Road trip Canadian Rockies (Calgary – Vancouver)
A road trip through the Canadian Rockies was on my bucket list for quite some time already. The lakes, mountains, wildlife, hikes. There was so much we wanted to do, making it not easy to plan the trip. There are also so many ways to plan it: you could go in a loop, starting and ending in Calgary or Vancouver, or one-way.
We went for 2 weeks during the second half of September, starting in Calgary and ending in Vancouver. When I started planning in February, almost all hotels in Banff and Jasper were already booked. That is also the reason our route is not a conventional one.
If you are traveling to Canada as a European citizen, you will need a visa or eTA (Electronic Travel Authorization). There are a few requirements in order to request one like staying in Canada for a max of 6 months, for holiday, business or transit. You can request an eTA for Canada easily online through the website of the Canadian government. It is best to do this as fast as possible after booking your plane ticket. The eTA is valid for 5 years started from the application date.
If you are traveling to Canada with a transit in the US, you will also need to get an ESTA.
We booked a car through RentalCars and ended up at Dollar in Calgary. They had a very fair price for a one-way rental car. Although we booked a small car (like we always do), we ended up with a very nice SUV. If you want a GPS, I would recommend booking it with the car. We thought we could just ask to rent one when we picked up the car, but they were out. We ended up going to a local store to buy one.
National park pass
If you are planning on going to the parks for a few days, I would suggest buying the National Park Pass. Daily admission for Banff National Park and Jasper National Park is $10 per day per person. It will also save you the hustle of having to pay each day.
We booked all our hotels through booking, making it possible to still change hotels if we would need to. I always check a few weeks before going if some hotels didn’t lower their prices. Or if there are other options available. Like mentioned before, you should start booking hotels in Banff and Jasper very early. And these will also be the most expensive ones.
Day 1&2: Calgary
Stayed at: Days Inn Calgary South
Our first day in Calgary we spent exploring the city. Unfortunately, the Calgary Tower was closed so we decided to take a long walk through the city. And we did what we always do: enjoy good food and beer. For brunch, we went to Last Best Brewing: delicious food on the patio in the sun. The perfect way to start our road trip. More food tips: breakfast at OEB breakfast company and BBQ at Paddy’s BBQ & Brewery.
The second day was spent shopping and drinking tasting beer. I had a list of shops I wanted to go to: Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret. After the shopping, we did a little brewery tour of a few breweries near our hotel. The beers were not bad, but we are spoiled as Belgians with our beer.
Day 3: Edmonton
Stayed at: Comfort Inn & Suites Downtown Edmonton
Drove 400km / 4h
Stops along the way: Elk Island National Park
This is the unconventional part of the road trip, and you can skip this if needed. We only did this because otherwise there were no available hotels anymore in Jasper National Park.
After picking up the car in Calgary, we headed to Edmonton. Along the way, we made a stop at Elk Island National Park where we also bought our Park Pass. The park is an important refuge for not only elk but also bison and more than 250 bird species. We did a short hike and spotted some bison. Unfortunately, no elk. If you spot animals along the side of the road, don’t get out of the car and get close to them. They are wild animals and can act unpredictably.
We had a quick dinner at Tres Camales Taqueria, a small restaurant in downtown Edmonton. Very friendly service and delicious food. The tacos aren’t very big, so I would order more if you have a large appetite.
Day 4-6: Jasper National Park
Stayed at: Sunwapta Falls Resort
After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we headed to Jasper National Park. Upon entering the park, we already did our first hike: Sulphur Skyline. This almost 9k hike is one of the most beautiful hikes in the park because of the amazing views you should have over the valley. Unfortunately, we didn’t see a lot because of the sudden mist appearing at the top.
To get to our hotel, we had to drive a short part of the Icefield Parkway. This highway is seen as one of the most stunning alpine drives in the world. The mountains, the river, the trees; it truly is picture perfect.
The hotel is located next to the Sunwapta Falls, a pair of waterfalls of the Sunwapta River. Perfect for ending your day or starting your day before. The rooms are small but clean and have everything you would need. We ended the day with a meal in the hotel restaurant.
For day 2 in Jasper National Park, we planned 2 hikes: a shorter one and one of the legendary hikes of the park: Bald Hills. You climb very high during this 13k hike, giving you amazing views over Maligne Lake and the other peaks. This was my favorite hike in Jasper National Park.
Keep in mind that there are bears in the Canadian Rockies, both black and grizzly bears. Always do hikes with at least 2 people and make noise (have a little bell with you or just keep talking). While camping or hiking, always store food and garbage in your car. And for your own safety: keep at least 100 meters away from them at all times. In the visitor center, you can find brochures about how to be around wildlife and you can buy bear spray.
But we first started with an easy hike, or more like a stroll: the path of the Angel Glacier. This entire trail is paved and leads to a lookout over the Angel Glacier. To get some energy for the hikes, we stopped at The Other Paw Bakery in Jasper for a delicious cinnamon roll.
After our hikes, we also made some quick stops at Athabasca Falls, Talbot Lake, Patricia Lake, Pyramid Lake, Medicine Lake, and Maligne Canyon. This last one is the deepest canyon on Jasper National Park and offers multiple possibilities for short and longer hikes (which we didn’t do).
Before heading to Banff National Park, we visited the Jasper Skywalk. After buying tickets at the adventure center, you board a bus that will bring you to the Skywalk. It is a 1km glass-bottomed observation platform 280m above the Sunwapta Valley. A thick jacket is a must here! The view over the valley and the surrounding mountains and glaciers is amazing. After your visit you can have lunch at the adventure center: the chili is delicious. We then did a short and steep hike towards the Athabasca glacier. Along the way, you see marks of where the glacier was in the past.
Day 6-8: Banff National Park
Stayed at: Rondo Motel
After the Jasper Skywalk, we headed to Banff National Park. A must stop when visiting this very popular National Park is Peyto Lake. A short hike brings you to the viewing platform with stunning views over Peyto Lake. The unique bright turquoise color is the result of suspended rock particles that flow into the lake from a nearby glacier. As you would expect, it can be very busy here, so try to be here early in the morning or by sunset, when the busloads of tourists are already gone.
We then headed to our hotel in Golden. This little town is surrounded by 5 National Parks: not only Banff and Jasper National Park but also Yoho, Glacier, and Kootenay. This makes Golden the perfect base for exploring the Canadian Rockies. And for beer lovers: Whitetooth Brewing Company is a small brewery with a tasting room making small-batch Belgian-inspired and West Coast influenced beers. The perfect reward after a day full of exploring.We had dinner twice at The Turning Point restaurant: a variety of choices and friendly service.
The first full day in Banff was spent hiking: we did a 16.3 k hike starting from Lake Louise. We arrived at Lake Louise at around 8 am and there was already no parking space available at the parking lot. We were lucky tough to find one just a short walking distance away. If you aren’t that lucky, you have to park further away and take the shuttle to Lake Louise.
We started on the Lake Agnes Trail and left all the people behind. At the tea house at Lake Agnes, you can rest and buy something to eat or drink (cash only) before heading back. But you can also follow the Big Beehive Trail for a longer hike and some stunning views over Lake Louise and the Chateau. This brings us to the Plain of 6 glaciers trail which is again very busy. The last part of this trail is exposed, so people who have a fear of heights: this isn’t for you.
Our second day was more relaxed, but mainly because the weather was bad. We planned to hike up Sulphur Mountain and take the gondola down, but we ended up taking the gondola up and down. At the top of Sulphur Mountain, you have the most amazing view of the village and the surrounding areas. After lunch, we visited the interpretive center and the Cosmic Ray Station.
Want to relax a little bit? Go to the Banff Upper Hot Springs and enjoy the warmth of the water while enjoying the views over Mount Rundle Valley. The gondola and hot springs have the same parking area, so it can be very busy here.
Day 9: Kelowna
Stayed at: Oasis Inn
Drove 344km / 4,5h
Then it was time to make our way to Vancouver, with some stops in between. Kelowna, the third-largest city in British Columbia, is in the Okanagan Valley which is now famous for its vineyards. But Kelowna also has a surprising number of craft breweries. Perfect for an afternoon of beer tasting.
Day 10: Drive to Vancouver Island
Stayed at: Travelodge by Wyndham Nanaimo
Drove 470km / 6,5h
Stops along the way: Othello Tunnels
Today was a busy day traveling to Vancouver. We first made a stop at the Othello Tunnels. These tunnels are a few old railroad tunnels and bridges that run through massive rock formations. They are located in Coquihalla Provincial Park, just outside the town of Hope in British Columbia. We make a short walk through the dark tunnels and over the bridges where the wild Coquihalla River is flowing.
Next, we drove to Horseshoe Bay to catch the ferry to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island which takes about 1.5h. You can make reservations beforehand (which is advisable in the summer) but you can also just drive up and wait your turn.
There were some problems when we were there, so we ended up waiting more than 3 hours before getting on the ferry. By then it was already almost 9 pm when we arrived at Nanaimo. We (or mostly I) had a bit of a hangry and just wanted to find a restaurant very fast. We ended up at a Greek restaurant: Asteras. A small restaurant with huge portions and very friendly service. It was just what we needed after a busy day.
Day 11: Drive to Port McNeill
Stayed at: Dalewood Inn
Drove 400km / 4,5h
Stops along the way: Englishman River Falls Provincial Park and MacMillan Provincial Park
The next morning, after a short stop at Tim Horton for a donut and coffee, we started our trip to the Northern part of Vancouver Island. Our first stop was Englishman River Falls Provincial Park which features 2 stunning waterfalls cascading along the descending riverbed into a deep canyon. A short 3 km hiking trail follows the river and provides views over the falls and the canyons along the way. A nice first stop to enjoy nature.
After 30min we arrive at the second stop of the day: MacMillan Provincial Park. This park is home to a stand of giant ancient Douglas fir trees, known as Cathedral Grove. A network of trails leads you under these ancient trees, some more than 800 years old. And you are rarely alone here apparently. When it has been raining, the trails are very muddy, so make sure you have appropriate shoes.
Then it was a long drive up to Port McNeill. We didn’t make any stops anymore, mainly because it was raining so bad. But you could also stop at Elk Falls Provincial Park in Campbell River.
Day 12: Bear watching
Early in the morning, we make our way to Telegraph Cove for a grizzly bear expedition. From Vancouver Island, there are a few companies that offer bear watching tours to the Great Bear Rainforest. Here you can see grizzly bears, black bears, and the Kermode (‘spirit”) bear, a unique subspecies of the black bear that displays a recessive white colored coat.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see this one, but we saw plenty of black and grizzly bears. It was a fantastic day and a special feeling to see the bears in their natural habitat searching for food.
Day 13: Whale watching
Stayed at: St Regis Hotel
Drove 430km / 6,5h
Stops along the way: Nanaimo
And there is more wildlife spotting to be done: today we are doing a whale watching tour from Nanaimo (https://www.vancouverislandwhalewatch.com/ ). After putting on special suits, we board one of the open-air boats. We learn more about the ecosystem and wildlife as we cruise through the Gulf Island archipelago in search of whales. We spent an hour viewing killer whales, humpback whales, sea lions, and seals. Although very understandable, I was a little bit disappointed that we didn’t get closer to the whales.
After the tour, there is one more important thing we need to do before leaving Nanaimo: get a Nanaimo bar. Perfect to calm my stomach after conquering the sea. Then it was time to make our way back to downtown Vancouver with the ferry.
Day 14: Explore Vancouver
It is no secret that we love food, and what better way to explore Vancouver than through its food. The Secret Food Tour in Vancouver was the perfect way to explore historic Gastown. We learned a lot about the history and had delicious food: the perfect combination.
In the afternoon, we did some more exploring: we visited the Vancouver Lookout for a stunning view over the city and just wandered around. If you have more time you could also visit Stanley Park and the Capilano suspension bridge.
Because of the easy access to the Pacific Ocean and a solid Asian population, it is no wonder there are over 600 sushi restaurants in Vancouver. It is therefore sometimes called the sushi capital of North America. So, what better way to spend our last night in Canada than with some sushi. Miko Sushi is very popular so you should make reservations if you can or come early as we did. But it is absolutely worth it.
This 2-week road trip through the Canadian Rockies was one of the most beautiful road trips we did. It was the perfect combination of stunning nature and interesting cities. And of course, we had some very good food!
You could easily extend this to a 3-week road trip and spent more days in the National Parks and maybe include Yolo or Glacier National Park. Also, Vancouver Island, and especially the western side of it, is worth visiting. We didn’t have time, unfortunately.
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