Alberta, pinch yourself. This your backyard.
So go out and play.
2020 quarantine has put some dust on our travel wings, and as restrictions lift and regional tourism opens up, we are ready to stretch them out and shake them off! This is our favorite road trip loop down the Icefields Parkway through Jasper and Banff National Parks as we do it from our home base of Edmonton, Alberta. Our National Park systems are immersive, expansive, protected spaces where the air is lighter and the history is palpable. They are a destination for the senses, vibrant colors and vast silences, as the distinct, raw powers of the natural world recharge the soul. It is little wonder this extraordinary haven draws visitors from every corner of the globe to witness its magnificence. For the purpose of this blog, I am highlighting off-highway stops along the way, ones that we personally enjoy and recommend; a theme of pristine shimmering lakes, tumbling waterfalls, panoramic vistas and several craft breweries, vs detailed information on the Jasper and Banff Townsites, both equally charming and worthy of the visit. The possibilities are endless and this list is simply meant to ignite your passion and inspire your journey. The miles and experiences are unique to you, and that is the greatest adventure of all.
BREAKING IT DOWN:
A: Edmonton to Jasper: 365 km
B: Jasper to Athabasca Falls: 32.4 km
C: Athabasca Falls to Columbia Icefield: 72 km
D: Columbia Icefield to Saskatchewan Crossing: 50 km
**Note you can alternately choose to exit here and go home via Rocky Mountain House.
E: Saskatchewan Crossing to Peyto Lake: 38 km
F: Peyto Lake to Lake Louise: 44 km
G: Lake Louise to Banff: 58 km
H: Banff to Canmore: 24 km
I: Canmore to Edmonton: 393 km
APPROX TRIP TOTAL: 1070 km / 15-16 Hours with 3-4 Quality Stops
PLAYLIST: Having an epic playlist is essential for any road trip! But having an offline music source for this road trip is especially important as you will experience large sections of this trip off the grid. So what is on our Mountain Playlist? We rock quite an eclectic concoction, but our must have’s include: Kaleo, Grandson, Collective Soul and Milky Chance.
CELL SERVICE: Just like the radio, it is worth noting the fact that sections of the loop are without cell connection service. Use your adventure to unplug from technology and connect with eachother.
FUEL: Planning for fuel stops during this trip is important as you will have several longer stretches where it is not available. Add in lost cell service and it can quickly ruin your day. In the park between Jasper and Lake Louise, the only fuel stop is at the Saskatchewan Crossing Resort. Prices here are typically higher than outside the park.
PARK PASS: With any adventure in the National Parks, you will require a Discovery Park Pass. Depending on when you last purchased a season pass, you may have an extension on your expiration date (Ours was extended by four months due to Covid 19 interruptions).
LAYERS: Note that the weather in the Rockies can change very quickly. Even on the warmest of summer days you may encounter cooler temps at higher elevation areas, and during experiences such as walking up to the Columbia Icefield.
It is a memorable experience to view what I consider the Big 5 of Canada: Big Horn Sheep, Mountain Goat, Elk, Bear and Moose. Of course, there are a much larger number of wildlife you may encounter on your adventure, including the elusive woodland caribou, wolf, lynx and cougar. In fact Jasper and Banff National Parks play home to 53 species of animals and over 260 species of birds. Despite the wide variety, they all share one extremely important commonality: They are best viewed from a distance. Many of my photos are taken using a zoom lens, and on those off chances they are directly on the road as you pass, please remain in your vehicle with the windows closed. While seeing a grizzly bear with cubs or an elk with massive antlers is a spectacle to behold, all of these animals are wild, and unpredictable. NEVER attempt to approach or feed wildlife and maintain a distance of at least 30 meters. Please obey all speed limits and signs.
FOLDING MOUNTAIN BREWERY:
Alberta is exploding on the Craft Beer scene, and for good reason. We are good at it. Really, really good. On a recommendation, we stopped at Folding Mountain Brewing Taproom & Kitchen, and these locals did not disappoint. Located 10 minutes west of Hinton, just before the Jasper National Park entrance, is this incredibly popular haunt known for beer, gourmet grilled cheeses, and a patio with unencumbered mountain views. It is the ultimate way to “support local” as well as allowing you to remove yourself from the inevitable congestion of Jasper Townsite if you so choose. Best of all, it is family friendly!
JASPER NATIONAL PARK:
Jasper National Park is 11,228 square kilometers of natural magic. It is glacially fed emerald pools, jagged, snow capped peaks, cascading waterfalls, impressive canyons and home to an abundance of wildlife. This National Park boasts several impressive titles, including being one of only 20 Canadian UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as well as being the second largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world.
FAIRMONT JASPER PARK LODGE:
From the year round outdoor pool with stunning mountain views, to a glass of wine overlooking peaks from the patio, this ultimate road trip loop is peppered with some of the dreamiest, and bucket list worthy accommodations on the planet.
The historic and charming Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is wildly popular with both international travelers, as well as locals. Our favorite part? The grounds. Nestled around the pristine Lac Beauvert, this 700 acre property offers endless opportunities for immersing yourself in nature. While spending a few nights is a wishlist ideal (and definitely worth it), it is a great place to stop and explore and grab something to eat.
This iconic bridge may look familiar. It is the photogenic focus of many visitors to the Jasper area. The wooden foot bridge crosses the kidney shaped Pyramid Lake, connecting visitors to Pyramid Island and offering a perfectly framed photo opportunity with Pyramid Mountain playing backdrop. Located just 7.5 km (approximately 15 minutes from Jasper townsite), you will pass the popular Pyramid Lake Resort (6 km) and come to a small parking area shortly after. The trail itself is 0.8 km out and back and is level and easy.
Note: There are only 5 parking stalls at the trailhead and a shared parking lot about 100m to the entry point. Best visited from April to October.
At 50 km of winding mountain road from the highway, a stop at Maligne Lake isn’t exactly a convenient stop on this list, but is worth mention, and the impressive trek out to see at least once. The lake is 22 km in length, making it the second largest in the Canadian Rockies. A noteworthy experience is the 14 km tour-boat trip out to Spirit Island, one of the most photographed spots in the area. Also found along the route (at 8 km from Jasper) is Maligne Canyon, a collection of waterfalls, bridges, fossils, and carved Palliser formations of limestone reaching depths of 50 meters.
The 232 km stretch of double lane highway known as the Icefields Parkway through Banff and Jasper National Parks, is rated as one of the most breathtaking and dramatic road trips on the planet. People have been exploring the region that runs between Jasper in the North and Lake Louise in the south, since it opened in 1940, taking in the wonderous sights of a story that began 50 million years ago. Topping many travel wish lists, the pavement twists and winds along the Continental Divide, offering up sweeping valley views, cascading waterfalls, a variety of extraordinary spires and rock features and over 100 ancient glaciers. Rivers from this area flow to three different oceans (Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic) and allows for you to experience two of the highest passes accessible to drivers: Bow Pass (2,067 m) and Sunwapta Pass (2,030 m). The best part? The jaw dropping scenery completely changes depending which way you drive it, making it well worth doing more than once!
At just 23 meters in height, Athabasca Falls is definitely not the highest of the falls in the Canadian Rockies, yet it manages to be one of the most powerful as a Class 5 waterfall. Fed by the Athabasca River, the largest river system in Jasper, and originating at the Columbia Icefields, Athabasca Falls has been drawing in awe-inspired visitors for years. With ample parking, interpretive trails, concrete pedways, paved paths, winding staircases and numerous vantage points, these falls are definitely worth the stop.
** Safety railings are up for a reason, as water mist makes the surrounding rocks quite slippery. ALWAYS adhere to rules and regulations of these usage areas.
At 230 sq km (89 sq mi), the Columbia Icefield is the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies and one of the largest non-polar icefields in the world. Reaching depths of 365 meters (1200 ft), the icefield is draped over the Continental Divide and is conveniently located just off the Icefields Parkway, accessible to visitors via a pathway from the parking lot. Also on site is the Glacier Discovery Center. Those guests wishing for a more in depth and up close experience can look into booking an Ice Explorer Tour or Skywalk Experience, a U-shaped, glass observation platform that sits 280 meters (919 ft) over the Sunwapta Valley.
Note: Even on the warmest of summer days in Alberta, the temperature difference can vary greatly at the icefield. I advise bringing layers for walking up to the icefield itself.
SASKATCHEWAN RIVER CROSSING (Alternative Half-Way Route)
This is one of our favorite sections of the province, what feels like Alberta’s best kept secret. It is where we spend chunks of our summer, back country camping and hiking. Located just outside of the park boundary is the David Thompson Corridor, connecting you to Nordegg, Rocky Mountain House and eventually connecting back to the QEII that runs between Edmonton and Calgary. Preacher’s Point, a common camping area, and the beginning of the lake, is approximately 32 km from Saskatchewan Crossing.
ABRAHAM LAKE (David Thompson Corridor)
Located in the Kootenay-Plains area of the Canadian Rockies, Abraham Lake is fed by the North Saskatchewan River and exhibits the telltale Rocky Mountain turquoise hue, but is actually an artificial lake created by Alberta’s largest reservoir and the Bighorn Dam.
The depth of the lake changes by incredible amounts, depending on what time of year you visit, and despite my photo above that captured our girls and friends having an epic summer moment, this lake is incredibly cold. In winter, the lake is well known by photographers who travel to capture the iconic ice bubbles that are caused by methane gas freezing in layers
BANFF NATIONAL PARK
Established in 1885, Banff National Park is Canada’s oldest national park and also part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks Unesco World Heritage Site. Visited by over 3 million guests each year, the 6641 sq km of nature is a slice of the earth worthy of being on every traveler’s radar.
A perfect blend of crystalline lakes, hot springs, snow capped peaks, an abundance of wildlife and even an idyllic mountain village, this park is where nature and man collide, blending the edges in perfect harmony. Many of the 1600 km of the parks dreamy hiking trails are accessible from the Town of Banff and the Village of Lake Louise. One of our most memorable family adventures in this park was when we embarked on a 3 day, 42 km trail adventure with Shadow Lake Lodge, an exclusive hike-in only, boutique experience.
Well marked on the west side of the Icefields Parkway lies another spectacular stop. Mistaya Canyon is an easy hike of 0.5 km, with a gentle descent of 40 m elevation loss from the parking lot. A fenced bridge crosses a deep gorge, carved out by thousands of years of flow from the Mistaya River, which rises in nearby Petyo Lake, among the next “must’s” on our list. The view upstream towards frothy waters and jagged, snowy peaks is quintessential Rockies, making this worthy of witnessing.
Well known for being the largest campground along the Icefields Parkway (offered on a first-come, first serve basis), this stop is impossible to miss. Fed by the Mistaya River, Lower Waterfowl is easily accessed just off the highway, and Upper Waterfowl, considered the prettier of the two, is accessed by a short hike from the south end of the lake. Noteworthy hikes from this trailhead also include Cirque and Cephron lakes, each considered easy and requiring 3-4 hours return. Night skies in this area rank as a Class 1 on the Bortle Scale making this photogenic stop a 24/7 highlight.
Quite possibly one of the most photogenic places on earth, this “no filter required” destination is what travel dreams are made of. (This photo is also one of my personal favorite captures, Little B with her flag, proudly representing our visit on Canada Day.) Peyto Lake is iconic, and yes, that brilliant turquoise, glacial fed water is very much real. The panoramic viewpoint is an easy walk from the parking lot, with a total loop under 3 km that is good for all ages and abilities. **NOTE: Peyto Lake viewpoint is under construction and will reopen in 2021.
Photo Credit: Paul Zizka and Banff & Lake Louise Tourism
Her name is Victoria, and she is a true beauty. The Victoria Glacier sits perched above the telltale emerald waters, nestled across from the luxurious Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, both making their mark as elegant global icons. Known as a year round luxury resort, there is no shortage of opportunity here, whether staying for several nights, or simply stopping to soak up the scenery. Popular summer adventures include canoeing, horseback riding and hiking to the Lake Agnes Tea House, a 7 km return, 400 m elevation gain, moderate hike that leads to Lake Agnes. Together with Mirror Lake, the trio are known as ‘the lakes in the clouds’. Note: In peak season parking can be extremely limited and crowds can be an issue. You may be required to shuttle from the highway overflow lot.
Photo Credit: Chris Amat / Pursuit Banff Jasper Collection
Situated perfectly in the Valley of the Ten Peaks is a body of water that is quite simply surreal. The brilliant shades of blue and turquoise are almost hard to imagine and capture, a phenomenon caused by the light reflecting off rock-flour in the glacially fed water. Located 14 km from the hamlet of Lake Louise, Moraine Lake is a coveted stop for visitors, and the focus of the view on the Canadian $20 bill from 1969-79. As it is at an elevation of 1885 meters (6183 ft) it remains frozen until June and seasonal restrictions are commonly in place in order to protect both visitors and the bear population that call this area home.
Photo Credit: Paul Zizka and Banff & Lake Louise Tourism
Located just 20 minutes west of Banff, along the Bow Valley Parkway lies the wildly popular natural attraction of Johnston Canyon. Highlights of this easy and accessible hike include 7 cascading, glacial waterfalls as guests pass by through a series of suspended catwalks, bridges and caves. With towering rocky walls above and deep swirling pools below, the sights and sounds of the canyon will leave you feeling refreshed and recharged.
There are few experiences that can top the jaw-dropping vista from atop the Sulphur Mountain Summit. The Banff Gondola takes passengers on an 8 minute ride to an elevation of 2281 meters (7486 ft) Spread across this panoramic feast lies six mountain ranges, the Bow Valley and the Town of Banff. The summit offers guests options such as fully licensed restaurants, observation decks and hiking trails.
BANFF UPPER HOTSPRINGS
This is a hot pool with serious views. With water kept between 37 and 40 degrees Celsius (98 and 104 F) the Banff Upper Hot Springs is the highest operating hot spring in Canada at 1585 meters of elevation. The water is made up of a unique blend of minerals including sulfate, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium and sodium, and at its highest spring volume, flows at over 900 litres per minute.
LAKE MINNEWANKA & TWO JACK LAKES
Located just 5 km from the town of Banff lies the scenic perfection of Lake Minnewanka. It embraces you with an expansive feeling, drawing attention to the perfectly framed backdrop of craggy peaks and rocky shores. At 21 km in length and boasting a depth of 142 meters (466 ft), this is the perfect place to stop for a picnic and take in some of the best views the area has to offer. Common activities here include canoeing, biking, hiking, fishing and even scuba diving.
If at this point you haven’t tired of scenic, emerald green lakes and panoramic mountain views, then Two Jack Lake is THE spot to have a picnic. With a backdrop of Cascade Mountain to the east, Mt Aylmer and Spectral Peak to the North, and Mt Girouard to the west, Two Jack Lake is a spot you will not soon forget.
Just 5 minutes beyond the Banff Park Boundary, and an hour from Calgary, is the picturesque town of Canmore. This gateway to Kananaskis Country (worthy of it’s own loop and home to our favorite stay ‘Mount Engadine Lodge‘) is the perfect place to grab a bite to eat and explore. The above photo was taken on one of our adventures to Grassi Lakes, an easy, family friendly hike of just over 1 km that leads to, you guessed it, dreamy turquoise lakes and spectacular views. I’m sensing the theme here…..
GRIZZLY PAW BREWERY & KITCHEN
This favorite and final stop on our list is all about the craft and toasting to the good life. With views of the iconic Three Sisters mountain formation (Hope, Charity and Faith), Grizzly Paw Brewing Company is a staple experience for locals and tourists alike. This place is the epitome of supporting local, with all of their trademark beers and sodas utilizing fresh ingredients and water sourced from the streams out of the Canmore Reservoir. Our recommendations? The Rutting Elk Red Ale, Beavertail Raspberry Ale and the Sleeping Buffalo Stout.
**If you plan to visit any of the breweries on our list, always drink responsibly and never drink & drive.
A TRIP of ENDLESS OPPORTUNITY:
We have done the Icefields Parkway through Jasper and Banff trip numerous times, enjoying both directions. We have cut half way through at Saskatchewan Crossing, and we have even done a 15 hour full loop day, gotten just several hours from home and hit a closed highway due to forest fire, leaving our only option to backtrack an additional 7 hours. (However that memorable adventure allowed us to witness millions of stars and a colorful meteor pass thru the Dark Sky Preserve, as well as a few very slow miles due to wild horses) The point is, this is the world at our fingertips, and it is meant to be explored, even if it requires you being socially distant. It is such fortune that this is our backyard, so take the time to enjoy it, safely and responsibly.