10 Unmissable Road Trip Stops in Canada’s Rocky Mountains

10 Unmissable Road Trip Stops in Canada's Rocky Mountains
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A road trip through Canada’s Rocky Mountains is a dream for many. With its emerald blue lakes, picturesque mountains and stunning wilderness it really has everything to make the road trip of a lifetime.

I did a ten-day road trip through Canada’s Rocky Mountains with my mum back in September 2022. It had been a dream of ours to do this together for so long and it exceeded all my wildest expectations. I had seen the pictures but it’s even better in real life. I didn’t think it could really be *that* beautiful, but it was.

10 Unmissable Road Trip Stops in Canada's Rocky Mountains
Spirit Island

Canada’s Rockies are made up of seven National Parks – Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay, Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine and Hamber. With so many options, narrowing down where to visit and things to do can be a big task. It’s likely your road trip will focus on Banff, Jasper and Yoho National Parks. I’ve written a whole guide here about planning your road trip through Canada’s Rocky Mountains.

The list below consists of my favourite spots and activities that I did while on my road trip. It was hard to narrow down as it is such a wonderful place where you could spend months exploring. There are endless hikes and hidden viewpoints to see. It’s likely you only have a week or two though, so I hope the below list helps you to create your dream road trip.

The below is based on visiting in the summer or shoulder season. If you’re looking to visit Canada in the winter, check out this guide to visiting Canada in the winter and here are 10 of the best activities to do in Banff during the winter.

Cruise around the sublime Maligne Lake and visit Spirit Island

Maligne Lake lies in Jasper National Park and is the absolute top thing to do if you visit this area. I had heard the lake was beautiful, but I had no idea just HOW beautiful. When we arrived, I was taken aback by its beauty, but the true magic happened once we started our boat ride to Spirit Island. It might possibly be the most exquisite scenery I have ever seen. If you are spending just one day in Jasper, this is the thing to do.

The giant crystal lake is one of the largest glacier-fed lakes in Canada’s Rocky Mountains, stretching a hefty 14 miles (22km). Your 90-minute boat trip takes you out onto the lake as a guide teaches you all about the lake and its spiritual significance. You’ll soon arrive at Spirit Island which is only accessible by boat and have the opportunity to walk on this sacred land. The scenery here with the lake, the island and the towering snow-capped mountains in the background is a photographer’s dream. It’s stunning.   

It’s not just the boat trip which is special, even the drive to the lake offers some magnificent views of the surrounding mountains and Medicine Lake. Thankfully, there are plenty of places to stop to take in this scenery.

Spirit Island
Spirit Island

While at the lake, there is the opportunity to hire canoes or paddleboards and walk around part of the shorefront. We did the short 2-mile (3.5km) Mary Schaeffer Loop while waiting for our boat. The loop takes you around some of the lake before heading back through the woods. Make sure you are carrying bear spray.

If you have time, I’d highly recommend visiting Maligne Canyon on your way back to Jasper. This incredible spot is a geological dream with its powerful waterfalls and deep carved-out channels. You can spend as much or as little time here as you want. A short 30-minute walk will give you a feel for the landmark or take on one of the longer walks and go deeper into the canyon.

The boat trip can be booked through Pursuit’s Banff Jasper Collection. If you’re planning to do more than one activity, I’d recommend looking at their combination deals to save money.

I’ve written about 17 things to do in Jasper National Park.

Walk on a glacier at the Columbia Icefields

At around 125sq miles (325sq km), the Columbia Icefield is the largest in the Rocky Mountains. It’s home to six major glaciers including many of which can be viewed from the Icefields Parkway. After admiring these glaciers from afar on your Icefields Parkway journey, you’ll finally get the chance to walk on one – the Athabasca Glacier.

I won’t lie, this activity is a bit of a tourist trap. You park at the visitor centre and go onto a specially built bus which takes you over to the glacier. Going down some of the hills and over glacier terrain was an experience in itself. Once you arrive, you have about 30 minutes to enjoy the glacier. You are confined to a small space to protect the surrounding area (and for safety), and there can be a lot of people there at once making it hard to walk around too much. However, the experience is so much fun.

If you’ve done glacier walking before in Iceland or similar, please note this isn’t a proper walk. There’s no crampons or equipment or required footwear, they simply let you walk around a boxed-in area. Even so, it was fun to get up close to a glacier.

Your ticket also gives you entry to the Glacier Skywalk. A giant glass bottom walkway takes you out over the canyon. We actually opted not to do this as it was very busy. 

The activity can also be booked through Pursuit.

Visit the famous Lake Louise at sunrise and hike the Little Beehive trail

No visit to Banff National Park would be complete without visiting the iconic Lake Louise. This lake is the poster child for Banff and even the Rocky Mountains. We decided to go for sunrise and I’m so glad we did (despite the early start). Parking at Lake Louise is very limited so you’ll need to get there way before sunrise to park. If the car park is full, there is a shuttle you can take from the town. We went in late September and arrived at 6 am for a 7:30 am sunrise.

If waking up for sunrise isn’t for you, Lake Louise is still 100% worth a visit. You can hire a canoe or take a short stroll down the lakeshore. The lake is also the start of the Little Beehive via Lake Agnes trail. This was one of my favourite hikes I did on our road trip through Canada’s Rocky Mountains, offering some incredible views of the lake and the surrounding area. Once you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the area.

Sunrise at Lake Louise
Sunrise at Lake Louise

The hike is 5.5 miles (8.8km) long. It’s a steady uphill and after about 2 miles, you’ll reach the Lake Agnes Teahouse where you can grab refreshments (the queue for this can get VERY long). Most people turn back here but after another twenty minutes or so of going up, you’ll reach the top and it’s well worth it. The spot was once used to watch for wildfires which gives you an idea of just how far you can see on a clear day.

As I mentioned, parking at Lake Louise is very limited and to secure your spot, you’ll need to arrive before sunrise. Otherwise, getting a shuttle from the town is your best option.

Note: the lake does get very busy. Even for sunrise, there were hundreds of people. There’s also a giant hotel – The Fairmont Chateau – which makes it feel a little commercialised, but it’s one of those places that is famous for good reason.

Explore the town of Canmore and its surrounding nature trails

The town of Canmore is a 1-hour drive from Calgary and 20 minutes from Banff. When choosing your first stop on your Rocky Mountain trip, it’s likely you’ll be choosing between Canmore and Banff. We went with Canmore and I knew we had made the right decision as soon as we arrived. It’s not as busy as Banff and it’s STUNNING. It’s exactly how I picture a tiny mountain town to be. As you walk down the main street, the mountains shadow the town.

Even if you choose to stay elsewhere, a visit to Canmore should be on your list. There are some delicious food and drink options in the town as well as some nice souvenir shops. Canmore is also home to some gorgeous nature trails which take you around Bow River. We went in larch season and walking here was one of my favourite things. The route is gravelled and mainly flat so it’s accessible to all. Walk to the Old Engine Bridge and cross here and simply follow the trail. You can easily see the sights in a short 30-minute stroll but there are plenty of paths to make this longer. Bears frequent this area so carry bear spray.

Check out some of the best breakfast spots in Canmore.

Ride on the Jasper SkyTram for panoramic views

The Jasper SkyTram is an aerial tramway which takes you up Whistlers Mountain to an altitude of 2,263 metres(7,400 feet). Once you reach the top, you can simply admire the already incredible views or hike the Summit Trail to the peak of Whistlers Mountain, giving you amazing views of six mountain ranges. We were so lucky when we went as it was completely clear and we could even see Mount Robson which is over 100km away.

If you choose to walk up to the summit, it’s 2.3 miles (3.7km) round trip. It’s very steep going up and some of the footpath is loose so take your time. It’s absolutely worth it though. The views are truly breathtaking.

I’d suggest only doing this on days which are relatively clear. If it’s very cloudy or raining, you’re going to be miserable at the top and see nothing. Also – take layers. It gets cold up there.  There is a restaurant at the top too. When we went (Sep 22), you could only buy from there if you sat in, there was no takeaway (even for coffee).

Views from Jasper SkyTram
Views from Jasper SkyTram

You can book your tickets through the SkyTram – when we went, it cost us $60. It’s highly advised to book in advance to secure your spot. Even in the shoulder season this activity regularly sells out.

Here are some more things to do in Jasper National Park.

Walk around the shores of the magnificent Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park

This was my favourite lake we visited on the entire trip – I was completely blown away. It’s not as famous as its neighbour, Lake Louise, and I had randomly found it on a map and decided to go the night before. But wow. This lake and its setting is truly the epitome of Canada’s Rocky Mountains. With its glowing blue emerald colour and surrounding wilderness, it promises to take your breath away.

There’s a 3-mile (5k) circuit which circles the shore, or you can hire a canoe and explore by water. I’ve written a post on how to spend a day in Yoho National Park which has some more information.

Cycle or drive the Incredible Bow Valley Parkway

The Bow Valley Parkway (also known as the 1a) is an *insanely* scenic route that takes you from Banff all the way to Lake Louise. Most traffic will now take the Trans-Canada Highway as it’s quicker, but you’re going to miss out if you do.

This stunning route is 30 miles (48km) long and takes you through some of the best scenery we saw on our entire Rocky Mountain road trip. We were lucky enough to be able to cycle the route without any traffic. In 2022, the road was closed to motor traffic in May, June and September to encourage more cyclists to use the route. We hired e-bikes in Banff and cycled 50 km to Johnston Canyon and back again.

Views from Bow Valley Parkway
Views from Bow Valley Parkway

The cycling programme will run in again in 2023 so if you’re visiting then, I highly encourage you to do this. We hired e-bikes to take the edge off and having the freedom to stop wherever we wanted to take in the views was fantastic. You also don’t need to cycle all the way, you can turn back at any point.

If you’re planning to drive the route when it’s open, you may struggle to find places to pull over as there aren’t many and it’s a busy route.

Swim, kayak and explore Patricia Lake and Pyramid Lake

I loved exploring these two lakes – they are hidden gems and way less touristy than the other lakes we visited on this trip. Sure, they’re not that other-worldly emerald blue, but they are beautiful nonetheless.

During our stay in Jasper, we opted to stay in Patricia Lake Bungalows which are right on the lake. I literally can’t emphasise this enough but it was one of the best accommodations I’ve ever stayed in on all my travels. The cabins are wonderful and have everything you need, but it’s the setting that makes it extra special. Situated right on the lake, you are away from the crowds and business and can switch off and relax a little. Even if you’re not planning to stay here, you can still visit this lake and hire a canoe or paddleboard to explore it more.

Pyramid Lake is right next door and is also beautiful. The reflections of the mountains in the water take your breath away. Pyramid Lake has some walks around the shore or finds a beach to relax on, hire a canoe or even go for a swim.

Both spots are some of the best places to stargaze in the area. It’s away from the main town so there is little light pollution. We sat out on the deck at Patricia Lake one night and stargazed before seeing the start of the northern lights (which quickly ended). It was one of my favourite nights on the trip.

Most tourists won’t visit these lakes but if you have the time, I highly suggest spending a couple of hours here. It makes a change from the emerald lakes, these are much more rugged, but that’s what makes them special.

Hike the Path of the Glacier and continue to the Edith Cavell Meadows

Okay, this is another spot in Jasper (can you tell I was a fan?). But it really was amazing. There are two options here:

  • Hike the 1.1-mile (1.8km) Path of the Glacier trail which takes you to view the Angel Glacier. It’s an easy route although there is some incline.
  • Or, view the Angel Glacier and continue up through the Edith Cavell Meadows. This hike is 5 miles (8km) long. You walk up some switchbacks and come out through the treeline to some stunning views of the area. Carry on up and eventually you’ll reach the East Ridge Summit. This is a tough push and very loose ground but the views offered are fantastic.

Read my post on hiking the Edith Cavell Meadows trail and the Path of the Glacier.

We decided to see the glacier and then do the meadows section of the hike up to the summit. It was a lovely half-day hike. It’s relatively short in hiking terms so a good option for those who want to avoid the longer hikes, but still want to do something. If you’re not great with scree or loose ground I’d suggest taking a walking pole. You can also turn around at the start of the trail to the summit, you still have wonderful views.

Drive one of the most famous roads in the world – the Icefields Parkway

Would this list have been complete if I didn’t include driving the famous Icefields Parkway? I think not. Known as one of the most scenic road trips in the world, driving the Icefields Parkway is a bucket list activity for many and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It genuinely was one of the best road trips I’ve ever done. As you drive through the valleys, you are surrounded by glaciers, gorgeous lakes and huge ice-capped mountains. It’s no wonder why this road is so popular.

The scenic road connects Lake Louise to Jasper and is 144 miles (232km) long. It should take you around 3 hours to drive the entire length but the route is filled with viewpoints, hikes and activities. I’d plan to build in an entire day to drive the road and do everything it has to offer. If you’re planning to drive both ways down the road, you could also split this over two days with a stop in Jasper. I’ve written all about the Icefields Parkway here, so take a look and get inspired. 

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