Nearly 30 years ago, my husband and I spent three nights in Banff on a fall getaway and going back to explore more had been on my bucket list all this time. We finally had the opportunity to return to the Canadian Rockies this past summer in mid-June with our younger daughter.
We had initially hoped to do a longer road trip in Alberta but were limited in when we could get away so planned a 6 night road trip Banff to Jasper through the Canadian Rockies – one of the most beautiful road trips in Canada.
Our plan had been to spend two nights in Banff, one in Lake Louise, one in Jasper, one at Glacier View Lodge and then back to the Calgary Airport for our final night but we had to make some last minute adjustments due to an unexpected snowstorm.
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Day 1 – Calgary Airport to Banff
Calgary International Airport to Banff (142 km or 88 miles)
My husband, our daughter and I flew from Toronto to Calgary where we rented a car for our road trip and hit the road for the town of Banff where we were staying at the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel for the first two nights of our vacation.
We arrived in Banff late afternoon, checked in and headed out for a walk to explore the town stopping at Cascade Gardens along the way.
The Cascades of Time Garden (also known as Cascade Gardens) is a beautifully landscaped park built in the 1930s featuring flower gardens, terraces, a gazebo, and ponds. This is a lovely place to head for a stroll if you want to escape crowds on Banff Avenue! The public garden’s Cambrian Pavilion is recognized as a Federal Heritage Building for its historic value.
Completed in 1936, the limestone Parks Canada Administration building on the property, built in a Tudor-Revival architectural style, is used by senior park staff. Also a recognized Federal Heritage Building, it was built to reflect the picturesque mountain setting. There are interactive exhibits inside the building that are free to view as well.
The gardens are mostly located behind the building but be sure to go around the front and look towards downtown to appreciate the breathtaking view of Banff Avenue with Cascade Mountain towering in the background.
You will likely spend 30-60 minutes at Cascade Gardens – we strolled and took photos for about 30 minutes in the gardens before heading downtown.
Located on Cave Avenue at the end of Banff Avenue across the bridge over the Bow River. There’s an entrance on Cave Avenue and also one on Mountain Avenue where the parking lot is located. Open year round and free to visit.
We spent the rest of the day and early evening enjoying the downtown area of Banff and trying to get the perfect photo of the streetscape with the mountain in the background. This was made much easier than it used to be as Banff Avenue in downtown was closed to vehicle traffic (with the exception of Roam public transit). This pedestrian-only zone was put in place for the summer (late May to mid-October) as a temporary pandemic measure in 2020 and then extended to 2023. Banff Town Council will be considering a recurring summer pedestrian zone and hopefully they decide in favour because it is fabulous!
It was such a beautiful June day that we enjoyed dinner on a patio followed by an ice cream cone at Cows and then browsed the shops before heading back toward our hotel.
Bow Falls is a beautiful waterfall on the Bow River located quite close to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Walking back to Banff Springs from downtown, we followed the Bow Falls hiking trail along the river.
There are some great views along the trail which is only 1.2 km long and takes about 20-30 minutes one way. There is some uphill and downhill walking and a staircase so it’s not accessible for people with mobility issues.
We discovered at the end of our walk that there was a parking lot at the falls that I didn’t remember being there when we visited almost 30 years earlier! So if you don’t want to, or aren’t able to, hike the walking trail then you can drive directly to the parking lot and still see the falls.
We stayed two nights at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel in a Deluxe – Two Queens Room. We could see the mountains from our window and the room was lovely and much more spacious than the room my husband and I stayed in almost 30 years ago! Check out current rates and reviews on TripAdvisor, Booking.com and Expedia.ca.
Day 2 – Exploring the Area Near the Town of Banff
We spent the second day of our Canadian Rockies road trip exploring the area around Banff starting with another walk to downtown from the Fairmont Banff Springs to get something to eat. It was an absolutely beautiful June morning and after breakfast we headed back to the hotel for a walk around the property and then went out for a drive.
Banff Area Drive
Our first stop was at Bow Falls just a couple of minutes from our hotel. It had been overcast the previous evening when we hiked there and I wanted to see it again on this beautiful morning – it did not disappoint!
Our next stop was Surprise Corner for the epic views of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. To get to this scenic viewpoint from downtown Banff you turn onto Buffalo Street and head toward Tunnel Mountain Road (you’ll see the signage for Surprise Corner whether you are walking or driving). You will be able to see the iconic hotel on your right hand side when you reach the corner (the drive from downtown is less than 5 minutes).
There is an elevated viewing deck accessed by a set of stairs where you can get the picture postcard view of the Banff Springs Hotel that everyone is familiar with. There is a parking lot here on the right hand side of the road going up but it is quite small with room for maybe 10 cars. Banff wasn’t crazy busy yet at the time of our visit in mid-June but there were still quite a few people here and we were lucky to find a spot to pull over. If visiting at busier times of year, I would probably walk from downtown via the Bow River Trail and Buffalo Street – it should take about 30 minutes and is considered a relatively easy trail.
I found out later that if we had walked farther up the road that there would have been a great view of Bow River and Bow Falls as well but I was happy to get the iconic photo of our hotel. If you do walk then be extra careful about the traffic on the road and watch your step along the edges.
From Surprise Corner, we continued our drive up Tunnel Mountain to get to the Banff Hoodoo Viewpoint. The very distinctive looking hoodoos are tall, thin spires of rock that have been formed by erosion. The origin of the name is less clear and in other parts of the world similar formations may be known as fairy chimneys, earth pyramids or tent rocks. We parked in the lot at the upper trailhead and went for a short walk to take in the views.
The hoodoos are not massive but the views of the mountains (Mount Rundle) and the Bow River are incredible! Along the walking trail there are multiple viewpoints and interpretive plaques about the hoodoos and there’s a couple of Parks Canada red chairs where you can sit and enjoy the view (unless someone decides to stand in front of you – LOL).
The scenic road from Surprise Corner to the Hoodoos Viewpoint and back to Banff Avenue is approximately 8-9 kilometres (5-6 miles). It took us about 1 hour including a photo stop at Surprise Corner and a walk along the trail to see the hoodoos. The Tunnel Mountain Drive is closed in the winter because the road isn’t maintained but you can still hike, ski or snowshoe during the winter season.
The final stop on our drive was to get a photo with the Banff sign. My husband dropped my daughter and I off to get the photo while he waited in the parking lot of the Fenlands Banff Recreation Centre across the street. Cars can no longer pull over by the sign for safety reasons and there are barriers in place to protect pedestrians from traffic. There’s a pedestrian crossing in place to help visitors cross over to the sign.
We snapped a few photos and I acted as photographer for a family group and then jumped back in the car to head to the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.
Located on Mount Norquay Road.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site
The Cave and Basin National Historic Site in Banff National Park had been a sacred and spiritual place for indigenous peoples for over 10,000 years before it was happened upon by three railway workers in 1883. This was the first of several hot springs discovered in the area and ultimately led to the creation of Canada’s first national park after Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald created the Banff Hot Springs Reserve in 1885.
This location was once popular for visitors who wanted to experience the curative mineral spring waters but was permanently closed to bathing in the ’90s and now functions as an interpretive site. The Cave and Basin site is also the habitat for the Banff Springs snail which is an endangered species and human use of the springs was destructive. Today bathing is restricted to the nearby Banff Upper Hot Springs located a short distance from Cave and Basin.
There are a number of indoor and outdoor activities to enjoy at the Cave and Basin site including a visit to the cave and natural hot spring indoors, interactive exhibits in the restored 1914 Bathing Pavilion, guided Parks Canada tours, the “Basin” outdoor spring pool, several walking trails where you can enjoy stunning views of the Rocky Mountains, and Parks Canada themed tours as well. Don’t miss the Parks Canada red Adirondack chairs on roof of the bathing pavilion if you’re trying to find as many as possible while in the national parks..
Parks Canada recommends about 2-3 hours at the site but we spent about an hour and felt like we had seen enough including sampling one of the walking trails since we were trying to fit a lot into that one day. We had purchased a Parks Canada Discovery Pass which includes admission to National Historic Sites of Canada so we didn’t have to pay an admission fee to visit the Cave and Basin site.
Located at 311 Cave Avenue just outside the town of Banff at the foot of Sulphur Mountain. Parking lot on site. Open daily 9:30 am – 5:00 pm from May 15 – October 15; Thursday – Monday 11 am – 5 pm from October 16 – May 14. Closed December 25th. Admission Fees (2023): Adult – $8.50 (CAD); Senior – $7; Youth -free. Admission included with Parks Canada Discovery Pass.
Our final stop of the day was the Banff Gondola. Both my daughter and I have a fear of heights and were worried about riding the gondola but were glad that we did because the views at the top are amazing!
The cable car ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain takes about 8 minutes although it seems longer when you’re holding your breath! The anxiety of the ride was forgotten though as soon as I stepped onto the rooftop observation deck of the Banff Gondola Upper Terminal. The 360 degrees are absolutely breathtaking and photos or videos can’t begin to do it justice. All you can do is take deep breaths of mountain air and think what an incredibly beautiful world we live in. Be sure to walk all the way around the building to see the view in all directions and take a photo with the glass mirror Banff Bear statue that’s outside the terminal building.
When you can pull yourself away from the views, take a stroll along the boardwalk to the Cosmic Ray Station and Sanson’s Peak – there’s more beauty to see along the way and a couple more of the Parks Canada red chairs. The walk is about 500 metres one way and there are some up and down stairs but it’s not too difficult (and there are benches for resting along the way). The walk takes 20-30 minutes depending on how many times you stop along the way to take photos.
In the terminal building you will find a multi-sensory theatre, interactive exhibits at the family-friendly Banff interpretive Centre, a gift shop, and a couple of dining choices – grab-and-go fare at Castle Mountain Coffee or the award-winning Sky Bistro where you can enjoy an elegant meal with incredible views.
Located 2.5 km (1.5 miles) from Banff town centre at the end of Mountain Avenue. Parking is limited. Accessible by ROAM public transit.
Day 3 – Drive from Banff to Lake Louise
Banff to Lake Louise (57 km or 35 miles)
Overnight the weather changed drastically and went from lovely early summer to winter-like conditions with temperatures only a few degrees above freezing and a steady drizzle. We left early to drive from Banff to Lake Louise as we didn’t want to get caught up in road closures for the Banff Marathon that was taking place that morning.
Our drive from Lake Louise wasn’t particularly scenic given the weather conditions. We had no choice but to take the Trans Canada highway as the Bow Valley Parkway is closed to vehicle traffic between the Fireside Day-Use Area and Johnston Canyon at certain times (May 1 – June 25 and September 1- October 1 in 2023) so that 17 km of the scenic roadway is open for cycling, hiking or walking.
We were at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise by 10:00 am and needless to say our room wasn’t yet ready so we went out to see the beautiful lake which was stunning despite the foggy conditions. We also walked the Lakefront Trail which is an easy trail (other than a bit mucky and lots of puddles because of the weather) and has lovely views of the lake and looking back at the hotel – about 2 km one way and takes about 1-1.5 hours to complete.
We considered hiking to Lake Agnes Tea House because I remembered how beautiful it was and wanted to share the experience with our daughter but decided that a mucky hike in thick fog wasn’t going to be much fun.
Visiting beautiful Moraine Lake is a must on a trip to Banff National Park but you do have to organize it ahead of time as Moraine Lake Road is now closed to personal vehicle traffic.
We had afternoon reservations for the Parks Canada shuttle and were worried that it was going to be too foggy and rainy to see much but left Lake Louise hoping for the best. It was still fairly overcast when we arrived at Moraine Lake but the fog lifted, the clouds parted and the sun came out for a time providing us with gorgeous views of one of the most famous lakes in Canada.
There are a number of hiking trails that begin at Moraine Lake but we planned a shorter visit because I’m very much a fair weather hiker who’s afraid of encountering bears.
We enjoyed the lakeshore trail walk around Moraine Lake which is an easy walk and provides great views of the bright red canoes on the turquoise waters of the lake.
We also hiked the Rockpile Trail for the stunning view known as the “Twenty Dollar Bill” view as it used to be pictured on the back of the Canadian $20 bill. This hike is all uphill but it’s short and you can take your time and rest on the way if necessary – it’s worth it for the iconic view!
Located in the Valley of the Ten Peaks in Banff National Park approximately 14 kilometres (8.5 miles) from Lake Louise.
After returning from Moraine Lake in the middle of the afternoon, we spent the rest of the day enjoying the property, taking more photos of Lake Louise and frantically checking the weather forecast because we had now discovered that there was a snowfall warning!
We had planned to stay one night at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise but, fortunately, were able to extend our stay for an additional night when our trip was impacted by the weather. We booked a lovely Deluxe room with two Queen Beds in the hotel’s Mount Temple wing and opted not to pay extra for a view. Check current rates and reviews on TripAdvisor, Booking.com and Expedia.ca.
Day 4 – Extra Day in Lake Louise
The plan for day four of our road trip was to drive the Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper but we were derailed by an unexpected snow storm! The forecast was bad with predictions of large snow accumulation and low visibility so we made the decision to stay put and, fortunately, were able to extend our stay at the hotel by a night.
Our extra day in Lake Louise was a bit of a wasted day though because of the snow storm. We drove a short distance on the Icefields Parkway as far as Bow Lake just for something to do but visibility was low and the road conditions were deteriorating. We were warned by Parks Canada staff when we headed out on the Icefields Parkway that road conditions were bad and the road might possibly be closed so we were relieved we had made the decision to stay the extra night in Lake Louise.
We learned an important lesson from the experience as we hadn’t come prepared for winter weather conditions since our trip was in the latter half of June. We only had windbreakers and regular running shoes with us and hadn’t packed gloves or mittens. My daughter had remembered to pack a toque but I didn’t and had to buy both a hat and some warm socks as ankle socks weren’t going to cut it trekking through the snow. Never again will I travel in the mountains (even if it’s the middle of June) and not be prepared for possible bad weather!
Although I was initially very disappointed that the weather disrupted our plans, we decided after the fact that it was actually quite beautiful seeing the mountains covered with snow – an unexpected and very memorable experience on a June road trip!
Day 5 – Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Columbia Icefields
Lake Louise to Glacier View Lodge (132 km or 82 miles)
The weather was much better the following morning so we headed out but still were not sure whether the road conditions would be okay further up the parkway. Fortunately, the weather continued to improve and we were able to enjoy the experience of driving the scenic Icefields Parkway with good visibility!
Icefields Parkway Drive
Our original plan had us driving the Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper in one day and spending the night at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge before driving back to Glacier View Lodge the next night. Due to the snowstorm we had to cancel our night at JPL to stay an extra night in Lake Louise and so only drove as far as Glacier View Lodge at the Columbia Icefields the following day making several stops along the Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and the Glacier Discovery Centre.
Our favourite stops between Lake Louise and the Columbia Icefields were beautiful Bow Lake and Peyto Lake. Peyto Lake was particularly memorable due to the significant amount of snow on the ground and our uphill climb in the snow wearing only running shoes! All the details of our Icefields Parkway experience can be read at the link below.
Athabasca Glacier Tour
We arrived at the Columbia Icefields and checked in at the Glacier View Lodge shortly before 4 pm and quickly did some rearranging of our schedule. We were scheduled on the Athabasca Glacier tour the following morning but decided that we still wanted to drive to Jasper to complete the Icefields Parkway drive and thought it would be easier to get an earlier start. Fortunately, our request was accommodated and we headed out on the tour about 45 minutes later.
A bus from the Glacier Discovery Centre took us to a depot where we boarded the Ice Explorer all-terrain vehicle which transported us to the Athabasca Glacier to experience a walk on the 10,000 year-old glacier. The driver/guide provided information about the glacier and the experience during the 30 minutes it takes to drive to the glacier. We had about 20 minutes or so on the glacier (in designated areas) before loading back onto the Ice Explorer for the return trip.
Walking on the glacier is an incredible experience that you don’t want to miss so be sure to book tickets ahead of time as they sell out.
On the return trip from the glacier, guests are generally dropped off at the Skywalk as it’s included with the Athabasca Glacier tour and can spend as much or as little time as they like before catching a bus back to the Discovery Centre. We opted to switch our Skywalk experience to first thing the following morning instead and headed back to the lodge to get something to eat for dinner.
We stayed one night at Glacier View Lodge in a Glacier View room with two Queen beds and it was worth every penny – honestly one of the most beautiful views I have ever enjoyed from a hotel room! Check current rates and reviews on TripAdvisor, Booking.com and Expedia.ca.
Day 6 – Glacier View Lodge to Jasper and Return to Calgary
Glacier View Lodge to Jasper (103 km or 64 miles); Jasper to Calgary Int’l Airport (431 km or 268 miles)
The following morning we boarded the first bus of the day for the Glacier Skywalk experience – there were only a couple of other people on the bus and we walked faster than them so had the attraction all to ourselves for a few minutes.
After a short visit to the Skywalk we returned to the Glacier Discovery Centre and picked up some breakfast at the Starbucks to eat outside on the patio before our drive to Jasper.
The Columbia Icefield Skywalk is a glass platform 1 km in length suspended from the cliffs 280 metres (918 feet) above the Sunwapta Valley and is a popular stop along the Icefields Parkway. It’s a cool experience even for someone like me who is afraid of heights. I was nervous but was able to walk the length of the skywalk and that was enough for me!
The views are incredible but we would have skipped it if it wasn’t included in the price of our glacier tour as it’s pricy (around $40 per adult) to book as a standalone attraction. I wouldn’t be surprised if the only people that book it separately are those that arrive at the Columbia Icefields without advance reservations only to learn that the glacier tours are sold out.
Completing the Icefields Parkway Drive
We completed the Icefields Parkway drive from the Columbia Icefields to the town of Jasper and after an interlude in Jasper then drove it in the reverse direction south and back to Calgary International Airport.
The weather was overcast and drizzly along the drive so our stops were brief at Sunwapta Falls and Athabasca Falls but the sun came out when we arrived in Jasper!
Town of Jasper
We spent an hour or so walking around the town of Jasper doing some sightseeing, shopping and buying coffee and a snack before getting back in the car and heading south toward Calgary.
The one disappointment from our road trip was that the weather caused us to miss our stay at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and also the boat trip to Maligne Lake that we had hoped to do. The Maligne Lake Road was closed due to heavy snowfall so taking the boat cruise wasn’t an option. Now I have no choice but to return some day to complete that bucket list item!
We spent our last night in Alberta at the Calgary Airport Marriott – an in-terminal hotel which was convenient for our flight home the following morning. We booked a standard room with two Queen beds. Check current rates and reviews on TripAdvisor, Booking.com and Expedia.ca.
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