The Canadian Rockies are magnificent! We drove through Seward Highway in Alaska and can say that they are much alike: a northern beauty full of wildlife and breathtaking views you can enjoy right along the road. I’m sharing our experience of making the trip better, cheaper, and more comfortable when traveling with the little ones (as we did).
- The Best Time to Visit
- Ideal Trip Duration
- Lodging (and Tips on How to Cut Lodging Costs)
- What to Pack
- Canada Discovery Pass
- Gas, Groceries, Eating Out
- How to save on a trip to Banff
The Best Time to Visit
Most travelers visit Banff and Jasper National Parks from mid-June to mid-September (when the weather is the warmest). Spring comes late to the mountains and fall comes early. Light snow may occur on the first days of September. June is the wettest month and it does not feel like summer until the end of the month.
July and August, the peak season, guarantee not only the best weather but also the amazing turquoise color of the lakes – one of the reasons so many people are drawn to the Canadian Rockies. Towards the middle of June, lakes are usually thawed and filled with melted water from the mountains, exposing their unbelievable colors.
Visiting Banff and Jasper National Parks in July and August lets you hit the best trails (all trails will be open), see wildflowers in a full bloom (an amazing experience), go tent camping (less likely you’ll freeze during the night), enjoy the prolonged daylight hours, and have some beach time! You may dare to take a dip in Lake Louise. You can also visit Lake Edith or Lake Annette in Jasper National Park – they aren’t fed from the glaciers and warm up to about +18C.
There are also downsides to traveling in July and August: crowds, highest prices, and some risk of forest fires, which were pretty frequent in recent years.
Ideal Trip Duration
You should plan for five days to two weeks. Five days allowed us to spend a day in Jasper National Park, a day for a “brief” 12-hour road trip through the Icefields Parkway, two days in Banff, and a day in Yoho National Park. During those five days in the Canadian Rockies, we experienced tons of unique places without taking long hikes or paid excursions. We did not have any leisure time either, which I would have appreciated.
Spending seven days or more will give you plenty of time to explore and feel that you don’t need a vacation from your vacation.
Lodging (and tips on how to cut lodging costs)
Here’s the harsh truth: if your only option is staying in a hotel, it will cost you an arm and a leg! Accommodation is very expensive in Banff and Jasper National Parks. During summer, prices jump up to 250CAD per night for a basic 2-3 stars hotel room (especially in Banff).
Give the local hostel a chance. Even if you are traveling with a family, look for a private room: often they promote the same or almost the same value as a hotel but at a much cheaper rate. Downside – they fill up far in advance. Hotel rooms we were able to book two weeks before the trip (July 2017).
If sleeping under the stars sounds like a wonderful experience, Jasper and Banff National parks have plenty of great campgrounds with sweeping views and some of them even in walking proximity from towns. Did I mention that camping is ten or more times cheaper than an average hotel room?
If you can’t bring camping gear with you, it’s not a problem. Rent all you need locally for a reasonable price. The entire camping package for a family of four plus cost of the campsite will be around 600CAD for 7 nights.
One more option we came across during our trip: Wicked Campervan. Fits up to 5 people, fun and relatively cheap (from $109 per day for 2 sleepers for summer 2019). Pick up available only in Vancouver and Calgary.
Important note: if you are going to book all nights in a single town (Jasper/Banff/Lake Louise/Canmore), don’t do the Icefields Parkway trip in one day. It’s a 4-hour trip one way from Jasper to Banff without any stops. Try to book at least one night on the opposite end of the parkway.
In the middle of the road, lodging is scarce (some could be found at the Columbia Icefields Discovery Center, Saskatchewan Crossings and Bow Lake) and tends to be even more expensive due to the remote location.
What to Pack
You’ll need a little bit of everything for every season. Dress in layers and keep boots, warm jackets, gloves, and hats handy, as well as shorts, t-shirts, sun hats, swimsuits, sandals, and rain jackets.
Don’t forget sunscreen, sunglasses and a picnic blanket during the summer season. And bug spray – it will quickly become your best friend.
A Kayak/SUP/boat will be a great addition – no wasting time in lines, no cost, plus a great experience to explore the place from a different angle.
Canada Discovery Pass
Canada Discovery Pass is a must for exploring Banff and Jasper National Parks and even for driving through them. It costs 136 CAD for a year for up to 7 people in a vehicle (youth 0-17 free, adults 68 CAD a year) and valid for all National Parks in Canada. All top places and hikes are available with this pass. Order your pass online or buy at a visitor center in Jasper, Banff or Lake Louise village.
Gas, Groceries, Eating Out
Gas was surprisingly cheap in Jasper and Banff (in 2017). It was even cheaper than in the Seattle area, where we were coming from. Fill your tank up in these towns or at Lake Louise. The only gas station in-between is at Saskatchewan Crossings and it is pretty expensive due to its remote location.
The only grocery stores we used to stock up were Robinsons Food in Jasper and IGA in Banff. Both are good, but IGA in the late evening looked like a coastal town during a hurricane warning: crowded, with empty shelves (especially fresh produce).
There are tons of great places for eating out in Jasper and Banff but very few of them located on the Icefields Parkway. We would love to visit Lake Moraine Walter Wilcox Dining Room, settled in a beautiful green place right on the lake and Bear Paw Bakery in Jasper.
Jasper National Park and Banff National Park have abundant wildlife. Black bears, mooses, caribou, marmots, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elks, deers, wolves, and lots of small critters call the Canadian Rockies their home. For many travelers, wildlife is the main reason they visit the parks.
You’ll have the most chances to see wildlife in the early morning or in the late evening. Though, it’s not unlikely to stumble upon an occasional mouse or a bear in the middle of the day. My biggest highlight of our trip was seeing a herd of mountain goats at the Kerkeslin Goat Lick (52.6166,-117.8451361).
It was the middle of the day and there were tons of people, but it seemed like animals didn’t pay any attention to visitors at all. We spent a whole hour watching them crossing the road, interacting with their offsprings and climbing down the steep, rocky hill, which was quite amazing. Seward Highway in Alaska has a similar spot – Windy Point.
A couple of hours later, on the Icefields Parkway as well, we spotted a black mama bear with cubs in a couple of meters from the car. She was busy chewing on a handful of dandelions and looked more like a… cow than a wild beast.
Respect wildlife and never approach it closely. We are guests in their home. It’s very tempting to take a closer look or make a perfect photo, but wild animals can charge you without warning. It’s also no good for them to get used for people or their food. Read more about wildlife watching in Banff here.
How to save on a trip to Banff
Try to cut the most expensive part – accommodations.
Book as early as possible and consider to stay in a hostel private room, tent or campervan. See more on how to cut lodging costs in Banff above.
Having a room with a kitchen or kitchenette can save both time and money.
If cooking during vacation doesn’t sound intimidating, get a cooler and stock it up with all kinds of nutritious snacks. Jasper, Banff and Yoho National Parks have plenty of picnic tables, even along the Icefields Parkway. We usually try to book hotels with a hot breakfast and pack our own lunches. On this trip, picnic lunches with a “view” were one of the highlights of our visit to the Canadian Rockies.
Just some of the paid tours really worth the money and time, so choose wisely.
Read about one of the few examples here. From our perspective, you can have a great experience at the Canadian Rockies without any extra tour expenses.
Consider bringing your own kayak/canoe/SUP.
Renting is expensive: canoes starting from 60 CAD per hour in Jasper NP, from 100 CAD in Banff NP (up to 3 people: 2 adults, 1 kid). In both parks, you’ll have to wait long lines, plus rentals are limited. You can take your own canoe/kayak/SUP to any lake in the Canadian Rockies, just note that not all of them have a boat launch.
Consider traveling during the off-shoulder season only if you wish to stay away from the crowds and make some specific activities like fall foliage hikes or ice walks to frozen waterfalls. As for the money, you won’t save much on lodging but more likely you’ll miss warm, sunny weather and beautifully colored lakes, hitting the best trails, boat rides and many more. Pro: the chances of forest fires are to zero.
Thanks for reading and have a great trip in the Canadian Rockies!