Canadian Rockies Road Trip

Two weeks ago I flew back home to Vancouver for vacation, and during said vacation I took part in a family road trip through the Canadian Rockies. I’ve been a to Banff and Lake Louise a long time ago when I was a kid, and it was about time to revisit those beautiful places. Also, my family has never visited Jasper National Park, so that was part of the trip too. And we also stopped by Kelowna to taste some Okanagan wine. We had a great trip and saw some of the most beautiful scenery you’ll find in Canada. This post is my account of the trip with plenty of photo highlights.

For those who are not familiar with Canadian geography, the Canadian portion of the Rocky Mountains run along the border between the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. It takes a fair bit of driving to get there from Vancouver, which is on the southwest corner of BC. Our road trip was six days and five nights, and we spent our first day driving about 7+ hours to the village of Valemount, BC. Valemount is located about 1.5 hours west of Jasper, Alberta, which is the tourist town within Jasper National Park. The main reason to stay in Valemount is because it is slightly less of a drive, and accommodations are more affordable than in Jasper. Valemount is a quiet little village in the middle of the mountains, and it is quaint and pretty in its own way.

Mount Robson Provincial Park and Jasper National Park

In front of the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies (Click to Enlarge)

On day 2, we headed west on Highway 16 towards Jasper National Park. Before getting there though, we made a stop at the visitor center of Mount Robson Provincial Park, which is still in British Columbia. Behind the visitor center lies Mount Robson, a majestic snow-covered mountain that stands 3,954m above sea level. That elevation is good enough to make it the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, and it is also the most prominent peak in all of the Rocky Mountains. The provincial park offers trails that go to some beautiful alpine lakes closer to Mount Robson, but we decided to leave that to another visit.

Maligne Canyon
Water jets cutting through rock at Maligne Canyon

We continued west across the provincial border to reach Jasper National Park, and on the way we stopped at various pullouts and overlooks to take in the beautiful scenery. Our first stop in Jasper National Park was Maligne Canyon, which is a deep and narrow canyon carved into limestone by fast flowing water. We then continued down the road to Medicine Lake, which is a lake that sometimes completely drains out into an underground river system. On the day we arrived, there was plenty of water in the lake, and the lake with the backdrop of the sharp mountain peaks made for a gorgeous sight.

Yours truly enjoying the view at Medicine Lake (Click to Enlarge)

Driving further down to the end of the road brought us to the shores of Maligne Lake, home of the most photographed spot in Jasper National Park. The photo is that of Spirit Island, which combined with the mountains in the background and turquoise waters Maligne Lake make for one of the most recognizable scenes in the Rockies. Getting to that spot though requires going down Maligne Lake by water. One can rent canoes/kayaks and paddle. We chose the lazy way and took a lake cruise. The ticket prices are quite high for an 1-hour-ish cruise, but we couldn’t exactly come to Jasper NP and miss the most famous point of interest in the park. It got a little cloudy when we stopped by Spirit Island, but the view was still breathtaking. The combination of that deep turquoise water of the lake and the mountains in the background was unreal.

Maligne Lake
Spirit Island (center right) in Maligne Lake. Look at the color of that water. Wow… (Click to Enlarge)
The town of Jasper, sitting pretty in the Rocky Mountains.

We ended our second day by looking around Jasper, the tourist town within the national park. Jasper definitely has a tourist-town feel to it, but it’s smaller and not as crowded as Banff. We didn’t do anything in town other than to walk around and eat dinner, but we thought it was a nice little town.

Athabasca Falls
The powerful Athabasca Falls along the Icefields Parkway
Sunwapta Falls
Sunwapta Falls, another powerful waterfall along the Icefield Parkway
Weeping Wall
The Weeping Wall, along the Icefields Parkway

The next day, we drove down the Icefields Parkway towards Lake Louise in Banff National Park. The Parkway is a scenic road that connects Jasper and Banff National Parks, and there are many places to stop along way. On the Jasper portion of the parkway, we stopped at some powerful waterfalls, and at the Icefields Centre to look at the famous Athabasca Glacier across the road. I have been to this glacier years ago as part of the trip through Lake Louise and Banff, and the glacier has retreated by quite a bit compared to what I remember. People can still ride the big-wheeled ice coaches up to the glaciers, but now the glacier is halfway up the mountain. We didn’t do the snow coach ride and opted to just take some photos instead.

Athabasca Glacier
View of the Athabasca Glacier from across the parkway. (Click to Enlarge)

Banff National Park

Shortly after passing the Icefields Centre, we crossed into Banff National Park, Canada’s first and probably most well-known national park. Banff’s portion of the Icefields Parkway passes by a couple of gorgeous alpine lakes. We stopped and took the short hike up to view point for Peyto Lake, and the color of the lake looks like that of a swimming pool. Compared to the other lakes we’ve visited on this trip, Peyto Lake is the only one where we got to look downwards at the lake from a high viewpoint, and it stood out.

Peyto Lake
The swimming pool colored water of Peyto Lake

After around 3.5 hours (not counting stops for scenery) of driving from Jasper, we’ve finally reached the village of Lake Louise. The village is a resorts village that has a bunch of inns and hotels, and really not much else. There is one intersection with gas stations and shops, and that was it. Lake Louise is a skiing destination in the winter, but in the warm months people come here to look at Lake Louise the lake. Lake Louise is probably the most famous scenic stop in Banff National Park, and it is just a short drive from the village. It is also the most commercialized of all the alpine lakes in the Canadian Rockies as the big Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise sits on one end of the lake. Lake Louise is still as gorgeous as I’ve remembered it though from all those years ago. We took the trail to the far end of the lake to get a different view. The trail continues further into the mountains, but we weren’t prepared to do strenuous hiking so we turned back.

Lake Louise
It’s been 15+ years since I’ve been at Lake Louise, and it’s still as gorgeous as ever.

The weather wasn’t so great on the fourth day of the trip, but we must move on. First up for the day is the short drive to visit Moraine Lake. While Lake Louise (the lake) is the most famous and gets more visitors due to its commercialization, Moraine Lake is no less beautiful. Even under not so great weather, the lake with the 10 mountain peaks in the background is still a sight to behold. My family agrees it is the prettiest out of the lakes we visited on this trip. Like in Lake Louise, we also took the trail on one side of the lake. We then discovered that there is a hill near the parking lot made of fallen boulders that one can walk up to get an even better view of the whole lake, and below is the result.

Moraine Lake
Even poor weather cannot hide the beauty of Moraine Lake (Click to Enlarge)
The main street of Banff. As you can see, weather wasn’t that great.

After Moraine Lake, we headed to Banff on Highway 1A, better known as the Bow Valley Parkway. The Parkway is a scenic route, but the foggy and sometimes rainy weather wasn’t conducive to seeing anything. We eventually reached the town of Banff. Banff is just how I remembered it, a vibrant tourist town in the middle of the mountains. It was larger and had more people than Jasper. Since the weather was spotty, we first visited the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, which is the birthplace of Canada’s national park system. Banff National Park actually started as a sulfur water hot spring that people thought had healing properties. Apparently people also used to drink the water that smelled like rotten eggs. It’s somewhat of a strange and humble beginnings, but we are glad that it eventually resulted in Banff and the other Canadian national parks.

Cave and Basin
The underground sulfur pool at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.

Afterwards, we drove to the shores of Lake Minnewanka just outside of Banff. Lake Minnewanka is the largest lake in Banff National Park. We wanted to take a look at it, but couldn’t see much due to the rain and fog. We returned to Banff where the weather was a bit better and walked around the main street. We wanted to go up Sulphur Mountain on the Banff Gondola, but there were clouds/fog up at the top of the mountain at all times, so we decided it wasn’t worth the trip if we couldn’t get good views.

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