(Updated 2019) With mountains that rise to touch the sky and water so blue and cold, there is no comparing the beauty of the Canadian Rockies. Jasper National Park and Banff National Park are the pride and joy of the Canadian National Park system and see millions of visitors each year. Make sure you stop at these must-see places along the Icefields parkway on your next road trip through Jasper and Banff national parks.
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With views that are known around the world and so many activities to choose from, it can be overwhelming to figure out what to see and do while visiting these Canadian National Parks.
A road trip encompassing Banff National Park and Jasper National Park can be the best way to see everything in a short amount of time. You’ll wish there are see-through vehicles just to take in the beauty of your surroundings.
I’ve done the trek several times, including when I was living in Alberta. At the time, I had only two days off and really wanted to see the mountains again. I was also by myself. Leaving at the crack of dawn and coming home the next day at midnight, the trip was well worth it. I was also to check off my Banff and Jasper bucket list. While I don’t suggest taking only two days, know that it can be done!
Taking the trip solo is not an easy task. The trip from Jasper to Banff alone can be anywhere from 3 to 5 hours, add in the construction traffic, wildlife traffic jams and the necessary must-see stops along the way, and you’ll be looking at a lengthy drive. The several times I’ve taken a trip to Jasper and Banff, it’s only been a few short days and I’ve managed to fit in quite a lot. However, if you want to get in some longer hikes or dive deeper into the parks, then you’ll want to a lot yourself several days.
Driving the Icefields Parkway
The Icefields parkway stretches over 200 kilometres from the Town of Jasper to the town of Lake Louise. It then joins the Trans Canada Highway (or, alternatively, the Bow Valley Parkway) before bringing you to the Town of Banff. The road travels along the Continental Divide, mostly along the valley floor, and along the Sunwapta and Athabasca Rivers.
July and August are the busiest months for the Icefields Parkway. If you travel in these months, expect a lot of traffic and full parking lots. On the shoulder months, you are gambling with the weather – yes it can snow at any time of the year here – but there are fewer crowds. Winter travel is tricky. Sometimes the roads close in inclement weather, so check the road reports before taking off.
Top tips for driving the Icefields Parkway:
- Fill up your gas tank in Jasper or Banff before setting off on the Parkway as there are limited gas stations along the way
- Set off early and stop at as many viewpoints as you have time for, you won’t want to miss a thing!
- Go the speed limit and watch out for wildlife
- Bring snacks and meals with you as there are limited options along the way
- There’s barely any cell reception along the route, so make sure to download your Spotify playlists and Google Maps before setting out.
- Enjoy the drive! There’s a reason why the Icefields Parkway is one of the most scenic drives in the world.
Keep an eye out for wildlife
There is an abundance of wildlife in Jasper and Banff national parks, from squirrels to elk to bighorn sheep to bears! But what makes seeing wildlife so special is that they are in their natural habitat and remain wild.
Animals can jump onto the road at any time, so always be on the lookout, especially at dawn and dusk. However, if you see an animal on the roadside, make sure to slow down and warn other motorists by flashing your hazard lights. Normally if there is one animal there are likely more.
Parks Canada says if you wish to stop and view roadside wildlife, pull safely out of traffic, remain in your vehicle and move on after a few minutes, or consider not stopping to let the wildlife be wild.
Don’t forget to pick up a guidebook for your trip.
Here are the best places you must stop between Jasper National Park and Banff National Park:
Town of Jasper
The Town of Jasper sits at the northern portion of the Icefields Parkway. The small municipality is the commercial centre and the hub of tourism of Jasper National Park. The town dates back to 1813 when the North West Company established a fur trading post. Nearly 100 years later the park was established and it wasn’t until the 1930s when Jasper was accessible by car.
Today, Jasper is a quieter mountain village that has all the bells and whistles for a wonderful alpine adventure. There are awesome restaurants like Embers Steakhouse, Earl’s Kitchen and Bar and Syrahs of Jasper. Or great places to get a brew like Jasper Brewing Company and Downstream Lounge. Or cute cafés like Bear’s Paw Bakery, Coco’s Café or the Other Paw’s Bakery Café. Why not a more relaxed vibe at Jasper Pizza Place, which has an awesome rooftop patio, or Olive Bistro and Lounge, which has the best grilled cheese I’ve ever tasted.
Don’t miss visiting the Jasper museum, where you’ll find a tonne of history and artifacts on Jasper’s history. One of the newer additions to the town is the Planetarium at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. There’s a year-round dome, where you can tour the stars inside, then go outside to the telescope to see the night sky as it’s meant to be seen in Canada’s largest Dark Sky Preserve.
Where to stay in Jasper
There are hundreds of options for places to stay in Jasper. You’ve got your luxury resort at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, to your midrange hotel options, to B&Bs, to Hostels and, of course, campgrounds.
Use this handy map to find the perfect place to stay in Jasper:
Maligne Lake is one of the most well-known lakes in the world thanks to one of its picture-perfect islands: Spirit Island. This long glacial lake is located about 50 minutes from the town of Jasper. And has regular cruises to take you from the Day Lodge to the island.
You can only get to Spirit Island by boat (or by paddle) If you’ve got the time, make sure to factor in at least half a day for this adventure.
I truly love the power of water. The churning, swirling, rushing stream of water wore down Maligne Canyon. This incredible geological formation is the deepest canyon in the Rockies, measuring 50 feet at its deepest. Parks Canada has developed a really cool interpretive trail that leads you around the canyon and across six bridges.
The first three are super accessible and easy to see. The other three are on rougher trails and need more time for you to adequately explore.
In the winter, the rushing water freezes over and you can go on a guided ice walk on the canyon floor.
The Jasper Skytram
Once you’re done exploring the deepest part of the Rockies, it’s now time to check out the highest at the Jasper Skytram. This gondola up Whistlers Peak is located just south of the town and is one of my favourite views of the Rockies.
The Skytram is the highest and longest aerial tramway in Canada. Up at the top, you’ll experience 360-degree views of the surrounding Jasper National Park.
Just north of the town of Jasper is Patricia and Pyramid Lakes. These lakes are a great spot to pull over and have a picnic. Or take the bridge over to the beautiful island where you can walk the length of the island. Pyramid Island offers a beautiful backdrop to the realizing setting.
You can’t make the road trip of Icefields Parkway without stopping at Athabasca Falls. This 23-metre drop is the most powerful waterfall in the parks. During the glacial runoff, the roaring of the water is deafening. Athabasca River travels all the way from the Columbia Glacier to Lake Athabasca, before joining Slave River and the Mackenzie River before draining into the Arctic Ocean.
The bright turquoise hue is from the sediment caused by the moving glaciers. Pretty cool, eh?
There are two major (and many minor) waterfall must-see stops along the Icefields Parkway. While the Athabasca Falls is a great place to stop and see the majestic power of water in the Canadian Rockies, the smaller, but equally beautiful Sunwapta Falls is a must-stop on a road trip here.
There are two waterfalls at this stop, the easiest one to see is the upper falls. Standing on the lookout bridge, the mountains are a stunning backdrop to the majestic waterfall. The waters originate from Athabasca Glacier and are more turbulent in the spring.
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Glacier Skywalk and Columbia Icefields
Relatively new, the Glacier Skywalk takes you on a vertigo-inducing journey over the side of the mountain. When you’re at the tip of the walk, you are looking down 280 metres (918 feet) into Sunwapta Valley.
The Skywalk is located near the border of Jasper National Park and Banff National Park. To get there, drive past the Skywalk for several kilometres to the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. I thought I had missed it at first because I didn’t know I needed to drive to the centre to get a ticket. Once you purchase a ticket, a bus will take you back up the side of the mountain.
The skywalk structure was well designed and blended into the surroundings, and the view was fantastic. It was well worth the money to get there. If you’ve got more time, then your next stop once you return to the centre is to travel to Athabasca Glacier.
The Glacier is the most accessible area of the Columbia Icefields. You can walk right up to it. But it is losing about five metres of ice per year due to climate change. There are signs marking the location of the glacier in certain years.
Bow Summit and Peyto Lake, Banff
This roadside stop, located inside Banff National Park, doesn’t appear to offer the immediate vistas of the waterfalls or the glaciers you have already passed. You have to work a little harder for this one. Hike along Timberline Trail, which is a steep uphill climb on a paved trail.
As you walk through the forest, notice how the pines are so fragrant and smell just like Christmas. The trail is short, however, and suddenly the views open up around you. Standing atop Bow Summit, you have an almost 360-degree view of Peyto Lake and the surrounding valley.
Banff Gondola and Sulfur Mountain
Take in a bird’s eye view of Banff National Park, chance upon views of bighorn sheep and explore history on top of Sulfur Mountain. You can walk or bike the 5.6-kilometre Sulphur Mountain trail that takes 3 hours OR you can do what I did and take the 5-minute gondola to the Upper Terminal and hike the 1.1km trail to the summit.
Unless you are a very experienced hiker, take the gondola, you’ll get some fantastic views! The hike to the top from there is pretty easy; it is mostly boardwalk and stairs. The top is called Sanson’s Peak and was a weather observatory since 1903 and was the site of the Cosmic Ray Station until 1978.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site
You’ve just visited the top of Sulphur Mountain, now explore below ground where Banff National Park began. Parks Canada was formed in 1911 right here at Cave and Basin National Historic Site.
While the First Nation’s of the area had known about the cave for at least 10,000 years, three men “found” the cave in 1883. The debate over who owned the cave ended when the government of Canada reserved the land surrounding the area. It was the beginning of Canada’s national parks system. Incredible history came from this cave, and it also smells like rotten eggs.
Town of Banff
Insider tip: Want to get the best views of the Fairmont Banff Springs? Then head over to Surprise Corner, right at dawn or dusk to get those picture-perfect views. This corner is right in the town of Banff, take a little jog past the bridge on Buffalo Street, and you come to a parking spot. It is the best view of the Fairmont Hotel in Banff.
The Town of Banff is a place that you have to stop and wander. The shops and eateries are designed with the tourist in mind. It’s a charming alpine town that offers incredible vistas of the surrounding mountains.
Looking for a place for dinner? Try the Elk & Oarsman Kitchen and Bar, or there’s Saltlik Banff or Melissa’s Missteak.
If you want a more relaxed meal, try the Rose& Crown (for the most delicious bison burger!), Bear Street Tavern or The Maple Leaf.
Looking for drinks? Try Banff Ave Brewing Co., Toque Canadian Pub or Park Distillery Restaurant and Bar.
Lastly, if you just want a good place for a cup of coffee, try Jump Start the Coffee, Wild Flour Bakery or Banff National Perk.
The best view of the town and Cascade mountain can be found at Cascade Gardens on the south side of Bow River.
The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff is so well put together. It is colourful and interactive, telling the whole story of Banff’s beginnings to how certain places were developed. They had the Indigenous Ingenuity collection being displayed during my visit. The collection showcases artwork, crafts, pieces, and photographs, taken by First Nations about First Nations. It was a beautiful gallery.
On Tunnel Mountain Road just east of the Town of Banff, you find another stop you won’t want to miss: The Hoodoos. Overlooking the Bow River, you’ll find a short trail that leads you to a lovely viewpoint where you’ll spot Hoodoos, a geological formation that looks like it came from Mars. These tall thin rocks seem a little out of place next to the beautiful mountains, but still, they are a cool thing to see. You’ll also find Parks Canada’s Red Chairs here too.
Where to stay in Banff
Banff is a sleeper’s dream. There are hundreds of choices for any type of overnighter. Splurge and stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs, or overnight on the cheap at the campgrounds around town. Or take your pick at the many hotels, motels and B&Bs in Banff.
Use the map below to find the perfect place to stay in Banff National Park:
Vermillion Lakes – the four-kilometre drive around Vermillion Lakes is stunning. The fall colours showed in the afternoon sun, and the surrounding wetlands are home to numerous wildlife. While I only saw a variety of birds, grizzlies frequent the area.
This place is only steps from the town of Banff, but it is so tranquil, and it seems like you’re in the backcountry of Banff National Park.
While Johnson Canyon wasn’t on my two-day itinerary. I loved wandering through here as a kid. You dive deep into the canyon to discover, again, the power of water. The stunning rock formations contrasting against the vibrant blue water is breathtaking. However, this area is much busier than its Jasper cousin of Maligne Canyon. Be prepared to share the trail with hundreds of other hikers. The trip to Lower Falls is about a kilometre from the trailhead and Upper Falls are about 2.7 kilometres, so make sure you carve out enough time – ahaha, erosion joke for ya.
Insider tip: Morant’s curve is the most well-known scenic spot to capture a passing train with the gorgeous Banff National Park behind it. It’s located on the Bow Valley Parkway, southeast of the Town of Lake Louise.
Lake Louise is always a crowd pleaser. There is a reason Lake Louise is so famous, its turquoise waters and stunning panorama, make it a must-see stop.
This glacial lake located within Banff National Park has to be one of the most well-loved spots in the Canadian Rockies. It is so picture-perfect. Stand on its rocky shore or if you have time, take a canoe out on the lake.
If you have even more time, then why not take the 5.6km scenic route around the back of Lake Louise to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. It’s a backcountry teahouse that is completely off-grid (cash only friends) that offers light lunches, and, of course, tea! The hike is gruelling, so be prepared!
Where to stay at Lake Louise
Check out the map below to find the perfect place to stay at Lake Louise.
Lake Louise has a good selection of lodging for everyone. The most famous (and most expensive) is the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. There’s also B&Bs, smaller hotels and camping.
On the way to Lake Lousie, you can turn left and head 14 kilometres up the winding road to Moraine Lake. When I got to the top, I could not believe people! There were cars parked on the side of the road a kilometre outside the parking lot. There were no places to park, and on my tight schedule (and the fact that I’ve been there twice already), I just turned around and went to Lake Lousie instead. The drive was breathtaking, though!
Tips for Moraine Lake: The road to the lake closes during the winter season, which can happen at any point. Don’t be too disappointed if you miss out. Get there early or very late in the day, or consider taking the shuttle from Lake Louise.
Best stops along the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park and Banff National Park
To recap here are the best stops that you just have to take when driving a Banff/ Jasper road trip:
- Maligne Lake
- Maligne Canyon
- The Jasper Skytram
- Town of Jasper
- Pyramid Island
- Athabasca Falls
- Sunwapta Falls
- Glacier Skywalk and Columbia Icefields
- Bow Summit and Peyto Lake
- Banff Gondola and Sulfur Mountain
- Cave and Basin National Historic Site
- Town of Banff
- Vermillion Lakes
- Johnson Canyon
- Lake Louise
- Moraine Lake
- Morant’s Curve
Would you prefer Jasper or Banff? What is your favourite stop in either park?