An Adventure in the Canadian Rockies
The Canadian Rockies are, quite simply, spectacular. No photos can truly capture the experience of looking up at a massive rock face, down at a wide canyon, into a turquoise blue lake, or across an ancient glacier.
Places to go
The natural wonders of the Canadian Rocky Mountains are protected in a series of incredible parks along Alberta’s western border, including Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, Kananaskis Country, and Waterton Lakes National Park.
Banff National Park, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was Canada’s first national park, established in 1885. It continues to draw visitors from around the world. Discover the natural beauty of this mountain paradise on more than 1,000 miles of maintained trails for hiking, cycling and horseback riding. Come back in winter and ski some of the best powder in the world. Here are some top spots.
Lake Louise and Moraine Lake
The Canadian Rockies are home to some of the most beautiful lakes in the world. What sets these alpine gems apart is their stunning aquamarine color, a result of the “rock flour” – fine-grained silt – suspended in their glacier-fed waters. Set against a backdrop of magnificent snow-capped peaks, it’s a combination that’s hard to beat.
A classic example in Banff National Park is Lake Louise, anchored at one end by the Victoria Glacier and the other by the stately Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Moraine Lake is another beauty, nestled in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Rent canoes or walk the shorelines and be sure to bring your camera. The views are simply stunning. Lake Louise is less than a two-hour drive west of Calgary. From Lake Louise, it’s about an hour and 20 minute drive to Moraine Lake. Makes for a perfect day trip into the park. But we’ll bet you’ll want to stay longer – there’s so much to see and do along the way.
Minutes from the town of Banff, Lake Minnewanka is the longest lake in the Canadian Rockies at 13 miles. Hike or bike the trails along the northern shoreline or take the hour-long interpretive boat cruise to see the lake’s breathtaking beauty from every angle and learn about its fascinating history. For instance, the summer village of Minnewanka Landing, built in 1912, can only be visited by scuba divers as it is now completely submerged. The Aboriginal people that hunted and lived along its shores for as many as 10,000 years named it minn-waki – Lake of the Spirits. Descendants of the elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, grizzly and black bears that sustained them populate the area today.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site
Commemorating the 1883 discovery by railway workers of a natural hot spring that led to the creation of Canada’s first national park, the Cave and Basin National Historic Site traces the history of thermal springs used by First Nations for thousands of years before being accidentally discovered by three railway workers in 1883. Take an evening lantern tour through the rock tunnel that leads to the original pool.
Jasper National Park shares its southern border with Banff National Park, connected by the famous Icefields Parkway. Home to the tallest mountains in the Canadian Rockies, sparkling emerald lakes and powerful waterfalls, it is best known for its remnants of the last ice age, with hundreds of ancient glaciers. Here are some park highlights.
Columbia Icefield and Glacier Skywalk
The Columbia Icefield is the largest remaining icefield in the Rockies covering almost 90 square miles. To experience it first hand, stop in at the Glacier Discovery Centre on the Icefields Parkway and sign up for the Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure. You’ll board an Ice Explorer – an oversized all-terrain vehicle with huge rubber tires specifically designed to take you right up onto the Athabasca Glacier, the most accessible glacier in North America. Walk out onto ice up to 985 feet thick and drink fresh glacial water. Afterward, your tour will take you to the Glacier Skywalk, a cliff-edge glass-floored observation platform cantilevered 918 feet over the Sunwapta valley. Simply, breathtaking.
At 75 feet in height, Athabasca Falls isn’t the tallest waterfall in the Canadian Rockies but it is extremely powerful because of the glacial water of the Athabasca River forced though the narrow gorge. Platforms and walkways where you can safely view and photograph the falls can get slick with the spray so watch your footing and by no means venture beyond the barriers. Located 19 miles south of the town of Jasper, it is accessed from the Icefields Parkway using Highway 93A. There’s plenty of free parking and it’s an easy stroll to the falls.
More than 160 feet at its deepest, Maligne Canyon is a sight to behold in the summer. It plays home to fossils, waterfalls, unexpected animals and lush plant life. Walk the self-guided interpretive trail crossing the gorge on four different bridges, each with its own unique views. Come back in winter when the temperature drops below freezing and the waterfalls turn to towering walls of iridescent blue ice. Go with a guide, who will supply you with ice cleats and the fascinating geology of this place as you walk the canyon floor.
Take a boat cruise on this gorgeous aquamarine lake and be sure to bring your camera as you’ll visit Spirit Island, one of the most photographed scenes in the world. Hiking and mountain biking trails abound. Half the fun is getting here – it’s an incredibly scenic 28.5 mile drive from the town of Jasper with lots of opportunities to spot wildlife.
Waterton Lakes National Park lies just north of the Montana border. Nowhere else in the world will you find a combination of international peace park, biosphere reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mountains here rise straight up out of the prairies and are home to an unusual variety of plants and animals. Chances of sighting black bears are more than good, along with bighorn sheep, elk, deer, golden eagles and ground squirrels – and countless species of orchids. You’ll find some of the best hikes here or choose from a number of beautiful scenic drives. Here are some highlights.
Upper Waterton Lake
Upper Waterton Lake is the deepest lake in the Canadian Rockies. Take the Waterton Shoreline Cruise. Learn about the history and geology of the area and cross the international border to Montana.
Red Rock Canyon
Red Rock Canyon is a short drive from the village of Waterton through the Blakiston Valley. Drive slowly while you watch for wildlife. Once you get to the canyon, take the trail around the edges and across the top for perfect views of the unusually colored rock that gives the canyon its name. Once you’ve done the loop you can climb down into the stream bed at the bottom. Bring a picnic lunch – it’s the perfect spot.
Cameron Falls is located right in Waterton, making it one of the most accessible natural attractions in the park. Take the short trail to the top for a better view.
Akamina Parkway and Cameron Lake
Take another short drive from Waterton, on a winding mountain road along the Cameron Valley to placid Cameron Lake. Perfect place for a picnic and a paddle and a stroll around the lake.
Kananaskis Country is located in the front ranges of the Canadian Rockies, less than an hour west of Calgary. Get ready for 1,643 square miles of provincial parks, recreation areas and wildlands and plenty of outdoor adventures. At the heart of it is the alpine town of Canmore with all the amenities, a flourishing dining scene, shopping, accommodation and a host of seasonal festivals. A network of trails radiate out from the town into what the locals call K-Country. And there’s lots more hiking and cycling opportunities in the back country. Enjoy an easy float, stand-up paddle boarding or whitewater rafting on the Kananaskis River. Come back in winter for alpine and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and dog sledding.
Things to do
With so many beautiful places to explore, the Canadian Rockies are overflowing with different adventures that will paint a smile on your face and get your adrenaline pumping, year round. Here are just a few ideas.
There are literally thousands of miles of maintained hiking trails to choose from. Whether it’s an easy stroll around a turquoise lake or a multi-day trip through the backcountry, you’ll find trails for all skill levels.
Sunshine Meadows in Banff National Park is among the best hiking destinations in Canada. Spot tiny pikas and enjoy the aroma of wildflowers as you make your way up to the beautiful Grizzly Lake. The Valley of Ten Peaks around Moraine Lake and the Stanley Glacier are also popular trails for moderate hikers. If you’re up for more of a challenge, the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail will bring you through lush forests to gorgeous lakes, stunning glaciers and, believe it or not, to multiple tea houses, over the course of six or seven hours. In Jasper, the Skyline Trail is a multi-day hike across 27 miles of beautiful mountain ranges. For a less strenuous experience, try any of the trails radiating out from Jasper townsite into the Athabasca Valley.
For a bucket list experience, take a scenic flight by helicopter. Get a bird’s eye view of the mountain peaks and alight in a pristine valley for a hike through the wildflowers. In winter, give heli-snowshoeing or heli-skiing a try.
Cycling and mountain biking
Many of our alpine trails are tailor made for cycling and mountain biking. Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park has over 62 miles of trails you can enjoy at your leisure. Or, for a more lengthy challenge, set off on a four-day bike tour along the Icefields Parkway.
The rushing rivers in the Canadian Rockies make for excellent whitewater rafting adventures, from an easy float all the way to Class Five rapids. Favorites include the Kananaskis, Athabasca and Kicking Horse rivers. There are professional outfitters in the towns of Jasper, Banff and Canmore who can tailor an experience to suit your needs, skills, and adrenaline levels.
Skiing and snowboarding
When the weather gets colder and snow begins to falls, hikers and bikers are replaced by skiers and snowboarders who flock to our mountain park ski resorts for the feather-light powder the Canadian Rocky Mountains are famous for.
In Banff National Park you can ski the Big Three: Mt. Norquay (28 runs, 1,650 feet of vertical), Sunshine Village (145+ runs, 3,514 feet vertical) and nearby Lake Louise Ski Resort (145+ runs, 3,250 feet vertical). In Jasper National Park, Marmot Basin has the highest base elevation in Canada (5,570 feet), and offers 86 runs on 3,000 vertical feet. In Kananaskis Country, you’ll find Nakiska, venue for the 1988 Winter Olympics and home to 71 runs on 2,412 vertical feet. Or try cat skiing virgin runs at Fortress Mountain – no lift lines! Farther south, Castle Mountain Resort is one of our best kept secrets.
Of course, the resorts are only one way to tackle the mountains on skis or a board. The Rockies are also home to some of the best backcountry skiing anywhere. Hike in, helicopter in, or stay at a remote lodge, and spend your days knee deep in untouched powder.
Ice climbing and ice walks
In winter, the gorges of the Canadian Rockies turn into ethereal ice palaces as waterfalls freeze top to bottom in hues of turquoise and blue. Strap on some ice cleats and take a guided tour of a canyon floor on an ice walk or learn to ice climb with a professional guide. Top spots include Maligne Canyon in Jasper, Johnson Canyon in Banff, and Grotto Canyon in Kananaskis Country.
Take off on a train adventure to see the absolute best of the Canadian Rockies. Ride in style on the Rocky Mountaineer and see the mountains from the comfort of a train car. Go places you can't get to by car, like the legendary Spiral Tunnels, blasted through two mountains at the Kicking Horse Pass, and alongside the mighty Fraser River as it thunders through Hell's Gate. Roll over high bridges and past brilliant blue mountain lakes. Listen to the powerful rush of water falling from granite cliffs and through narrow canyons. Spy grizzlies foraging on open slopes or golden eagles catching the updrafts. Stay overnight in iconic mountain lodges and hotels. With the Rocky Mountaineer, the journey is the adventure.
Learn more about the Canadian Rockies.