The Canadian Rockies are a very popular destination for its snow-capped mountains, turquoise lakes, bustling waterfalls, glaciers, wildlife, and easy access to a lot of natural wonders and attractions.
It’s almost impossible to see it all in a lifetime. The good news is, in this post I’ve covered the highlights that every Canadian Rockies itinerary should include. All the beautiful picturesque landscapes are located in the province of Alberta and British Columbia.
Most visitors start their trip at Calgary, the closest international airport to Banff, visit Banff National Park, then drive the scenic road Icefields Parkway to Jasper National Park and also explore Yoho National Park. As a local myself, I went beyond the most popular sites and will also reveal a small adventure mountain town close to the US border and a lesser-known place in Kootenay National Park.
All these national parks are neighbors connected via highway and therefore are very easy to visit. For all the mentioned places, the ideal length of your trip would be 10 days or two weeks. Be prepared to get absolutely mesmerized by the beauty of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
Best places to see in the Canadian Rockies
Lying in the heart of Banff National Park, the town of Banff is often a base for trips in the Rockies. It’s surrounded by mountain peaks and offers plenty of day trips to keep you entertained. These are my recommendations when you visit Banff:
- Walk along the Bow River – Banff is usually very busy and crowded during summer but walking along the river and watching wildlife is where you find peace and quiet.
- Sulphur Mountain – One of the most popular attractions in Banff, and in my opinion also the most overpriced, is a gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain. While that is one way how to see Banff from above, another option is to hike up the Sulphur Mountain (5.5 km one-way). In case you get tired, you can take the gondola down for free (after 7 pm in summer).
- Upper Hot Springs –Some people like to jump into ice-cold lakes and some prefer hot springs. Especially if you visit the Rockies in the winter, relaxing in the hot springs with a view of the mountains is amazing.
- Vermilion Lakes – Just outside of town, Vermilion Lakes are easily accessible by walking along the Bow River. One of the lakes has a wooden deck which is an ideal place for a sunrise picnic and watching the mountains wake up. You can also rent a canoe near downtown in Banff and reach Vermilion Lakes by canoe.
2. Lake Minnewanka
Lake Minnewanka is a popular spot for nature lovers and a great day trip from Banff since it’s located only a 20-minute drive from Banff. In summer, take advantage of a shuttle bus from Banff, the parking lot fills up quickly. You can go on a boat cruise along the 2nd longest lake in the Canadian Rockies, rent a canoe, bike along the shore or hike to the Aylmer Lookout for a bird’s eye view.
Due to Lake Minnewanka being an important grizzly bear habitat, there’s a seasonal restriction in place from July 10 to September 15 every year when there’s no biking allowed and hiking only in a tight group of 4 or more.
3. Moraine Lake
Undoubtedly the most picturesque lake in the Rockies is Moraine Lake. Nestled in the Valley of Ten Peaks, the bright turquoise color of Moraine Lake is hard to believe it’s actually real. You can rent a canoe on the shore or try one of the many hiking trails in the area for a different view of Moraine Lake.
The Moraine Lake Road leading to the lake is closed every season on October 15th until the end of May. It passes an avalanche zone and it’s not safe to visit in winter. In summer, the small parking lot fills up incredibly fast and very soon in the morning. Parks Canada has now organized a shuttle service from nearby Lake Louise or overflow parking lot along Trans-Canada Highway. Tickets for the shuttle bus sell out fast as well, make sure to visit early in the morning.
Needless to say, it’s hard to get to Moraine Lake due to the increasing number of visitors every year but it is often the highlight of the whole trip to many travelers.
4. Lake Louise
Another lake you see on every Canada postcard is Lake Louise. Overlooked by Victoria Glacier with a luxurious Fairmont Chateau on the shore, it is one of the top-visited places in all Canada. While you can rent a canoe in summer and float around the lake, the frozen lake in winter becomes a skating rink. A small patch of ice is cleared throughout the winter offering a truly Canadian experience. If you decide to visit in winter, the annual Ice Magic Festival featuring ice sculptures and ice castle is not to be missed.
Lake Louise is not just an iconic photography location but also a great hiking destination. Hikes to Lake Agnes Tea House and Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House offer snacks, soups, and drinks. Whether you like hiking or horseback riding, you can easily spend a full day here. The area around Lake Louise is often very busy, even the hiking trails. One of the best and very quiet hiking trails is Mount Saint Piran. A 13 km round trip hiking trail leads to the mountain top and rewards you with a view of Lake Louise from above.
5. Peyto Lake
The list of top 3 turquoise lakes in the Canadian Rockies concludes with Peyto Lake. This one has a very unusual shape but the color is once again nature’s miracle. Peyto Lake is one of the few lakes where the trail is leading to a lookout of the lake and not to the actual lake.
To get to the lookout, you drive past the Lake Louise on Highway 93 (also called Icefields Parkway) until you reach the Bow Summit at 2,088 meters above sea level. It is the highest point of the scenic road Icefields Parkway where the parking lot for Peyto Lake is located. A short hiking trail connects the lookout with the parking lot. There is also a very little known trail down to the lake but it is not maintained by Parks Canada and can be hard to find. Seeing a Peyto Lake is a great stop while driving the Icefields Parkway.
6. Icefields Parkway
As already mentioned above, Icefields Parkway is an incredibly beautiful scenic road. As the name suggests, it’s full of glacier views. It connects Lake Louise in Banff National Park and Jasper in Jasper National Park through 230 km long road. Well known international travel publications, such as National Geographic, include Icefields Parkway as one of the most scenic drives in the world.
To fully experience its beauty, including the lookouts and some shorter hikes, I suggest planning two full days for Icefields Parkway. The most beautiful lookouts include already mentioned three lakes above, and also Herbert Lake, Bow Lake, Waterfowl Lakes, Mistaya Canyon, Panther Falls, Athabasca Glacier, Sunwapta Falls, and Athabasca Falls. There are plenty of hiking trails along the road; my favorites are Bow Glacier Falls, Glacier Lake, Wilcox Pass and Valley of the Five Lakes.
You can pick up a map of all the stops at the Visitor’s Centre in Lake Louise as there is no cell signal or wifi along Icefields Parkway.
7. Valley of the Five Lakes
This easy and family-friendly hike is mentioned above as it’s situated along the Icefields Parkway but due to its uniqueness, it deserves a more thorough description. Valley of the Five Lakes is in Jasper National Park and the hiking trail visits all five lakes. Furthermore, because it’s only 10 km from Jasper, it can be visited by bike via the biking trail starting from Old Fort Point in Jasper. You can also visit the lakes by snowshoes in the winter. It’s a very pretty year-round hiking location.
The short loop around the lakes is 5.5 km long and every lake has a different shade of emerald green color. If you pay close attention to your surroundings while you hike, you might even be able to spot a moose, a frequent visitor to Valley of the Five Lakes.
8. Maligne Lake
Maligne Lake is the most visited place in Jasper National Park. 48 KMs from the town of Jasper, there’s no option for a shuttle bus. But the drive itself is worth it. On the way to Maligne Lake, you will pass Medicine Lake which is the spot where a lot of bears like to walk and enjoy eating dandelions in the spring. The Maligne Lake Road is also sometimes referred to as ‘Moose Road’. You can guess what other wildlife you can see here. I suggest driving slowly and carefully looking around you at all times.
Once you arrive at Maligne Lake, you can take a boat cruise across the lake to a very famous photography location, Spirit Island. Then have a snack at the historic café. Explore one of the hiking trails around Maligne Lake. The easiest accessible would be Moose Lake Loop or Mona Lake & Lorraine Lake. While Bald Hills Hike is longer and offers a bird’s eye view of Maligne Lake.
9. Takakkaw Falls
The 2nd tallest waterfall in Canada can be found in Yoho National Park. With a height of 373 meters, it’s a beauty. The spray in the summer provides much needed cool down.
From Lake Louise, if you continue on Trans-Canada Highway (instead of taking Icefields Parkway), you will shortly cross into Yoho National Park and see the sign for Takakkaw Falls. There are several viewpoints to see Takakkaw Falls. And a few picnic tables to enjoy the view a little longer. A little known local secret is the campground near the falls. It operates only in the summer on a first-come-first-serve basis. It offers a stunning view of Takakkaw Falls across the river.
If you’re feeling adventurous, try the Iceline hiking trail. You will get a bird’s eye view of Takakkaw Falls from across the valley, the glacier above it that is feeding the falls and several glaciers along the hiking trail. It’s one of the best hikes in the Canadian Rockies.
10. Emerald Lake
A lesser-known lake situated in Yoho National Park is another natural wonder. The emerald-colored lake is set in the mountains with a mountain lodge at its shore. If you’d like to rent a canoe on a lake and cannot afford the expensive fees on Lake Louise or Moraine Lake, Emerald Lake is the cheapest option.
Arrive early in the day so you catch a parking spot. Otherwise, there’s parking allowed along the road. But the line can be extremely long. After the canoe trip, refresh at the café and head for a walk around the lake or hike to Emerald Basin. On the way from Emerald Lake, stop at the Natural Bridge. It’s a waterfall carved through the rocks. The real challenge here, if you’re brave enough, is to walk across the rocky bridge above the bustling water.
11. Floe Lake
Kootenay National Park where Floe Lake belongs is less visited than other national parks in the RockieKootenays. There’s no town and very few accessible attractions. When you’re driving on the Trans-Canada Highway from Banff to Lake Louise and take the exit at Castle Junction, you will soon cross the border to the province of British Columbia. There are several hikes starting along the highway, such as Boom Lake, Stanley Glacier or Marble Canyon.
My favorite, however, is Floe Lake Hike. It takes you across the Kootenay River. Slowly traversing along the mountain until you arrive at the Floe Lake with a giant rock wall in the background. It’s a long 20 km day hike. Which you can also divide into two days and stay overnight at the backcountry campground by the lake. Floe Lake is also part of the longer 55 km multi-day trek Rockwall Trail.
Locals in British Columbia are well aware of this small adventure mountain town. But foreign visitors are not likely to stumble upon it. It’s a bit out of the way from previous national parks. But it’s packed with mountain top hikes, waterfalls, ancient forest trails, caves. A very extensive network of mountain biking trails and one of the best ski resorts in Canada.
My favorite activity in Fernie is mountain biking at Mount Fernie Provincial Park. From a wide range of outdoor things to do in Fernie, I recommend visiting Island Lake Lodge and hiking the newly built Goldilocks Trail through the mountain pass. Relax by the Island Lake and look for a local moose. Visit a giant Bisaro Cave. One of the most surprising things in Fernie are wild painted turtles. Look for them along the Elk River.
As you can see, the Canadian Rockies are a beautiful nature’s playground. Perfect for outdoor enthusiasts and road trip lovers. Wherever you go in Canadian Rockies, there’s guaranteed to be an impressive glacial-fed lake and a hiking trail waiting to be explored.
Maya is an adventure athlete and world traveler. After her trip around the world, she returned to the Canadian Rockies. Apart from adventure sports, she loves traveling to places beyond the beaten path which are not often visited. She shares her travel stories and comprehensive adventure travel guides on her blog Travel with the Smile.