Today (September 19, 2016): top 10 things to see & do in the Canadian Rockies.
Despite dreadful weather, I recently enjoyed a great holiday in Canada’s Rocky Mountains, a pristine wilderness areas on a scale difficult to imagine. Few places in the world offer such a diverse range of scenery and activities, from kayaking and spectacular drives to backcountry hiking and wildlife spotting. Last week, I published a top 10 list of the best hotels & lodges in the Canadian Rockies, and I will give my unbiased opinion on those hotels (with pros & cons) in a series of trip reports over the coming weeks. Today, I share with you the best sights and activities in Banff, Yoho, Kootenay and Jasper National Park, to help you organise the perfect trip in the Canadian Rockies.
What is your favorite spot or activity in the Canadian Rockies? Do you think I missed one? Leave a comment or take my poll below.
This world-renowned, luxurious train travels by daylight through the wild beauty of Canada’s West and is one of the best ways to experience the majestic Canadian Rockies. The passing scenery is nothing less than pristine wilderness: black lava cliffs and canyons, glacial lakes, turbulent rivers, bighorn sheep, and maybe even a black or grizzly bear. Onboard, you’ll enjoy plentiful cooked-to-order breakfasts and lunches, served in the dining car, and unlimited cocktails and snacks served by personable hosts.
- Official website: Rocky Mountaineer
- Other accolades: Rocky Mountaineer also features in my top 10 list of the world’s greatest train journeys.
With breathtaking vistas in every direction, you’ll understand why this is a Canadian Rockies must-see destination. Your adventure begins with an eight-minute journey to the summit of Sulphur Mountain in a modern, fully enclosed four-passenger gondola cabin. You glide up over the treetops to the crest of a steep-sided Rocky Mountain peak and step out into a jaw-dropping mountaintop experience. You can make a stroll along the ridgetop boardwalk where the views get better with every step, offering a stunning bird’s-eye view of six incredible mountain ranges.
- Official website: Banff Gondola
You have probably seen photos of the world-famous turquoise lake but they don’t prepare you for how it feels to experience it yourself. Rounding the corner, the dramatically beautiful sight of the emerald-green water and the mighty Victoria Glacier hits you viscerally. Unfortunately, Lake Louise is heavily visited, and during the day, the front shoreline of the lake can feel like a crowded amusement park. Pulling yourself out of bed early is the best way to beat the crowds, and also to enjoy the lake at its best, when the rising sun puts the soaring mountain backdrop in fire.
- Official website: Lake Louise
- Tip: The Plain of Six Glaciers hike, one of the Rockies’ most spectacular dayhikes, starts at Lake Louise and is not to be missed. Getting an early start for this hike helps you to avoid the crowds on the lake shore trail and gives you plenty of photo opportunities.
Nestled in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Banff Upper Springs, Radium Springs and Miette Springs offer a relaxing experience in steamy hot mineral water after a day of hiking in the alpine meadows. Banff Upper Hot Springs, located at the foot of Sulphur Mountain close to Banff town, has all the amenities of a modern facility in a splendid historic spa and bath house. Radium Hot Springs, in British Columbia’s Kootenay National Park, is famous for its canyon setting. Jasper National Park contains Miette Hot Springs with the hottest mineral water in the Rockies.
- Official website: Rocky Mountains hot springs
- Tip: If you’re looking for a more a unique hot spring, check out the Ainsworth Hot Springs. They’re a lot more quiet, and have a cool cave in the rock where the hot springs extends.
Nestled in a ring of towering mountains, Maligne Lake is the largest glacially fed lake in the Canadian Rockies, and a 40 minute drive from Jasper town. Here you can discover world-famous Spirit Island, a destination only accessible only by boat. The tiny tied island is one of the most famous and photographed views in the world. The Maligne Lake cruise to Spirit Island takes about 30 minutes, and on the way, you’ll be inspired by the beauty of the lake’s blue waters and the stunning lofty peaks around you.
- Official website: Spirit Island & Maligne Lake Cruise
- Tip: The best time to visit Spirit Island is late afternoon when the light is just perfect to take pictures. This also gives you the opportunity to beat the crowds and increases your chance of wildlife sightings on your way back to Jasper.
Takakkaw means “magnificent” in Cree, a Canadian aboriginal language, and it is. Tumbling 254m (830 feet) in one stretch and 384m (1,260 feet) in total, these falls are among the highest in Canada and the gateway to some of the Rockies’ most beautiful hiking. The falls are fed by the Daly Glacier, which is part of the Waputik Icefield. The glacier keeps the volume of the falls up during the warm summer months, and they are a tourist attraction, particularly in late spring after the heavy snow melts, when the falls are at peak condition. You can feel the spray at the base of the falls after a short hike or enjoy views from afar.
- Official website: Takakkaw Falls
- Tip: one of the Rockies greatest hikes, the Iceline Trail, starts near Takakkaw Falls. This signature circuit climbs to a high bench with spectacular glacier views, before descending to meadows in the Little Yoho Valley and returning past Laughing Falls to Takakkaw Falls.
The Canadian Rockies are teeming with wildlife, and you’re sure to spot some of the mountains’ famous inhabitants while exploring the area. With large mammals such as black bears, grizzlies, moose, wolves, deer, cougars, coyotes, elk, and big horn sheep calling the Rockies home, these dazzling mountains are the perfect holiday destination for wildlife enthusiasts. Dusk and down represent the best times for spotting wildlife, since these are the active feeding hours for many of the animals. Fall and spring tend to be the best times of the year to see animals, particularly bears and moose.
- Official website: wildlife in the Rockies
- Tip: this website gives an excellent summery of the best areas to view wildlife in Jasper, Banff, Yoho, and Kootenay.
Set in the rugged Valley of the Ten Peaks, Moraine Lake is the Canadian Rockies’ most visually stunning lake, surrounded by mountains, waterfalls, and rock piles, creating a scene so stunning it almost seems unreal. Its waters have the most amazing colour, a vivid shade of turquoise that changes in intensity through the summer as the glaciers melt. Here, you can sit lakeside and absorb the sights and pure mountain air, or explore further by canoeing and hiking. It’s an iconically jaw dropping place that is sure to leave a lasting impression.
Linking Lake Louise to Jasper and stretching 232 km (144 miles) through the heart of the Canadian Rockies, this tremendously spectacular, double-lane highway, also known as Highway 93 North, winds along the Continental Divide through soaring rocky mountain peaks, icefields and vast sweeping valleys. It offers spectacular sightseeing of pristine turquoise lakes (Peyto Lake is not to be missed!), tumbling waterfalls, ancient glaciers and the Columbia Icefields. Along the stretch, big horn sheep, deer, black bears, and coyotes are frequently spotted. Wolves, grizzlies, and goats less so.
- Official website: The Icefield Parkway
- Other accolades: The Icefield Parkway also features in my top 10 list of the most scenic drives in the world.
This unparalleled hidden gem in Yoho National Park – one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen – harbors some of the planet’s most visually stunning mountain scenery. This exclusive mountain enclave and grizzly bear sanctuary features exquisite hanging valleys, lichen covered rocks, jewel-blue lakes, and breathtaking vistas. The Alpine Circuit is boasted by many to be the most impressive day hike in the Rockies. The area is only accessible through a bus service that is run by Parks Canada (you need to prebook your ticket months in advance) and the number of visitors that is allowed into the valley is severely restricted to protect the mountain fauna and flora.
- Official website: Lake O’Hara
- Tip: With hot showers, claw foot bathtubs and thick goose down comforters to keep you warm and cozy in bed, the Lake O’Hara Lodge is the perfect place for relaxation after an amazing day of hiking (but you need to reserve your room a year in advance).