you a higher vantage point to admire the landscape from. If your schedule allows you drive both Highway 1 and the Bow Valley Parkway. This section of the 1 covers 85km and takes just over an hour. Both directions are dazzling, but I'd recommend taking Highway 1 east from Lake Louise to Banff and the Bow Valley Parkway westbound. The only option for the Lake Louise to Field section is via Highway 1 so it's very possible you'll do this in both directions.
BOW VALLEY PARKWAY
This is one of two routes that you can take that connects Banff and Lake Louise. The Bow Valley Parkway (also referred to as the 1A) is the slower, winding road that weaves through the scenic forest floor of the Bow Valley, rather than the fast, four-lane Highway 1 that runs just the other side of the Bow River.
Unlike the main highway, this Parkway road isn’t fenced, providing much better opportunities in for spotting wildlife. Get your passengers to keep their eyes open and look out for animals such as bears, bighorn sheep, elk and moose. Despite being known for frequent wildlife spottings, I’m going to confess that on all of our trips up until April, we didn't see more than a few deer! But from May onwards, wildlife sightings became much more common with ourselves and friends spotting all of Canada's best wildlife on this road. Travelling closer to dawn and dusk will increase your chances of success! If you are lucky enough to spot something, or think there is something close by, remain in your car.
If you are unfortunate and don’t see any wildlife along this route, the Johnston Canyon hike will make up for it. There are three levels of walk; an easy 20 minutes walk to the lower falls (1.1 km), 45 minutes to the upper falls (2.7 km), or 2.5 hours to the Inkpots (6.0 km). Remember these are one-way times and the hikes are uphill on the way there.
This road is 51km so allow around 1.5 hours to enjoy the drive, take in the views and snap a few photographs. If you plan on doing any hiking, factor this into your journey time too. Also note that the parkway is open all year, but it’s not possible to drive the whole road between 8pm and 8am from March 1 to June 25, so plan to ensure you can complete the whole drive. And make sure you stick to the 60km/h limit – park wardens are forever pulling people over!