The Canadian Rockies: they’re one of the icons of Canada, drawing eager visitors to the country for over a century. Lying between the interior plains of Alberta and northern British Columbia, this section of the Rocky Mountains features dramatic slopes and mind-boggling peaks reaching up to almost 4,000 metres. Undoubtedly you will have seen photographs of this stunning scenery, but if you’re planning a holiday to Canada and want to experience the Rockies yourself, you might need a little help deciding where to visit and what to do. You really are spoiled for choice in this fantastic corner of the world but here are some of our favourite attractions to visit on your holiday to the Canadian Rockies.
Banff National Park
As Canada’s first national park, Banff began as a hot springs reserve and has grown to encompass 6,641 square kilometres of breath-taking mountain scenery. Here, visitors flock in their millions to ski, snowboard and immerse themselves in the wilderness of the area. In the summer, spot wild caribou, wolves and even grizzly bears on a sightseeing tour of Banff, or spend the night in one of the park’s 13 campsites, taking in the views and sitting around a campfire. In the winter, perhaps you’d like to try the exhilaration of sledding led by a team of adorable huskies? Of course, you can also enjoy some of the finest skiing and tubing that the world has to offer!
Hiking is one of the best ways to see the parks stunning attractions. Although turquoise Lake Louise is often heralded as the most noteworthy lake in the area, Moraine Lake is also one not to be missed. In the Valley of the Ten Peaks, Moraine Lake sits at around 1800 metres of elevation, and its blue waters will leave you spellbound. Follow one of the many hiking trails around the lake, such as The Rockpile Trail. This route reaches a vantage point commonly called the Twenty Dollar View as it was formerly featured on Canadian currency, and is one of the most photographed locations in the entire country!
Between all of the action, take a dip in the world famous hot springs to unwind before heading into town to sample some delicious dishes with ingredients sourced from local Alberta farmers.
Jasper National Park
While Jasper is often thought of as the runner-up to Banff in terms of size, the national park actually covers a larger area than Banff, Yoho and Kootenay combined. The wildest of the national parks, Jasper’s backcountry is home to a thousand-kilometre trail system renowned as one of the best in the world. Try a day’s hiking in the wilderness with some of the more remote routes starting from Yellowhead Hwy. Or, enjoy a picnic on the shores of the beautiful, sapphire-blue Maligne Lake and its surrounding glaciers. In the topmost corner of Maligne Lake lies a particularly picturesque spot in the form of Spirit Island – a small piece of land which jetties out into the lake. The island is sacred to the local First Nations people, so the only way to visit is via a sightseeing tour boat. Stop off at the shore near the island for some breath-taking photographs and a moment’s reflection.
At the southern end of Jasper National Park you will find the Columbia Icefield – the largest ice field in the North American Rockies. Dating back some 200,000 years, this majestic region is around 125 square miles in area and up to 365 metres deep. Featuring many vast glaciers and mountains, it makes for a magnificent and otherworldly landscape. In the summer, you can even board a “snow coach” to travel onto the Athabasca Glacier itself.
Kootenay National Park
The Kootenay Rockies are often referred to as British Columbia’s Mountain Playground. Here, in the less-travelled southeast corner of the region, you’ll find hidden waterfalls, serene bike routes, first-rate cross-country skiing and towering forests. There is more to Kootenay than the scenery; the area is home to several ghost towns where you can learn the intriguing history of deserted buildings such as the original city hall. But undoubtedly it is the parks that stand out the most.
Kootenay National Park is a land of contrast with immense summits, suspended glaciers and dazzling mineral pools. Set among the scenery are meandering trails, like that through the fiery oranges of Marble Canyon – a natural gorge eroded by the waters of Tokumm Creek. Along the way you can spot elk, moose, bighorn sheep, coyotes, wolves and more. After plenty of exploring in these inspiring areas, dip your toes in the gorgeous Radium Hot Springs bringing heat from beneath the earth to warm you after a crisp day on the road.
Yoho National Park
The smallest of the four contiguous national parks in the Canadian Rockies, Yoho National Park comprises 507 square miles of wild land located near the town of Field. It is easy to reach from the Trans-Canada Highway or on a Rocky Mountaineer train through Canada or via the Transcontinental Railway. Within the park, the climate is localised, creating a fascinating ecosystem and varied wildlife including timber wolves, wolverines, cougars, lynx, grizzly and black bears, and even the rufous hummingbird.
Yoho also boasts the Kicking Horse River, the beautiful Takakkaw and Wapta Falls and several impressive mountains. Mount Burgess was previously featured on the Canadian ten dollar bill. In fact, Takakkaw Falls’ name derives from the Cree phrase roughly translating as ‘it is magnificent’ indicating the impressiveness of the geological feature.
Waterton Lakes National Park
The impact of this unique and uncrowded national park comes from a fusion of a mild climate, rare wild flower meadows and hundreds of wildlife species. It is the only park in the world to be designated as both a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an International Peace Park and a Biosphere Reserve at once! This is largely due to the park’s diverse habitats, including prairies, aspen grove forests, alpine tundra, high meadows, lower subalpine forests, deciduous and coniferous forests. With nature’s diverse bounty on offer, it’s no wonder that the area plays host to animals as varied as moose, white-tailed deer, cougars, beavers, river otters and grizzly bears.
The lakes in the park are the deepest of those in the Canadian Rockies and create some of the most stunning views for walkers. Aptly named Summit Lake is set at a lofty 1,942 metres. Red Rock Canyon is another must-visit, where you can take in the vibrant red rocks and paddle in the water. If you fancy something a little different from trekking and exploring, try a spot of golf at Waterton Lakes Golf Course, said to be one of the most scenic courses in the province, or sample fresh baked goods at Pearls Café in Waterton town.
Mount Robson Provincial Park
Mount Robson is famous worldwide for being the highest and most prominent in the Canadian Rockies. So revered is the mountain, in fact, that it has its own provincial park with 536 acres of pristine wilderness, the second-oldest park of its kind in British Columbia. Whether you are an experienced mountaineer attempting a summit of Mt Robson, or you just wish to enjoy the spectacular scenery, you will not be disappointed in this beautiful area.
The mountain provides a real challenge to climbers, with only a 10 per cent success rate, meaning that you are unlikely to reach the highest point due to changeable weather. However, the journey is what brings trekkers back time after time for the beautiful views and interesting terrain. The park offers activities such as fishing, caving and wild camping, plus skiing and snowboarding, of course.
Canmore is located west of Calgary and is the perfect gem to visit for a casual trip to town among all your wilderness explorations. Founded as a mining town, Canmore today is vibrant, offering dining, shopping and sporting events all situated nearby some gorgeous natural wonders. Catch an all-Canadian ice hockey match, visit the fascinating Canmore Museum and Geoscience Centre, or enjoy some leisurely skating on both man-made rinks and the nearby frozen lakes.
When you’re ready to get another adrenaline rush, Canmore provides perfect opportunities for cross-country skiing, mountain biking, rock climbing, rafting and much more within Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park. Just a short distance away from Banff, this town is the quieter and lesser-known of the two, meaning you can find bargain accommodation and boast of a real hidden gem.
Just over the border from Canmore lies Kananaskis Country, a park system in the Canadian Rockies foothills of West Alberta. First occupied by the Cree First Nations people, the area is now a noted tourist area popular for its world-class skiing, hiking, horse riding trails and more. Visit Kananaskis for mountain biking, scrambling, climbing and fishing – all with fabulous views of forests, lakes and mountains.
To take in the magic in a truly unique and exhilarating way, try a helicopter tour of the Rockies. Stop off here for some first-rate “flightseeing” over the nearby mountain peaks. During the winter, the area is frozen and serene, whereas in the autumn and summer the flora comes alive in a flame of vivid yellows and oranges on the trees. As Alberta Kananaskis explains: “Towering mountains, pristine lakes, evergreen valleys, and glacial streams… Kananaskis is an area of striking contrasts where you can re-establish your links with the wilderness.”
Big Hill, Field Hill and the Spiral Tunnels
If you’re interested in history, Big Hill is the perfect stop-off point on your Rocky Mountaineer holiday in the Canadian Rockies. Big Hill is known for being the most difficult piece of railway to lay on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Trains had to climb 330m over a distance of 10 miles to the top of the Continental Divide at 1,630 metres.
Although the original tracks were replaced by the Spiral Tunnels in 1909, this area remains one of the most thrilling train journeys you will ever experience. The train spirals to cross beneath itself twice, making for one of the most bizarre feats of engineering in the world. Along the way you can take in luscious greenery and the serene waters of Wapta Lake, whilst learning about the history of this unique structural gem.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site
Get back to where the whole network of National Parks in Canada began with a visit to the fascinating Cave and Basin National Historic Site. After being ‘discovered’ by workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1833, the mysterious underwater cave system was quickly opened up to visitors. However, it was originally a sacred site for the local First Nations community. When then-Prime Minister John A. McDonald declared a reserve of 26 square kilometres around the cave and basin to be called the Banff Hot Springs Reserve, Canada’s national park system was founded.
Here you will find nine natural hot springs and learn about the area’s history and its unique features. One special creature is the Banff Springs snail species, which was discovered in the basin when visitors used to swim there. Although you can no longer bathe in the basin, this remains a brilliant place to visit for its fantastical atmosphere complete with stunning blue waters and rugged rock formations.