Self Driving the Canadian Rockies

Lake Louise

About a year ago a message popped up on my Twitter feed. It said that all national parks in Canada will be free in 2017 to mark its 150th anniversary. Home to some of the most incredible scenery in the world, I immediately started planning my trip.

With the aim to avoid the peak tourist season, I planned to go in early June and spend 5 days across 4 major national parks – Jasper, Yoho, Glacier and Banff. Late spring or early to mid autumn is the best time to visit if you’re not a fan of shoulder to shoulder crowds.

I rented a mid-size car from Edmonton for less than $80 a week. It was about a 4-hour drive to the entrance of Jasper National Park. Now, I’ve done a few amazing scenic drives in my lifetime, like the Pacific Coast Highway along the California coast, Hue to Hoi An in Vietnam, and Lisbon to Algarve in Portugal. But with exhilarating vistas of forest, craig, glacier, ice fields and wildlife, the drive from Jasper to Banff takes out the top spot on my list. It’s easily one of the most beautiful drives in the world.

The following is a rough 5-day itinerary. If you’re thinking of a self drive adventure through the Canadian rockies, I encourage you to follow this route.

Day 1 – 2: Jasper National Park

Lake Maligne. The first stop was Lake Maligne. By the time I arrived it was late in the day and the kayak rental was closed. But there was enough time for a 2 hour hike around the lake.
Athabasca Falls: The water that you see in the falls originates from the Mt. Athabasca Glacier. This was my first sighting of a Grizzly bear in the wild.

Columbia Ice Field: Hiked to see remnants of the once magnanimous Glacier that used to occupy the car park but has now it has receded far from this area. Ironic that I was here the same week when Trump announced pulling out of the Paris agreement. Very sad!

Bow Summit: You hike up almost 1000 meters to the top of the summit to see the most beautiful lake you will ever witness in your life – Peyto Lake. Bow lake is the longest lake that goes from Jasper to Banff.
Wilcox Pass: If you want to experience an amazing hiking opportunity go to the top of the Wilcox pass. It’s here that you can sit in the infamous red chair you see in most travel guides. As an added bonus you can witness many Mountain goats hanging around enjoying the sun.

canadian rockies by car
canadian rockies by car
Wilcox Pass Mountain Goat
Wilcox Pass Mountain Goat
Peyto Lake
Peyto Lake

Day 3 – Yoho National Park

Wapta Falls: Initially took the wrong road while looking for the trail head but ended up finding a beautiful vantage point from where one can see the Wapta Falls from far. I also bumped into a large black Grizzly bear.
Once I found the right trail head, the real hike to Wapta Falls took about 2 hours. But getting lost is the best way to experience the most interesting things!

Natural Bridge: If you want to witness history being made, make sure you visit the Natural bridge. The forceful water from the melting Glacier is slowly carving (what once used to be) a rock bridge into a canyon.
Lake Emerald: My favorite lakes in all of the National Parks for its serenity and vista. Managed to complete a loop around the lake in 3 hours.

Day 4 – 5: Banff National Park

Banff is the most touristy and most advertised national park in Canada, mainly due to the attraction of Lake Louise. It is undoubtedly beautiful, though in my opinion overrated, as it’s far too over crowded for my taste. Instead I recommend you visit:

Lake Morraine: This is underdeveloped, rocky and still covered in ice. But when you climb to the top of the hill you will enjoy a breathtaking view of the lake with the backdrop of surrounding high mountains.
Johnston Canyon: I hiked about 1.5 km and saw the fast flowing river carving a deep canyon. Also saw a grizzly bear here.

Sulphur Mountain: Avoid the easy Gondola ride instead take the steep hike to the top of the mountain. The climb is about 2 hours to the top and it was simply the best workout you will ever get. Once there you will go to several scenic spots. There is a cosmic ray telescope
Banff Minnewanka Lake: Another underrated lake but a must see if you go to Banff.

Lake Louise
Lake Louise
Lake Morraine
Lake Morraine
grizzly bear sighting
grizzly bear sighting

That Beautiful Blue

You will that notice most of the lakes throughout Canada’s National Parks are blue. This is due to the constant grinding of glacier with rocks. The rubble left behind (also called “Rock Flour”) in the water scatters the blue-green rays of light, giving the lake its special blue color.

There are of course many other hikes throughout each national park which I didn’t have time to include. The highway from Jasper to Banff has a ton of sightseeing/hiking opportunities, and the great thing about a self drive vacation is that you can experience them at your own pace, depending on your time and your fitness level.
If you’re into nature, wildlife, camping and hiking you must visit Canada’s National Parks this year. They’re free!

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