Here's your epic 3-week road trip itinerary for seeing all the best places in British Columbia and Alberta. You're going to need your own car (campervan is even better as your accomodation is then sorted most nights!) Be prepared to cover a lot of miles both on the road and out hiking on your own two feet to get to the most amazing places in Western Canada...
DAY 1: VANCOUVER
Begin exploring the city by hiring a bike from Spokes Bicycle Rentals, less than a 5 minute cycle from the entrance to Stanley Park. On this 5km loop of the park, you'll get to see saw the totem poles and can make a tea stop at Ferguson Point, with views right out to Vancouver Bay.
Vancouver is a super-friendly city for bikes, so make the most of your bike hire and continue cycling for 5km, following the Seaside & Seawall pathways that run parallel to the waterside, from Downtown around to Kitsilano, known as 'Kits'. Cycle inland towards 4th Avenue, where you can lock up your bike and wander around this chilled and outdoorsy neighbourhood. The main avenue is full of yoga studios, organic health cafes and fashionable lifestyle and outdoor apparel stores.
After a mooch around, get back on your bike and continue about 3km to Jericho Beach, where the sand is soft and you can see sailing boats, snowy mountains and city skyscrapers all-in-one view.
On your bike ride back to Downtown, stop off for dinner at Granville Island. This foodie destination offers an amazing assortment of cuisines from over 30 stalls, as well as several cute artsy boutiques and Canada's first microbrewery. All that competition keeps prices competitive, so you can enjoy a great value, delicious meal here, including some of the best sushi, freshly caught fish & chips, and delicious donuts.
DAY 2: NORTH VANCOUVER
Explore the north side of the city today, hopping on the bus to begin the Grouse Grind; a 2.9-km trail with some 2,830 steps leading to the summit of Grouse Mountain. It's a gruelling physical challenge that takes 1 - 2 hours, depending on your fitness. Alternatively, you can take the gondola to the summit in just 8 minutes. The panoramic views from the top, with mountain wilderness below and the gleaming city ahead are spectacular.
Next, head to Lynn Canyon Park, home to several beautiful trails, a swimming hole, waterfalls and suspension bridge. Although the Capilano Suspension Bridge is longer and higher, the suspension bridge at Lynn Park is free, and still very impressive, swaying 50 meters above the canyon.
2 other neighbourhoods I'd definitely recommend wondering around are:
- Gastown is lively and historic. It's home to a buzzy bar and live music scene, plus dozens of award-winning restaurants, and numerous fashion boutiques and vintage stores.
- Yale Town is hip and trendy. Most of the buildings are converted warehouses that now house lifestyle and decor stores or farm-to-table restaurants.
DAY 3: VANCOUVER > KELOWNA
Pick up your car or campervan and set off driving. It's 400km to Kelowna, and will take about 5.5 hours. Kelowna is compared to a piece of 'California in Canada', with lush, rolling vineyards, architecturally-beautiful hillside houses and a dazzling blue lake awaiting you.
After a long drive, make your first stop at the stunning Mission Hill Vineyard. Strolling into the courtyard, there are amazing views everywhere you turn such as the grand bell tower and breathtaking outdoor amphitheater framing the view of the lake. You can also buy a bottle of wine there and feel very sophisticated as you enjoy it out on the terrace.
Spend the evening on the shores of the Okanagan Lake or along the eateries in downtown Kelowna.
DAY 4: KELOWNA > YOHO NATIONAL PARK
Start this morning stretching your legs around the lake boardwalk and Kelowna town, mooching in the home decor and cute independent book stores, and grabbing breakfast. It's also a good place to do a big shop and stock up on supplies before heading into the corridor of National Parks. Save on Foods was our supermarket of choice!
It's another big driving day today, covering 425km that will take about 5.5 hours, taking you to the edge of British Columbia and into Yoho National Park. About 30 minutes after you enter Yoho ('Yoho' is a Cree word expressing awe and wonder), follow the signs to the dazzling Emerald Lake. Depending on what time you arrive, you can hire a canoe and paddle across the lake, walk the 5.2km lakeshore loop, or simply just relax and enjoy the views from the dock. Also check out the Natural Bridge site, on the same access road to Emerald Lake.
DAY 5: LAKE LOUISE
Today you finally get to witness the world-famous Lake Louise. I would definitely recommend making sure you arrive before 8:30am, to ensure you get a parking space, and enjoy the lake without huge crowds. Another option is to take the free shuttle from the Lake Louse village.
After being amazed by the vivid turquoise colours and the impressive Victoria Glacier, set off hiking to one of the two teahouses, where hot chocolate and freshly baked backcountry goodies await at the end of your hike. You can choose between the Plain of the Six Glaciers or Lake Agnes teahouse. Read more about each hike here.
Once you're back at Lake Louise, drive to the Lake Louise Ski Resort, where they operate the ski lifts in summer known as the 'Grizzly Gondola'. As you travel above the Bow Valley wildlife corridor, you have a great chance of spotting a grizzly bear. You'll ascend to over 2,000 meters, to one of the best viewpoints in Banff, where you can then enjoy delicious dishes or an ice cold beer on the terrace at Whitehorn Bistro.
*DAY 6 & 7: SKOKI LODGE
Skoki Lodge is nestled in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies in Banff National Park, and was without doubt, one of the highlights of my time in Canada. It's a wonderful adventure, with Royals, Prince William & Kate Middleton also staying for the night on their tour of the country!
Even if you are travelling on a budget, I would 100% recommend saving a bit extra or scrimping on a few other things to make sure you get yourself there. The outstanding scenery is totally worth the hard-at-times hike (the lodge is only accessible via an 11km trail) and the food alone is worth the price you pay. Read more about Skoki Lodge here.
DAY 8: LAKE LOUISE > BANFF
After two hard days of hiking, return to Lake Louise for a super-indulgent, delicious breakfast at the Poppy Brasserie at Chateau Lake Louise, with incredible views out on to the shores of Lake Louise. It is pricey at $33 per person, so if you're looking for an alternative option, check out my 'Places to Eat in Lake Louise' post.
Post-brekkie, hit the road and drive the Bow Valley Parkway to Banff, a 50km scenic route that's one of the best places to see wildlife in the area. About half way in is Johnston Canyon. It's one of Banff's most popular hikes that winds past the overhanging canyon walls and the rushing creek below. Make sure you hike all the way to the impressive Upper Falls, totalling 2.4km each way.
Before arriving in Banff, drive the 2km winding road up to Mount Norquay viewpoint for an incredible (and free!) view across Banff town, the Bow Valley and surrounding lakes and mountains. Spend the evening relaxing at Banff Hot Springs; a giant outdoor hot pool with views up to the stars and sky and across the valley to the jagged peak of Mount Rundle.
DAY 9: BANFF > MORAINE LAKE
Have a slow, relaxing day, wandering around Banff town, enjoying all the eateries and roof-top patios, surrounded by the shadows of the mountains. A lovely, short walk I'd recommend is the path along the Bow River to Bow Falls - great for a bit of easy exercise and fresh air. When you're ready, drive the main Highway 1 back to Lake Louise, where you'll follow the Bow River and get a fabulous view of Castle Mountain.
Later this afternoon or early evening, visit Moraine Lake. The car park gets very busy, and so they do close the access road mid-morning, which doesn't normally re-open until at least 4pm. Climb the rock pile, hire a canoe, or squeeze in a hike. Consolation Lakes, Sentinel Pass and Tower of Babel are all excellent hikes (some with scrambling!), so it just depends how much time you have and how far you want to go.
*DAY 10: LAKE O'HARA
Lake O'Hara is a true wilderness destination and one of the top spots in the Rockies. The towering peaks, thousands of larch trees and picturesque lakeside cabins are spectacular.
However, its a hard-to-reach gem, set 11km back from the main road. A shuttle bus runs a few times a day, but due to the delicate alpine environment, a cap on visitor numbers has been imposed, therefore bus tickets sell out months in advance. This leaves only one way of guaranteeing getting yourself there, which is on foot. Find out more about getting to Lake O'Hara and the best hikes to go on once you arrive, here.
DAY 11: ICEFIELDS PARKWAY > JASPER NATIONAL PARK
Today, drive one of the world's most scenic roads, the Icefields Parkway. This 227km stretch of road would take around 3 hours to drive non-stop, but you can't not stop. Spend the whole day exploring the natural wonders that include thundering waterfalls, the massive glaciers of the Columbia Icefield and the turquoise lakes dotted along one of the world's the most beautiful roads.
Here are the 5 most note-worthy stops, in my opinion, with each site offering something equally impressive but totally different.
Peyto Lake - One of the most beautiful lakes in the world. The water is the most vivid shade of turquoise you can imagine, with a view that stretches down the Icefields Parkway for what seems like hundreds of miles.
Athabasca Glacier - You can travel across this glacier on a massive Ice Explorer where you can walk on, feel and drink from the Athabasca. But we stopped at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre and had fabulous (and free) views of this natural wonder from the terrace.
Parker's Ridge - This is a short and rewarding hike right in the middle of the Icefields Parkway. Its 5km round-trip, and from the plateau at the top, you get remarkable views of the parkway and several glaciers.
Athbasca Falls - Athabasca Falls is not the highest or widest waterfall in the Canadian Rockies but it is the most powerful, featured against a pretty mountain backdrop
Horseshoe Lake - There is no signage to this spot but its just a couple of minutes to walk to from the highway, where you can cliff-jump into the crystal clear waters of this horseshoe-shaped lake
Eventually, you'll make it to the heart of the park, the alpine town of Jasper, where you can refuel on food, whether that be at one of the restaurants or picking up supplies at the mini-supermarket. Before sunset, head to tiny Pyramid Island and peaceful Patricia Lake, two top spots less than a 10-minute drive from Jasper town.
DAY 12: JASPER NATIONAL PARK
Start your morning with one of the best hikes in the park. My two favourite that I'd recommend choosing between are:
1) The Sulphur Skyline trail takes you to over 2,000m and offers breathtaking 360 views across the park. It's a challenging, uphill hike and while it is steep and tiring at times, its not unmanageable. Plus the views at the top making it easily worth the hard climb; they really are that incredible. It's 4km each way, gaining 700m of elevation.
While we loved the idea of a relaxing soak after a tough hike, we were disappointed with the Miette Hot Springs and its swimming-pool style, so gave them a miss.
2) Bald Hills; For the best views of Maligne Lake, go on this hike (which is more a mountain, than a hill!). It's a 10km round trip, that takes you high above the treeline to provide amazing, panoramic views of the beautifully blue Maligne Lake and the mountain tops. With it being quite a long, uphill hike, it makes it a rather less travelled place, which only adds to the beauty.
While you're in this region, it's definitely worth visiting Maligne Canyon - an impressive natural feature that offers different scenery to the lakes and mountains and, at 50 meters, is the deepest canyon in the park. The trail is divided into 6 parts, which makes it easy to go as little or as far as you want. We started from the top and went as far as the fourth bridge.
After a good views hours spent hiking, retreat to town for the rest of the day. For happy hour drinks with a view, head to Earl's. Bear Paw Bakery is a great local spot to get coffee and cake at and sit in big, comfy leather sofas, and Famous Neapolitan Pizzeria serves up yummy wood fired pizzas.
DAY 13: JASPER > (NEAR) WHISTLER
About 60km from Jasper is Mount Robson. At a height of 3,954 m (12,972 ft) it's the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, and second in British Columbia. Even the views from the car park are impressive, what with its prominence, but venture beyond the car and walk the first 4km of the Berg Trail where you will find the Robson River Rapids and tranquil Kinney Lake, nestled at the base of Mount Robson and several smaller mountains.
It's a mega-driving marathon for the rest of day, as you travel from Jasper to near Whistler. Stopping at Kamloops is a good half-way point, as its one of the bigger towns, offering plenty of service stations. After 610km, we stopped at a simple campsite in Lilooet for the night.
DAY 14: WHISTLER
About 60km north of Whistler is Joffre Lakes Provincial Park. The hiking circuit at Joffre Lakes actually takes you to three lakes, that each get progressively more blue and beautiful. The trail itself is a scenic hike through the woods, surrounded by lakes and mountains with a glacier view at the Upper Lake. There are a few steep, rough sections, but on the whole, it's a well-maintained moderate trail. You can swim here too - there was a rope swing to plunge you into the Middle Lake, which makes it much easier than wading in as the water is glacier fresh!
Whistler Village is the hub of the area, at the foot of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. The village has a modern, cosmopolitan vibe with a lively après scene, full of bars restaurants, shops, spas and luxury lodging. The village is also home to an Olympic Rings statue to commemorate the 2010 Winter Olympics with this open grassy area hosting a free outdoor concert series in the summer.
Two must eat-at places have to be Whitbread Bakery in the main village that is home to the most delicious and indulgent baked goodies. For a more filling meal, dine at Creekbread, located 4km south of the main village where they serve amazing organic pizzas, baked in a rustic wood fired oven.
DAY 15: WHISTLER > TOFINO (VANCOUVER ISLAND)
The drive out of Whistler down to the ferry terminal at Horseshoe Bay in North Vancouver goes along the super-scenic Sea to Sky Highway.
After a stunning drive, you now board the boat for one of the most scenic ferry crossings in the world. It's a 2.5 hour cruise through the Straits of Georgia, passing untamed, uninhabited islands and rocky coves with the chance of spotting marine wildlife, including whales, sea lions and dolphins.
You'll arrive at the port of Nainamo, where it's a 2.5 hour drive on to Tofino. Just before you arrive in Tofino town, stop off at Chesterman Beach and stretch your legs for an hour or two. It’s a beautiful 2.7km long strip of sand and is a great place to surf, stroll or storm-watch.
We walked all the way round to the North End, home to the Wickaninnish Inn, a forested lodge set on this windswept waterfront. We stopped for tea and scones in the Driftwood Café, and while it’s a little expensive, the incredible views and luxurious lounge make it worth it.
Drive the final few kilometres onto Tofino; a tiny town world-famous for its easy-going, outdoorsy and artsy vibes with wild and rugged coastal scenery. I would try and book onto a whale tour this evening, so you're all set for tomorrow. We went with 'The Whale Centre' who I would definitely reccommend.
DAY 16: TOFINO
This morning, head out on your whale watching tour. Our trip explored the waters of the Clayoquot Sound, just off the coast of Tofino. We saw sea lions, otters and several grey whales. It's such a special experience seeing these animals in the wild!
I would love to have also visited Hot Springs Cove on our whale watching tour, where you can soak in the natural geothermal hot springs in Maquinna Provincial Park. I also heard the calm, protected inlets you cruise near on the boat ride there is great for spotting bears as they forage along the beach shore, so if you have the time and money to do the extended tour, I would recommend booking on!
Spend the afternoon wandering around the local boutiques and galleries, stopping in at some of the local restaurants. Depending on what you fancy, Big Daddy’s Fish Fry cooks up some of the best fried fish platters around and Tuff Beans is a cosy coffee shop serving incredible coffee, plus hearty wraps, soups and sandwiches.
A few kilometers out of town, close to Chesterman Beach is an enchanting rainforest. It's hard to believe you're in Canada as you stand these lush, ancient rainforests, full of giant cedar trees and hanging mosses.. The trail has two routes, and although they are short (about 1km each way) just take your time and appreciate the beauty of the place as you stroll along the rickety boardwalk.
DAY 17 : TOFINO > VICTORIA
After you a lazy start, leave Tofino and drive towards Victoria, but first make a stop in the rural and rustic town of Coombs for lunch. This small community is home to the incredibly quirky ‘Goats on the Roof’ (yes, there really are goats grazing on a living roof made of grass), as well as lots of little boutiques, a cute coffee stand and incredible ice cream bar. But the best place nestled here is the beautiful Cuckoo Trattoria and Pizzeria serving the most delicious Italian food in Canada (in my opinion!).
From Coombs, it's about a 2 hour drive onto Victoria. Staying in Chinatown is a great location to stay in, as it's buzzy, with lots of trendy places to eat and drink and is close to the waterfront. After you settle into your accomodation, head down to the waterfront. CANOE Brewpub is a busy, stylish bar with a waterfront patio that is great for a drink on a summer evening. Greenleaf Vietnamese Bistro is a few blocks back from the water and serves classic Vietnamese cuisine for a very reasonable price.
DAY 18: VICTORIA
Devote today to wondering around one of the most British cities in North America; Victoria. Start out near the harbour airport, where you can watch the seaplanes take-off and land, or maybe even board a flight yourself!
We went on the 35-minute extended panoramic sightseeing flight with Harbour Air that circled above Victoria’s rugged coastline. The flight provided incredible aerial views of the waterfront, the grand houses in Victoria’s suburbs and the flowers at Butchart Gardens. Whilst flying above the ocean, we also saw a small pod of orca whales. Take off and landing on water was also a cool experience in itself!
As you follow the harbour path, you'll pass the historic British Columbia Parliament Buildings and grand Empress Hotel (which looks beautiful when all lit up at night). We continued all the way around to Fisherman’s Wharf (which is about 2.5km so a 30 minute walk) where there are fresh seafood stalls (including delicious Mexican fish tacos), quirky houseboats to adore, and resident seals bobbing around in the harbour.
From Fisherman’s Wharf, follow the sea wall path around to the Pacific Ocean side, to Beacon Hill Park. To get the best view in the park, climb the short hill, where you can sit on one of the many benches that overlook the waterfront and Juan de Fuca Straight, with views that stretch as far as the Olympic Mountain range in Washington state, USA on a clear day. Beacon Hill Park is also home to the world’s tallest totem pole at over 38 meters high!
DAY 19: VICTORIA > VANCOUVER
Spend the morning finding a cute breakfast spot before taking the ferry back to the mainland. From Victoria, the closest ferry port is the Swartz Bay terminal, a 30-minute drive from Victoria that arrives at the port of Tsawwassen in South Vancouver. If you’ve been unlucky and are yet to spot any wildlife, this is another chance to hopefully a glimpse of maybe a seal, dolphins or even a whale!
Spend the afternoon exploring a few more spots in Vancouver and then head to your favourite district for your final evening in Canada. If you like the buzz of city, head for dinner and drinks in Gastown (La Mezcaleria does super-tasty Mexican food) or if you prefer a more chilled beach vibe, sit on the deck at The Galley Patio and Grill on Jericho Beach in Kitsilano.
DAY 20: VANCOUVER > FLY HOME
If you're flying east of Vancouver (so anywhere in Europe) don't forget forward you'll be putting the clocks forward by about 8 hours after you land, so you may need to factor in an extra day!